More than any organization in professional sports — and maybe in the history of professional sports — the New England Patriots have preached discipline. They operate prudently, shrewdly, sometimes coldly. It has served them well. The Patriots don’t get nostalgic or sentimental, and they certainly do not get weepy.
But they’re doing it now with Tom Brady.
Justified? You bet it is, especially in a world where the word loyalty cannot be found in any dictionary. Loyalty simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been erased with, among other things, chivalry and tact. (Look no further than the White House.) But in the case of the New England Patriots, the absence of loyalty is regarded as steely resolve, as the kind of surgical precision required to build perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of sports, when you consider the nature of the sport (football) and the expansion-era Moneyball in which all games are played.
Which brings us to the Patriots and yesterday’s news that they had traded backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers, putting their future almost entirely in the hands of a 40-year-old quarterback, even if he is the greatest of all-time.
Here’s what I’m getting at: I don’t think Bill Belichick wanted to make this trade.
In fact, I know he didn’t.
“We probably had in my mind, in my opinion, the best quarterback situation in the league for the last 2-1/2 years,” Belichick said on a conference call to announce the trade. “It is just not sustainable given the way that things are set up. Definitely not something we wanted to walk away from, and I felt we rode it out as long as we could.”
Hold on now. What? Again, more than any organization in professional sports, the Patriots are lauded for being prepared for everything, on the field and off. Belichick never — and we mean never — gets caught with his pants down. When Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX, the Patriots told us they were ready for the play that Seattle foolishly ran. In fact, the Patriots said, they had practiced it. They even showed us the video.
And when it came time to move on from a host of players that had outlasted their value or usefulness — at least to Belichick — they cut the cord. They did this with Adam Vinatieri, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins and Vince Wilfork. They took significant criticism for it in many cases, but they received the support of the only group that matters — their fanbase — because Belichick and the Patriots continued to do what they always have done: win.
Let’s make something clear here: this isn’t about, who deserves being an exception to every rule. He was been to seven Super Bowls. He has won five. He is the greatest, winningest quarterback of all-time, someone whose mental toughness is so great that he has authored the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history and another in the top five. (Again, Seattle, Super Bowl XLIX.) Brady has earned any latitude he gets — and then some.
This is only partly about Brady.
It’s all about Garoppolo and yesterday’s uncharacteristic decision to walk away from their future.
During his time in New England, Belichick has almost always tried to operate, at least in his mind, with the interests of the New England Patriots in mind. In fact, he has made a cliché out of saying that he is doing “what’s best for the team,” something he repeated yesterday. Of course, “what’s best for the team” is a very general and broad statement, leaving a great deal open to interpretation. Are we talking about what’s best for the team financially? On the field? In the short-term? In the long? As is the case in any business, there are almost always dueling forces. The Patriots have made an art of taking the longer view.
Which brings us back to Garoppolo and Belichick’s stunning admission that his hand was forced, be it by ownership or a set of circumstances that Belichick described as “the way that things are set up.”
Think about those precise words for a second. The way that things are set up. Since when has Belichick ever accepted that? Rightly or wrongly, he has been a master of exploiting loopholes. In doing so, he has sometimes crossed the boundaries of what is deemed ethical. But Belichick has always — always — put himself in a position where has control. Because if there’s one thing the coach of the Patriots has always understood, it’s power, or, more specifically, leverage.
And so now Belichick drafts and develops the player he believes is the successor to Brady — arguably the biggest decision of Belichick’s career — and he decides to trade him for a second-round pick? It doesn’t make any real sense. It defies everything Belichick has believed in as a football coach and decision-maker. It takes the single most important asset the Patriots possess and have always possessed — the future — and cuts ties with it.
Is Garoppolo the only man on the planet that Belichick can build the Patriots’ future around? Of course not. Now, especially, integrating a young quarterback into the NFL may be easier than ever. There is every chance Belichick will draft and develop the next guy, too, and that Brady will play three more years. But that is hardly the point.
No, the point is that Bill Belichick has almost always left nothing to chance — or as little as possible — but he is now rolling the dice that Brady will stay healthy and productive for a while longer, that he can find the next successor, that he is doing what is best for the team, even if he doesn’t believe it.
And I don’t know about you, but Bill Belichick has never struck me as much of a gambler.
Tony Massarotti is an avid Boston sports fan and has covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe. He now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.