Bill Belichick operates without sentiment, and he did so in letting Tom Brady go. Matthew Stafford should beware his future with the Detroit Lions.
It happens to almost everyone. Legends. Hall of Famers. Super Bowl champs. Some of the best football players the world has ever seen.
Quarterbacks Joe Montana and Joe Namath each played for two teams, Johnny Unitas three. Brett Favre and George Blanda each played for four.
Tom Brady announced Tuesday on Twitter that he has played his final down for the New England Patriots, the only team he has known for the past 20 years. And while the news was shocking and abrupt and remarkable, it wasn’t completely unexpected.
Brady led the Patriots to six Super Bowls and along with coach Bill Belichick served as the face of the NFL’s longest-running dynasty. He’s a three-time NFL MVP and a four-time Super Bowl MVP who has authored some of football’s most memorable moments.
Yet in the end, Brady was viewed as most are in this business: a commodity who easily could be replaced when the time was right.
The decision to leave New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was made solely by one side. Brady, from afar, seemed ready for the challenge of trying to go out a winner without Belichick by his side, and he has other interests, including a new Hollywood production company, that might make a new destination (Los Angeles?) more appealing.
The Patriots, for their part, never seemed to make Brady’s future a priority. They allowed him to reach free agency by repeatedly signing him to below-market or short-term deals; failed to surround him with the pieces he believed were necessary to win last season; spent the better part of the past decade trying to draft his replacement; and with free agency approaching, seemed content to let the greatest quarterback of all time walk out the door.
Neither side is wrong in its approach.
Brady certainly has earned the right to go out when, how, and to where he sees fit, and where. If the team he has played two decades for doesn’t value keeping him, why would he want to stay?
Belichick and the Patriots, meanwhile, have to prepare for a future beyond Brady, who at 42 years old is undoubtedly in the twilight of his career. Approaching business any other way would be a disservice to the franchise.
The Brady drama and Monday’s trade of DeAndre Hopkins by the Houston Texans got me thinking about football a little closer to home.
Belichick, unless he wins a few championships without Brady (and maybe even if he does), will go down as the villain in all of this because of the businesslike way he runs his roster. There’s no sentiment to his decision making. If he decides Brady isn’t the player he was, and isn’t worth the money the quarterback wants, then he moves on as cold as a winter morning.
In Houston, Belichick disciple Bill O’Brien made the calculated decision to trade Hopkins, one of the best receivers in the NFL, for broken-down and expensive running back David Johnson plus a second-round pick.
Maybe O’Brien got snowed because of his lack of general managerial experience, or maybe he saw an opportunity to not give a soon-to-be 28-year-old receiver a new contract, and add ammunition (which his team sorely lacked) in a draft loaded at wide receivers.
The Lions, of course, are run by two more Belichick disciples in general manager Bob Quinn and coach Matt Patricia. They, too, have some tough decisions, most notably with quarterback Matthew Stafford and the third pick of April's draft.
Already, Quinn has shot down the idea of trading Stafford, who at 32 years old is entering his 12th NFL season.
But Stafford is coming off back-to-back seasons with serious back injuries (though he missed playing time only last year) and he is on the downside of his career, no matter how long he ends up playing.
The Lions are in a position to take a player in Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa at No. 3 who could transform their future and ensure they avoid a Brady-like transition at the position.
The Patriots, with second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham in house, has been linked to deposed Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton as a potential Brady replacement, a thought that excites no one beyond the Dalton household.
I don’t know what the Lions will do with Tagovailoa, and I don’t know how this global shutdown over the coronavirus will affect their draft evaluations of a player who was considered one of the best quarterback prospects of the decade before he suffered a serious hip injury in November.
There’s a chance NFL teams, including the Lions, won’t be able to attend Tagovailoa’s workout, which is scheduled for next month, and they won't be able to host him for a pre-draft visit and physical at their facilities.
But the Lions are in a position that most teams can only dream of, where they have a chance to land a potentially generational quarterback without having to deal up, and while already having a trusted veteran on their roster.
The Green Bay Packers have dominated the NFC North for three decades because of their impressive stability and excellence at the position. They went from Favre to Aaron Rodgers — when the latter fell unexpectedly in the 2005 draft — and 15 years later they're now approaching the end of Rodgers' career.
It's possible — even likely, given what we know about quarterback longevity in the NFL — that Rodgers finishes his career with another team. The same can be said of Stafford.
Whether Quinn and Patricia have it in them to take Tagovailoa at No. 3, only time will tell. But after watching the Brady saga play out, I think we know what their mentor would do.