Earlier this season, the Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco for a 2nd round draft pick. This was a very weak return for a highly-regarded QB prospect. Once he got the starting job, he performed somewhere between “very well” and “exceptionally well” depending on your preferred metric. And while admittedly he did this against a weak schedule, he also did it surrounded by offensive personnel that is mostly replacement-level crap, which seems like a wash at worst. If he stays healthy and plays at anything like this level, the trade will look like one of the worst in NFL history. Why would an outstanding organization mismanage a valuable asset this badly?
Two weeks before the Nov. 1 trading deadline, Belichick met with Kraft to discuss the quarterback situation. According to staffers, the meeting ran long, lasting half the day and pushing back Belichick’s other meetings. The office was buzzing. The meeting ended with a clear mandate to Belichick: trade Garoppolo because he would not be in the team’s long-term plans, and then, once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him. Belichick was furious and demoralized, according to friends. But in the end, he did what he asks of his players and coaches: He did his job. One morning in late October, Belichick texted San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and asked him to call. Belichick had long admired Kyle’s father, Mike, who not only had been one of the NFL’s smartest tacticians but had also personally defended Belichick to commissioner Roger Goodell during the Spygate scandal. At the combine this past February, Kyle, weeks into the 49ers job after being the offensive coordinator for the Falcons, met with Belichick for hours to learn from his team’s humiliating Super Bowl loss. Belichick believed that Garoppolo would excel under Shanahan, and when he and Shanahan connected on the phone, Belichick offered the quarterback for a second-rounder.
It was a steal, leaving Patriots staffers stunned and confused. Why would the game’s shrewdest long-term strategist trade two backup quarterbacks in a two-month span when his starter was 40 years old and banged up? And why did Belichick practically give away a quarterback whom the coaches saw as a potential top-10 player for much less than he could have gotten last spring? It made no sense. Belichick handled the trade as he always does, by not explaining it to the coaches and by burying them so deep in work that they didn’t have time to gossip. Most in the organization understood that it was an extreme case, with extreme personalities, but they felt that Belichick had earned the right to make football decisions. Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it’s time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.
Given this reporting, here’s what I think happened:
- Belichick thought Garoppolo was the Pats QB of the future, and if he couldn’t keep both QBs he would have started 2018 with him. Some people have framed this as Belichick wanting to prove he can do this without Brady, and that may be part of it. But he’s always preferred to move on from players too early rather than too late, a crucial reason for his peerless record of success.
- If this was Belichick’s judgment, I think he was correct. This might seem insane, given that Brady was the most valuable player in the league this year. But Bill James once observed that great players who don’t retire off of good years often see their value suddenly collapse rather that peter out slowly, because when your value is solely in power and walks and your athleticism is declining, your value is on a very shallow foundation. There’s not enough of a “n” to say whether something similar will happen to QBs, but it’s plausible. And exactly this happened to Brady’s closest historical comp, Peyton Manning, who went from “as good as anyone in NFL history” to “comparable to Brock Osweiler” in two years. Brady has lost a lot of arm strength and mobility, and has made up for it with exceptional decision-making, one of the greatest TEs in NFL history, and exceptional gameplanning and playcalling (the latter of two, of course, would still be available to Brady’s replacement.) If Belichick was thinking “Garoppolo can replace most of Brady’s production without the major downside risk inherent in a 40-year-old QB” — that’s reasonable, and his judgment of Garoppolo sure looks sound.
- Brady, therefore, was correct to be feel threatened. He went to Kraft, and the owner sided with Brady over the interests of the team. Belichick, ordered to trade the QB he groomed to replace Brady, made no effort to maximize his return on a very valuable asset. It’s very hard to interpret this as anything but a massive “fuck you” to Kraft.
The interesting question now, of course, is whether after this season Belichick will resign as HC of the NEP, a question which is particularly interesting because the HC position of his former team the NYG is vacant, and the NYG hold the #2 pick in the draft.