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In the spring of 2012, when John Elway was mounting his free-agent pitch to Peyton Manning, he posed a question to the aging quarterback that would remake the entire Denver Broncos franchise.
“We were meeting and I asked him, ‘I think you can get back to being the Peyton we all know, but the question is whether you think you can get back to being that player,’” Elway recalled to Yahoo Sports in August. “Without hesitation, he said ‘John, I know I can be that player again.’ That’s when I knew he was plan A, B [and] C for us to get to that Super Bowl level. Even though his [health] was a gamble, it’s the gamble you absolutely take with a quarterback on that level. Because you just don’t get that kind of opportunity to add a player or person like that very often. That’s a once-in-a-career kind of thing for a general manager.”
A general manager. An owner. A franchise. Sometimes, even a city.
That’s the conversation I think about when I look at the struggling Los Angeles Chargers and consider the potentially tick-tocking Tom Brady era in New England. I think about what Manning’s career-ending flourish did for the Broncos, opening a Super Bowl window and providing a defining moment in Elway’s uneven career as a general manager. I also think about the altered fortunes of the teams that failed to land Manning — the San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans — and what might have been if history was written differently.
Through that prism, it’s worth looking at Brady and considering the possibility of the unthinkable in a few months. That like Manning before him, one of the most iconic quarterbacks in NFL history is going to hit free agency in the winter of his career, opening a brief window of opportunity for a few franchises. And in turn, a chance for some executive to do what Elway did in the spring of 2012: Think big, pitch a bold plan, and roll the dice on vaulting a franchise forward with a player it would rarely get an opportunity to sign.
What Tom Brady could do to redefine Chargers in L.A.
That’s exactly the kind of moment that could be presented to Chargers owner Dean Spanos and general manager Tom Telesco in the next few months. A brief chance to roll out the red carpet for Brady and pitch him on a two-year window to close his career surrounded by a roster that, when healthy, is closer to the 12-4 edition from 2018 than this season’s 5-9 catastrophe. A franchise that, with some tweaks, could have Super Bowl-level talent in 2020. That is, apart from a decline at quarterback with 38-year-old Philip Rivers struggling in 2019 despite being surrounded by some of the best skill-position talent in the NFL.
The intersection of intrigue in Los Angeles is undeniable. Rivers becomes a free agent after the season, creating an offseason where the Chargers will have to address the position. Almost certainly, Los Angeles will have to enter the draft looking for a franchise-level quarterback who can be ready to play sooner rather than later. Possibly a player like Oregon’s Justin Herbert, who could still be on the board when the Chargers’ pick rolls around.
But there’s also a moment to thread the needle here that could define Los Angeles in a way that nobody expects. One in which the Chargers wrestle the market away from the Los Angeles Rams by pursuing Brady and then plucking a successor to take the reins in 2021 or 2022. Someone like, say, Herbert, who like Brady has made a career operating from a shotgun offense.
If it sounds like a flight of fancy, that’s because it is. But if you’ve paid attention to what has been happening to the Chargers since departing San Diego, a wild flight of fancy is what this team needs.
Why would Tom Brady leave the Patriots?
Before we get to that, let’s start with some rational basics. Is it likely that Tom Brady departs New England? Deep down, I think using the word “likely” is a stretch. It’s hard to believe that Patriots owner Robert Kraft won’t pull out all the stops and make Brady’s departure extremely difficult, much the same way he did recently when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels accepted and then reneged on a head-coaching offer from the Indianapolis Colts. At some point after this season, Kraft is going to get an opportunity to sit down with Brady. And I think he’ll play the role that he has always played, that of a powerful diplomat and peacemaker who has always seemed to find the right buttons to push to keep the band together.
All of that said, there’s a possibility that Brady departs the Patriots. And if that happens, it will be a move born out of frustration. One where Brady laments having been the superstar who sacrificed as much as $100 million over the course of his career, allowing New England to spread the savings around while maintaining a window to win all those Super Bowls. It will also have roots in this season, which has seen Brady relying on a tight end position that never properly addressed the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, and a wide receiver spot that lost sizable wagers on players like Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Phillip Dorsett.
To put it mildly, head coach Bill Belichick has made some personnel mistakes on offense. And he did it in a season when Brady is making the 14th-highest salary at his position, with New England dedicating more cash to dead salary-cap space ($24 million) than to Brady’s 2019 paycheck ($23 million). That can be a tough reality to swallow. And it could get even tougher if there is no Super Bowl win at the end of the sacrifice.
Should the Patriots win another title, there’s almost no way he departs New England in the offseason. If this becomes a season undone by shortcomings that should largely be hung on mistakes in the building process, then all bets are off.
Tom Brady is big business
All of which leads this situation back to the offseason — and potentially into the hands of a Chargers organization that has almost every possible motivation to pursue Brady. And not just for aforementioned reasons on the field, which are ample and undeniable. Particularly when considering that New England is heading into another crossroads offseason where McDaniels and personnel executive Nick Caserio are both expected to be pursued by other franchises.
There’s another global aspect of this to consider. One that runs parallel to the pitching of Los Angeles as an advantageous locale for the transition from the end of Brady’s career into his post-career life. Certain aspects of that track are obvious, particularly if the next phase of Brady’s business portfolio is steeped in the development of his TB12 enterprise. As it stands, the TB12 chain is already planning a wave of facilities and retail expansion in New York, Los Angeles and possibly Miami. And not only is Los Angeles fertile ground for a burgeoning chain of health and wellness outlets, but Brady’s well-known partner and much publicized trainer, Alex Guerrero, has ties to Southern California. Brady has also trained in Los Angeles and is expected to have a massive spate of post-career media and entertainment opportunities that would benefit greatly from living in the area.
Of course, there are family ties to consider. And Brady’s former teammate, Willie McGinest, has suggested that Brady’s superstar wife, Gisele Bündchen, isn’t fond of Los Angeles. If that’s true, it would create a hurdle for the Chargers, but one that is worth the trouble, considering a market that was once considered a hammer-lock for domination by the Rams now seems to have at least a ray of opportunity for the Chargers.
And that ray is this: While the Rams appear to be light-years ahead of the Chargers in season ticket sales, 2019 showcased some half-empty stadiums and strong secondary-market ticket selling to opposing fan bases. While the Chargers have no foothold in the market, the Rams don’t appear to have one outside of a season when they are absolutely dominant. The Chargers might still have a chance to make some noise in the market and even capture some fraction of a fan base.
The best way to do that? Make a run and potentially net the greatest quarterback in NFL history. And maybe even spend a first-round pick on his successor, sending an indication to fans that the franchise is serious about setting up camp as an elite team for the next 15 years, and not just squeezing every last dime out of a sweetheart stadium deal that the NFL forced onto Rams owner Stan Kroenke.
It’s an underplayed aspect of a Brady signing. Not only would Spanos and the Chargers make a move at realistically upstaging the Rams in their own stadium in 2020, but it would shed some of the unflattering reputation that Spanos is a conservative owner who badly mismanaged decades in San Diego, only to be cornered into accepting a relocation to Los Angeles that is largely beneficial because it’s being almost entirely bankrolled by a richer and more aggressive owner in Kroenke.
How Chargers, Rams and Jerry Jones could emerge as winners
Tom Brady in a Chargers uniform would be not only good for Spanos, but good for an NFL that badly wants both of its Los Angeles franchises to find their own separate traction. And even if Brady would create a marketing rivalry for Kroenke, it might actually help the Chargers sell some additional personal seat licenses — of which Kroenke gets a massive share of the revenue to pour into the ballooning costs of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. At the current pace, the Chargers might be fortunate to top $150 million in PSL sales, falling well short of the $400 million estimate that was laid out when the relocation was first hatched. Given that nearly 82 percent of the Chargers’ PSL sales go to Kroenke’s stadium-building efforts, that means the shortfall is going to cost the Rams owner as much as $200 million in lost construction contributions.
What might be even more amazing about that shortfall is that it’s Jerry Jones’ co-owned company, Legends Hospitality, that has struggled in helping the Chargers sell their PSL’s. That effort — along with other forms of revenue that Legends will earn from the Chargers — essentially means that the more the Chargers struggle to sell themselves to the Southern California market, the more it hurts Jones’ company.
Remarkably, all of this means that Brady relocating to the Chargers would help Spanos and his franchise, the NFL at large, Jerry Jones and his hospitality company — and in a double-edged victory, even Kroenke and the Rams, who are drowning in cost overruns tied to the stadium the Chargers will be leasing for $1 a season.
The loser in all of this? Well, that would be Kraft, who just happens to be close friends with virtually everyone involved. And that’s probably where this gets most complicated outside of whether Brady would even consider moving to L.A. and finishing his career for a team that needs him far more than he needs the team.
Of course, legacy may matter most in this. Perhaps Brady will see his history in New England as being something that isn’t worth tinkering with, regardless of the frustrations and sacrifices that have mounted over the balance of his career. Or perhaps he’ll be open to some kind of late-career change, hoping to finish his run by stamping his greatness in a place that once seemed unfathomable. After all, he wouldn’t be the first. Manning did it in Denver. And to a lesser degree, even Brady’s boyhood idol, Joe Montana, carved out a successful ending on his own terms with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Whatever happens, it’s going to come down to an opportunity that is rarely seen. One in which a player of Brady’s caliber will be able to take free-agent visits if he wishes and consider life outside of New England. Conversely, one where a risk-averse owner like Dean Spanos could recreate his image with an aggressive pursuit that few could have predicted only one year ago.
Just like Elway with Manning nearly eight years ago, any kind of change is going to take a gamble. Either on the part of Brady or the Chargers. The question is whether either will be willing to take it when it presents itself.
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