In a Tom Brady free agency, the only thing to expect is something unexpected

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

Nearly eight years ago, when Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, agent Tom Condon didn’t know exactly what to expect in one of the rarest free agency scenarios in NFL history.

Not since Reggie White in 1993 had such an accomplished Hall of Fame player — with something left in the tank, no less — gone into the open market with the likelihood of strong interest. Despite having been through free agency with stars before, Condon wasn’t sure if this would be an Oklahoma land rush or something more methodical and surgical from teams.

When the first minutes of Manning’s free agency window opened, it proved to be a little bit of both.

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“It started as soon as word got out that he was being released — the phone was burning up,” Condon said. “It was a ton of interest. I think we had 12 teams call right away. … From there, Peyton took over. He knew exactly what he wanted to do and he knew how he wanted to run it.”

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/5228/" data-ylk="slk:Tom Brady">Tom Brady</a> and Peyton Manning exchange pleasantries after the AFC title game in 2016. Will Brady borrow a page from Manning's playbook when it comes to a free-agency tour? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning exchange pleasantries after the AFC title game in 2016. Will Brady borrow a page from Manning's playbook when it comes to a free-agency tour? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

Flashing back to that moment with Condon felt appropriate this week, given that Manning might be one of the very few free agency experiences that could carry some hallmarks of what is going to happen with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in March. That is if Brady makes it to the open market.

There’s little question that Patriots owner Bob Kraft will make a convincing pitch to keep the greatest quarterback in league history in the fold in his remaining NFL years, presumably selling a deal that would set the stage for Brady to retire in New England rather than roll the dice with an unknown suitor and risk a potentially awkward final chapter to his legacy. But if Brady looks around in March, it’s worth exploring what that might look like because make no mistake, this is a two-way question.

How will Tom Brady approach his free agency and how will teams approach Tom Brady?

Patriots exit for Tom Brady? ‘You don’t want to waste your time if he’s not leaving’

As one NFC executive put it succinctly this week: “The first question is whether or not he’s really leaving New England — because you don’t want to waste your time if he’s not leaving. Peyton was released, so there was no shot he was going back to Indianapolis. Some teams are going to assume Tom is still going to go back, so I think that’s something that will need to be answered pretty quickly.”

Where it concerns the Manning free agency template, Brady’s open door to New England won’t be the only thing that could complicate his field of suitors. Though Manning was coming off serious neck and spinal fusion surgeries, and had sat out the 2011 season, he was still just days from his 36th birthday. That’s a tad more enticing than the mileage on Brady, who would enter free agency this offseason at 42. That’s going to weigh heavily on teams, given that Brady is likely to play only one or two more seasons.

There’s also the factor of skills erosion, and teams who spoke to Yahoo Sports about Brady expressed some concerns about his fading accuracy when forced to throw off-platform, a flaw that will get only worse. There has also been an influx of young quarterback talent into the league the past few seasons (including this year’s draft class), leaving fewer teams in desperate need of a quarterback upgrade in recent seasons. And then there will also be the money, given that a Brady deal is expected to land somewhere in the two-year $60 million to $70 million range. That’s pricey for a bridge quarterback whose best days are behind him. Even if he’s carrying the ticket-selling cache and marketing benefits of Tom Brady.

Even given those realities, there’s little doubt that Brady would have a line out the door for his services in March. And if that happens, it wouldn’t be surprising if he leaned a bit on what Manning went through mentally, given that the two have developed a good friendship and commiserate on football matters from time to time.

Why a surprise team could join Colts, Chargers, Bears and Titans in Brady discussion

So what could be expected? Well, first and foremost from NFL teams, it’s always wise to expect the unexpected. And it’s worth remembering that when Manning was on the verge of being cut by the Colts, the Denver Broncos weren’t the obvious choice atop his list. Indeed, exiting the 2011 season, Denver still had former first-round pick Tim Tebow at starter and he was coming off a stunning playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. While it was thought general manager John Elway would make some changes to revamp Denver that offseason, nobody initially predicted that he’d make such a bold and sweeping move. But when Condon’s phone rang on that first day of Manning’s free agency, everything was about to change.

That’s something to keep in mind when you look around the league and consider teams that seem to have their starting quarterback in place. Just because it looks that way now means very little when March rolls around. Particularly if it’s a contending franchise that might need a player of Brady’s caliber and experience to recalibrate a Super Bowl picture. This is one of the reasons why teams like the Colts, Tennessee Titans, Los Angeles Chargers and Chicago Bears have all been connected to a potential Brady free agency. There’s a lot to like in all of those places. None of those franchises, aside from perhaps Tennessee, would be a shocking suitor. But none of those fit the surprising outlier role, either. And there will be one of those with Brady — just like there was with Manning.

3 takeaways from Peyton Manning’s free agency

And once again looking at that Manning free agency, Condon shared three pillars that could be illuminating when it comes to what we could expect from a Tom Brady tour. Among them?

  • Even if there is wide interest, don’t expect a drawn-out free-agent tour beyond a few teams.

    Manning instructed Condon to open the window on interest and then present him with all of the teams. From there, Manning quickly cut down the group to five destinations according to a set criteria that he kept largely to himself and his family. Inside that group of five, Manning would set up “on-site” visits with only two or three. He was going to be deliberate about the process but didn’t want to engage in a dog-and-pony show, either. Given where Brady is in his career and what he has already accomplished, it’s likely his setup in free agency would be very similar, if not even more truncated.

  • It’s going to end up being a football decision.

    A lot will be said about the location of where Brady would play and live for the next year or two if he left New England. I’ve even fallen into this where it concerns a place like Los Angeles vs. Nashville or Indianapolis. But Condon made a good point about Manning’s free agency: He knew precisely what was at stake in the decision where it concerned his legacy … and he wasn’t going to let anything override his ability to finish his career with a flourish. Manning had too much pride in his football accomplishments to risk them on what region of the country he might live in. That’s something to keep in mind with Brady when some summarily write off a potential team as somewhere he and his family might not want to live for a few years. If Brady leaves New England, he’s not leaving to settle into comfort and retirement. He’s leaving in a manner that should motivate him to want to prove something and go out on top. That means if he felt like living in Indianapolis was his best shot to win a Super Bowl in 2021, I’m betting that’s the factor that would matter the most. Keep in mind, we’re talking about moving somewhere for two years, not eternity.

  • The quality of the opportunity isn’t just the roster. Never forget that.

    When we cut and paste Brady into another uniform, we often do it based on the quality of the surrounding roster. That will matter, of course. But when Manning went through his process, it wasn’t the only thing that mattered. Interestingly, Condon said Manning was careful to look at every aspect of the teams in his final grouping. The offensive line. The skill positions. The salary-cap situation. It went far deeper than that. What did the surrounding division look like? Was it ripe for a team to compete? What about the head coach? Did he have the demeanor that fit with what Manning wanted? What did the leadership presence look like on the roster, the front office and coaching staff? Was there fan support? Once again, if Brady is leaving New England, he’s going to be looking for optimum conditions that fit with his persona and goals across the board. Having a great offensive line and some players to throw to won’t be enough.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft says he'll make a push to keep Tom Brady. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Patriots owner Robert Kraft says he'll make a push to keep Tom Brady. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Door isn’t closed on New England

It’s possible that Brady runs through all of this in his mind and the answer he comes up with is to simply not leave the Patriots. Maybe he simply wants a little more than what he has been getting from the franchise which he has delivered so much. A little more pay. Maybe a little more pull when it comes to roster decisions that most directly impact him. But it would be foolish to expect that he’ll stay in New England, even if Kraft has designs on keeping him.

It’s unlikely Brady has carefully positioned himself for this opportunity just to turn back to the Patriots. It’s more likely that he’ll take his time to consider the crossroads that rarely comes for a player of his stature. He’ll ultimately be the only one who knows what to expect from this next decision — and all the choices that come after it. But if he leaves New England after 20 years, it’s unlikely the next move will unfold the way we all anticipate. Instead, it will likely be a continuation of what got Brady to this point in the first place. A series of unexpected events that led to an unbelievable place, leaving Tom Brady to finish out his career in Chicago or Los Angeles or Nashville … or some other locale that none of us could have imagined only one year ago.

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