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So Tom Brady, out of the goodness of his gold-minted heart, has cut the New England Patriots a contractual break, taking far less than he's worth so that the team will have more room under the salary cap.
Patriots, you are now on the clock.
How aggressively the Pats parlay the cap savings into retaining and acquiring premium players will determine whether Brady's gesture was a smart one. While the future Hall of Fame quarterback certainly had his reasons for doing a cut-rate deal — and, on many levels, he has earned the right to make that decision — it did not come without a psychic cost relative to his reputation within the NFL community.
In agreeing to a three-year, $27 million contact extension that runs through the end of the 2017 season, when he'll be 40, Brady likely riled agents and players throughout the league, especially those of the elite-quarterback variety. From Joe Flacco, who's currently negotiating a long-term deal with the Baltimore Ravens in the wake of a Super Bowl championship, to Aaron Rodgers, whose deal with the Green Bay Packers is well below market value, highly compensated passers can look forward to being guilt-tripped by employers, media members and fans imploring them to "Take Less For The Team."
When that happens, Brady shouldn't expect to receive any thank-you cards.
This is not to suggest that Brady particularly cares about the discomfort his decision might cause Flacco, Rodgers or any of his other competitors — nor that he necessarily should. In addition to being a popular leader who is one of the greatest players of his generation, Brady has strong credentials with the rank-and-file, having lent his support to the union via his involvement with the players' antitrust lawsuit during the 2011 lockout.
All Brady cares about is winning — and with three rings to his credit (and two near-miss-championships since his last one eight years ago), he's got a chance to surpass four-time winners Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw in the all-time annals of Super QBs.
So he drank the cap-space Kool-Aid, and/or bought into the owner-driven sob story about not being able to surround him with enough talent under his current contract. As my colleague Les Carpenter pointed out Monday, Brady had good reasons for doing the Pats a solid and has fewer financial worries than the average multi-millionaire athlete, given that his supermodel wife commands an even healthier slice of cheddar.
It should also be noted that Brady, according to two sources familiar with the deal, did get something out of the extension: With a $30 million signing bonus, he'll be guaranteed $3 million more over the first two years of the deal than he otherwise would have. Additionally, if he's still on the roster following the 2014 season, the other $27 million becomes fully guaranteed against a career-ending injury — a $24 million upgrade on the previous deal.
All of that sounds good, but I could spend a ton of time giving you the rebuttals of cynics in the NFL world who believe Brady took an inexplicably bad deal and that his agent, Don Yee, should wear a "Kick Me" sign at the next league event for having negotiated it. I'll spare you, partly because I don't necessarily believe Brady's financial decisions are necessarily any of our business (beyond how they might relate to the NFL's competitive landscape), and partly because I'm convinced Brady is at peace with the deal.
The important issue pertaining to the contract is that Brady believed this was something he had to do in order to allow the Patriots to compete. I understand his reasoning, but it's a matter that's certainly open for debate.
First off, I'm trying to imagine the reaction of Brady's chief rival, Peyton Manning, if he were given a similar pitch by the Denver Broncos. I'm guessing it would range somewhere between mad, cackling laughter and a four-word response that suggests a physically impossible act, and which served as the basis of an entertaining punchline in recent Best Picture winner Argo.
Manning, who made $18 million in 2012 (and will earn a reported $40 million, guaranteed, over the next two seasons provided he passes a physical next month), is sucking up a pretty big share of the Broncos' salary cap. For what it's worth, Denver seemed to do just fine last season, going 13-3 to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Brady obviously believes that by clearing up cap space for the Patriots, his bosses will work to surround him with as much talent as possible, from difference-makers to the less-heralded backups who sometimes push contending teams over the top.
I just hope he's not being gullible. My regard for Patriots owner Robert Kraft is well-documented, and I know that he, like Brady, strives for excellence on a constant and enduring basis. That said, the model that has worked for Kraft and coach Bill Belichick is one in which the team typically holds firm on its valuation of players, rather than allowing the market to dictate its expenditures.
That's fine — but it's not necessarily in line with going all out to maximize cap space in the desperate pursuit of short-term championships. And I hope Brady considered his own history before agreeing to take less in the final years of his vaunted career.
Remember that back in 2005, when Brady signed a six-year, $60-million contract, he consciously took a below-market deal because he wanted the Patriots to have more financial flexibility in signing other players. Kraft, however, didn't suddenly morph into a combination of Eddie DeBartolo, Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder. He basically stayed true to his business model, and some hard decisions were made in the process.
One of those tough decisions — failing to meet the financial demands of Brady's favorite target and close friend, wideout Deion Branch, who was subsequently traded to Seattle in 2006 — angered the quarterback at the time. Arguably, the absence of a big-time receiver the following January cost Brady and the Pats a chance to win another Super Bowl, as they were edged by Manning and the Colts in an epic 2006 AFC title game.
This time around, another favorite target and close friend — Wes Welker — could potentially bolt the Patriots. The team franchised the prolific slot receiver a year ago, giving Welker a huge raise to $9.3 million for the 2012 season. Belichick seemed almost offended by that number, marginalizing Welker during last September's season opener (five targets; three catches; 14 yards). Welker's role increased after the Pats lost two of their first three games, and he finished with 118 catches for 1,354 yards.
He's now less than two weeks away from unrestricted free agency, barring a contract agreement.
If the Pats take some of the cap dollars they saved on the Brady extension and pay market value to Welker, he can pick up the tab the next time they go out in Boston or L.A., and the quarterback will believe he did the right thing by creating the cap room. If Welker ends up in another uniform — perhaps (gasp) catching passes from Manning in Denver — I have a feeling Brady won't be so enthused.
Perhaps Brady is simply ahead of his time, having grasped the reality that a relatively flat salary cap under the current CBA (though I have my suspicions about this and plan to address the subject in a future column) makes the notion of a $20 million a year quarterback competitively unfeasible. It's also possible that his current deal will be revised after 2014 to provide for another massive signing bonus that leads to another cap friendly deal, though I'm told this was not an expectation on his camp's part.
Whatever his reasoning, Brady clearly believes he's putting himself in the best position to win, and it's tough to argue with that reasoning. By being selfless financially, he is also being selfish, and he has certainly earned that right.
Now we'll see if the man who pays his salary — and the coach whose vision he trusts — are similarly motivated to sacrifice.
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