Well, so much for charity.
Last month, when Tom Brady agreed to a three-year, $27-million contract extension that dropped his future salaries well below market value, I wondered whether the New England Patriots would honor their end of the bargain by spending that savings on assembling and retaining a strong supporting cast.
On Wednesday, we got our first and most resounding answer: not so much. The news that Wes Welker signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Denver Broncos ensured that Brady, according to someone close to the future Hall of Fame quarterback, "will feel like he's been pierced in the heart."
Other than that, I think Brady is pretty thrilled that his favorite target — and one of his closest friends — will now be catching passes from Peyton Manning, the only man who rivals him as the best player of the 21st century.
That the Patriots responded Wednesday evening by signing former St. Louis Rams receiver Danny Amendola to a reported five-year, $31-million contract will be of small consolation to Brady. Welker was his guy, and Amendola, though younger and similar in stature and playing style, hasn't been nearly as productive as the man he'll be replacing.
Welker's departure will be especially jarring to Brady given the obvious conclusion that the Patriots, who paid Welker $9.3 million last season via the terms of the franchise tag, lowballed the receiver in negotiations that broke off shortly after Tuesday's official start of the league year. The Pats seemed to be daring Welker to test the market, and he took the dare.
The fact that he accepted such a relatively modest deal with the Broncos means that either it was better than New England's offer, or that he was insulted by a comparable offer from the Pats and decided to bolt as a matter of principle.
Either way, the irony can't be lost on Brady: Manning, the one NFL superstar no one could ever imagine accepting a penny less than market value, will be the guy zipping spirals to the most productive receiver Brady has ever known.
So why, again, did Brady do his bosses a solid by agreeing to that extension?
Brady, who is out of the country and could not be reached for comment, is likely pondering that same question.
Remember that Patriots owner Robert Kraft was the one who approached Brady about the extension on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles, reasoning that such an adjustment would allow the franchise to "build a team" capable of contending under the current salary-cap constraints. Brady bought into that logic, accepting an extra $3 million in short-term money and some semi-enticing guarantees in exchange for taking less than half of what he'll likely be worth in 2015, '16 and '17.
If your quarterback made that type of gesture, would you pay a little extra to ensure that his BFF and ever-present receiving threat remained in the fold? If you're Kraft, who has built a highly successful operation based on a disciplined philosophy of player valuation, I believe you might be willing to bend the rules a bit to get Welker re-signed.
If you're Bill Belichick, however, I think you're quite comfortable telling the shifty wideout to hit the road. And since Kraft tends to trust his coach and de facto general manager on these matters, that meant Brady's wishes were destined to become a secondary concern.
It's not as though the Pats can't try to make it up to Brady later — and the signing of Amendola, at a higher per-year rate than Welker commanded from the Broncos, was certainly a start. Before that the Pats, as per custom, hadn't exactly been aggressive players in the early days of free agency.
Yet the loss of Welker, who had already traveled to Los Angeles this offseason to spend time working out (and hanging out) with Brady, was particularly painful, and not just because he caught 672 passes during his six years in New England.
For all the talk about tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and for all the hype surrounding last year's free-agent signing of Brandon Lloyd (a favorite of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels), Welker was Brady's comfort zone. Even if Amendola, who has never caught more than 85 passes in a season, proves to be a capable replacement, Brady will inevitably be unnerved by Welker's absence.
Symbolically, it's also quite a blow. Remember, this has happened before. In 2005, Brady signed a below-market deal geared toward ensuring the Pats would remain competitive — one he ended up resenting as the years progressed.
One reason Brady was bothered by the fact that he'd taken less was that he didn't notice a commensurate fiscal aggressiveness on the franchise's side. That point was driven home in the summer of 2006 when his good friend and then-favorite receiver, Deion Branch, engaged in a contract dispute with the team that ultimately resulted in his being traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
Brady was furious about the team's unwillingness to pay Branch. He had a right to be even madder after his team suffered a narrow 2006 AFC championship game defeat to Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, a game in which the presence of another receiving threat might have put New England over the top.
I broached all of these subjects, by the way, in the wake of Brady's extension last month. I hate to say "I told you so" — and, point of full disclosure, Brady is one of the NFL stars I most enjoy covering, just as Kraft is among my favorite owners — but at this point, it's tough not to think in those terms.
Either Brady is a candidate for believing that gullible is not in the dictionary, or he agreed to the extension knowing that losing Welker was a possibility. If the latter is true, I have a feeling he's already second-guessing his decision.
"He's got so much pressure on his shoulders now — again," said the person close to Brady. "If the offense doesn't perform at a high level, they're screwed. This is unbelievable. It's hard not to feel like they've sold him out."
To be fair, this does not mean that Brady himself believes the team has done him dirty. Either way, the man is a true professional, and he'll surely swallow whatever anger he might harbor toward his employers and do what he always does: Devote 100 percent of his effort to trying to win as many football games as possible, now and forevermore.
So, in that sense, the Patriots might end up winning — especially if they figure out a way over the next several months to assemble an upgraded, Super Bowl-caliber roster for 2013.
On the other hand, when your team leader feels as though he's been pierced through the heart, the possibilities for resentment and disconnectedness become greater, and adverse circumstances tend to bring out the enmity on both sides. If the sight of Welker catching passes from Manning corresponds with a rough patch for the Pats in 2013, don't think Brady won't experience some very human emotions that aren't necessarily productive in that context.
In the meantime, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the Pats are on the clock. My advice to the Krafts, and to Belichick, is to start spending some of that salary-cap cash that Brady was implored to leave on the table.
Until then, the quarterback has a right to feel betrayed. And having lost his favorite target to an underwhelming offer from a rival for AFC supremacy, it's hard for Brady not to make an obvious and painful connection: The future Hall of Fame quarterback who took every last penny was the one who ended up with the star wideout the Pats wouldn't pay.
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