It will be one thing if, after thorough and earnest negotiations, Tom Brady decides to wander off into free agency.
It will be quite another if Bill Belichick appears to hand Brady his hat and open the door to let him leave.
In 17 days, teams can begin legally making their pitches to Brady's agent, Don Yee. In 19 days, Brady will become a free agent. So far? No talks.
Earlier this week, a report emerged that the Patriots were "expected" to meet with Yee at the NFL Combine this week. I contacted a source to confirm. The source asked if I knew who was "expecting" this meeting. The inference? No meeting was on the docket. I was told to be skeptical of the report. Be skeptical of everything, actually.
Meeting, no meeting, in a vacuum, it's not a big deal. It's still early-ish. There's no need for widespread panic.
But perception – like it or not – does matter. And not just to fans and media.
If Belichick wants to slow play negotiations because that's how the Patriots do it, that gives Brady more evidence that it's no skin off Belichick's nose whether Brady stays or goes.
And before you say, "Well, Brady's just being tender," understand the backdrop.
Protracted negotiations last summer didn't yield the extension Brady wanted. There was no extension in the summer of 2018; just a handful of bonuses Brady had little shot at achieving. Nothing at all happened in the summer of 2017 after the Super Bowl win over the Falcons despite Brady reportedly making it clear he wanted a new deal.
As I've reported, this isn't about money for Brady. It's about removing the feeling that he's only here because a better option hasn't yet emerged. Everybody else agrees he's the GOAT. Meanwhile, he feels like a lame duck.
Inevitably, that's led to Brady envisioning himself listening to offers from teams that don't look at him as a handsome roll of human duct tape.
Everybody else agrees he's the GOAT. Meanwhile, he feels like a lame duck.
ESPN's Jeff Darlington – who is sharp on the Brady beat – said Thursday that Brady is "looking forward to" free agency. He added he'd be "stunned" if Brady stayed.
Personally, I wouldn't be stunned if he stayed. I believe Brady's preference is staying in New England under the right circumstances. But I also sense there's excitement about hearing offers and having options.
That excitement will grow the more Brady perceives ambivalence on the Patriots' part.
This is where it has to get uncomfortable for Robert Kraft. The owner has made it very clear he wants Brady to finish his career with his team.
But he also wants to be minimally involved with these negotiations because he doesn't want either of his employees feeling they're being forced into something.
Kraft agreed to Brady's request to have the potential 2020 franchise tag removed from the Patriots' arsenal because Kraft didn't want Brady feeling trapped against his wishes. Kraft felt that, after a couple of decades of unprecedented success, Brady deserved to have that wish granted.
Meanwhile, Kraft has been (contrary to perception) hands-off when it comes to Brady. Belichick knows what's best for the football team. It's demonstrated. If Belichick wants to go year-to-year with Brady – even if Brady is pissed about that – that's what they are going to do.
Kraft didn't intercede when it came time to trade Jimmy Garoppolo – the owner stridently denies that – but the belief he did has led to an unrealistic expectation he'll swoop in to make sure Brady stays.
He won't. If the two sides are close, he'll do everything he can to get a deal done. But he's not interceding.
So that leaves it to Belichick. And a half-hearted attempt to convince Brady to stay is not going to cut it.
As much as Belichick probably recoils at the thought of a dog-and-pony show to satisfy "optics" and avoid the cringe-inducing charge that foot-dragging is "a bad look," the news void is being filled with speculation that the Patriots don't give a crap one way or another.
Who cares about optics and perception? How many times has Belichick been on the receiving end of a national finger wag about something he said, didn't say or did that was unanimously dubbed a "BAD LOOK!"?
How many times has he walked out of that fire like a hooded Dany Targaryen? Pretty much every time.
Tom Brady free agency: When the GOAT feels like a lame duck originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston