Ever since Jimmy Garoppolo led New England to a couple of victories to start the 2016 season, the debate about what the Patriots would do with him whipped through NFL front offices and filled empty hours of Boston talk radio.
Tom Brady is the Pats’ starter and legend. He’s also 40. Garoppolo, a promising talent who turns 26 next month, is a free agent at the end of this season. Due to salary-cap realities, New England can’t sign them both going forward, so one was going to go. Not even Bill Belichick could – let alone would – dump Brady for Garoppolo.
He couldn’t, or at least didn’t. Instead, up against a 4 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline, Belichick awoke Monday morning, looked over his 6-2 team and found a deal for Garoppolo, sending him to San Francisco in exchange for a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft. That selection is likely to fall in the mid-30s overall since the 49ers are currently 0-8. It’s a nice deal for the 49ers, who were desperate for a quarterback of the future and had no assurances they could land Washington’s Kirk Cousins via free agency this offseason.
There is still time for Belichick to move the pick elsewhere in the league for a part he believes the Patriots require to win the Super Bowl this season. In Foxborough, the goal is singular – the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots have won it five times under the stewardship of Belichick, including two of the past three years.
The needs are there. The defense is still seeking its footing, trying to duplicate the strength from last year. A pass rusher is coveted. A replacement for injured linebacker Donte’ Hightower is too.
Or maybe Belichick can’t find anything he wants and sits on the pick, which can’t help him until next season but is still an important asset considering Brady’s longevity.
Mainly, though, this was a day that had to come. Belichick held out as long as he could, using Garoppolo as a security blanket in case Brady went down during the first half of the season. At this point, Garoppolo would be an expensive backup, and the Pats would miss out on a high second-round pick, or whatever they can fetch and get on the field this season.
Much of this is about Brady’s ability to remain healthy. Every quarterback is one hit away from having his career end, but even at 40, Brady looks and moves as well as he ever has. He is vowing to play until his mid-40s. Who knows.
New England is all in on that. Belichick traded third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett to Indianapolis before the season for wideout Phillip Dorsett, who, with just four receptions, hasn’t panned out in Foxborough thus far. Brissett is Indy’s starting quarterback, at least until Andrew Luck returns.
New England is expected to sign Brian Hoyer as a backup. The Niners released him to make room for Garoppolo. Hoyer is a former Brady backup and would fit in well.
For Belichick, this move likely came down to two calculations. Either, that the drop-off from Garoppolo to Hoyer either isn’t that big or that the drop-off from Brady to anyone is so great it doesn’t matter who the backup is. Essentially, this was an example of Belichick looking at a flawed team and figuring the Patriots can win it all only with Brady at his best and anything else is doomed anyway, so why clutch onto Garoppolo and then watch him walk out the door after the season.
Belichick has built an empire in New England by making those bold decisions better than anyone. It’s not that he doesn’t misjudge talent or impact (Dorsett, among others, prove that from a bad 2017 offseason). It’s not that he doesn’t make bad draft picks or trades.
He tends to know what he needs, though. Last year, he shipped out pass rusher Jamie Collins to Cleveland at the trade deadline. Critics wondered if the defense could survive. The championship proved it could.
So now, Belichick is putting it all on Brady, not just to be his usual brilliant self, but to stay in one piece. Garoppolo was too valued an asset to not deal. He waited as long as he could, but with the season half gone, with another Super Bowl still possible, with Brady’s window of greatness appearing as open as it ever has been, he made the deal.
All or nothing in New England, just like always.
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