“I’m going to play until they tell me they don’t want me anymore … There’s no entitlement around coach [Bill] Belichick. I’ve got to be the best guy for him to keep playing me. When I’m not, someone else will play.”
– Tom Brady to Peter King of Sports Illustrated in 2012
Those words sound like the definition of “Patriots-speak.” In no viable sports universe could there ever be a player who supplants Tom Brady as quarterback of the New England Patriots. When Brady eventually goes, it will be on his terms. He would never, EVER get beat out in training camp by another QB. The Patriots would never, EVER in a million years let his contract expire. And Patriot Place would be burned to the ground if the powers that be in Foxboro even entertained the idea of trading No. 12.
But here we sit in 2014, and things are starting to become a bit uncertain as to the Tom Brady exit strategy. Brady will be 37-years-old when the Pats open this year’s regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 7. Yes, Brady is still good for 4,000 yards passing and around 25 touchdowns every season, but the facts show that his numbers have declined in each of the past three years. The dreaded day when Brady is going to be told that his services in New England are no longer needed is coming relatively soon.
We’ve seen varying blueprints for retiring Hall of Fame QBs over the years. John Elway had the best model – win the Super Bowl and retire. Dan Marino bowed out somewhat gracefully, declining offers from the Vikings and Steelers in order to retire in a Miami uniform. A banged up Joe Montana was pushed out of San Francisco, traded to the Kansas City Chiefs, due to an emerging backup QB in Steve Young. Brett Favre flirted with retirement for several years, finally announced his retirement in the summer of 2008, but changed his mind later that year and wound up playing for the Jets and Vikings in the years that followed.
The obvious “best path” (that’s easier said than done) is for Brady to take the Elway route – win Super Bowls and maintain individual greatness ... or "goodness." Running back Terrell Davis was the unquestioned leader of the Broncos’ Super Bowl teams in 1997 and 1998. But Elway was still highly productive at the ages of 37 and 38, finishing in the top seven of league passer rating in his final two seasons.
The Patriots front office seems to be well aware that Brady’s best days are behind him. They deemed Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo one of the top 100 players in the 2014 NFL Draft, a solid field by most people’s standards, as they picked the 6-foot-2-inch, 226 pound signal-caller with the 62nd overall pick. They are clearly investing in Garoppolo.
It remains to be seen if Garoppolo is indeed the man to replace THE MAN. But when the 22-year-old’s name was called last Friday night, it certainly brought Brady’s football mortality to the center of the Radio City Music Hall stage.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS