Long before Tom Brady arrived and eventually became the six-ringed G.O.A.T., Patriots owner Robert Kraft had a very special relationship with another franchise quarterback in New England.
The unique career arc of Patriots Hall of Famer Drew Bledsoe was documented this past weekend in an ESPN E:60 feature “Better With Age.”
The episode includes a long sit-down interview with Bledsoe at his burgeoning winery in Washington and focuses on the former No. 1 overall pick’s contributions to the building of the Patriots dynasty, which took off in 2001 when a vicious hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis nearly killed Bledsoe and opened up the door for Brady to get his first chance to lead the team in just his second season.
The rest, as they say, is history. And we all know that oftentimes history tends to repeat itself.
Later that season, as the Patriots begin to hit stride on an eventual run to a franchise-first Lombardi Trophy, Kraft admitted that he struggled with Bill Belichick turning the team over to Brady rather than giving his $100 million man his job back.
“I was heartbroken, because I felt a connection, and I didn’t think it was fair on a human basis,” Kraft told ESPN. “Drew came to me and expressed his frustration. I went and met with Bill, and Bill explained to me his thinking.”
Now, 20 years later, Kraft could very well be a willing accomplice to Belichick turning his back on another Patriots franchise quarterback. Brady is set to hit the open market of free agency for the first time in his career on March 18. While he could reach an extension before that happens, recent reports have indicated that’s not in Kraft’s plans.
Here’s the money quote from Kraft looking back on his decision to allow Belichick to make the decision regarding Bledsoe and Brady. It’s relevant today, given that all signs point to Kraft allowing Belichick to once again make the final call regarding Brady’s future in Foxborough.
“I mean I could’ve stepped in, especially at that time. I had deep discussions with Bill. I was bothered, but I trusted Bill to make the final decision as he’s more capable than I am, although emotionally it was very difficult,” Kraft said.
It’s not hard to transmit those feelings 19 years forward to the here and now of Brady’s uncertain future.
Kraft’s words from the E:60 piece aren’t the only ones that resonate today, less than a month away from the 43-year-old Brady hitting free agency and a late-career crossroads.
While Brady’s decided that he very much wants to play a 21st NFL season, it may or may not be in New England and Belichick’s words from 2001 are just as poignant this 2020 offseason as they were way back then.
Remember, Brady is coming off a year in which he finished 18th in the NFL in passer rating and 27th in completion percentage. His rating, completion percentage and touchdown passes have been on a steady decline in recent years.
“I’m going to make the best decisions I can for the football team. That’s what Mr. Kraft is paying me to do and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make the decisions that I think are the best for the football team,” Belichick said in 2001 when announcing his decision to essentially move on from Bledsoe, who was then traded to Buffalo after that season.
Belichick holds the same position with likely even more power today as he has to decide whether to, hard is it is to fathom, close the door on the Brady era in New England. He is after all the man who’s long been associated with the idea that it’s better to move on from a player a year too early rather than a year too late.
Even Bledsoe’s words in the E:60 piece of obvious disappointment at losing his job to injury can be somewhat tied to the Patriots current spot with Brady.
“Turns out you don’t lose your job to injury unless somebody comes in and plays well at a lower number…” Bledsoe recalled to ESPN.
In the world of the NFL it’s always about the numbers. The numbers a player produces. The numbers in the age column. And the salary cap number that Bledsoe alluded to.
In an interesting role reversal, all three might just be working against Brady at this point.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Kraft kept his emotions in check and allowed Belichick to move on from Bledsoe.
Brady is no longer the younger option. He may not be the cheaper or even better option in the eyes of the man who’s still making the tough football decisions in New England – Belichick.
Things worked out pretty well for the Patriots last time Belichick made a controversial call at the QB position. Is history in some ways about to repeat itself in New England?