How much longer will Tom Brady be a Patriot?
Tom Brady has said more than once that he wants to play until he's 40. And that's down from 2009 and 2011; ProFootballTalk.com has quotes pointing out that even in 2009 he was planning to play "for another 10 years."
Brady has said, more than once, that there's nothing else he'd rather be doing than playing football. Likewise, it's clear that his play, by and large, hasn't diminished over the last couple of years, recent disappointments notwithstanding.
But the elephant lurking in the room for the New England Patriots is a big one. Brady cannot play forever, and the Patriots can't clone him (much as Patriots fans might wish they could).
So how much longer will Brady be a Patriot?
If I knew the answer to that question, I could probably make a lot of money. The factors that will determine that answer, though, are fairly obvious.
1. How much longer can Brady be an elite passer?
For better or for worse, Brady is a pure pocket passer. He doesn't like leaving the pocket, and he seldom rushes the ball. While Brady may run the best quarterback sneak in NFL history, his reluctance to actually run with the ball has caused problems for the Patriots. Sometimes, Brady will go for a pass even when there are easy yards to be had by running. During Super Bowl XLVI, on his deep interception, he could probably have converted a first down (or at least gotten close) by running instead.
His game is built partly on his arm strength (which is good enough) and his ability to read defenses, which is almost without equal. His offensive line does a good job of keeping him clean; he takes his fair share of hits, but rarely is he getting "killed."
The limiting factor in how long Brady can be elite boils down to when his arm strength starts to go—which could be next year, or it could be five years from now—and the evolution of NFL defenses. It's possible that defenses will reach a point where a pocket passer simply can't thrive. But that seems at least a few years away.
2. Who will replace Brady?
In the 2012 season, the Patriots only had one option to replace Brady if something happened: second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett. He wasn't just the only other QB on the 46-man roster on game days, he was the only other QB on the Patriots' payroll. For whatever reason, the Patriots didn't even bring in a developmental QB on the practice squad.
Nobody knows what the Patriots' opinion of Mallett is other than the Patriots themselves, and they're not telling. Clearly, they have some confidence in him, just as they did with Brian Hoyer in 2009.
Assuming they don't trade Mallett away, he's under contract until 2014 at relatively cheap money. It's hard to see him staying beyond then, though, unless he's the starter. If they don't view Mallett as the future starting QB of the Patriots at some point soon, they're going to have to start the developmental cycle again.
3. How much will Brady cost?
Brady's cap hit for 2012 was a modest $8 million. That's because he renegotiated his contract to lower his salary cap hit for 2012 to give the Patriots more flexibility.
The price for doing that, though, was that his cap hit for 2013 and 2014 spiked to $21.8 million. His 2013 salary—which is, for all practical purposes, the only part that can be used to provide cap flexibility—is $9.75 million. Unless the Patriots give him an extension, the most they could possibly save would be around $4.5 million—and that would put his 2014 cap hit north of $25 million.
4. Will the Patriots extend Brady?
Just like Mallett, Brady's only under contract through 2014, which limits the amount of restructuring he can do (since the Patriots can't push cap hits into years for which Brady isn't signed).
The Patriots could give him an extension, which would allow them a bit more flexibility. For example, if they gave him a two-year deal, they could gain about $6.5 million in cap room, while spreading that out over three years instead of one. But that also raises the question of how much they would have to pay him. His most recent extension in 2010 averaged $18 million per year; it seems likely that a new extension this year would have to pay at least that much, and perhaps more.
At some point, as Patriots fans have unfortunately seen with Wes Welker, the specter of Father Time becomes ever more important as players get older. Eventually, the costs of extending him will outweigh the benefits. When that happens, though, will of course be tied to the question of how long Brady can hold up physically.
As I said earlier, it's impossible to know the answer. Based on his contract, the Patriots appear committed to having Brady around in 2013 (just as the Jets, to the consternation of their fans, are committed to Mark Sanchez). But beyond that, almost anything is possible.
So let me ask you: how much longer do you see Tom Brady wearing the Flying Elvis?