It is not possible to overpay Tom Brady. He’s like the football version of a Marvel movie: guaranteed to outperform the investment. It is remarkable, then, that the player who cannot be overpaid has been, without exception, underpaid for almost his entire career. The Patriots have paid Brady $212 million in total salary over his 19 seasons, and it is the best $212 million spent in the history of football.
Paying a quarterback is the most significant roster-building decision a team faces. It is not a coincidence that the team paying the best quarterback in the league a shockingly low salary gets to the Super Bowl almost every year. The Patriots have an almost ludicrous advantage, probably the biggest a team has had in the 25 years since the salary cap was instituted. It’s probably not changing, either, even as Brady finalizes a two-year extension with the Patriots that includes a raise in 2019 that will make him the sixth-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. Brady’s new annual salary of $23 million—$8 million more than he earned last season—vaguely amounts to market value for a quarterback of his caliber, while maintaining the Patriots’ financial flexibility. He’ll be 45 years old at the end of this new deal, and he might end his career without ever signing the kind of megacontract given to some of the league’s most mediocre passers. Brady is getting a nice pay raise, and he’s still giving the Patriots a win.
While Brady is a little richer today, the Patriots also have $5.5 million more in cap space this season. These are the things we know right now. As with all NFL contracts, it gets more complicated after this year. The two-year extension kicks in after the 2019 season and is scheduled to pay Brady $30 million in 2020 and $32 million in 2021. However, according to ESPN’s Field Yates, the last two years on the deal are void years, a common maneuver for teams looking to gain short-term cap space. Essentially, those extra two years are placeholders. Adam Schefter reports the deal “will be adjusted each year Brady continues playing.” Yates reported that “this deal is about 2019.” However, we’re reasonably certain about what will happen in 2020: Brady will play for less than he could conceivably command.
Brady renegotiating his contract feels like a near-yearly exercise, one that will reportedly continue. Even if Brady did play for at least $30 million in 2020 and 2021, opting for a late-career cash grab, it would be a small price for the Patriots to pay for the years of discounts Brady provided and, uh, all those Super Bowls he won. It’s more likely Brady will take less than those numbers—and less than market value—next year, and each year until his retirement in 2045. The cost savings he provides his team are a massive part of the story of his career, and Sunday’s deal is a continuation of that theme. Quarterback pay has skyrocketed as the NFL’s salary cap has risen—$10 million a year for the past six years—and those gains have mostly made it into quarterbacks’ pockets. There were quarterbacks last season, like Aaron Rodgers, whose salary in 2018 was as much as an entire team’s salary cap in 2000. With this new deal, Brady will finally make more than his former backup Jimmy Garoppolo makes on his current deal with the 49ers. Garoppolo, while a fine player, is not Brady. The NFL Network’s Michael Giardi reported the Patriots might have wanted a lengthier deal, which means they have come to the same conclusion as the rest of us: Tom Brady is immortal.
Great passers whose contracts are subject to the rookie wage scale are invaluable to teams. The Chiefs are at a great advantage with Patrick Mahomes making $4 million this year. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013 when Russell Wilson was making less than the long snapper. These salaries let the teams go out and surround their young passer with stars. It’s a blueprint followed by the Browns, the Rams, and the Eagles, among others. But the value Brady has provided the Patriots is different: He has been perpetually affordable. Mahomes will eventually command a deal so high the Chiefs will need a supercomputer to calculate it. Wilson signed his second megadeal in April.
It’s been over two years since I called Brady’s contract “the real MVP” and it takes a lot of restraint not to make it the focal point of every Patriots story. Brady is the best quarterback in NFL history, and he’s fine with not being paid like one. Last year, Brady’s cap hit was $3 million less than Derek Carr’s and $2.75 million less than Joe Flacco’s. In 2017, his cap number was so low—$14 million—that it was almost a taunt to other teams: It was the same amount the Bears paid Mike Glennon and substantially less than what Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford, and Ryan Tannehill earned.
When I wrote about Brady’s contract In 2017, the Patriots had cornered the market on players making $4 million to $8 million annually—they had 11 on the roster that year; most of their competition in the playoffs had fewer than five. This is what the Patriots do: They take the savings from Brady’s deal and bring in pieces that help him, particularly midlevel veterans who have fallen out of style with many teams. In 2019 that list of midmarket veterans includes star cornerback Stephon Gilmore ($9 million), Michael Bennett ($6.5 million), Kyle Van Noy ($6.3 million), and Jason McCourty ($4.3 million), as well as long-time Patriots like Julian Edelman ($6 million) and Duron Harmon ($4.8 million). Other teams are forced to sign a quarterback to a big-money contract then figure out where to trim the fat. The Patriots have never had to do that.
The Patriots’ dynasty can be attributed to dozens of factors. Bill Belichick has an unparalleled ability to create new game plans to stop what an opponent does best. They have a lot of players who produce better than they are paid. They understand situational football better than anyone. The coaching staff routinely innovates their offensive and defensive styles at the right times. But mostly, they win because they have Belichick and Brady, and Brady’s contract.
Brady has joked—or half-joked—that his wife Gisele Bündchen’s salary has informed his contract negotiations. Mostly, though, he just likes winning. During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in May, Brady said, “I think the thing I’ve always felt for me in my life, winning has been a priority. And my wife makes a lot of money. I’m a little smarter than you think. Actually, it’s a salary cap. You can only spend so much, and the more that one guy gets is less for others. And for a competitive advantage standpoint, I like to get a lot of good players around me.”
It is instructive to look at comments from other players to see how unusual Brady’s path is. Dak Prescott told USA Today: “Nobody’s wife makes as much money as his wife does, either. When Tom Brady isn’t the breadwinner in the home, then that’s a great problem to have.” Prescott will almost certainly make in the neighborhood of $30 million on his next contract with the Cowboys, the going rate for any decent quarterback signing a megadeal in 2019. Incredibly, Brady and the Patriots have managed the cap so smoothly that he’s never made even $20 million in cash in a year in his career.
It is a testament to Brady’s longevity that he’s still among the highest-paid players of all time even while playing at a steep discount. Eli Manning has made about $23 million more in career earnings despite entering the league four years after Brady. Drew Brees has made almost $10 million more. Brady, who turned 42 on Saturday, would have to earn $36 million more to tie Peyton Manning, who retired in 2016 at age 39, in career earnings. Brady would probably have to play more years than his current three-year deal to eclipse them all (Brees is making $22.7 million this year). Which is to say he’ll definitely do it. Look at this:
Tom Brady postseason ranks: 1st is good right? pic.twitter.com/84oSJB8zbo— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) August 4, 2019
Brady’s two-year extension will help avoid the indignity of a franchise tag battle down the road, and Brady will almost certainly continue on with the Patriots after this year. Then there is the little matter of what the Patriots can do with this cap money. The Redskins, for instance, deny that their unhappy star lineman Trent Williams is on the trading block, but he’d certainly fill a Patriots need. The team also needs to find Brady new targets after the retirement of Rob Gronkowski. The fact is that the Patriots have more clarity and room to operate after completing this deal. The Patriots operate well under any circumstances, but give them some cap room and a month to make some deals and they’ll probably figure something out—they’ve been doing it for 20 years, which is the length of time they’ve underpaid Tom Brady.