The Patriots spent 20 years drafting Tom Brady’s successors. They drafted three guys who are now NFL coaches—Kliff Kingsbury (sixth-rounder, 2003, now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals), Kevin O’Connell (third-rounder, 2008, now the offensive coordinator of Washington), and Zac Robinson (seventh-rounder, 2010, now the quarterbacks coach of the Rams). They drafted a guy out of LSU in 2002 (Rohan Davey, a fourth-round pick) and a guy out of LSU in 2018 (Danny Etling, a seventh-rounder). Brady’s backups waited around, watching their primes pass them by while he remained ageless, like Queen Elizabeth’s children.
And now that Brady is gone, having reportedly signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots may have the most tenuous succession plan since the dawn of the Brady era. In 2019, Brady’s backup was Jarrett Stidham, a rookie who threw only four passes and somehow managed to make one of them into a truly horrendous pick-six. (Against the Jets!) Maybe Stidham will develop into something, but it seems unlikely he will jump to competence right away after such a brief and underwhelming start. Some are high on Stidham, as I was after his freshman year at Baylor. Unfortunately, I also watched him after he transferred to Auburn.
Regardless of Stidham’s development, New England’s quarterback situation is uncertain for the first time in a long time. Sure, there are plenty of veteran quarterbacks available on the trade market—Andy Dalton! Cam Newton!—but the idea of Bill Belichick working with someone who spent the majority of their career outside of the Patriots bubble seems odd. New England had one of the best defenses in the league in 2019, and it should be a contender going forward—they still have Belichick, after all!—and quarterback could be a position of weakness after 20 years of consistent greatness.
However, there are two players who grew up inside that bubble who have proved themselves as NFL starters. Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s backup from 2014 to 2017, is the starting quarterback for the 49ers. Remember when they made the Super Bowl? And Jacoby Brissett, who was a third-stringer behind Brady and Garoppolo, performed reasonably well for the Colts this past season after Andrew Luck’s shocking retirement. Garoppolo is certainly off-limits for the Pats; Brissett could be an option since Indianapolis just reportedly signed Philip Rivers, but he would likely cost them.
In Brady’s entire career, only four former Patriots quarterbacks have gone on to become meaningful starters for other teams: Garoppolo, Brissett, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Cassel. Oddly, so few of Brady’s backups managed to be successful elsewhere—maybe the Pats drafted poorly, maybe nobody was willing to take shots on guys who never saw playing time behind Brady. Of the four who became starters elsewhere, Garoppolo is easily the best; Brissett’s 2019 season was roughly on par with the best year of Hoyer’s career and much better than Cassel’s career averages.
Now that Brady has moved on from New England, it’s worth looking three years into the past, when the Patriots made the decision to trade the two best backups Brady ever had. A trade market developed for Garoppolo and Brissett after they started two games apiece during Brady’s 2016 Deflategate suspension. Indianapolis sent wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to the Pats for Brissett ahead of the 2017 season as it became clear Luck wouldn’t be healthy—perhaps because Brissett played an all-timer of a preseason game. The 49ers gave up a second-round pick for Garoppolo ahead of the 2017 trade deadline and won their last five games of the season with their new QB under center. Two seasons later, they made the Super Bowl. Now, both players are seemingly out of New England’s reach: The 49ers signed Garoppolo to one of the largest contracts in NFL history after 2017, and Brissett signed a $30 million extension when he became the starter after Luck’s retirement. They have no chance of trading for Garoppolo and would have to give something up to get Brissett back.
This past season, Garoppolo was demonstrably better than Brady, surpassing him in yards per attempt, quarterback rating, and touchdown rate. Brissett was, weirdly, almost exactly identical to Brady—both averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, had a quarterback rating of 88.0, and Brissett threw a touchdown on 4 percent of his passes while Brady threw a touchdown on 3.9 percent. There’s a strong case that in 2019, New England had the worst of the three quarterbacks from its 2017 roster.
In some ways, the Patriots obviously failed by letting Garoppolo and Brissett leave. Two years after being traded, they were outperforming the guy they used to back up. And now, instead of having either one of them ready to take over when Brady departed, the Pats are left with Stidham. Maybe the best move for the 2020 Pats would have been the impossible decision to have paid Garoppolo or Brissett starting money and benched Brady before the 2018 or 2019 seasons.
In general, though, I think the Pats did the right thing. As the Brady era wound down, the Patriots had an obligation to maximize every opportunity they had to win with him while they still could—in Garoppolo and Brissett, New England netted players and picks to help them win right away. Dorsett, acquired in the Brissett trade, caught touchdowns in both of New England’s wins that got them to the 2019 Super Bowl, which they won. That sixth Super Bowl win—the one that tied New England for most Super Bowl wins ever, and gave Brady the most individual Super Bowl wins of any quarterback ever—was the Patriots’ last great moment with Brady. If trading Garoppolo and Brissett in 2017 helped secure it in any way, it was worth it.
Yes, the Pats’ 2017 trades left them with the worst performing of their three potential quarterbacks in 2019 and left them an uncertain succession plan going forward. But I don’t think all the quarterbacks New England drafted during Brady’s reign were truly potential successors—just assets to help the team win while they had Brady. If the Garoppolo and Brissett trades helped smooth the end to the greatest dynasty in football history, it’s fine if they made the future somewhat rockier.