Belichick made a huge mistake trading Garoppolo. Told ya so.

And I said so at the time on Twitter — it’s not just the benefit of hindsight watching Jimmy G. go undefeated starting for a bad 49ers team. But I want to elaborate here. The bottom line is that he should have kept Garoppolo all year just in case Brady might get hurt, potentially long term. If Brady stayed healthy, Belichick could have placed the franchise tag on Garoppolo (as he did with Matt Cassell in 2009), and still traded him for a 2d round pick. If Brady had a catastrophic injury and would have missed some or all of 2018, then the Pats would still have their franchise quarterback.

Belichick traded Garoppolo to the 49ers at the trade deadline in November, and received a 2d rounder, which at the time would have been the 34th pick, almost a 1st rounder. The key to the trade was that the 49ers would release Brian Hoyer, a former Patriots back-up who knew the complex Pats system. So at the time, people said how brilliantly that worked out. Bah humbug.

Belichick was right not to trade Jimmy G last summer. Garoppolo had been amazing while Brady took a month vacation in September, thanks to Roger Goodell. Garoppolo led a comeback win against Arizona, a top defense with a great pass rush and a better secondary. Then Garoppolo shredded Miami before getting hurt. So he had proven he could play at an elite level. Yes, Brady had won a Super Bowl, but he benefited from playing four fewer games. And even with that rest, Brady was off in the playoffs, rusty and inaccurate against a mediocre Texans team that Jacoby Brissett had dominated in Week 3. Then Pittsburgh played predictable and weak zone defense against Brady, which he always picks apart, so that was no real test. And in the Super Bowl, Brady was a shadow of himself for almost three quarters, falling behind 28-3. It was only a miraculous comeback — due to Brady’s cluch brilliance but also thanks to some lucky bounces and some terrible Falcons decisions — that spared Brady from a lot of tough questions.

2017 has proven that Brady still has it. Even without Edelman and without steady offensive line play, he has put the Patriots in line for a #1 seed yet again. But Brady is still 40, and any quarterback is one hit away from a major injury. What if Brady gets knocked out of a playoff game? A concussion means Hoyer is leading the Pats against the Chiefs, Jaguars, or Steelers… and that’s likely the end of the 2017 season. Garoppolo would have won those games.

And what if Brady tears an ACL or an Achilles in January? There is always a chance that Brady might miss the entire 2018 season, and who knows what he’d be like in 2019? And there is always a chance that such a major injury to a 40-year-old quarterback forces them to retire. Now, the Patriots have no back-up option. If they had kept Jimmy G., they could keep both and get significant cap relief for Brady’s long-term injury. Then they could punt on making a decision on which to keep until they saw Brady return.

And what if Brady stays healthy?  I still think the best long-term football move would be to choose Garoppolo at age 26 over Brady at 41. That’s the kind of move Belichick is famous for. But even if the Patriots went with heart over head, they could handle Garoppolo the same way they handled Matt Cassell as his rookie contract expired after leading the Pats to an 11-5 season in Brady’s absence. They would put the franchise tag on him, and then trade him for a 2d rounder.

So why didn’t Belichick choose that obvious path? Some speculate that Belichick worried that if the 49ers finished the season with the first or second pick, they’d use it to draft a rookie quarterback (UCLA’s Rosen or USC’s Darnold), and the Browns would use their pick on the other one. OK, fine. There are always teams looking for a potential franchise quarterback. Even if Belichick preferred to trade him to the NFC, there would still be teams like the Giants, Cardinals, Vikings, and maybe the Redskins (Cousins is probably leaving for a massive contract elsewhere). Let’s say those teams would say no to trading a 2d round pick, but they’d offer a 3d rounder. Isn’t that potential drop in trade value worth the insurance against a Brady injury?

All I can guess is that Belichick had seen something in practice that led him to conclude that Garoppolo isn’t an elite quarterback. He’s the best NFL coach of all-time, even if his personality is a lump of coal, and even if he’s a pathological cheater. Of course, he knows more than anyone else about this business. But I think the story might be that Garoppolo refused to negotiate an extension, and it’s possible that the Hoodie was mad about that, and decided to cut bait. And I still think it was an odd decision, considering how rarely one sees a quarterback with such a high ceiling in the NFL, and how often injuries require back-up plans. Bill was critical of the Colts when they had no back-up plan for Peyton Manning when he missed a full year. Now Bill has put the Patriots in the same position.




Author: Jed Shugerman

Legal historian at Fordham Law School, teaching Torts, Administrative Law, and Constitutional History. JD/PhD in History, Yale. Red Sox and Celtics fan, youth soccer coach. Author of "The People's Courts: Pursuing Judicial Independence in America" (2012) on the rise of judicial elections in America. I filed an amicus brief in the Emoluments litigation against Trump along with a great team of historians. I'm working on "The Rise of the Prosecutor Politicians," a history of prosecutors and political ambition (a cause of mass incarceration), and "The Imaginary Unitary Executive," on the myths and history of presidential power in America.

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