Would the Patriots still have won big if Tom Brady didn’t take pay cuts?

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The Tom Brady-Patriots marriage is one of the most complicated relationships in NFL history.

There's a lot to unpack between the decades-long dynastic duo of Brady and Bill Belichick, their bitter divorce in 2020 and the subsequent championship run of Brady as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer this past season. And now, as Brady returns to Foxborough to face his old team for the first time, a lot of hyperbole has emerged about how Brady and the Patriots built one of, if not the greatest, sports runs ever.

One of the bigger fallacies surrounding the Patriots’ 20-season run with Brady, though, is the notion they needed their quarterback to consistently take pay cuts to be able to construct championship-contending teams.

While Brady routinely took less money than his contemporaries — one analysis by Business Insider estimated he left $60 million-$100 million on the table — the effect it had on the Patriots’ ability to build a franchise that went 249-75 during his tenure is exaggerated. Brady’s discounts theoretically only added 1.62-2.8 wins over 15 years if he consistently signed a top-five contract each time he was due for an extension, according to an analysis by Pro Football Focus' Timo Maske. That’s a surprisingly low number considering Brady was only a top-five-paid quarterback six times in his career and only the highest-paid quarterback once.

With quarterback contracts being what they are today, the top ones making upwards of $40 million a year, it would stand to reason the Patriots wouldn’t have had enough cap space to build a talented roster if Brady constantly maxed out his money every season he was eligible.

(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)
(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports)

But the difference between Brady's deals and the quarterbacks paid more than him isn't why the Patriots were so good. It's a classic "causation doesn’t always equal correlation" situation. Just because Brady always took less than top dollar didn’t automatically mean the Patriots were always good, it just meant that Brady was always good and the Patriots were smart with their money. New England simply never overspent in free agency and instead spent the extra money on value contracts or to re-sign and extend their own players.

That approach wouldn't have changed if Brady was taking up more of the salary cap.

“That would be a very accurate assessment,” Scott Pioli, the Patriots’ former vice president of player personnel from 2002-08, said of this hypothesis. “It’s not like he was grossly underpaid … [but] it allowed us more flexibility to extend other people, to bring in other people, to extend other good players that we drafted, or just to have cap flexibility to do more things.”

The first opportunity Brady could have cashed in was in 2005. Peyton Manning had signed a seven-year, $98 million contract the year before and Brady was coming off back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 2003 and 2004. But rather than hunker down and negotiate for Manning money, Brady accepted a slightly smaller six-year, $60 million contract.

“He felt that if you left some money on the table, it would allow us to have a chance to get more good players around him," Pioli added. "The more good players we had around him, the better team we would have, therefore potentially the better chance to win more. Tommy’s method of measurement has always been about championships, not, you know, the world seeing how much money he makes.”

The rest of Brady's contracts over the years mirror that mentality. He was never a top-five highest-paid quarterback every time the Patriots played in a Super Bowl. It's a stark difference between the actual highest-paid quarterbacks at the time, as explained in this 3D augmented reality experience:

The line of demarcation between when Brady's deals weren't far from the top and when they starting creeping toward massive discounts is 2013, when Brady signed a three-year, $41 million deal at the age of 36. Between 2005-12, Brady, on average, was around the sixth- or seventh-highest paid quarterback every year, and the Patriots made the Super Bowl (and lost) just twice. From 2014-18, he averaged out as the 12th- or 13th-highest paid quarterback, and the Patriots went to four Super Bowls and won three of them.

That window is when you could make the argument the Patriots benefited from Brady's discounts. He left roughly left $29.4 million-$31 million on the table — depending on if you compare his deals exclusively to Manning, or to the highest earners every year — over his final seven seasons in New England, according to Over the Cap's Jason Fitzgerald. The Patriots used that extra space to build an offensive line to protect Brady and a solid defense behind him.

But the Patriots didn't use the extra $4 million per season to sign a game-breaking receiver, bruising pass rusher or shutdown corner. Instead, they drafted well (13 starters), traded for cheap but productive players, like running back LeGarrette Blount, and signed bargains like Danny Amendola to fit their offense. They also jettisoned aging players looking for big deals to open up cap space. The extra money helped, sure, but it didn't make or break the Patriots during this time.

As Brady and the Patriots moved forward, that team-friendly ideology began to wane, according to Seth Wickersham's new book, "It's Better to Be Feared." In it, Wickersham writes that Brady wanted input on roster construction during the latter years of his time in New England and that lack of influence affected his decision to leave in 2020.

"Brady was tired of taking team-friendly deals with no input into how the money saved was spent — and still wanted a long-term contractual commitment," Wickersham writes. "Belichick told associates that every organizational decision now was in support of Brady, geared toward pleasing him and making him successful — and that Kraft meddled with the team, sometimes with opinions, sometimes with restrictive budgets."

That new line of thinking by Brady diametrically opposed the original idea behind his contract decisions. He took less money because it meant a better team. But when he disagreed with what the Patriots did with the money, taking a smaller deal didn't look as enticing anymore.

The bubble burst in 2020, and the Patriots were left with a talent-depleted team and no franchise quarterback. But the remnants of Brady's selflessness remained this past season: The Patriots still finished a respectable 7-9 despite no long-term future and a team ravaged by COVID-19 opt-outs and aging contracts. The 2021 Patriots, though, are something else entirely. Belichick spent lavishly in free agency to fill the talent void left by Brady, and New England sits at 1-2 with a thus far middling rookie quarterback in Mac Jones. 

Belichick will finally get to face the Patriots' own team-building strategy this weekend against Brady's Buccaneers. Brady remains an underpaid quarterback on a contender flush with homegrown talent, a great offensive line and even better defense.

Who knows what will happen Sunday night? But there's no arguing what happened the past two decades.

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