Update: Since this was first published, the four-game suspension was upheld by the commissioner and the two sides are headed to federal court. But with Patriots veterans reporting to training camp today, what I wrote in May is just as valid now.
I imagine the first thing Bill Belichick muttered when he heard about Tom Brady's suspension was: "We're on to Jimmy Garoppolo."
While the preference of the New England Patriots coach was that his star quarterback Brady be not suspended for four games, I don't think he's losing any sleep over it. Belichick has no control over whether Brady can have his suspension reduced or rescinded on appeal, so he'll do what he does best -- plan for the future. He now has a chance to see if he has Brady's successor on his roster in the form of Jimmy Garoppolo. As someone tweeted, maybe Roger Goodell is to Garoppolo what Mo Lewis was to Brady.
Belichick has been ruthlessly unsentimental when it comes to players, no matter how good they have been to the Patriots. The latest example was Vince Wilfork, a warrior for 11 years and yet just a month after helping the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year, he was cut. Belichick felt Wilfork's best days were behind him. The same process is beginning with Brady. The quarterback will turn 38 this August, old for a quarterback, even a Super Bowl MVP.
I think that unless the Patriots win the Super Bowl again this season, Brady will not be back in 2016. He has said he wants to play into his 40s, and his father told the New York Times that "it will end badly" for his son in New England since Belichick won't want the NFL equivalent of a senior citizen on his roster. "He wants to play till he's 70," Brady's dad said of his son. "It's a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn't."
The suspension -- no matter for how many games -- will give Belichick the real-world chance to see if the Jimmy Garoppolo Era will follow the Tom Brady Era. Here's why Belichick will see the suspension as an opportunity, not a disaster:
- He has all of training camp and the preseason to get Garoppolo ready. Belichick will know exactly when Brady will return, so he can plan accordingly, unlike with an injury to a player.
- There will be no Super Bowl hangover. The Patriots will be one pissed-off team with a chip on its shoulder, so Belichick needn't worry about complacency. During the 2007 Spygate season, the Pats were similarly pissed off and came within a miracle catch of going 19-0.
- Brady will be healthy and motivated once he is back. As a Broncos fan, I wish Peyton Manning could sit a couple of games strategically so he's fresh for the playoffs. If Brady serves the entire suspension and if the Patriots were to play in all four playoff rounds, he would have played 16 games, equal to a regular season. A month off is not necessarily a bad thing. After the first four games, the Patriots face only two teams the rest of the way who made the playoffs last year (the Colts and Broncos).
- 2008. When Brady went down with a torn ACL in the first quarter of the 2008 season, Matt Cassell came in and the Patriots went 11-5. I think Belichick is convinced his system matters more than any one player and 2008 was a prime example.
- 2014. This past season, the Patriots stumbled to a 2-2 start, including a Monday night embarrassment at Kansas City. Yet they rallied to win home field advantage. If Brady misses four games, the Patriots can still go 2-2. I assume they can beat the Jaguars at home, even with Janeane Garofalo at quarterback, so they need only beat either the Steelers, Bills or Cowboys to go 2-2. Ironically, the Bills game might see them facing the same Matt Cassell who stepped in for Brady in 2008.
- Real game action. Garoppolo will not be truly tested by being inserted late in a blowout game. By subbing for a suspended Brady, the Patriots can see how he performs on the big stage. Since his starting is not the product of a quarterback controversy, his teammates will rally around him 100%.
- Worst case. Let's say Garoppolo stinks and the Patriots go 0-4. All is not lost. A healthy and eager Brady can still lead them to a wild card spot and they can make some playoff noise. No one will blame Belichick for a bad start and it would be better to use only four games for a Garoppolo audition rather than an entire season.
Any length of suspension is a good test run for Garoppolo. If he shows promise, the Patriots can rest easier once Brady is gone. If he craps out, they would then know they will have to look elsewhere for a successor. Belichick publicly will stand by Brady and say all the right things. But privately, he's already starting to plan for life without No. 12, though sooner than he imagined.