Could the New England Patriots be on the verge of imploding?
An ESPN story published early Friday detailed rifts between coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, Brady's alleged demand that backup Jimmy Garoppolo be traded (a wish owner Robert Kraft reportedly supported ... and maybe later regretted), apparent admissions from team insiders that the merits of the Deflategate case were legitimate and, perhaps most important, that the only NFL dynasty of the 21st century might be on the verge of splintering.
Should that be the case, what could be more fun than speculating on where the fallout — meaning the team's main characters — might land? Could Belichick leave in a huff (maybe he'd return to the New York Giants, who have an opening)? Might one of his coordinators, Josh McDaniels or Matt Patricia, be promoted if their longtime mentor departs? And/or whither Brady, the greatest quarterback in league history, but a man who will turn 41 before next season?
Let's explore that.
Perhaps the main thread of the ESPN report was the depth of Brady's desire to play into his mid-40s, which would allow him to cement his legacy and personally attempt to legitimize his "TB12 Method" lifestyle and brand. So let's just have fun with this and envision a world where Brady falls out of favor with Kraft, while Belichick remains behind to rebuild around Brian Hoyer. Where would be the best place for Brady to launch a second NFL act that would seem unimaginable ... just as it seemed unimaginable for Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning?
Let's look at the possibilities (and before you draft up your angry tweets, I was kidding about rebuilding around Hoyer):
1. Jets: How 'bout these apples? If a divorce went down, what better place for Brady to stick it to the Pats than by switching allegiance to the J-E-T-S? As the ESPN story notes, Belichick hates the franchise he infamously "coached" for one day before resigning on the heels of Bill Parcells' departure after the 1999 season. Brady has long had real estate holdings in New York City, so moving a few hours down Interstate-95 would be no issue. And the Jets, flush with cap space and high draft picks this year, have already shown they're further along in their rebuild than anyone expected — notably minus, of course, an answer under center or a marquee superstar who could assist with recruiting blue chip free agents. The Jets didn't enjoy great off-Broadway runs from Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell or Favre. But this kind of quick-fix, headline-grabbing move is definitely in their organizational DNA. And if Brady could bring Gang Green its long-awaited second Lombardi Trophy, at the expense of the Patriots no less, he would instantly be anointed the greatest athlete of all time and, likely, next mayor of New York.
2. Broncos: If you can't beat 'em, right? Brady is 8-9 all-time against Denver. Said another way, why not join a franchise that provided Peyton Manning with more hardware and has no fear of the Patriots? A championship-minted defense is already in place, and a capable quarterback seems to be the only ingredient the Broncos need to reclaim their recent dominance.
3. Jaguars: If Brady can indeed play effectively until he's 45, then Jacksonville's supporting cast could probably give him a legitimate five-year window to win championships. And just imagine what might happen if Brady and Tom Coughlin were actually pulling in the same direction. (This might also give Belichick the chance to truly showcase his genius by rebuilding in New England with ... Blake Bortles? Ha.)
4. Ravens: Think of them as Broncos-lite. Outstanding defense. Typically play well against a Patriots team it lives to beat. But Baltimore clearly needs to consider it might be time to replace Joe Flacco.
5. Dolphins: Their roster has more appealing talent than, say, the Jets', though winning in Miami wouldn't have the same flair. And, frankly, that's another issue given Brady has historically been decidedly average in South Florida, going 7-9 there over the course of his career. The Dolphins would also have to decide they'd prefer a short-term arrangement, scrapping their apparent plans to continue building around suddenly brittle QB Ryan Tannehill. But a marriage between Brady and coach Adam Gase, who comes with the Manning stamp of approval, could certainly bear copious fruit.
6. Chargers: They've already got an ancient quarterback who's still playing effectively in the twilight of his career. The Bolts also have a largely loaded roster, kicker notwithstanding. And you can bet they'd sell a lot more seats (at escalated prices) at StubHub Center with Brady than Philip Rivers. And, yet again, let's not forget that California native Brady often resides in Los Angeles during the offseason.
7. Giants: They're probably not far from a turnaround. A Brady-to-Beckham passing combo whets the appetite. The stage has already been set for Eli Manning's exit. And joining the beloved Giants might irk Belichick even more than going to the despised Jets.
8. Bills: Let's at least consider the Patriots' other AFC East rivals, who do have some talent but clearly aren't satisfied with their quarterback situation. Brady would have to move to Western New York, but he could also save a few bucks by shacking up with Gronk's family before potentially convincing his favorite tight end to also come home.