Los Angeles Chargers. Tennessee Titans. Maybe the Miami Dolphins? San Francisco 49ers, perhaps?
Many NFL teams were rumored as potential suitors for quarterback Tom Brady last offseason. The one that wound up landing him — the dark-horse Tampa Bay Buccaneers — was not high on that list.
As Brady prepares to lead the Bucs into Sunday night’s divisional-round playoff matchup with the New Orleans Saints, we decided to fire up the “what if?” machine.
How would six other contestants in the Brady sweepstakes have fared this season if they, not the Buccaneers, had signed the New England Patriots great instead?
Los Angeles Chargers
What they did instead: Signed Tyrod Taylor, drafted Justin Herbert
How they finished: 7-9, missed playoffs
Only two teams reportedly offered Brady a contract last year: the Bucs and Chargers. Would L.A. have been a better team this year had Brady signed there instead? Probably. But the Chargers can’t be too unhappy with their current situation.
They seem to have struck gold with Herbert, who was largely excellent as a rookie and has boundless growth potential. (It’s also worth noting Brian Daboll, the reported favorite to replace Anthony Lynn as Chargers head coach, has helped Josh Allen blossom into one of the NFL’s top QBs in Buffalo.)
A Brady-to-L.A. move, though, would have had wide-ranging implications for multiple franchises.
If the Chargers land Brady, they almost certainly don’t draft Herbert sixth overall. Does the Oregon product wind up in Jacksonville, which owned the No. 9 pick and had no clear long-term plan at quarterback? That probably would have taken the Jaguars out of the running for Trevor Lawrence, whom they’ll surely take first overall this year.
And if Herbert had fallen past the Jags and into the early teens, would the Patriots have entertained a trade up from No. 23? Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels both are huge Herbert fans, and New England’s QB depth chart at the time featured just Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.
What they did instead: Extended Ryan Tannehill
How they finished: 11-5, lost in wild-card round
Brady’s long-standing friendship with Titans head coach Mike Vrabel fueled speculation about a potential move to Tennessee, especially after Brady and Julian Edelman were spotted FaceTiming with Vrabel at a Syracuse basketball game in early March. The Titans bowed out of the Brady sweepstakes before free agency began, however, re-signing Tannehill to a big-money contract extension.
It’s hard to say Vrabel’s squad would have been better off with Brady this season. Tannehill has been one of the NFL’s most efficient passers since he replaced Marcus Mariota in 2019, and Tennessee averaged 30.7 points per game this year — fourth-most in the NFL and just 0.1 fewer than Brady’s Bucs posted.
Brady also wouldn’t have helped a Titans defense that ranked last in the league in sack rate and last among playoff teams in points allowed.
San Francisco 49ers
What they did instead: Rolled with Jimmy Garoppolo
How they finished: 6-10, missed playoffs
A potential homecoming for the Bay Area native was the juiciest Brady free agency storyline, and 49ers general manager John Lynch admitted the team considered it. They ultimately stuck with Garoppolo — who’d just quarterbacked them to a Super Bowl appearance — and regressed amid a tidal wave of injuries to key players.
One of those players was Garoppolo, who started and finished just three of San Francisco’s 16 games and spent two stints on injured reserve. Even Brady might not have been able to carry this decimated roster to the playoffs, but it’s fair to say he would have been more durable than his former understudy.
Outside of his 2008 ACL tear, Brady never has missed a game due to injury. Garoppolo has missed 23 over the last three seasons, plus two more during his brief stint as the Patriots’ fill-in starter.
Of course, Brady joining his childhood team also might have paved the way for Garoppolo to return to New England, setting him up to be the 2020 starter rather than Cam Newton. But perhaps the Brady decision merely delayed a Garoppolo-Patriots reunion by a year.
If the 49ers choose to make a change behind center this offseason, Jimmy G would vault to the top of the list of potential Newton replacements.
What they did instead: Kept Ryan Fitzpatrick, drafted Tua Tagovailoa
How they finished: 10-6, missed playoffs
There’s a reason Miami is being mentioned as a potential trade destination for Deshaun Watson. Tagovailoa — unlike Herbert, who was drafted one pick later — did not look like a no-doubt franchise QB in his rookie season. The former Alabama standout showed flashes, sure. But he also was benched twice after taking over starting duties midseason and then threw three interceptions in a season-ending blowout loss.
Despite these struggles, the Dolphins still fell just one win short of a playoff berth. Combine Miami’s playmaking defense and top-tier special teams with above-average quarterback play, and Brian Flores’ club might have been a legit contender in the AFC.
Brady, though, surely prefers his current stable of offensive weapons, as just two Dolphins players (wideout DeVante Parker, who regressed this season, and tight end Mike Gesicki) finished the season with more than 400 receiving yards.
Las Vegas Raiders
What they did instead: Kept Derek Carr, signed Marcus Mariota
How they finished: 8-8, missed playoffs
Reports in February indicated the Raiders were preparing to make an aggressive play for Brady, but their interest eventually waned. They opted to stick it out with Carr and add Mariota as a form of affordable insurance, reportedly because Brady’s “game film the last two years just didn’t warrant” an offer like the one he received from Tampa Bay.
Las Vegas wound up boasting a top-10 passing offense with Carr at the controls, and the oft-criticized QB ranked in the top third of the NFL in most passing categories. As with Tennessee, defense was the Raiders’ downfall. They allowed 36.1 points per game in their eight losses, which included a 45-20 beatdown against Brady and the Bucs.
What they did instead: Signed Philip Rivers
How they finished: 11-5, lost in wild-card round
The Colts chose the other aging star quarterback on the market last spring. They signed the now 39-year-old Rivers to a one-year, $25 million contract because, according to head coach Frank Reich, he was a better fit for their offense.
Rivers was solid (68 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) but unspectacular. Indy won 11 games, then lost to a very good Bills team by three in the playoffs. Now, the Colts could be back to square one with Rivers and backup Jacoby Brissett both headed for free agency.
It’s difficult to project how Brady, who had the luxury of throwing to players like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown all season, would have fared in Colts offense that lacked that level of elite pass-catching talent.