Window shopping for Tom Brady, Patriots

How should the Patriots approach free agency with the career of Tom Brady winding down? Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady returned to the practice field with one of his go-to targets, Julian Edelman, on the campus of Southern California. It marked the first time since the AFC Championship Game in mid-January that Brady got back to throwing.

In a sense, it was like firing up the convertible that had been stored in the garage all winter, and hitting the road for the first time.

No worries, Patriots fans, it was a smooth ride as always. Everything under the hood remains in good working condition.

How long that will be the case is a question that has percolated a bit more here in New England of late, which in turn has led some to ask if the Patriots are doing enough to maximize the opportunity they have with such a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.

Brady turns 37 in August. His career clock is ticking.

This is what some refer to as “The Window” and it often sparks one of this region's more passionate sports debates.

At one extreme, you have those who want all the poker chips pushed to the middle of the table and it's “go for it at all costs!” This could also be called the John Elway approach.

Closer to the other extreme is the line of thinking, “Hey, we've been to the past three AFC Championship Games, and if a few things break differently, maybe we're not even having this discussion. Have we lost perspective?” Signed, Bill Belichick.

This contrast has been one of the more intriguing subplots of the first three days of NFL free agency, watching how the Denver Broncos (led by the soon-to-be-38-year-old Peyton Manning) and New England Patriots are taking significantly different approaches to their respective windows.

Consider that while Elway has been ultra-aggressive in handing out big-money contracts to safety T.J. Ward, cornerback Aqib Talib and defensive end DeMarcus Ware, the Patriots' leading receiver in 2013 is left hanging in the free-agent balance as Julian Edelman is scheduled to visit with the San Francisco 49ers on Friday. Would the Patriots really let him get away?

That would be a big hit to the team, and represent a U-turn to those making the case that Belichick finally decided to take the all-in plunge by landing cornerback Darrelle Revis. The all-in approach sounded good for a few hours ... until reports surfaced that defensive captain Vince Wilfork had requested his release as part of an issue related to his contract. If that ultimately happens, isn't it weakening the team as “The Window” closes a bit more?

ESPN NFL football analyst Darren Woodson has an interesting perspective on the topic, because he lived it while playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2000.

With quarterback Troy Aikman ailing health-wise, the Cowboys attempted to surround him with as many weapons as possible in hopes of giving him the best chance to win one more Super Bowl. Speedy receiver Joey Galloway, for example, was acquired for the hefty price of two first-round draft choices. The Cowboys were all-in.

“I remember [head coach] Dave Campo saying that Galloway was a guy who was going to get us over the hump, and we'd be a more explosive team, helping Troy get the ball down the field,” Woodson recalled. "I specifically remember the words ‘over the hump.'"

But what unfolded was an unforgettable reminder of the physical toll of football, as Galloway tore his ACL after playing in just one game and missed the season. The Cowboys, with Woodson at safety until he also landed on injured reserve, finished 5-11.

This isn't to say Woodson is now advocating a more conservative approach. To the contrary.

“No doubt about it, you want to maximize the quarterback's greatness,” he said. “You see what Denver is doing now, there is a 2-3 year window with both of these teams to do that. Those windows can close in a hurry. When Brady's gone, they're going to join the ranks of the average teams as well.”

While Belichick might contest that line of thinking, and Brady would likely scoff at the idea he wouldn't be effective when he hits 40, this remains the great debate.

All-in? Or just enough?

The correct answer, as is often the case with “The Window," probably lies somewhere in the middle.