For the first time since he became Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback is going into a football season in the last year of his contract. This makes Brady like most of the sport's labor workforce, who operate from year to year on unguaranteed contracts — as Bill Belichick helpfully pointed out to the media last week.

On the other hand, most of the working stiffs in the NFL aren't married to Gisele or have three Super Bowl rings and an MVP award in their man purse.

Contract disputes are an annual rite of the NFL preseason, but this has never been an issue with Brady and the Pats because neither side has let it become one. In 2005, they tore up his contract and worked out a six-year agreement that A) paid the quarterback a pile of dough up front and B) was still below market value for a player at his level of awesome. That mutually beneficial arrangement is coming to an end and no one seems to know how it will play out.

Brady has always been portrayed as the good soldier, although that hasn't stopped him from voicing his displeasure from time to time. But with his career approaching its final act and his union facing a historic labor battle, the Patriots quarterback has found himself in the middle of much more than just a contract negotiation. It's a delicate balancing act involving his team, his union, and himself, and Brady's decision could fundamentally change the Patriots and the entire NFL.

In June, Yahoo's Michael Silver wrote that there was a "growing disconnect" between the quarterback and the team regarding a new deal, which sounded unduly ominous. Yet when training camp opened in late July, Brady was all kum-ba-yah about it. By mid August he was playing golf with owner Robert Kraft and a new deal seemed imminent.

And then, nothing. No deal, no back and forth in the press, not a thing about what the Boston Globe's Albert Breer calls "the most important negotiation in the history of the franchise."

On the surface this is a no-brainer. Brady is 33 and two years removed from having his knee turned into spaghetti, but he is still regarded as one of the top three QBs in the game, along with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. He loves the Pats and they love him.

But it's not that simple. The NFL's collective-bargaining agreement is up after this season and the owners are talking all kinds of crazy about shutting the sport down despite taking in $4 billion annually in TV money alone. The union naturally would prefer that a mega-star like Brady not take less for the good of the team this time around since it believes (rightly) that stars drive the financial parameters for all players.

Because of its unguaranteed contracts, high turnover, and risk of catastrophic injury, the NFL is inherently the most political of all the major sports. Its player's union, however, has generally been the weakest. In Brady — as well as Manning, who is also going through a protracted negotiation — they may finally have the right players to rally the troops around.

Brady is serving as the team's number-two union man and has been vocal about many of the issues surrounding the league. In this battle, however, few things will speak louder than inaction.

Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for weei.com and teaches journalism at Boston University. He can be reached atpflannery@weei.com.

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