BEN VOLIN | ON FOOTBALL
John Tlumacki/Globe staff
BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The 2017 Patriots came close to winning a sixth Super Bowl title. But the 2018 Patriots are shrouded in mystery.
Questions are swirling about head coach Bill Belichick and whether he’s done coaching at age 65. Star tight end Rob Gronkowski acknowledged that he’s thinking about retirement. One coordinator is gone and the other likely is next, and a handful of other assistants might be taking off, too. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler is furious after his unceremonious benching. And the franchise has to find the next Jimmy Garoppolo to prepare for life after Tom Brady, who will be 41 next fall.
The only certainties: Robert Kraft will own the Patriots, and Brady will be playing quarterback. Everything else is up for grabs.
“I expect to be back,” Brady said Sunday night, a few moments after suffering a heartbreaking loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. “It’s 15 minutes after the game ended, so I would like to process this. I don’t see why I wouldn’t be back.”
Still, the Patriots will undergo a major face lift in 2018. Whether or not they emerged victorious in Sunday’s Super Bowl, significant changes would be taking place in Foxborough this offseason.
The Patriots enter a period of uncertainty surrounding their coaching staff and some of Brady’s most important teammates. The future, always bright in Foxborough, is suddenly a giant unknown.
The Patriots already lost one coordinator on Monday when defensive coordinator Matt Patricia was named head coach of the Detroit Lions. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is still on track to be named the Indianapolis Colts’ head coach, a league source told the Globe on Monday.
More alarming, though, is that Brady might lose his most valuable weapon.
“I’m definitely going to look at my future for sure,” Gronkowski said after Sunday’s game, in which he had nine receptions for 116 yards and two touchdowns. “I’ll sit down in the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.”
Gronk may have been blowing off a little steam after a frustrating loss. Or he may just be angling for a new contract. Gronk made $10.5 million this year and is set to make between $8 million-$9 million next season, depending on his health.
Or Gronk could seriously be contemplating retirement. His body has taken a beating over eight NFL seasons, with three back surgeries, a torn ACL, and a twice-broken forearm. He has made a ton of money in his career, says he has saved every penny from his football salary, and has a lucrative off-field business as a spokesman and brand.
Belichick on Monday tried to downplay Gronk’s comments, but would anyone be shocked if Gronk picked up and left while his body was still intact?
“I certainly can’t speak for anybody else,” Belichick said, “but I would say five minutes after the game, or the day after the game, is not really the time to make those decisions.”
OK, now let’s get to a more important question: Will Belichick return? It seems likely, but he danced around the subject on Monday like LeGarrette Blount danced around the Patriots defense on Sunday night.
A month ago, Belichick was asked if he intends to return to New England next season, and he said “absolutely.”
Asked about his future on Monday, Belichick responded, “I’ve already touched on it.”
A reporter pressed Belichick — so you’re definitely coming back?
“I said I’ve addressed that question,” Belichick said.
The reporter pressed again for clarification.
“I don’t have to answer the same question every day. That’s ridiculous,” Belichick said.
The reporter asked one more time for a direct answer.
“Next question,” Belichick said.
At this point, it doesn’t seem as though the Patriots expect Belichick to leave. They could have easily let either Patricia or McDaniels stay on as Bel-ichick’s heir, but by letting them both take jobs elsewhere, it gives the impression that Belichick is committed to the Patriots for 2018 and beyond.
But it would be tough to blame Belichick if he walked away now. His owner forced him to trade away Garoppolo, and the tension behind the scenes is very real. Now Bel-ichick has to replace both coordinators, plus possibly three other coaches — special teams coach Joe Judge has an expiring contract and is rumored to be joining Patricia or McDaniels, and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and running backs coach Ivan Fears could possibly retire. Nick Caserio, Belichick’s right-hand man in the front office, also wanted to interview for the Texans’ general manager job before the Patriots blocked him, and he will listen to offers if any GM jobs become available this summer.
Replacing all those coaches, and finding the next franchise quarterback, is a daunting to-do list.
The Patriots have changed coordinators before, and the transition hasn’t been perfect. Belichick lost both of his coordinators after the 2004 season, and the Patriots had a couple of lean years in 2005 and ’06 (by their standards) before returning to the Super Bowl in 2007. In 2012 they again lost both coordinators, and the Patriots didn’t return to the Super Bowl until the 2014 season.
Usually, the Patriots just promote from within. They easily could do so by elevating linebackers coach Brian Flores to defensive coordinator and receivers coach Chad O’Shea to offensive coordinator. Assistant quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski is also an option, and Caserio, a jack-of-all-trades for the organization, is a darkhorse.
But the Patriots could add a couple of familiar names. Former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has been rumored to be in the mix for some sort of job — if not offensive coordinator, then perhaps as a consultant for O’Shea.
Greg Schiano, the former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and a longtime friend of Belichick’s, has also had his name connected to the Patriots, though it seems unlikely that he would leapfrog Flores for the defensive coordinator job.
The only other guarantee for 2018 is that Butler won’t be back. His return was unlikely, anyway — the Patriots let it be known last offseason that they don’t value him as a top-end cornerback, and Butler made it known that he wants to get paid. But Sunday’s shocking benching ends any doubt that the former Super Bowl hero is now done in New England.
Butler, who played in 98 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps in their first 18 games of the season, played just one special teams snap the entire night, an Eagles punt in the second quarter.
Belichick refused to shed any light on the situation.
“I respect Malcolm’s competitiveness and I’m sure that he felt like he could help,” Belichick said on Monday. “In the end, we have to make the decisions that we feel are best for the football team. That’s what I did.”
The Patriots are about to enter the most uncertain offseason in the 18-year run of Brady and Belichick.
“No one is going to feel sorry for us,” Brady said. “We’ll evaluate like we always do.”
We know Brady and Kraft will be back. But the Patriots could undergo a total makeover before the 2018 season kicks off.
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