If we’re not quite there yet, we’re getting to the time on the NFL calendar when the previous season officially transitions to the next and some interesting names start showing up in the transactions ledger.
Man, am I ready for that time. This lingering hangover from Super Bowl LII has lasted way too long.
Consider what went down with the Patriots roughly this time a year ago. On March 9, they signed free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a five-year, $65 million contract with $35 million guaranteed, a megadeal that probably not even Gilmore’s agent saw coming.
Two days later, Bill Belichick traded his 2017 first-round pick to the Saints for speedy and productive receiver Brandin Cooks.
And five days beyond that, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, fresh off another impossibly clutch performance in a Super Bowl and the fulcrum of the defense, resisted the Jets’ cupcakes and stuck around on a four-year deal.
The Patriots, whose fans were still basking in the delirious aftermath of a rally from a 25-point deficit in Super Bowl LI to win a second Lombardi Trophy in three years and fifth overall, had promptly added a top-notch player to the offense and defense while retaining one of their home-grown stars.
As one season turned to another, there were nothing but good vibes that encouraged more championship dreams.
This offseason … well, it has been different. A lot different, really, compared to the usual disciplined everyone-stays-in-line structure that has served the franchise so well during this unprecedented NFL dynasty of nearly two decades.
There should be no embarrassment in losing the Super Bowl to the Eagles. The Patriots were beaten in a manner in which they have so often prevailed: with discipline, poise creativity, contributions from players all over the depth chart. Nick Foles and friends are deserving of the utmost respect.
It’s this aftermath that has been so strange, like a hangover resistant to any remedy. The bizarre decision to bench Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl has not seemed any less bizarre with the passage of a month since the game.
Yes, he had an uneven and distracted season. He also missed 2 percent of the defensive snaps during that season. And suddenly he wasn’t fit to play against an Eagles offense that shredded the Patriots pass coverage practically at will. It does not make any sense. I’m not sure it ever will.
I do know this, in retrospect: Belichick has been extremely fortunate through the years to have a leader in Tom Brady that unfailingly did what was best for the team, whether on the field or in regard to his contract.
That undoubtedly led to the rest of the roster falling in line with the program. If the best quarterback in NFL history follows even the most rigid of orders, it makes it difficult for anyone else to get out of line. If that is what happened with Butler – he disregarded marching orders once too often, or something along those lines – I find it hard to believe the punishment fit the crime. Especially since Butler’s punishment ended up costing the entire team.
The Eagles might have prevailed anyway even if Butler had played his usual role. But it sure would have made sense to find out. At his most distracted, he’s better than Johnson Bademosi and Jordan Richards.
Maybe we can stop dwelling on that once Butler, a restricted free agent who no matter what should be foremost remembered for his franchise-altering interception in Super Bowl XLIX, moves on. Still, so much has felt off-center and out of sorts with this team for some time now – since at least the infamous ESPN story about the Belichick/Brady/Robert Kraft relationship dropped in early January.
And it still feels that way. Rob Gronkowski, as likable and genuine as any Patriots star I’ve ever seen, is either pondering a career change or using all leverage at his disposal to land a new contract.
No player, especially one who has endured all that Gronk has, can be faulted for considering a departure from football before football makes the decision for him, if that is what he is doing.
But watching a player of his magnitude, talent, and effervescence retire at a young age would be a crushing blow in myriad ways. Gronk embodies what’s fun about football. If someone like him is burned out, the NFL is doomed.
The Patriots have other meaningful personnel issues to sort out. Dion Lewis, a joy to watch who was as productive as any back in the NFL over the second half, is a free agent. So too is left tackle Nate Solder. It would be a bummer to lose either player.
The Patriots have had too many losses of assorted meanings lately. It’s time for a couple of wins, some relevant additions, some transactions that remind you that this is still a damn good football team.
Is the end near for the second part of this prolonged dynasty? In some sense, sure. Brady will be 41 next season, and all of this talk of drafting his successor this year usually neglects to acknowledge how hard it is to identify, draft and develop a competent quarterback prospect. They got it right with Jimmy Garoppolo. Who knows if they’ll get it right again.
But Brady is coming off one of the finest seasons of his career, one that culminated with a 505-yard passing performance in the Super Bowl. The end of this run, for him and the franchise might be near – but what is near? I don’t think it happens this coming year, or even the next.
For all of the angst about the Patriots at the moment, they’re still the favorite to win the Super Bowl in the coming season.
A few enticing personnel transactions in the next couple of weeks would go a long way toward turning our attention to the good things still possible.
The malaise that has been the postscript to 2017 has already gone on too long. Don’t let it cause you to forget this: The road to the end of this dynastic run, whenever it comes, should still provide more satisfying moments than anything that occurred in Patriots history before the Brady/Belichick magic began.