I get it. I do. Looking toward the end of something great and brilliant and unprecedented, especially when there are blinking clues that such an end is near, can be irresistible.
But excuse me while I resist. I’m not ready yet to peck out an appreciation of Tom Brady’s 20 years with the Patriots — let alone speculate on who might have the thankless task of succeeding him, a predictable and already tiresome popular talk-show topic right now.
Not with three games remaining for sure in this weird but hardly lost season, four a practical certainty, and five, six, or even seven (if they end up a wild card yet advance to the Super Bowl for the fourth straight year) possible.
The tributes can wait until there’s no time left on the clock, if this is indeed the free-agent-to-be’s final season as a Patriot. There’s still time to appreciate him while he’s here. Especially now, as he fights valiantly while so much around him falters and fades.
Do not take this as a passive-aggressive admonishment of those ticket-buyers who booed Brady and the Patriots as they left the field at halftime trailing the Chiefs, 20-7. I didn’t consider that an indictment of spoiled fans who won’t know what they have until it’s gone.
The booing was the appropriate manifestation of the frustration of watching the Patriots offense struggle in multiple ways against another mediocre defense. There are probably people in the huddle Brady would just as soon boo right now.
It wasn’t a collective howl of entitlement, or a sign that fans have lost sight of this franchise’s extraordinary achievements since 2001. It was a reminder that they could and should be better, even with the attrition they endured. Most of them had it coming.
No, this reminder of appreciation is spurred by the ending, which might seem odd considering that the Patriots lost their second in a row and third in five games. Like too many of Brady’s passes lately, the comeback fell incomplete.
But there were sparks there that made you believe that this rut is escapable, that this drag of a trend right now — specifically, that this season is heading toward an abrupt postseason ending, with Brady under relentless siege throwing desperately to teammates incapable of helping him, circa Denver 2013 and ’15 — is not foreshadowing a sad final scene.
The Patriots would have likely tied the game (extra point pending) at 23-23 with 13:22 left had the officials not all had their retinas detach at exactly the same time and thus miss that N’Keal Harry had remained inbounds on a nifty sideline catch and lunge for the pylon. That was one of a litany of calls that did not go their way, and we all became familiar with those justifiable grievances in real time.
More encouraging was Brady’s 17-yard scamper — OK, no one was going to call him Lamar Jackson after that, but he was moving pretty well by his sessile standards – on fourth and 6 for a first down at the Chiefs 29 with 3:26 to play.
It was a daring, thrilling, gotta-have-it-now play, one punctuated with a super-awkward first down signal by a jacked-and-pumped Brady that somehow made it seem even sweeter. For the first time in a few Sundays now, that felt like the old Brady and the old Patriots, about to steal a win with their savvy, poise, and sheer will.
Instead, the chance to tie, if not outright win, had been plucked from them earlier by inept officiating (I suspect Jerome Boger wears Harry Caray-style glasses when he’s not unwittingly bollixing up calls on the football field). That was frustrating, but it was hardly unique to the Patriots; NFL officials are rather democratic in how and where they blow calls every Sunday. The rules are complicated and often illogical, their jobs are hard, and they’re mostly bad at them.
The harsh truth is that the Patriots shouldn’t have been in a position to let the officials screw everything up. You know what ails the offense: third-string center James Ferentz was Wile E. Coyote to the pile of anvils disguised as the Chiefs interior line. Jakobi Meyers (three drops) can’t be trusted. Sony Michel has been possessed by Reggie Dupard and can’t seem to make it to halftime anymore before being benched. Matt LaCosse just makes you miss the Gronk heyday more.
It’s not as if Bill Belichick has refused to spend capital to get Brady some help in the huddle. Michel was a first-rounder, as was left tackle Isaiah Wynn, in 2018. Harry was a first-rounder this year. And he gave up a future second for Mohamed Sanu. Maybe they should have taken Nick Chubb over Michel, or Deebo Samuel over Harry, or heck, Jackson over Wynn. They probably should have gone for Emmanuel Sanders, who has become a Jimmy Garoppolo go-to in San Francisco, over Sanu.
But these are talented players. Michel showed it last year — behind a healthy line — with six touchdowns in the postseason. Harry has flashed with two big plays recently (including a hard-fought touchdown against Dallas), and if he’s struggling with the offense, it’s imperative that Josh McDaniels find easier ways to get him the ball.
Brady has a right to be frustrated. The real worry would come if he wasn’t agitated about all of this. He’s 42 years old, he’s getting pummeled just about every time he drops back, he can’t trust his receivers to be where he expects them to be, his bosses got rid of the second-most-talented receiver he’s ever played with (Antonio Brown) because he was a habitual miscreant, and his pitching elbow is pretty clearly a mess given that he showed up to Sunday’s press conference with a wrap that made it look like he’d just had an encounter with Dr. James Andrews’s scalpel.
He wants what you want, and he wants it way more than you do. He wants that seventh Super Bowl win, that perfect exclamation point on his career, if indeed the end is just over the horizon. He’s out there, putting it all on the line, just as he always has, even though he’s accomplished more already than any player in the history of this spectacular, ridiculous sport.
I’m sure you’ve noticed. The giddy schadenfreude is pouring out in the other NFL cities, happiness that the Patriots got hosed by the refs and seem to be losing their old magic. Maybe they’re on to something. Maybe the end is coming.
But I’ve learned a lot watching this franchise over the last 20 years, and I know this. Believing in Tom Brady — even at 42, undermanned and aching — is the proper approach, and perhaps even a fine way to look wise.
And appreciating him? Well, that should go without saying. But we’ll say it, just in case you forgot over these last two decades that there will never be anything like him again.