Tom Brady’s status is the paramount story of the Patriots offseason. Of course it is.
He’s the greatest quarterback, the greatest winner, in the history of professional football. And right now we have no idea whether he will be taking snaps for the Patriots, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Montreal Alouettes, or some other fortunate team next season.
Even if he and the Patriots are ultimately pulled apart, his future is currently intertwined with the team’s. There cannot be complete clarity on what this franchise will look like going forward until the on-field face of its two-decade dynasty has clarity himself.
But that doesn’t mean the Patriots are hostages to his status. Independent of what Brady does when he hits free agency March 18, I’ll bet you this.
Even with a question mark at quarterback for the first time since — well, probably 1993, when Drew Bledsoe set out to prove himself as a rocket-armed rookie — I’m confident in proclaiming that they aren’t rebuilding anything. They’re reloading, and it’s going to be a blast to watch, even with the Brady suspense hovering over every move.
Despite the wishful proclamations from 31 other fan bases that the Patriots dynasty expired with Saturday night’s 20-13 loss to the very Patriot-like Tennessee Titans in the wild-card round, it would be utterly ridiculous for any football fan with clear eyes to write off the Patriots now.
Bill Belichick is 67 years old, one year removed from winning his sixth Super Bowl, and still on top of his game. If he were a free agent right now, he could fill in the amount on his contract with the organization of his choice. He remains the premier mind in football, but at his age, starting fresh with a young roster isn’t going to happen.
This is not a rebuild, and it shouldn’t be. The core is aging, and some important names could depart in free agency, but there is still plenty of talent on a roster that went 12-4 this season, starting with potential Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Young players such as J.C. Jackson, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, and N’Keal Harry can be expected to improve. There’s a foundation to be a very good team again next year.
And Belichick is going to add to that in a major way. How can we be sure of this? History.
Belichick didn’t want to discuss the future in the aftermath of the loss, but you can be sure he’s already giving it plenty of consideration, and long before the outcome of this season was determined. He’s not going to share with us what he thinks about the status of Devin McCourty, Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, or Matthew Slater, let alone Brady.
But past actions can inform us about what’s to come, and I know two things for sure about the future: 1) Dippin’ Dots is not the ice cream of the future, no matter what it tries to claim. 2) Bill Belichick doesn’t mess around after Patriots seasons that are abbreviated by disappointment.
In Belichick’s 20-season tenure, I’d argue that the three most disappointing seasons were, in some order, 2002, 2006, and 2009. I recognize that other seasons ended with agonizing losses, but it’s still an achievement worth appreciating to reach a Super Bowl, and a Super Bowl loss doesn’t necessarily suggest roster turnover is necessary. And 2008 is in its own category since Brady was lost for the season halfway through the first quarter of the first game.
So consider 2002. The Patriots began their first title defense with a 3-0 start, back when we still appreciated 3-0 starts. But the wheels came off fairly quickly — it turned out that the three-headed safety trio of Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, and Victor Green wasn’t as innovative as it first seemed — and they fell to 3-3 before finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs on the season’s final day.
How did Belichick respond to that disappointing sequel to the ’01 championship? He went out and signed hot-shot linebacker Rosevelt Colvin and Chargers discard Rodney Harrison in free agency. Harrison in particular was essential as the Patriots won the next two Super Bowls.
The 2006 season was successful by most measures. The Patriots reached the AFC Championship game, losing to the Colts, who roared back in the second half after trailing, 21-6, at the break. Colleague Christopher Price drew some compelling parallels between the ’06 Patriots and the ’19 team in a recent piece, noting in particular the lack of high-end weapons Brady had to work with both years.
Reche Caldwell was decent that season, and Jabar Gaffney came off the street to aid the cause, but second-rounder Chad Jackson flopped, and they never suitably replaced Deion Branch (traded to Seattle in a contract dispute) and David Givens (left for Tennessee as a free agent).
Well, Belichick took care of the weapons issue after that season, stealing Randy Moss from the Raiders and Wes Welker from the Dolphins and setting up what would be the most prolific offense in NFL history in ’07. For good measure, he also signed Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas to a big-money deal to boost the defense, and while Thomas was ultimately a bust, he was their best defender in the first Super Bowl loss to the Giants.
Thomas was one of the malcontents Belichick cleaned out after the 2009 season ended in a wild-card round rout by the Ravens. That was probably the most uninspiring Patriots team of his tenure. Belichick didn’t spend big in free agency after that season, but he did dump players such as Thomas, Derrick Burgess, and Shawn Springs who didn’t buy in, and he completely reshaped the offense via the draft by choosing tight ends Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth.
It’s pretty remarkable to realize that for four games in the 2010 season, before Moss was traded, the Patriots had him, Gronk, Welker, Hernandez, and Julian Edelman on the team at the same time.
It’s still too early to gauge what Belichick will do to adjust his roster after the disappointing end to the ’19 season. But I bet big names, including Odell Beckham Jr., will be in play. And those who are declaring a dynasty dead right now will be in for a rude awakening come September, when Belichick’s reloaded roster looks like a force to be reckoned with again — whether or not the quarterback remains the same.