“The Dynasty has died.”
“The Patriots will return to obscurity”
“A new era is born”
These were some of the phrases I heard when the announcement was made that Patriots legend Tom Brady was leaving for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We were hearing all of these comments that Brady’s departure marked the end to the Patriots era.
But did it?
New England went 8-0 to begin 2019. Of course, the talk wasn’t IF they’d go 16-0 but was this already the greatest team ever due to the fact the Patriots had probably their best defense under the Belichick regime. However, I brought it up one time of “well, look at their opponents they had in that span (Big Ben-less Steelers, a noncompetitive Dolphins squad, the Giants, Jets, Redskins, Bills, and Browns)-one team that made the playoffs. And look down the stretch of the final 8 teams (4 division champions from the year prior plus a future division champion (Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens, Texans, Chiefs). Well, safe to say, the 16-0 went out the window in Week 9 when the Ravens embarrassed New England. After a few nail-biting victories against Dallas and Philadelphia (where the defense held their end of the bargain as the offense struggled), back-to-back losses to the Texans and Chiefs (a game in Foxboro), and then a home loss to an upset-minded Dolphins team sunk the Patriots to 12-4 and being bounced out of a first round bye. To make matters worse, the Patriots couldn’t muster much at home to the 6th seed Tennessee Titans in the playoffs and had their first home playoff loss since 2013, and their first Wild Card loss since 2009.
Change WAS needed in New England. And it honestly had to start at quarterback.
Nobody will ever debate the greatness of Tom Brady. You are practically talking two generations where he ranked atop of the NFL quarterbacks. He faced off against the likes of Manning and Favre to start, then went to the likes of Big Ben, Brees, and Rodgers and then to Mahomes, Watson, and Jackson. But to say the Patriots would get back to win Super Bowl #7 with Brady as the guy, it was going to be far-fetched.
As I mentioned earlier, New England’s start in 2019 was nothing short of dominant. He was completing nearly 65% of his passes, and 280 yards per game and 13 TD’s with a rating of 95. Strong, solid numbers. Then the second half arrived. 57% completion rate, 225 Yards per game, and 11 TD’s with a rating of 81. To add on top, Brady in terms of ratings was the 4th best quarterback in the AFC East. Bear in mind this is a division with Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, and Ryan Fitzpatrick as starters.
But to me there were two tell-tale signs that made me believe Brady’s decline was sharp and probably never going to get out. 1st one was the blame game somewhat. Brady didn’t necessarily throw any one under the bus, but the constant “well, I don’t know the guys too well on offense” kinda got tiring. He’s never been one that singled any one out or any group of teammates out as he was always willing to take the blame, and which made me respect the daylights out of him. It seemed like that shifted and the offense just wasn’t “together” down the stretch.
2nd reason why I thought Brady’s decline was sharp was looking in those final weeks, even in the Buffalo win, Brady wasn’t hitting the targets like he used to. I don’t mean the receivers didn’t have a shot to catch it, but Brady in the past could throw it on a dime with ease. But seeing the Buffalo game, he was throwing it at times ahead of the receiver, behind the receiver, or a little short. “Well, maybe the receivers are some of the roughest he’s had.” I didn’t realize Julian Edelman (who actually had a career year in 2019) all of a sudden became a liability. And given how Brady won with the likes of Branch, Givens, Patten, and Brown early on, I don’t buy into it. Nothing against those guys as I thought those receivers in the past were GREAT for the Patriots, they weren’t going to the Hall of Fame. But to me watching that playoff game against Tennessee was a bit heartbreaking because Brady didn’t look anything like his legendary self in that game. Same thing: he was missing his mark on his targets (yes, some should have been caught still but he was still off a bit) and he looked like a 42-year old quarterback. So for me, I sensed it would be Brady’s last game in Foxboro as a Patriot. Not even he would survive Belichick’s Patriot way in the end.
So, Brady is gone. To replace Brady is…Jarrett Stidham. And people have gone bonkers at New England for not signing a quarterback in the off-season, whether that was Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston, Philip Rivers, etc. and then not drafting a quarterback in the draft. So the Patriots are relying on a 4th round QB and a quarterback not named Brady or Bledsoe to carry them to start a season since 1992 (2008 notwithstanding when Brady was injured Week 1). But remember, Brady was a 7th rounder…
So why do I think the Patriots will still be pretty good aside from Brady leaving?
DEFENSE: New England finished tops in the NFL in total defense in 2019. They stifled squads all across the NFL (only team to really “get” the Patriots was Baltimore last season, but then again, get in line). They have Stephon Gilmore who may be the best shutdown corner in the league right now and the residing Defensive Player of the Year. Dont’a Hightower is as steady as they come at linebacker. Devin McCourty is a solid safety at the very least. There will admittedly be questions around Hightower notably as linebackers Jamie Collins (Lions), and Kyle Van Noy (Dolphins) are gone, but it always seems like the Patriots have plugged in guys to fit their system and they become stars. And to add on, most Patriots who flee elsewhere have often struggled. But overall the key cogs are there.
RUNNING GAME: This sounds very funny given how the Patriots massively struggled running the ball in 2019. However, Belichick and Josh McDaniels never really gave up on it despite the struggles. They were top 10 in the league in rushing attempts. AND their running game in the second half finished on a positive note (over 130 yards per game in 4 of their last 5 regular season games). And Sony Michel, who was pretty much maligned (and didn’t have a 100-yard game in 2019) did average 4.5 yards per carry in 5 of the last 8 games (and over 4 yards per carry in two more). So I think many are not giving this much serious consideration especially when you are seeing the NFL going back to more running. This will bode well for the Patriots in 2020.
BILL BELICHICK: Here’s going to be the debate that I think the casual sports fan wants answered: who was the primary reason for New England’s success from 2001-2019: Brady or Belichick? Me personally, it can’t be said anymore as Brady is on the decline and if it shows in Tampa it is an unfair answer either way. But I’m reminded of the Patriots in 2008 without Brady. Yes, New England didn’t make the playoffs, but with an 11-5 record. Most teams make the playoffs at 10-6 or even 9-7. Backup QB Matt Cassel had a Pro-Bowl year with Brady on the shelf and the offense didn’t miss a beat. We can say a lot about Belichick and whatever underhand tactics he does, but he is still a brilliant coach who gets a lot out of his players. To me, the Patriots are a team that has never been “all about Brady.” I think we will see that in 2020.
AFTERTHOUGHTS: With the Patriots losing Brady and falling off like they did in 2019, the favorites in the AFC are the Chiefs and Ravens. The Chiefs obviously with Patrick Mahomes and being the defending Super Bowl Champions and the Ravens with MVP Lamar Jackson, their running game, and their stout defense. Heck, people are really eyeballing Buffalo as a sleeper Super Bowl contender and Tennessee being a force in the AFC South. Compile that with NFC contenders New Orleans and San Francisco, the Patriots are definitely not one people will be eyeballing as a championship contender. Most of the time, the Patriots have been the favorites but here & there we’ve seen New England as “afterthoughts” like 2001, 2011, and 2014. But if you sit back on a team that is still good like New England, you could still see them play late games in January because they are a team that will have something to prove.
Where do I see the Patriots in 2020? I can envision them as a team being 10-6. Honestly they look to be a mirror image of what the Buffalo Bills are: a team that relies on defense and tries to emphasize on the run. And now hopefully having a quarterback that makes mistake-free plays. I don’t see New England being 7-9 or 6-10 with that defense and Belichick calling the shots. People have mistakenly viewed New England as a one-man show with Brady and that is definitely not the case. So in other words: don’t ever count the Patriots out.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat