FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts — For nearly two full decades, they have been the gold standard in the NFL, the greatest and longest lasting dynasty of them all.
Six Super Bowl championships since 2001. An incredible 17 AFC East titles, including 11 straight divisional wins. The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady legacy is the most enduring and most prolific in NFL history. And in sports history, too. Never has there been a more dynamic partnership that has been this good for this long.
And now we wonder if it’s finally over. If the Patriots’ stunning loss to the Dolphins at home in Week 17 and then Saturday night’s mystifying no-show against the Titans in the wild-card round signal the beginning of the end.
Brady had ample opportunities to summon some of his game-saving heroics against a team coached by his former teammate, Mike Vrabel, at Gillette Stadium. But each time Brady got the chance to fire off his signature passes that so often sent a dagger through the hearts of opponents on the way to playoff victories, he failed to deliver.
His passes sailed over his receivers’ outstretched arms, or behind them, or sometimes through the unsure hands of players who failed their quarterback. The Patriots didn’t score a point in the second half of a 20-13 loss, with the only touchdown coming off a Brady pass a pick-6 by former Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan with nine seconds left in regulation.
At 42 years old and unsure about his future in New England, that could very well have been Brady’s final pass in a Patriots’ uniform.
Neither Brady nor Belichick was in a position to make any assurances about what happens next, and Brady’s contract allows him to be a free agent for the first time in his career. He called retirement “unlikely” and professed his love for the Patriots organization and playing for Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. But he didn’t say for sure that he’d be back in New England in 2020, and with a handful of teams in need of a quarterback — even one who has faded — there will be opportunities elsewhere.
“I don’t know what the future looks like, and I’m not going to predict it,” Brady said after Saturday night’s loss. “No one needs to make choices at this point. I don’t know what looks like moving forward, but we’ll just take it day by day.”
Belichick said Sunday it’s too soon to know what might happen with his quarterback.
“Nobody has thought about the future,” he said. “Whatever’s in the future we’ll deal with at some later point in time. We’re certainly not going to deal with it now.”
There will be much to deal with down the road, starting with Brady. He is by far the most important part of what happens in the off-season, and how his situation is resolved will go a long way toward reshaping the team’s immediate and future plans.
My sense is that Brady will indeed look at other options and take advantage of the contractual freedom he demanded before the 2019 season. The Chargers will be looking for another quarterback after declining to re-sign Philip Rivers. The Panthers may move on from Cam Newton. And while the Colts were the team that turned Brady in for allegedly having the game balls purposely deflated before the AFC Championship Game in January 2015, they would certainly Brady over his former teammate, Jacoby Brissett.
But Brady’s best option if he wants to continue playing — and that’s precisely the vibe he gave off after Saturday’s loss — is to remain in New England and work out a short-term deal to continue his alliance with Belichick.
As for Belichick himself, there has been some speculation the Giants might want to make a run at him – and perhaps that he would consider returning to the franchise where he rose to prominence as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator. While Belichick does hold a deep regard for the Giants’ organization — and vice versa — it’s tough to see Kraft let the greatest coach in NFL history leave.
Kraft did manage to pry Belichick away from the Jets 20 years ago, but with Belichick showing no desire to retire and with Kraft still believing in his coach, I just can’t see it happening. Is it possible? Hey, never say never; after all, Jerry Jones parted ways with Jimmy Johnson after two Super Bowl titles. But Kraft just doesn’t seem ready to let Belichick go. If Belichick himself tries to force the issue, then maybe there will be something to it. But until something like that happens, I believe he’ll remain in New England.
The road ahead is a difficult one with an aging quarterback, the potential departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for a head coaching opportunity and the possible losses of free agents Devin McCourty, Andrew Slater, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
Whoever plays quarterback next year needs better playmakers, and certainly a viable alternative at tight end after last year’s retirement of Rob Gronkowski.
Brady remains Belichick’s best option at quarterback, although it’s certainly time to draft another passer. And while Brady is still better than most quarterbacks, he will eventually lose his pitched battle against Father Time.
So, too, will the greatest dynasty of all.