Okay, I know what the headline says, but take a deep breath and relax. Tom Brady isn’t going anywhere yet, but the Patriots have already started preparing for life after him anyway.
Bill Belichick has long said that he doesn’t want end up in a terrible situation if there’s a change at the quarterback position. He has pointed to the Colts the year they lost Peyton Manning and “sucked for Luck” as an example of exactly what he doesn’t want to have happen to his teams. It’s this attitude, plus how they are handling Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, that sheds light on what they’re planning for the future.
Let’s start with Gronk. He’s arguably the most dominant receiving threat of all time, and has the blocking skill of an extra offensive lineman to boot. Replacing a player of his caliber is downright impossible in a one-for-one swap. So, instead of using assets to either move up or simply draft a top tight end, they waited and signed Andrew Beck as an undrafted free agent. Instead of trying to trade for a stud tight end, they signed guys like Austin Seferian-Jenkins (who they’ve since cut) and Benjamin Watson. They also have Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo on the roster.
None of those players really strikes fear into a defense, but that’s okay, because the offense isn’t going to be reliant on a dominant tight end anymore. They went out and made a concerted effort to improve their boundary receivers. They drafted N’Keal Harry in the first round, they signed Demaryius Thomas and Maurice Harris, they have Josh Gordon when he comes back, and they signed multiple rookie free agents to compete there too.
Now, instead of worrying about the seams, teams have to worry about the boundaries, and still be able to cover Edelman in the middle and multiple backs coming out of the backfield. They realize they can never replace a player of Gronk’s caliber, and the impact he had on the offense, so why try to plug someone into that same position? It doesn’t make any sense to try to do that.
If they’re not going to replace Gronk with someone equally as talented, it would be foolish to think they would try to do it with Brady. So they’re not. Since 2014, and outside of 2015, they’ve drafted a quarterback every year. Not a high pick, outside of Jimmy Garoppolo, but a mid to late round pick. They’ve identified a guy whom they felt could play quarterback in the NFL, and they’ve taken a shot at them. If they can find a guy who is good, and it coincides with them being able to make the transition from Brady, they’ll be golden.
Ultimately, though, they’re not trying to replace Brady by drafting the right replacement. They’re doing it by building a stronger team around him so that when he does retire, the quarterback will be relied on a little bit less than it has been in the past. Think back to the 2001-2004 teams. They won three out of four Super Bowls, and although they never would’ve won them without Brady, the team wasn’t reliant on his play to be good. They had a dominant defense and the ability to run the ball whenever they wanted.
That is what they are currently building in New England: make the quarterback position less important, so that, when Brady eventually walks away, the one who follows him doesn’t have to be the best in the league right away.
Now, does this mean they’ll continue to win Super Bowls without him? Of course not, but it means that they can at least field a competitive team that will be in or near the playoffs every year. And if they do get an elite passer to replace Brady, they’ll be right back in the position they were in when this dynasty started.
As with everything, Bill Belichick is planning ahead, but instead of trading Brady a year early like he’s done with other players, he’s planning for his departure before it happens. In the meantime, it takes pressure off of Brady, who currently shows no sign of slowing down, but is still going to be 42 this season.
So enjoy watching Tom Brady while you have him, there will never be another quarterback like him — and the Patriots will never find a true replacement for him. But take solace in the fact that the greatest coach/general manager in NFL history is already planning for life without Brady, and that New England will still have a chance to be competitive long after the GOAT hangs them up.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats