The fall of empires is often swift and rarely quiet. If this is the end of the New England Patriots’ storied dynasty, its demise was consistent with the great empires that preceded it. The outside noise from this season was nothing new. Thunderous and abundant. The difference was that this time the Patriots could not overcome it. A 12-4 record proved the Patriots were not a bad team. A terse lost to the Titans at home showed the Patriots were not a championship one.
Will historians look back at 2018 as the last defiant roar of a dying dynasty? Or will 2019 simply be another rare aberration in the inexorable march of Patriot domination? I have my suspicions. I suspect you do too.
Let’s get started.
Is the dynasty over?
The truth is that nobody knows if the dynasty is over. No man can peer into the future and therefore no one can say for certain what the future will hold. That is the honest answer.
It’s also the boring answer. It’s a cop out. Of course no one knows for sure what will happen but humans accurately predict the future based on data every day. They might not know for sure but they can make educated guesses. So let’s make an educated guess together.
What is the Patriots dynasty?
What constitutes the Patriot dynasty? The seemingly impossible sustained success from 2001 to 2019? Is it the unprecedented run of AFC Championship appearances between 2010 and 2018? Does it only include the span of time where the Patriots won three Super Bowls like 2001-2004 and 2014-2018? It is difficult to quantify and frankly I think there are several reasonable ways to define it. Multiple ways to reasonably define the dynasty necessitates multiple reasonable ways to define the death of the dynasty. Is the Patriot dynasty dead when they miss the playoffs? Is the dynasty dead if the team goes three straight years without making the AFC championship?
The question of whether the dynasty is dead is broad and complex.
My solution was to narrow the definition to specifically the Brady-Belichick dynasty by answering three questions.
1.) Why define the Brady-Belichick dynasty?
Brady and Belichick began their careers in New England together and have been inseparable since. The combined genius of these two men has led to the most sustained success in the history of the NFL and made the Patriots the defining franchise of two separate decades.
Could the Patriots be in the Super Bowl in a few years? Who knows. Maybe Belichick drafts Trevor Lawrence or Tua Tagovailoa or someone no one has even heard of except for a few savvy scouts. Maybe that quarterback wins a Super Bowl with Belichick. Maybe that quarterback wins another ring with a completely different head coach. Maybe that happens in five years. Maybe it happens in less. It doesn’t really matter. Steve Young replaced Montana and won a championship but that doesn’t make him party to the Montana dynasty.
The question should be whether the historic domination of these two men has reached its end. That’s the question that compels me.
2.) What is the Brady-Belichick dynasty?
The Brady-Belichick dynasty is defined by two factors: The alliance of Brady and Belichick and the ever present threat of a championship run. The dynasty was more than just the pairing of a head coach and a quarterback, though. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis played together for years. No one will ever talk about a Lewis-Dalton dynasty.
3.) What transformed the Brady-Belichick tenure into the Brady-Belichick dynasty?
The defining characteristic of the Brady-Belichick alliance has never been any one statistic or any one record. It was a resolute confidence that as long as these two men were united, the Patriots were always in the hunt for a championship. That the next Lombardi Trophy was always just around the corner. The Patriots didn’t win a Super Bowl from 2005 to 2013 but they had an undefeated season, two trips to the big game, and multiple deep playoff runs during that span. The Patriots were always in the thick of it. Belichick and Brady never went more than three years without a berth in the Super Bowl. They may not have finished the job every time but it seemed inevitable that they would arrive again. And more often than not they took the hardware home with them. In the last 20 years, the Patriots have made three times as many Super Bowls as the next best franchise.
If you have a different metric to define the dynasty that is fine. This will not be the definitive measurement to many but it is the defining attribute of the last twenty years for me.
Brady and Belichick and their quest to become champions.
Has the empire fallen?
The Byzantine Empire was technically finished when the Ottoman Empire stormed the city of Constantinople. But what made the empire an empire was destroyed long before the capital city was seized.
How does one pronounce time of death of the Brady-Belichick dynasty? When one of them retires is the obvious answer. But I think we can mark the end of the dynasty before we reach that point.
If these great men never reach another championship together, the dynasty will have ended in 2018. The inability to reach a Super Bowl will mean the quintessential element of the dynasty is gone. If the dynasty were a person in this scenario I would say they were in a medically-induced coma. In the same way, that someone in a coma may continue to breath but everything that made that person a person has disappeared. Their body may not be dead for many years but their mind died when they entered the coma.
I therefore define the Brady-Belichick dynasty from 2001-2018. I believe the empire has fallen because I do not believe these two men will reach another Super Bowl together. That belief is obviously a prediction. I do not know that this will occur much in the same way we can never predict someone will miraculously awaken from a coma after years of slumber. Could it happen? Of course. It can happen until the day the cord is pulled. Is it likely to happen? I do not believe so.
Why the dynasty is (probably) dead
These are numerous reasons I think the dynasty is dead. Tom Brady is short on time, Tom Brady is no longer elite, the team needs to rebuild instead of reloading, and it has few resources to do that even if it wanted to.
First, Tom Brady’s time is running out.
I do not think Brady is done. Not by a long shot.
Randy Moss had a great quote on ESPN, “I would rather love to see Bill Belichick get rid of Tom Brady, keep the weapons he had in there, bring in a new quarterback, and see how they fare next year.”
When Tedy Bruschi began to stumble a response Moss pounded his hand on the table.
Brady’s best weapon was a 33-year-old slot receiver who was moved to the outside, played injured for half the season, and led the league in drops.
It wasn’t so much of an insinuation as it was a direct challenge by Moss. Does Belichick really think he can get anyone else to succeed at a high level with that? Good luck.
This narrative is not just being espoused by Brady allies like Moss. It was heartily embraced by former Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan. It is the view expressed by major media shows like Speak for Yourself and Colin Cowherd. Even First Take echoed this analysis with Stephen A. Smith saying Brady had to have better support before judgement could be rendered and even (in)famous Brady-hater Max Kellerman admitted Brady was still a starting-caliber quarterback. The popular analytics company Pro Football Focus ranked Brady as the 12th best quarterback in the NFL in 2019.
This broad-based consensus should install confidence in this conclusion: Brady struggled because the offense was terrible. The offense did not struggle because Brady was terrible.
Brady is still a top-10 quarterback in the NFL. But that doesn’t mean there are no legitimate challenges for him to overcome. This is the second straight year he has dealt with injuries in December. He was already on unprecedented ground playing the way he did at the age of 42. Every additional year Brady plays as a starting quarterback he etches his name deeper into the history books, but Father Time also tightens his grip on his body.
I don’t think Brady has more than two years left of not sucking. I really don’t. He may start somewhere at 45 but I don’t think he’s considered a top quarterback by the end of that season. He may suck before that. It’s a real genuine risk. I think what he showed this year is more than enough for a lot of teams with below average quarterback play to be interested in his services, assuming they have a better supporting cast, but I don’t think anyone can feel confident in giving Brady a three-year deal at a market rate and assume he will play at a high level all three of those seasons.
Tom Brady has at absolute most three more chances to make the Super Bowl. That’s a far cry from when Tom Brady got injured in 2008 and they had strong odds of getting seven or more years. The odds of making the Super Bowl in any one year are bad. When you limit those opportunities to three years, at best, the odds sink even more.
Second, Tom Brady is no longer an elite quarterback. This part is arguably the most important part of this equation. To be completely fair to him, his supporting cast was so terrible in 2019 that it is hard to say this definitively but we have now seen two straight seasons in which Brady appeared to be a good but not a great quarterback. That’s a big deal because the Patriots’ historic success over the last decade has been predicated on an elite quarterback on a pretty good team, not a pretty good quarterback on a pretty good team. Super Bowl teams are dominated by elite quarterbacks, elite teams, or sometimes combinations of both. Pretty good generally does not cut it.
Third, the Patriots do not have an elite team. They lost to every single 2019 playoff team they faced except the Bills last season. You can prick and prod at the record if you want. They got jobbed by the referees in the Kansas City Chiefs game. They were sick against the Houston Texans. They played the Tennessee Titans competitively. They had an unexpected fumble-six against the Baltimore Ravens. But those are the excuses of lesser franchises. The fact remains that they lost against four of their five playoff opponents.
Narratives in the NFL tend to swing pretty quickly. Teams picking fourth overall at the start of the season can end up as a top-four team by the end. But the reverse is true as well. Teams that make the Super Bowl one year can miss the playoffs entirely the next. The Patriots might be a bit better than they look but they could also be worse. A bit worse is a team that doesn’t even make the playoffs. Furthermore, the Patriots have a slew of free agents including their top two pass rushers, All-Pro free safety, All-Pro left guard, the entire defensive tackle rotation sans Lawrence Guy, most of the starting and backup interior offensive linemen of 2019, and their starting quarterback.
Fourth, the Patriots have limited resources to reload and probably cannot do it. This is predictive but it is based on facts. The Patriots have a slew of high contributing free agents and very little cap space to pay for them. They can probably count on getting a solid player with the 23rd overall draft pick but even that is no guarantee. The Patriots had slightly better than even odds of getting a contributor in 2020 with their second-round selection but that went out the door when they traded the pick for a wide receiver who disappointed in 2019.
No money. Mediocre draft picks. Quite a few important free agents. The math doesn’t really add up. To be fair, the two times the Patriot offense bottomed out Belichick the GM responded with force. He traded for Wes Welker and Randy Moss in 2007 and drafted Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez in 2010. Can he capture lightning in a bottle three times? I doubt it for the exact reasons I already listed. No money. Mediocre draft picks. Quite a few important free agents. Belichick has drafted one Pro Bowl offensive weapon for Brady in 20(!) years. Gronk. Maybe the Patriots strike gold and draft another Hall of Fame weapon for Brady but to say that that is anything less than unlikely is pure homerism.
Simply put the Brady-Belichick dynasty needs a couple of years to rebuild and there probably isn’t enough time for Brady to be there when said rebuild is done.
Why the dynasty is (probably) fine
Tom Brady and Belichick are wizards and normal football physics do not apply to them.
That sounds like a bit of a jest but it really is not. The only way the Patriots have been able to do what they do is by defying conventional logic. If this were any team but the Patriots they would be seen as pass-overs and have-beens. But the Patriots are not a normal franchise.
I think 2018 was magical, more so than people give it credit for in 2019. The 2018 team overcame some massive hurdles with some offseason magic, coaching genius, and incredible performances by its key members. This year, New England’s problems got even worse and there was no magic to save the team. Could the magic return next year? Maybe. But that’s the thing about football magic. It tends to be fleeting.
You cannot have been a true fan of this team and count the Brady-Belichick dynasty out for good. These guys have simply done too much. They have earned too much respect for me to ever do that. I also don’t think that there are any great teams in the AFC outside of the Chiefs. And regardless of how good the Chiefs might be next year this is football. Most teams can beat most teams on any given Sunday. There aren’t a gauntlets of superior teams the Patriots are going to have to fight through over the next couple of years, at least not on paper.
I think New England has a decent roster and will remain competitive provided Brady stays. A surprisingly strong offseason would keep the Patriots in the driver’s seat. Imagine if Gronk came back, James Develin and David Andrews return healthy, Jamie Collins and Devin McCourty were retained, N’Keal Harry makes a big leap, maybe the Patriots actually drafted rookie contributors. Anyone of these is at least feasible, even if all of it happening together seems very unlikely.
Furthermore, pretty good may not usually cut it but you could argue at least two Patriot teams were only pretty good and took the team all the way anyway. The Patriots are constantly the exception.
I can only imagine a hypothetical world where Brady or Belichick read these words only to shake their head and mutter, “Ye of little faith,” before going on a league-record seventh Lombardi run.
But even though I can be optimistic as a fan, the analyst in me has to concede that the current circumstances are bleak given the short time frame and Brady’s declining skills.
Can Brady or Belichick reach another Super Bowl by themselves?
I think Belichick is a genius and has a proven eye for quarterbacks. If you were to pick any coach in the NFL and give them a five-year time span to build a championship team I would pick Belichick. I do think he has to find that quarterback, though, and that is a massive hurdle. If he can find his quarterback I’m confident he will make it to another Super Bowl before he retires.
I think Brady can make another Super Bowl because he’s a free agent. He’s not tied to the Patriots’ roster. He’s going to get his pick of several teams and if he thinks they have a better playoff chance than the Patriots he has the option to join them. That’s a powerful bit of flexibility on his part. I’m not convinced the teams realistically available have a significantly better shot than New England in 2020, but there are some who could make the argument that they might. At minimum they might provide better support for Brady in the final years of his career.
I wrote an entire column on the Colts so I will not go into too much detail here. Suffice to say I think they are a good quarterback and an aggressive offseason from having a better roster than the Patriots and they also have an excellent coaching staff.
The Bears, meanwhile, field a playoff roster with one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL under center and an offensive-minded head coach.
The Buccaneers have some of the best weapons in the NFL, a Bruce Arians-led coaching staff that has made them legitimate in my eyes, tons of cap space, and some solid draft picks. They might not have better playoff odds than the Patriots but Brady would have a high ceiling for production.
The Titans are an obvious choice with tons of former Patriot players, a former Patriot champion and friend as head coach, a competitive team, and a need for a quarterback.
The 49ers are my fun never-gonna-happen-but-it-is-technically-feasible pick. Jimmy Garoppolo only has $4.3 million in dead cap in 2020. If he has a catastrophic Super Bowl, San Francisco might take a chance on Brady while its window is still open (this won’t happen but it’s worth pointing out the 49ers are not tied to Garoppolo in terms of cap).
I don’t think the
Oakland Las Vegas Raiders are likely unless they promise to bulk up their offensive weapons and Brady does not care about the playoffs anymore. They have a good offensive line, great running backs, but essentially nothing after that. They do have a ton of cap and draft capital, so maybe Jon Gruden can sell Brady on Vegas in exchange for spending those resources on offense. Unfortunately, the defense is a wreck. Pursuing Brady just doesn’t seem a wise move from the Raiders’ perspective, but hey, when has imprudent decision making ever stopped an NFL front office before? And from a business perspective, it’s not totally unreasonable.
Simply put, Belichick has time and Brady has options. It’s possible they each win a ring separate from each other.
It’s hard to get on a fan site and tell fans their team isn’t going to another Super Bowl. So it’s a good thing that I’m not doing that. What I am highlighting is the significant challenges this team is going to face getting to another Super Bowl during the Brady-Belichick tenure. I expect there to be plenty of push back on this — and why shouldn’t there be given the Patriots’ historic success? — but I think the odds are stacked against them more than at any point since 2001.
If anyone can overcome the odds, it is this legendary pair. In my humble opinion, however, the Brady-Belichick dynasty is over. Probably.