Maybe you thought all season long that something (the offense) wasn’t quite right about this year’s New England Patriots. Perhaps you ignored the warning signs because, well, they’ve always found a way, even when they looked vulnerable. Either way, Saturday night’s loss to the Tennessee Titans was frustrating for Patriots’ fans: We find ourselves asking, what do NFL fans do in January when their team is done for the year?
All right, jokes aside, the big story now isn’t really that the Patriots won’t be the last team standing come Feb. 2. It’s whether the unprecedented run of success New England has been on for the past 20 years has run its course.
Yes, the team struggled more than usual this season, especially offensively. A wave of injuries to the offensive line before the season even started, plus the loss of maybe the best tight end ever in Rob Gronkowski, left the blocking scheme in tatters. And that was even before center David Andrews and both the team’s fullbacks were lost for the season. Oh, and they didn’t have enough reliable receivers, save for the one game when uber-talented but chaotic Antonio Brown played. On defense, what was shaping up as a historically good defense turned out to be just pretty good after losing its stellar cornerback depth.
So what now?
Will Tom Brady retire? Will he go elsewhere? Even if he does come back, will he remain a top quarterback or have his skills finally started to fade?
Will Bill Belichick take his eight championship rings and sail off into the sunset? Will other key players or coaches leave? Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is again being touted as the favorite for several head coaching positions. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, at nearly 72, has already retired once, only to be lured back after the line fell apart without him at the helm. Surely he won’t coach forever.
Obviously, the end to this run — which has produced six championships, nine AFC championships, 17 AFC East division titles, 19 straight winning seasons and a plethora of league records — has to come someday. Members of this spring’s high school graduating class of 2020 will accept their diplomas having never seen a losing Patriots’ season.
But that day could soon be at hand. In a league where the rules have been set up specifically to foster parity and discourage long-term continued excellence, the Brady/Belichick Patriots have refused to play along. In some cases, those rules were seemingly changed specifically to hamper New England, to no avail.
(OK, fans of the other 31 teams, let’s get it out of your system: “The Patriots haven’t played by ANY rules!” Feel better now?)
Whenever Brady does leave, whenever Belichick steps down, football fans in New England will be disappointed. Before Brady and Belichick, the team was a joke in many circles; one of the worst, historically, in league history.
The chances that the team will return to those depths for long are slim. Owner Robert Kraft has been as key as anyone to the team’s success since buying the franchise 25 years ago. It’s hard to envision him allowing the team to languish for long, even if it takes a step back.
However, keep in mind the onslaught of “sky is falling” tweets, sound bites and columns from talking heads in Boston and elsewhere is largely speculative. Neither Brady nor Belichick has made any noise about leaving. Either or both may take Saturday’s early playoff exit as a challenge to be met next fall.
If not, it’s been a historic ride, and we may just have to get used to Januarys without playoff football.
When does spring training start?