There was a particularly odd feeling just a month ago, watching the New England Patriots take an early exit in the opening Wild Card round of the 2019-20 National Football League Playoffs. They had appeared in four of the last five Super Bowls, winning three of them, and before our very eyes, the squad had been defeated. They were the third seed in the American Football Conference (AFC) and fell at home to the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans. This had not been the first time that the Patriots (who have been led by head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady for two decades) surrendered a game and bowed out early in the playoffs: New York fans will not quickly forget New England falling at home in the 2011 AFC divisional game to the Jets. But there was something strange about watching it happen this time.
It was an odd feeling watching this past weekend’s Super Bowl LIV commence in Miami, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, without the Pats playing in the game. In fact, it was strange to wrap our heads around the fact that by the time the Super Bowl happened, it had been almost a month since the last time New England played.
The Patriots have been one of the top headlines in the football universe, for both the best and worst of reasons, for as long as most of us current college students are able to remember. Now, all of a sudden they were just another team, a king that had unexpectedly joined the masses. It felt incredibly strange, as if something was ending. And perhaps something is ending.
Brady and Belichick have only known each other in New England. Belichick came on board to be the head coach of the Patriots in 2000, the year that the franchise drafted Tom Brady in the sixth round out of the University of Michigan. The two are synonymous with each other; one’s success is that of the other — not to mention that their downfalls and public embarrassments are of the same nature. The two of them have won six Super Bowls in two decades together, bringing their franchise from irrelevance to the top of the food chain. They are not Sonny and Cher — they are Hall and Oates.
At least, for all we know they are.
The year is 2020. Tom Brady’s most recent contract in New England has come to an end. He is a free agent. Technically, he can go anywhere. He might end up back with the Pats, but he might not. Who knows?
Not to mention that he is 42 years old. And as you might expect, his age is beginning to show. It was bound to eventually.
And then, of course, there is Belichick, one of the oddest figures the sports world has produced this side of former Yankees and Mets manager Casey Stengel. He is a quiet kind of terrifying, like the neighbor at the end of the street that the kids don’t approach. Now, many believe that Belichick is the only true genius in the success of the Patriots’ operation these last 20 years. That Brady is just the quarterback and figurehead in a powerful system that any Tom, Dick or Harry could succeed in.
At the end of the day, Bellichick, for the most part, has only really known Brady as a head coach. Bellichick’s record in New England is a whopping 237-83. Before that, he had been the head coach of the Cleveland Browns from 1991-95, and over those five seasons, his squad went 36-44.
Perhaps the relationship is not so one-sided after all. As far as we have seen, these two men, a conductor and his virtuosic concertmaster violinist, truly need each other to succeed. And this coming season, for the first time in two decades, they might not be together.
All of this begs the question: is the dynasty that led New England to the promised land over?
Well, like many fans, if I have learned one thing from even the most casual observation of the football world, it is to never bet against the Patriots.
We have questioned their stamina as a franchise before, as by every metric, Tom Brady should have lost any ability to start at quarterback five years ago. But they have kept on winning. Last season, they defeated a young and hungry Los Angeles Rams team to claim their sixth title. They overcame a 25-point deficit in the Super Bowl to defeat the Atlanta Falcons two years prior. They’ve made early exits before and then gotten right back to their norm. If magic exists, the New England Patriots have it.
So, will this current generation of the Pats get back to their winning ways? Will it depend upon Tom Brady staying or leaving New England? Honestly, who knows? If the Patriots have taught us one thing time and time again, it is to never count them out.