Don’t bury the Patriots dynasty just yet

Jeff Eisenberg

On an icy Monday morning in Boston, the headlines in the city’s two major newspapers were as cold as the January weather.

“It’s over!” blared the cover of the Boston Herald after a New England Patriots’ wild-card playoff loss that the newspaper said closed the door on a dynasty. A column in the Boston Globe declared the loss the “end of an era” and asserted that “even a pigheaded Patriots pigskin buff must acknowledge that the dynasty is over.”

Those stories may sound like reaction to New England’s playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans on Saturday night, but they actually came in response to another Patriots’ playoff debacle. Many made the mistake of prematurely declaring the Brady-Belichick dynasty dead a decade ago after a humbling 33-14 wild-card loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 10, 2010.

Of course, New England’s era of dominance didn’t end that night — far from it, in fact. Thanks to Tom Brady’s sustained excellence and Bill Belichick’s remarkable knack for adapting to constant roster turnover, the Patriots added three more Super Bowl victories in the 2010s and made the AFC championship game 8 of 10 seasons.

Let that be a reminder to everyone dancing on the Patriots’ graves today. The future of the Patriots may be murkier than it was a decade ago, but their dynastic run doesn’t have to end if they can correctly assess how much Brady has left, find a long-term answer at quarterback and address their glaring lack of playmakers on the edges.

Whether to move on from Brady is obviously the big question, one that will dominate the NFL news cycle for the next few months. The Patriots must determine how much of their struggles on offense were a result of their 42-year-old quarterback’s declining performance and how much were a result of the lack of dynamic skill-position talent surrounding him.

When the Patriots bolted to an 8-0 start during the first half of the 2019 season, their pedestrian offense was masked by a tissue-soft schedule and a dominant defense that scored touchdowns or created scoring opportunities. New England’s glaring lack of firepower became apparent from midseason on as the Patriots went 0-4 against the four AFC teams still alive in the playoffs and lost all five games in which their defense surrendered more than 17 points.

One big problem was that opponents didn’t have to fear the Patriots scheming their way into mismatches anymore. Aside from a hobbled Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ weapons simply weren’t capable of consistently winning 1-on-1 matchups.

Outside receiver became a huge weakness for New England after the off-field issues of Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown prompted the Patriots to sever ties with both of them. Surrendering a second-round pick to acquire Mohamed Sanu didn’t pan out, nor did 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry prove ready to be a savior during an injury-plagued rookie season.

The lack of options at receiver only highlighted the mistake New England made not recognizing the severity of Rob Gronkowski’s back problems and failing to groom a replacement. In their first season without Gronk, the Patriots had no tight end who was a viable receiving threat.

The running game wasn’t much help either, as former first-round pick Sony Michel did not build on the promise he showed during the 2018 postseason. Michel ran like a back who does little more than get what his blocking provides — and that sometimes wasn’t much with the Patriots down a pair of starting offensive linemen from 2018 and playing without fullback James Develin for much of the season.

FOXBOROUGH, MA - JANUARY 4: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) and head coach Bill Belichick stand on the sidelines during the fourth quarter. The New England Patriots host the Tennessee Titans in the Wild Card AFC Division game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA on Jan. 4, 2020. (Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick stand on the sidelines during the Patriots loss to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC wild card game. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Making matters worse, the offense became very predictable based on which running back was on the field. Michel was the power back. James White was the pass catcher. Opponents who recognized this pattern gambled correctly more often than not.

Brady has previously strapped mediocre skill-position groups to his back and carried them to the Super Bowl, but it was asking too much of him to do it again at age 42. He was less efficient than usual in the red zone and under pressure and looked increasingly frustrated with his receivers as a once-promising season nosedived.

If Brady wants to come back to New England on a short-term, team-friendly contract, that could make sense for the Patriots. After all, the ill-timed 2017 trade of Jimmy Garoppolo has left them without another proven quarterback on the roster.

If Brady demands a long-term deal, it’s time for New England to move on and bring in a veteran, either as an heir apparent or a stop-gap until 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham proves ready. Signing free agent Teddy Bridgewater is an intriguing option, as is a trade for ex-Patriots backup Jacoby Brissett if the Colts decide he’s not their quarterback of the future.

Whoever the quarterback is, New England’s top priority this offseason needs to be upgrading the playmakers around him. It should help New England that the 2020 draft is receiver-rich, but the Patriots need Michel to evolve into a pass-catching threat and Harry and Jakobi Meyers to produce more consistently after flashing potential as rookies.

With all the handwringing over how New England’s season ended, it’s easy to forget that the Patriots won 12 games in 2019 and are still less than one year removed from their most recent Super Bowl title. This isn’t a to-the-studs rebuild, just a team that needs an infusion of youth so its offense doesn’t once again drag down a championship-caliber defense.

Maybe the best sign for New England is that Belichick sounds like a man who was motivated by this season’s disappointing finish, not defeated by it.

After Saturday’s loss to the Titans, a reporter asked Belichick if he had a message to Patriots fans who have stuck with the team “through thick and thin.” Belichick rightfully bristled at the notion that being a Patriots fan during his tenure had been some sort of emotional roller coaster ride.

“I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here personally,” Belichick said. “Maybe you feel differently, but I haven’t heard too many fans say that.”

The challenge for Belichick now will be figuring out a way to defy the naysayers once more and squeeze a few more years out of New England’s historic run.

In 2010, that meant retooling a defense that had begun to show its age. In 2020, that will mean fixing a flailing offense and preparing for a transition at quarterback.

History has taught us it’s a mistake to count the Patriots out. The 2019 Patriots may not have been championship-caliber, but the notion that the franchise will nosedive post-Brady is a little premature.

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