Patriots run feels like it's winding down


Back in 2005, a friend of mine started on the Patriots beat. We were discussing the team’s run of success and how they’d won three Super Bowls in four seasons. I remember estimating that, if the Patriots run of excellence was a football game, at that point they were late in the third quarter.

And here we are, 12 years, an undefeated regular season, eight conference championship appearances, four Super Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl wins later. Same guy coaching. Same guy playing quarterback.

So I miscalculated.

I’m thinking about that now because the air around this 2017 season has an “end of the party” scent to it. Like people are gathering up their coats and saying their goodbyes.

By the end of the weekend, around 10 head coaching jobs are going to open up. It’s been almost 10 years since Josh McDaniels was hired by the Broncos. Since coming back to New England in 2011, he’s annually been looked at as one of the likely hires. He’s taken plenty of interviews. He’s looked but he hasn’t leaped. He’s due.

Matt Patricia took interviews the last two offseasons. He’s probably due too.

Coordinator continuity is the under-appreciated underpinning of the Patriots success. The reins were passed from Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel after three Super Bowl wins to McDaniels and Eric Mangini. Then they were passed to Bill O’Brien and Dean Pees. Then they went back to McDaniels and Matt Patricia. And they’ve held them since 2012.

When they leave, there’s a reboot.

Meanwhile, Tom Brady has two years left on his contract. Since winning the Super Bowl last February, Brady’s post-football plans have crystallized. He and Alex Guerrero have – with the release of a book, an app, a cookbook, etc. – demonstrated just how serious Brady is about making TB12 far more than just one shop in Patriot Place.

That push didn’t come without pushback from the Patriots, as the past month demonstrated. Guerrero’s been exiled from the sidelines and his access to players is now limited to the ones who go up to the shop. Whether Bill Belichick was right or wrong to draw a bright red line between Guerrero and the Patriots training and medical staff is moot. What’s important to this discussion is what impact coverage of Guerrero being pushed to the periphery has going forward.

That it became an issue Belichick had to mitigate, deal with and answer questions about … to borrow a Belichick phrase, that’s not what you’re looking for. And from Brady’s point of view, Guerrero’s been around the team for about 13 years. He gets results. He’s helped players get better. And now he’s been publicly shunned.

The Guerrero situation followed on the heels of the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. The plan from the time Garoppolo was drafted was to groom him to replace Brady. And the Patriots did a masterful job of it. They hit on the pick. They nurtured him along. He played great when given the chance. And then the Patriots had to trade him.

From the night Garoppolo was drafted in 2014 (punctuated by Belichick mentioning Brady’s age and contract status) until the Patriots picked up the phone and called the Niners, there was never a moment Brady didn’t view him as the kid anointed to take his job.

How many times did Brady open up and talk about the fact he wanted to finish his career here but that he understands better than anyone how these things go not just in New England but in the NFL. Dozens? Brady “won” but that wasn’t the plan.

And the casual flipping of Garoppolo to San Fran for a second-rounder has an air of resignation. “Well, we didn’t think we’d be here, but here we are. And we can’t trade Tom because it makes no sense to trade the likely MVP coming off two Super Bowl wins in three years. The kid’s gonna be great and we helped make him. Let’s find him a good home and just get it over with.”

The decision to trade Garoppolo still hasn’t been embraced. Trading Brady wasn’t broached but there’s sentiment in Foxboro that the team should have played it out even longer. To the end of the season, through 2018 if necessary. Whatever, figure it out, the thinking goes. Garoppolo was a chip too valuable to give up with a time-defying 40-year-old approaching 41.

Brady and Belichick have always had an employee-boss relationship. It’s not frigid, but it’s not warm either.

Add in the matter of ownership. Robert Kraft is 76. His record as an owner and the arc of his tenure is astounding. He just saw Jerry Jones get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame ahead of him. Kraft has every right to expect he’ll join him. He deserves to. But his legacy here, in New England, could be more important to him than what the football world thinks of him.

And there are Patriots fans still pissed that Kraft stood down on DeflateGate in May 2015 because they feel he abandoned Brady. Even if Belichick went to Kraft with the idea of moving Brady and keeping Garoppolo, that would have gotten a hard no.

Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Lawyer Milloy, Drew Bledsoe … OK. At this juncture, asking Kraft to get on board with moving on from Tom Brady was a non-starter. So it never started.

For a while now, I felt it would all be a wrap after the 2019 season. Brady’s contract would be up. So would Rob Gronkowski’s and Julian Edelman’s. Brady and Belichick would have been in New England for 20 seasons. Brady would be 42 and his kids would be nearing their teens. Belichick would be 67.

That seemed tidy. But it’s also a little naïve. It usually doesn’t end tidily, just like you expected it to. Sometimes it ends before anyone expects it to. And sometimes it goes on years longer than you ever thought it could.


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