The football world started looking at the New England Patriots a little differently this year, after an ESPN article exposed a potential rift between the organization’s two most prominent figures, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady.
The article described a discord between Belichick and Brady over the growing influence of Brady’s personal and controversial trainer Alex Guerrero; one that spread throughout the whole team and may have been a catalyst for the Patriots trading promising backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers early in the regular season.
While there were the predictable denials and playing nice after the report was released, most believe the friction was and remains legitimate. The question becomes then, does it matter?
Despite all this turmoil off the field last season, the Patriots finished with a 13-3 regular season record before advancing to the Super Bowl, their third trip to the Big Game in four seasons.
But it does renew and intensify debate over when the Brady-Belichick dynasty, now entering its 18th season, will finally end. And if the result of Brady winning the power struggle led to Garoppolo’s trade out of town, eschewing a ready-made heir to the 41-year-old, then it’s justifiably so.
It was a tumultuous off-season in Foxboro this spring.
Before any of the player movement got going, the team had to deal with rumours of Belichick’s interest in the New York Giants’ head coaching vacancy. Belichick of course ended up staying, but the Patriots did lose defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Detroit Lions, and for about a day thought they had lost offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as well, before his about-face with the Indianapolis Colts.
Then the player market opened. Big name departures include 1,000-yard man Brandin Cooks and Brady-favourite Danny Amendola in the receiving corps, eight-year veteran left tackle Nate Solder, versatile running back Dion Lewis, and former Pro Bowl cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Some of those players just weren’t Belichick guys, and the long-time de facto GM has a proven track record of trading talent away as addition by subtraction, but the replacements certainly carry some question marks.
Flyers were taken on veterans Jordan Matthews, Cordarrelle Patterson and Eric Decker, who has since retired, to fill in the holes in the receiving corps. Trade acquisition Trent Brown will have to move to the left side to replace Solder. First rounder Sony Michel or disappointing Jeremy Hill will have to take on a veteran’s workload left behind by Lewis. And the sparsely used Eric Rowe will be forced into the starting lineup in Butler’s old spot.
The biggest off-season win for the team came when Rob Gronkowski ended his flirtation with retirement and returned to the team’s off-season work.
Yes, Brady is 41. But he’s coming off an MVP season which suggests a drop-off in production is not imminent, and his almost cult-like devotion to health in the latter stage of his career means he can probably push it back further than almost anyone else at the position.
There are questions with his supporting staff on offence, but none he hasn’t emphatically answered in years past.
Lewis’ versatility will be hard to replace in the backfield, but the Patriots’ running back by committee approach means the job won’t fall on just one back’s shoulders. Plus 31st overall selection Michel will be only the fourth first-round talent the Patriots have had at running back during the Belichick-Brady era after Antowain Smith, Laurence Maroney and Fred Taylor.
It will be another year of relatively unknowns in the receiving corps, especially the first four games with Julian Edelman serving a performance-enhancing drugs suspension. But Brady creates stars out of nobodies at receiver every year – keep Chris Hogan in your fantasy drafts – and Gronkowski remains the preeminent red zone target in the league.
Offensive line could be a cause for concern, however; the unit wasn’t addressed with the attention you’d expect from a team that has a 41-year-old quarterback. Solder will be replaced by Brown, who played more right tackle to start his career. And first-rounder Isaiah Wynn is likely lost for the season with an ankle injury. Shaq Mason, who was locked up long term by the Patriots during the preseason, and Marcus Cannon are both solid holdovers.
The defence should improve over last season. Losing Malcolm Butler isn’t a big deal with Belichick moving on from him before he moved on from the team, and Don’t’a Hightower is back. That all bodes well for Brady.
So, when exactly will the Patriots dynasty fizzle?
Belichick has reportedly made it his goal to leave the Patriots in a good place and while there isn’t the heir apparent to Brady at quarterback – perhaps to Brady’s demands – it does look like Belichick has his own replacement waiting in the wings after McDaniels spurned the Colts.
And the Patriots’ division foes did little to speed New England’s collapse this season. After making the playoffs for the first time in 18 years, the Buffalo Bills entered a rebuild for this season. The Miami Dolphins traded talent for character this summer. And the Jets aren’t ready to challenge after overachieving with five wins last year.
The Patriots dynasty may one day crumble and, if Brady is targeting playing until he’s 45, it could happen with the Hall of Famer still behind centre, but it won’t happen with the six-game cakewalk that is currently the AFC East. A division title is a lock and a first-round bye is close to guaranteed. From there, it seems like enough AFC teams have caught up to make it interesting, but nobody will call the time of death on Brady and Belichick with a divisional round defeat.
The team that everybody loves to hate will be around for at least a couple more years.