In the past 20 years, the Patriots have so often accomplished impossible things that most have just given up on doubting them.
No matter how bleak things seem, no matter how high the odds are stacked against them, they still somehow find a way.
Malcolm Butler. 28-3. The 199th pick becoming the greatest quarterback ever while playing for a coach people thought was too grim to ever succeed.
Those are the nail holes non-believers had to see and touch in order to believe. And most did.
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And now? With Tom Brady gone and the team turning its lonely eyes to Stid? With no cap room available to shop for free agents and five years of subpar drafting in their rearview mirror? With one of the NFL’s oldest rosters ready to do battle in an AFC East which suddenly looks real competitive?
Well, even Patriots fans are willing to acknowledge that the grip on the division has slipped just a bit.
On Tuesday, we threw out our Quarantine Question of the Day (thank you to the 4,131 respondents for playing along), asking how strong the Patriots’ grip on the AFC East is right now.
Tellingly, only 3.7 percent of the respondents were willing to say that the grip remains “Strong. Real Strong.”
in Bill we trust— HARMON (@BobMunch34) March 31, 2020
The vast majority of votes were cast for “Looks loose. But it's not” (42.9 percent) and “Slip, sliding away…” (39.6 percent).
And a lot of those see any dip on the grip is a temporary thing.
This year slip sliding away, in 2021 looks loose. But it's not. 2022 Strong. Real strong.— willie mattos (@WillieWonka1966) March 31, 2020
Stidham is going to surprise the doubters. No, he’s not going to be TB12, but he will be the best QB in the AFC East. I like his potential.— madcat007 (@madcat007) March 31, 2020
9-7, second behind Buffalo (no playoffs). This was my prediction if Brady stayed as well— Darin Weeks (@DarinJWeeks) March 31, 2020
The Bills are seen as the biggest threat to the Patriots’ reign — no surprise given their offseason so far and their playoff appearance in 2019.
People think they’re beating the bills with no QB, no TE, average receivers, and an aging defense are so delusional 🤣— Jason (@jasonms316) March 31, 2020
Also not a surprise? How vocal the “They’re F*****!!!!!” minority was.
Not a playoff team, sorry. BRADY MADE BILL— Jake Tillman (@jTizzy_8) March 31, 2020
To expect a defense to be better without Van Noy, Collins, Harmon and Shelton is not reality.— Andrew Adams (@AndrewW75078428) March 31, 2020
And Ebner is gonna be a big loss on Special Teams.
With Brady, losses over the years have been minimized. He's gone and his ghost will literally hang over Foxborough..........
No QB, no grip! It’s an offensive league now....and we have— lee heffernan (@lpheff1) March 31, 2020
We are looking at a 5-11 team. Some heartbreak losses will be mixed in that total. You just can't make up for the loss of all the key personnel through free agency. Still love the Pats win or lose.— shenanigans (@Spartacus961) March 31, 2020
Personally, I think the grip is slip, sliding away. And it’s closing in on, “They’ve lost their grip…”
That’s not an opinion based just on the loss of Brady or the others who’ve gone out the door in 2020. That’s based on the trade deficit this team’s been running since 2015.
Look at the players and coaches who’ve left in the past three seasons alone: Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Danny Amendola, Brandin Cooks, Kyle Van Noy, Dante Scarnecchia, Brian Flores and on and on.
And who — whether it be via draft or free agency — has the team brought in as legitimate cornerstone-type players for the next few seasons? Guys who could start for any team around the league? Joe Thuney. Shaq Mason. Lawrence Guy.
Maybe, given time, Isaiah Wynn, Chase Winovich and Jarrett Stidham? Possibly J.C. Jackson and N’Keal Harry?
Has there been a time in the past 10 years where the franchise faced this many questions and this much roster uncertainty? No.
The only time close was the 2008-2010 period, and the Patriots hoisted themselves out of that very mild malaise with incredible drafting prior from 2008 through 2012.
So are the Patriots losing their grip or merely readjusting it?
For it to be the latter, they have to rip it up in this year’s draft and get huge strides from their 2019 class which — given the pandemic — may be hard to accomplish.
If it’s the former? The rest of the division will finally be able to breathe again.