FOXBORO — Just after midnight, outside the visitor’s locker room in the drab gray concrete bowels of Gillette Stadium, all the Bradys and all the Vrabels converged.
Tom held his daughter Vivian who was out like a light with her head on her father’s shoulder. He smiled wide and wriggled a hand loose to shake hands with Mike, who re-introduced Brady to giant young Vrabels, Tyler and Carter. Tom knew them as toddlers. Gisele Bundchen said hello to Jen Vrabel. The visit between two old and intimate friends and their families wasn’t short. And it was warm.
After a couple of minutes, Brady was on his way, encircled by his family as they walked out of the stadium, into the parking lot and directly into an uncertain football future for the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
That real-life moment of appreciation between men who helped build the Patriots into what they’ve become stood in stark contrast to the professional football reality that unfolded over the three previous hours on the field.
Brady and the Patriots offense were throttled by Vrabel’s defense, whisked out of the postseason in the first round, their season ending with barely a whimper. They were as overmatched on Saturday night as they’ve been much of the season.
A sputtering running game. Dropped passes. Misfires. A puntfest.
Brady’s final throw with 15 seconds left and the Patriots trailing 14-13 was aimed at a tightly covered Mohamed Sanu. It was tipped, picked off by former Patriot Logan Ryan and returned for a touchdown. A gratuitous nail driven into a coffin that was already shut tight.
With nine seconds left, Brady trudged to the sidelines, took a swig of water and sat down on the bench with resignation. Only Ben Watson went near him, putting his hand on Brady’s head as he passed.
After a few moments, Brady reached over and picked up a computer tablet to see what happened on the pick. Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham stood nearby but said nothing.
Brady held the tablet between his knees, digesting it. He then put the tablet down, reached for his helmet and walked to the sidelines in case the Patriots needed to run another play. They didn’t. The season was over.
The Patriots lost for the fifth time in their final nine games. They were ushered from the playoffs in the Wild Card round for the first time since 2009. Their string of three straight Super Bowl appearances ended. Their string of eight straight AFC Championship Game appearances was snapped.
This game and the one last week were not persuasive evidence that getting the Patriots’ machine running smoothly again is just a matter of replacing some belts and tightening some screws.
The offense is not good, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is probably leaving and Brady — as you might have heard — has an expiring contract. Brady was hamstrung by the half-hearted effort the past two years to staff the offense with players he can count on.
But the whole operation cratering at the end of the year makes you wonder if the man who put the pieces around Brady — Bill Belichick — sees the quarterback as having a bigger share in the ineptitude than those of us who have been saying, “It’s not Brady, it’s everybody else…” all year long.
That’s what’s hard about handicapping where Tom Brady plays in 2020.
Does Belichick think it’s worth running it back again with Brady at the controls? Or does he decide that a $25M (more or less) quarterback with a dime store supporting cast doesn’t represent good value?
There’s no debating that Belichick’s got the belly to make a hard decision at the position. He did it in Cleveland. He did it here in 2001.
Brady wasn’t shy after the game about stating that he wants to keep playing.
He also made it clear he understands that the team has a decision to make and so does he and he doesn’t sound the least bit bitter about it.
“I love the Patriots,” he said. “This is the greatest organization, and playing for Mr. Kraft all these years and for coach Belichick — there’s nobody that’s had a better career, I would say, than me, just being with them. So, I’m very blessed and I don’t know what the future looks like and I’m not going to predict it.”
Later, he added, “I just don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m not going to predict it. No one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football, I love playing for this team. I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. And again, I don’t know what it looks like moving forward, so we’ll just take it day by day.”
It definitely wasn’t goodbye, but it smacked of an understanding that goodbye is on the table.
Anyone watching the Patriots understands by now that the way this season went down will not stand. Belichick is not going to preside over a slow, compliant slide into mediocrity, not at 67 years old.
He’s got an old-ass roster and a coaching staff that’s stretched too thin. In their past four drafts, they’ve found 11 players who’ve made measurable contributions. That’s including N’Keal Harry, Deatrich Wise, and Ted Karras.
A big part of their success is that they are smarter than everyone else on the sidelines and on the field. Their institutional knowledge defensively because of all those veterans is what made them so dominant in the early part of the season. They hit the ground running while everyone else is taking two months to figure it out.
But this year we saw that if the opponent isn’t complicit in its own destruction, if it doesn’t get beaten on special teams or outsmarted by trick plays and plays with a measure of poise, the Patriots are beatable.
“We didn’t hand them anything,” said Vrabel. “And that’s the one thing, they feast on bad football and we didn’t hand them anything. And I don’t think our guys spent too much time staring up at those banners.”
The pursuit of those banners isn’t going to stop because the Patriots got thrown out of the club early on a drizzly Saturday night in January 2020. The Patriots aren’t going to go quietly into that good night. That’s not who Belichick is.
The 2019 Patriots were a house of cards and they fell down almost every time they went up against a “good” team.
That won’t stand. Change is coming.