Patriots face an inevitable avalanche of hard decisions, like it or not

Patriots face an inevitable avalanche of hard decisions, like it or not

FOXBORO - All of this started for real on a snowy Saturday night 18 Januarys ago.

That’s when Tom Brady made it clear even for the “Boo-hoo, Drew!” holdouts that Drew Bledsoe wasn’t getting his job back.

And now, 18 years on, we have ourselves a Saturday night in January. There will be weather. Will there be finality?

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If you don’t want to hear about it, I understand. I truly do. There’s a playoff game with the Titans tonight.

But the 80-20 coverage split this week – honestly, all season – between reporting on the reality-show aspects of the New England Patriots and the game itself has worn your ass down.

This is your passion, your distraction, your – it’s not a stretch to say – family. Maybe your fandom predates Bill Friggin’ Parcells, maybe it’s pre-Plunkett, maybe it just started when they beat the Falcons.

But the rush to put an expiration date on the whole thing is, to put it mildly, unseemly.

Clunky metaphor? It’s like you and the family huddled around a bed in the ICU holding hands and reflecting while a parade of looky-loos presses against the glass craning their necks to see how bad it looks.

“Still holding on, is he?”

“Yeah, but for how long?”

“Doesn’t look good…”

In that crowd are people for whom the Patriots are strictly occasional and seasonal entertainment. They don’t understand that declaring it’s time for a clean break with Brady is like suggesting you Old Yeller the family dog before you even get the diagnosis.

Also in the crowd, everyone NOT FROM HERE who is sick to friggin’ death of the Patriots, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, former Patriots all over their TVs and devices talking about the Patriot Way and the stomach-turning, self-assured, spoiled, arrogant, condescending Patriots fans who – after 18 years of Januarys – are now so insidiously spread around the country that you are never safe from being reminded that “Tom FAHHHHHHKIN Brady!” still lives.

They want him to – figuratively – die. So they are outside the ICU, clutching beads and praying for the flatline.

Your relationship with the Patriots is personal and – even though you’ve never met Tom Brady or Bill Belichick – they have been a constant in your life. Some of your best experiences on the planet have occurred with them and what they brought into existence as the centerpiece to it. You’ve learned from the way they approach things. You’ve named pets and children after them.

So, if you don’t want to watch a game of great import without having to listen to people wonder, “What’s next?” or “What it all means?” hit mute and go on a media blackout. Put your fingers in your ears and hum. Stop reading now.

Because this game has the potential to be history the same way the Snow Bowl (if you call it the Tuck Game, you’re outside the ICU).

Failing to cover this game and this season without casting an eye to, “What’s next?” would be the height of journalistic malpractice.

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Tom Brady is on the same plane with three other men in the history of professional team sports – Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth. None of them were in the same place continuously as long as Brady’s been. Only Jordan experienced a comparable amount of team success and he did it in a league that didn’t then and doesn’t now have the same reach and hold on the country that the NFL does.

The Patriots – in a league rigged for parity – have bobbed along on the waves of excellence for two decades. They have been in a league of their own.

And when this season ends nobody – not Brady, not Belichick, not Robert Kraft – will truly KNOW whether the greatest player in the history of the NFL will ever play another game as a member of the greatest dynasty in the history of the NFL for the greatest coach in the history of the NFL.

So yeah, all that bears mentioning.

The only thing standing between the present and all the attendant questions bursting forth is how long this season lasts.

When it ends:

Josh McDaniels begins taking interviews and it’s a smart bet to expect he’s gone. Who is the next offensive coordinator?

Dante Scarnecchia has completed another season and is approaching his 72nd birthday. Is the greatest offensive line coach of his generation back again?

Joe Judge, who split his time between special teams and wide receivers, takes an interview. If he goes, who runs special teams? If he stays, do the Patriots still look at wideout coach as a spot that doesn’t demand a full-timer?

The Patriots reckon with an offensive roster that includes a 33-year-old slot receiver going into the last year of his contract, a starting center who missed the season with a blood clot condition that is very serious, a fullback who missed most of the season with a neck injury, nobody worth mentioning at tight end, one young wide receiver who missed most of his rookie year, two veteran wide receivers who underwhelmed this year and a Jarrett Stidham as their only quarterback under contract.

Nick Caserio, Dave Ziegler and Monti Ossenfort – three of the principals in the scouting department – may all be sought by other teams.

The Brady Situation comes to the fore.

It was the team’s choice to go “year-to-year” and not give Brady more than a minor bump and a phony extension in August. If McDaniels goes, does the team want Brady breaking in the new OC? If McDaniels goes, is Brady going to be more involved in OTAs and passing camp as the new OC gets oriented? 

Does Belichick look at Brady as having a bigger share of the blame with 2019’s flagging offense than the players he was surrounded by? Does Belichick want to pay more than the $23 million the team paid Brady when he’s a year older and coming off a modest statistical season?

As for Brady? He got sold a bill of goods on contract promises he felt were made and the personnel he was surrounded by. He’s the one that wanted at least the chance to see what’s “out there” after the season. Does he have it in him to cross that bridge? And what team precisely is on the other side? If he decides to at least have a look around do the 
Patriots leave the light on for him or give him the Wes Welker Treatment?

As for ownership? Off the grid almost completely in 2019. It’s been seven years since Robert Kraft praised himself for doing “something elegant” with the contract extension that brought Brady through 2017. Where we at with the elegance in 2020?

That Saturday night 18 years ago when the Patriots beat the Raiders in the snow, I wrote this for the Metrowest Daily News:

“Well, that oughta settle it.
What Tom Brady did Saturday night should douse, once and for all, any smoldering embers in the once-roaring Bledsoe-Brady quarterback controversy.
That's because Brady's body of work over the final 12:29 of regulation and through overtime was the kind of reputation-cementing performance that people around here waited nine seasons for Drew Bledsoe to come up with...”

I ended that column writing:
“Brady's performance was Bird-like.
Frankly, it doesn't matter from hereon out what Tom Brady does. The discussion is over.”

Soon, maybe as early as midnight, another discussion begins.


Ex-Patriots scout gives interesting details on Bill Belichick's NFL Draft grading scale

Ex-Patriots scout gives interesting details on Bill Belichick's NFL Draft grading scale

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, despite some recent struggles, has enjoyed a ton of success selecting players in the NFL Draft.

Just a few days ago, Hall of Fame general manager Gil Brandt tweeted Belichick is the best drafter of his lifetime. Brandt is 87 years old, so he's seen plenty of drafts.

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Former Patriots scout and current Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy in a few tweets Wednesday provided some interesting information on how Belichick and his staff grade prospects entering the draft. One example he used was based on evaluating cornerbacks. 

Check out Nagy's explanation below:

The Patriots' ability to contend in the AFC in 2020 could hinge on their success in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft, which is still scheduled to begin April 23 despite the outbreak of the coronavirus.

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New England has lost several key players on both sides of the ball through free agency and trades over the last few weeks.

The most notable departure, of course, was quarterback Tom Brady, who took his talents to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent after spending 20 seasons and winning six Super Bowl titles with the Patriots. The Pats have lost a bunch of important defensive players, too, including linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, as well as safety Duron Harmon. Special teams also has taken a hit with the losses of safety Nate Ebner and longtime kicker Stephen Gostkowski.

Filling this holes won't be easy, but luckily for the Patriots, they have 12 picks in the 2020 draft. These picks include No. 23 overall in the first round and three selections in the third round. Only the Miami Dolphins (14) have more picks than the Patriots.

Another positive for the Patriots is many of the top players in the 2020 draft class are wide receivers or defensive players -- two areas of need for New England. In fact, it's possible we see more than half of the first-round picks used on defensive players, and many recent expert mock drafts predict Belichick will target that side of the ball with the 23rd overall selection.

Are Patriots losing their grip on AFC East now that Tom Brady is gone?

Are Patriots losing their grip on AFC East now that Tom Brady is gone?

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.”

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.

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.

Also not a surprise? How vocal the “They’re F*****!!!!!” minority was.

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.

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