I don’t know how Sunday night could have gone any better for the New England Patriots. I mean, if Nick Folk’s kick through the rain from 168-feet away being was about 10 inches to the right that would have been a nice bonus.
Big picture? The view from 30,000 feet? Even though the Patriots are 1-3 on the year -- 0-3 at home -- Sunday night was both cathartic (cahthahhhhtic) as it related to Tom Brady and hopeful as it relates to where this team is in its rebuild.
There’s a whole lotta "We don’t do no moral victories round here!" chest-puffery in the social media streets. And we’re all very impressed by you devotees to the bottom line who are detached from the fact that in real life and pro football there is indeed a whole lot of gray area.
In that gray you’ll find these facts.
Mac Jones had a better game against the Tampa defense than Brady had against the Patriots defense. In the fourth game of his career, an unimposing kid who won a national championship last January then tracked down and unseated Cam Newton in July and August, had to carry the Patriots offense on national television against the defending Super Bowl champions on a night when the greatest to ever do it was on the other sideline.
Almost all the key players the Patriots bought in their offseason spending spree -- Matt Judon, Jalen Mills, Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Nelson Agholor held up their end en masse for the first time this year.
The Patriots very much have the pieces on hand to ensure that 2020's 7-9 is the worst record they’ll post in a down-to-the-studs, post-Brady rebuild.
Also in the gray area, though, is the fact that the astounding slippage in performance up and down the Patriots offensive line continued. Isaiah Wynn is still not showing he’s what you’re looking for in a long-term left tackle and the Patriots are into him for $10M next year after picking up his fifth-year option. Mike Onwenu got benched at left guard. David Andrews, for the second game in a row, appeared to forget the snap count and cause a mass false start. Trent Brown missed his third straight game which means he’s missed 19 of his past 36 games going back to when he joined the Raiders in 2019.
More? The Patriots are playing with an un-Patriotic level of attention to detail. It’s a big deal when, a week after the team had 10 players on the field for Taysom Hill’s game-sealing touchdown run, they had a too-many-men penalty last night and had to burn timeouts after more defensive substitution confusion.
They had 18 pre-snap penalties in 2020. Fewest in the league. This year, they have seven through four games. They were plus-20 in penalty count against their opponents last year. Third in the league. They are minus-four so far this year. They had 62 penalties walked off against them last year. They have 26 so far.
Most distressing, though, is that the Patriots are in a position where Mac Jones DOES have to carry the offense. They can’t run the ball. Jones is throwing the ball 40 times per game. The run-pass balance is 160 throws to 79 runs. Only Ben Roethlisberger (170 attempts) has thrown it more. That can’t stand.
But that’s where the catharsis comes in. Because imagine if it were Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick or Cam Newton under center Sunday night for a narrow loss that dropped the Patriots to 1-3? We’d all still know that the temp who helped keep them in the game still wasn’t the long-term answer. The team still hadn’t found its Brady successor. His shadow would still loom.
Now, it doesn’t. Sunday night closed the circle on Brady as a Patriot. All through 2020, it felt like Brady was still a Patriot in a Buccaneers costume. But on a night as the enemy in the house Robert Kraft built and Brady and Belichick made famous, anybody still feeling conflicted was able to feel what it was like to truly root against him. Brady got to feel what it was truly like to compete against and beat the team he left behind. Belichick and his staff hatched a plan that slowed Brady down to a version that looked like the Brady of 2018 and 2019.
By the time it was over, I can’t imagine that either Belichick or Brady would have wanted to change a damn thing. Brady’s where he wants to be football-wise, competing for another championship. And Belichick is too, on the way to building a team that can compete for one without Brady.
Only those two know exactly what was said in the 20-plus-minute meeting of the minds they had. I’m sure there was commiseration over our continued sifting through the rubble end of Brady’s days as a Patriot.
Belichick can grumble, "Fake news ..." all he wants but the fissure between the two as they untangled was all very real. There’s no real need to try and put the toothpaste back in the tube and rewrite history. It happened. Brady was ushered to the door. He walked through it when he knew it was the end of the road here.
But that Belichick could say to Brady, "We good?" and have Brady answer, "Yeah, more than good." That’s important. That’s as happy an ending as anyone could hope for. It means that, someday when they both get their gold coats in Canton, Ohio the split won’t be the focus. The places they went together, the places they went apart and where they ended up thanks to each other will be the focus.
Now, we are truly post-Brady. And the 2021 season begins. With work to do.