BOSTON -- The New England Patriots have been the pacesetter around these parts when it comes to winning for as long as most Patriot fans can remember.
And now, if they’re going successfully navigate their way through this rebuilding process - and if you think what’s on the horizon for the Tom Brady-less Pats is anything other than that, you’re only fooling yourself - they would be wise to take a page from the Danny Ainge playbook on how to move on after hitting the franchise reset button.
While the Celtics’ run atop the NBA was nowhere close to that of the Patriots dynasty, it didn’t take long for Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, to pivot from the Big Three era of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, which put them on the short list of title contenders for years, to seeing all those players go and ushering in a rebuild that, to the surprise of many, didn’t take nearly as long as anticipated.
The NFL is a different kind of league, one where teams can quickly transition, from bad to bad-ass, in the blink of an eye.
But don’t get it twisted.
The loss of Brady will hurt deeper than most Patriots fans want to embrace.
Not only did they lose a great player, but part of the franchise’s culture as well. He was a magnet for talented players (i.e., Antonio Brown and Randy Moss) looking to win at the highest level and saw Brady and all that championship bling-bling as the best shot at making that happen.
There’s no plug-and-play move to be made that will fix all that has been lost now that Brady has signed in Tampa Bay, a historically bad franchise (they have an all-time winning percentage of .387, dead-last among the 32 NFL teams) that has shown promise of late and gives Brady a decent shot at success.
As for the Patriots, rougher times than usual are coming. Still, if you know you’re not going to be able to compete for the biggest prize of all this season, at least field a team that’s enjoyable to watch.
For the better part of the last two decades, the Patriots have done that by simply winning...over and over and over again.
They went 12-4 this past season and that was by most accounts, a down season?
And we’re talking BEFORE they got bounced in the wild card playoffs, not after!
Six Super Bowl wins will do that, you know?
And in the case of the Big Three Celtics of the late 2000s, who won it all in 2008, we knew they were going to be perennial title contenders because, well, that’s just what all-time greats in their prime do over and over again.
Rest core guys here and there.
Run towards a deep playoff run.
Rinse. Recycle. Repeat.
But after their departure, Ainge constructed teams that made up for a lack of overall talent by being highly competitive and, more nights than not, enjoyable to watch, even though they didn’t win a ton of games and were clearly not in the hunt to win a title.
That, more than anything, needs to be the key takeaway for the Pats.
Let’s face it ... losing sucks!
And when you haven’t done much of it for the better part of two decades, it’s really going to suck when it finally happens.
Softening the pain of what will surely be more losses than we’ve seen from the Pats in years, will be them becoming an enjoyable team to watch.
So what does that mean?
It means the Patriots have to develop an identity that connects with fans beyond wins and losses.
Enjoying the growth of the young players, transitioning from dominating to developing talent, will be key.
Because if the Pats plan on continuing to bank on success as the bridge to their fanbase, it’s going to be a long and lonely season on Belichick Island.
Some of the most memorable moments I’ve seen here in Boston came in Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ early years, in the closing moments of end-of-the-season losses at the TD Garden, when fans gave the players a standing ovation in the face of defeat.
The fans stood as a sign of giving back respect to the players, who seemingly gave their all on the floor more nights than not.
Fans want deep postseason runs and titles, for sure.
But more than that, they want to get behind a team that’s giving all its has and at least give itself a chance to compete and potentially win.
It kept the Celtics relevant during those lean, early years of the Stevens regime and it’ll be just as effective in this post-Brady era of Patriots football, where success can’t just be about wins and losses.