For nearly two full decades, they have been the gold standard in the NFL, the greatest and longest-lasting dynasty of them all.
Six Super Bowl championships since 2001. An incredible 17 AFC East titles, including 11 straight. The Bill Belichick-Tom Brady legacy is the most enduring and most prolific in NFL history — and sports history, too. Never has there been a more dynamic partnership that has been this good for this long.
And now we wonder if it’s finally over — if the Patriots’ stunning loss to the Dolphins at home in Week 17 and Saturday night’s mystifying no-show against the Titans in the wild-card round signaled the beginning of the end.
Brady had ample opportunities to summon some of his game-saving heroics against a team coached by his former teammate, Mike Vrabel, at Gillette Stadium. But each time he got the opportunity to fire the signature passes that so often have sent a dagger through the hearts of opponents on the way to playoff victories, he failed to deliver.
His passes sailed over his receivers’ outstretched arms, or behind them, or sometimes through the unsure hands of players who failed their quarterback. The Patriots didn’t score a point in the second half of a 20-13 loss, although a touchdown did come off a Brady pass — a pick-6 by former Patriots defensive back Logan Ryan with nine seconds left in regulation.
With Brady now 42 and unsure about his future in New England, that very well could have been his final pass in a Patriots uniform.
Neither Brady nor Belichick was in a position to make any assurances about what happens next, and Brady’s contract will allow him to be a free agent for the first time in his career.
He called retirement “unlikely” and professed his love for the organization and playing for Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. But he didn’t say for sure that he’ll be back in New England in 2020, and with a handful of teams in need of a quarterback — even one who has faded — there will be opportunities elsewhere.
“I don’t know what the future looks like, and I’m not going to predict it,” Brady said after the loss. “No one needs to make choices at this point. I don’t know what [the future] looks like moving forward, but we’ll just take it day by day.”
Belichick said Sunday it’s too soon to know what might happen with his quarterback.
“Nobody has thought about the future,” he said. “Whatever’s in the future, we’ll deal with at some later point in time. We’re certainly not going to deal with it now.”
There will be much to deal with down the road, starting with Brady. He is by far the most important part of what happens in the offseason, and how his situation is resolved will go a long way toward reshaping the team’s immediate and future plans.
My sense is that Brady indeed will look at other options and take advantage of the contractual freedom he demanded. The Chargers are in the market after declining to re-sign Philip Rivers. The Panthers may move on from Cam Newton. And while the Colts were the team that turned in Brady for allegedly having the game balls deflated before the AFC title game in January 2015, they certainly would consider Brady over Jacoby Brissett.
But Brady’s best option if he wants to continue playing — and that’s precisely the vibe he gave off after Saturday’s loss — is to remain in New England and work out a short-term deal to continue his alliance with Belichick.
As for Belichick himself, there has been some speculation that the Giants might want to make a run at him — and perhaps that he would consider returning to the franchise where he rose to prominence as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator. While Belichick does hold a deep regard for the Giants’ organization — and vice versa — it’s tough to envision Kraft letting the greatest coach in NFL history leave.
Kraft did manage to pry Belichick away from the Jets 20 years ago, but with Belichick showing no desire to retire and the owner still believing in him, I just can’t see it happening.
Is it possible? Hey, never say never. After all, Jerry Jones parted ways with Jimmy Johnson after two Super Bowl titles. But Kraft doesn’t seem ready to let Belichick go. If Belichick himself tries to force the issue, maybe there will be something to it. But until something like that happens, I believe he’ll remain in New England.
The road ahead is a difficult one for the Patriots with an aging quarterback, the potential departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for a head- coaching opportunity and the possible losses of free agents Devin McCourty, Andrew Slater, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins.
Whoever plays quarterback for the Patriots next year needs better playmakers.
Brady remains Belichick’s best option at quarterback, although it’s certainly time to draft another passer.
While Brady still is better than most quarterbacks, he eventually will lose his battle with Father Time.
So will the greatest dynasty of all.