Since the merging of global powers Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in 2001, the New England Patriots have been to the playoffs 15 out of 17 seasons, won 27 postseason games (nearly double the next closest team), played in 12 AFC title games (including seven in a row) and are preparing for their eighth Super Bowl (having won five).
When there is a level of dominance that stretches for nearly two decades, there are two obvious questions:
1) Will it ever end?
2) Who sold their soul?
“If you want to build a great business, having continuity and people working together for that long, I don’t know if there’s anything better than that,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft said. “We’re pretty lucky.”
But logic screams it’s coming to an end. Soon.
It could happen Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, who certainly looked closer to a championship team in the NFC title game against Minnesota (38-7) than they did against the Falcons (15-10). But even if the Patriots do the expected and win a sixth ring and allow Kraft to give the world another jeweled middle finger – as he did last year to the Falcons when he designed a ring specifically with 283 diamonds, reflelcting the “28-3” collapse – the rest of the football universe can see the finish line from here.
Nobody summed up this forecast better than Tim Brown. The Hall of Fame wide receiver said New England can “keep it going as long as Tom is around.”
There’s a but coming.
“But they’ll die when he dies. When he goes, it’s gonna be over. And if Belichick is smart, he’ll leave, too.”
Kraft, Belichick and Brady are the lone constants in this run. Kraft conceded luck has played a role. That’s obvious. In a logical world, New England would have lost its past two title games. But in 2015, Seattle threw away a title at the goal line rather than run the ball with Marshawn Lynch on second-and-goal from the 1 in the final seconds, and in 2017 the Falcons … never mind.
But Belichick and Brady are nearing the end. There has been speculation that one or the other could step down if the Patriots win this game.
Kraft did nothing to ease concerns in an interview this week with the NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer. When asked if there was any question whether his coach and quarterback would return for the 2018 season, Kraft said, “I appreciate you asking that question, but I'm not going to respond to it. You'll just have to see for yourself."
Brady stepping away from the game would run counter to his comments this week about desiring “to play into my mid-40s.” He’ll turn 41 before next season.
But there has been increasing pressure from his wife, Gisele Bundchen, to retire. She has expressed concern about head injuries and said in an interview that Brady suffered a concussion last season (which never had been reported). Brady never really denied it.
He also has been active in recent months setting up his post-career life, launching “TB12,” which a promotes his training and diet regimen, as well as a variety of products for sell. Just last week, he also dropped a six-part documentary on Facebook called, “Tom vs. Time,” a peek into his family life.
The potential of Belichick’s exit isn’t as much about time (although he’s 65) as it is organizational tumult. He worked hard to find and develop Jimmy Garoppolo as an eventual successor to Brady, declining trade offers. But there have been indications, most notably an article in ESPN magazine, that Kraft, as part of his desire to appease Brady, pressured Belichick into dealing Garoppolo.
The scenario makes sense because the trade was made in late October, not before the season when more bidders could have driven up the price beyond a second-round draft pick. The Patriots’ only alternative would have been putting a “franchise” tag on Garoppolo and effectively pay a backup quarterback $25 million.
Kraft didn’t want to do that. Nor did Brady. The issue isn’t merely that Belichick now must find another successor to Brady. The coach and de facto team president basically had his power undercut.
Belichick gave a predictable answer this week when asked about retirement: “Right now my focus is on Sunday against the Eagles. That’s my window.”
Kraft downplayed the ESPN magazine story. He acknowledged “tension” but said, “Tension makes great things happen.”
That’s true. But to understand how important the Belichick-Brady pairing are to the Patriots’ success, consider three other NFL dynasties:
• San Francisco: Walsh retired and new coach George Seifert won two Super Bowls. But he did so with Montana and another future Hall of Fame quarterback, Young. Then the organization backslid, missing the playoffs for 10 out of 12 years at one point.
• Dallas: The Cowboys won another Super Bowl after splitting with coach Jimmy Johnson, but Barry Switzer inherited three Hall of Famers: Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. The Cowboys have missed the playoffs in 13 of 22 years since, going 3-9 in the postseason.
• Pittsburgh: There was a 26-year gap between the last Chuck Noll/Terry Bradshaw title team (1979) and the next one with Bill Cowher/Ben Roethlisberger (2005).
Even if Belichick and Brady return next season, the Patriots are losing both coordinators (Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia) and must try to talk the NFL’s best offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia, into returning for another season at the age of 70 (he already came out of retirement once).
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