The statement invokes the cult classic film Almost Famous and the popular GIF featuring the movie’s starlet, Kate Hudson, as the existential Penny Lane.
The film debuted in the fall of 2000, as did New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Much like the movie, Brady’s greatness began to fade over time, even though it’s remembered fondly.
The end of an era appears imminent. A culmination of factors led to what is almost certainly the end of the greatest dynasty in professional football history.
In 20 seasons together, Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick redefined the game with their adaptability and long-term consistency during a period when the business of the sport was in a state of flux. New England won 17 division titles—including an ongoing league-record 11 straight—and won six Super Bowls.
Previous dynasties never dealt with that same kind of upheaval. Players, assistant coaches and front office personnel came and went. Overall play drastically changed as the old-school belief system gave way to a new league with a heavy emphasis on quarterback play, throwing the ball and scoring. Brady, Belichick and the “Patriot Way” withstood the test of time, though.
Belichick became the master of understated press conferences and downplaying his own brilliance.
“Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve ever used that term,” the coach said when asked directly about the Patriot Way, per NBC Sports Boston’s Nick Goss. “I’m not really sure what that is either. I appreciate you asking about it though, but I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
A certain level of expectation bled into the Patriots’ everyday culture. “Do your job” is Belichick’s oft-repeated mantra. The Patriots became cutting-edge in the way they used analytics, adopted spread offensive principles and played free agency and the draft better than anyone else. More often than not, New England looked to be playing three-dimensional chess when the rest of the league was stuck on checkers.
The level of greatness experienced over the past two decades cannot be denied. Belichick and Brady are first-ballot Hall of Famers and should be considered the greatest to ever do it at their respective positions. The two will forever be linked in the annals of league history.
But everything comes to an end.
We’ve seemingly reached that point for the Patriots dynasty, and the reason why is simple: The mystique is no longer there. Brady isn’t as efficient as he once was. The team’s roster construction is suspect at best with the potential to get much worse. A core group of coaches and players could depart this offseason. And Brady’s decision as a pending free agent is at the forefront of those gigantic question marks.
“I think we’re all running out of time and chances as every year goes by,” Brady told reporters after Saturday’s 20-13 loss to the Tennessee Titans. “I don’t think I’m the only one in that category.”
Technically, Brady is correct. However, there isn’t another 42-year-old quarterback running around trying to maintain a near-impossible level of success.
His time is coming, though he immediately stated it’s “pretty unlikely” he’ll retire this offseason. But two immediate factors come into play.
First, Patriots owner Robert Kraft must decide whether he’ll re-sign his long-term starter for the 2020 campaign and possibly beyond.
“I love the Patriots,” Brady told reporters. “It’s the greatest organization. … I’m very blessed, and I don’t know what the future looks like, so I’m not going to predict.”
Though it seems unlikely, the multiverse could become reality if New England’s brass decides to end its relationship with Brady and lets him play for another franchise, like Joe Namath as a Ram and Joe Montana as a Chief.
“It’s hard to imagine Tom not playing football,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty told reporters. “It’s hard to imagine him not playing here.”
Second, the Patriots organization as a whole must understand Brady is not the player he once was. The aging signal-caller can no longer carry the offense, which became apparent in what might be his last game, either as a Patriot or as a professional football player. Brady completed 54.1 percent of his passes for 209 yards and an average of 5.6 yards per attempt. The performance served as an extension of the decline seen throughout the regular season.
Statistically, Brady’s numbers dropped in each of his last three full seasons played. Clearly, he’s not nearly as precise with his passes and struggles to navigate the pocket like he once did. Skills diminish over time; it’s simply a fact of life. Brady compensates with unparalleled experience and comprehension, yet he’s not going to improve going forward. New England may choose to make one more run with Tom Terrific leading the way, though that path is an exercise in futility.
The Patriots, as seen this season, are no longer built to win a Super Bowl, and the situation could get much worse.
Brady’s pending free agency is only the start of the potential problems. Key contributors on both sides of the ball can also enter the market if they so choose. McCourty, guard Joe Thuney, special teams standout Matthew Slater and linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins are now free agents. Thuney is the team’s most reliable blocker and is in line for a huge payday, whereas McCourty, Slater and Collins are all on the wrong side of 30, and Van Noy turns 29 in March. In fact, the Patriots entered this season with the league’s oldest roster.
These players are part of the team’s very fabric and have a strong presence amongst its leadership.
The departures extend beyond the field of play, too. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a top candidate for multiple openings, and it may be time for him to give head coaching a second try after his disappointment 10 years ago in Denver. McDaniels is a crucial component to the Patriots’ success. Yes, the team won without him long ago, but his relationship with Brady, game-planning, play-calling and attention to detail shouldn’t be overlooked.
McDaniels’ fingerprints are all over New England’s approach over the last few years. He helped mold the offense from a wide-open quick passing attack with Brady picking apart opposing defenses to a run-first physical scheme reliant on the game’s best offensive interior. He shifted the emphasis away from the quarterback and placed it on the unit’s most talented group.
Furthermore, the game’s best offensive line coach, Dante Scarnecchia, turns 72 next month. How much longer he’s willing to contribute after already retiring once remains unknown, and McDaniels’ potential departure could facilitate Scar’s as well.
Now is arguably the right time to get out since the Patriots have plenty of work to do on their roster. The wide receiver corps, outside of Julian Edelman, is incapable of creating mismatches. Tight end is a nonfactor, and Rob Gronkowski isn’t walking through that door. On the flip side, the Patriots’ front seven didn’t play anywhere close to the same level the secondary did—hence the Titans’ dominance at the point of attack. Running back Derrick Henry simply overwhelmed the Patriots to the tune of 182 rushing yards, and New England had no answer.
After bludgeoning opponents during last year’s Super Bowl run, the Patriots received the same in return in this year’s first-round flop.
Maybe that’s the most surprising aspect of the organization’s recent downturn. Belichick lost to his former students in three of the last six weeks, and his previous assistants are now using his own tricks against him. On Saturday, Titans head coach Mike Vrabel decided to punt in the Patriots zone late in the contest but gamed the system with multiple penalties to eat as much clock as possible.
Overall, the aura is slowly fading. That’s not a knock on either the Patriots’ head coach or quarterback. Sure, they could come together for another year, once again put together a winning season and postseason appearance, but they’re only delaying the inevitable. And there’s nothing wrong with any of this. No franchise has ever maximized a pairing like New England has.
The Patriots were never as good as when they had both Brady and Belichick. But they can’t possibly be there forever and sustain the level of success they’ve come to know. The end is nigh, whether it occurs this offseason or a year down the road.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.