The Future of the New England Patriots

The New England Patriots are approaching a fork in the road. Down one avenue is the chance to cement their case as the best team in NFL history. The other route takes them down a steep hill to mediocrity or worse. The obstacle that split this route is the four game “Deflategate" suspension that Tom Brady must serve to start the 2016 NFL season. Any fan of the Patriots, no, any NFL fan, should be fascinated by what transpires for the Patriots during the 2016 season. Whether you curse them every season and wish they would dwell in the cellar for eternity, or want them continue their current legacy, the drastic sea change that has the potential to occur over the next two years is riveting. Many experts have long wondered whether Bill Belichick, the legendary coach (who also plays the role of GM for the team) will have the testicular fortitude to cut or trade Tom Brady, much like he has done, without hesitation, to many of the team’s most popular players. Whether Brady wants to admit it or not, his career is now mostly in the rearview mirror. Will Belichick trade or release Brady once he feels like he has a better option at quarterback; or will he hold on to the player until his contract expires? Wes Welker, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Randy Moss and even Drew Bledsoe would likely all tell you that Bill is beholden to no one, and holds no player sacred. For the Patriots, the closest comparison would be the transition between Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe. As most Patriots fans remember, the transition was pretty abrupt. After Bledsoe suffered an injury during the second game of the 2001 season, Brady took over, and the rest of the story went down in the annals of NFL history. After Brady cemented himself as the team’s starter, winning the Patriots their first Super Bowl Championship in franchise history, Drew Bledsoe was traded to the Buffalo Bills for a first round draft pick. At the time Bledsoe was traded, he was the best quarterback in the team’s uninspiring history. Bledsoe had been a first overall pick in 1993. He led the team to only its second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history in 1996 and had been selected to the Pro Bowl four times. He even helped the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl in 2001 after Brady went down with an injury in the AFC championship game. In March of 2001, Bledsoe signed a 10 year, 103 million dollar contract with the team and almost a year later, became expendable (New York Times). The looming transition between Brady, and whoever takes over the starting QB duties in the future, will not be as abrupt, but it will be much more scientific. The Patriots have the benefit of being a deep team and as past experiences have shown, they are good enough to recover from a poor start to their season (see 2014). This means that the Patriots have an opportunity to tinker with the starting quarterback situation during their first four games, and use it as a litmus test for Brady’s potential replacement. It’s very obvious that Jimmy Garoppolo will be given the opportunity to start, but I would say it’s likely we will see Jacoby Brissett at least for a series, in the first four games as well. Garoppolo or Brissett will face an important situation in each of the first four games. They will face two potential playoff teams, the Cardinals and Texans, as well as two division rivals, the Bills and Dolphins. Garoppolo will face strong defenses and loud stadiums. It’s a strong test and will occur at a less than critical point in the season, while presumably having an effective Brady as an insurance policy after four games. For this reason, Brady’s suspension increases the stakes for both Brady and Garoppolo. Belichick has told the media, that no matter how well Garoppolo plays, Brady will start game five, and it would make absolutely no sense to tell anyone otherwise ( A coach who has demonstrated that he values winning above all else; Belichick has always used the player, playing best at his position, as the starter. However, since quarterbacking is as much mental as it is physical, Belichick wants to make it known to Brady that his job, at least in the immediate future, is not in jeopardy. Even if Garoppolo plays well, he wants to assure Brady that he gives them the best opportunity to win. It is very likely that Tom Brady will be the better choice after the first four games; but if that were not the case Belichick wouldn’t be honest and tell everyone. If Garoppolo demonstrates that he can lead the Patriots to victory over the first four regular season games, and Brady struggles for an extended period, (let’s say 5 games) I can absolutely see a situation where Belichick would start Garoppolo over Brady. That decision has momentous implications going forward. The media in Boston is already reporting that Brady has acted less than nurturing to his potential replacement and Belichick has said that grooming his own replacement is not Brady’s job ( Brady is highly competitive, so it is safe to assume he will not tolerate being a backup behind Garoppolo if that ever becomes the case. This means that in a world where Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett takes over the starting position from Brady, Belichick would have an interesting decision to make. Given that Brady is signed through 2019, that gives the Patriots three full seasons to make a decision about his future. If Garoppolo takes over the starting position in the next two season, would Belichick trade Brady or release him? The answer is yes. However, Belichick has never faced a choice quite like this one, very few coaches have. While all time players break new ground for what is possible in their respective sports, they also require crucial decisions be made, including how to get rid of them. Barring what would be an unforeseen change at head coach and GM for the Patriots, Bill Belichick will find himself in rare company when it comes to moving on from an all time great. The closest situation to what the Patriots are facing is that of the 1993 San Francisco 49ers, who traded Joe Montana. When Montana suffered an injury in 1991 that forced him to miss almost two full seasons, it paved the way for Steve Young to become the 49ers’ starter. When the 1992 season ended, Montana requested a trade and was sent to Kansas City. After two competitive seasons without a large drop off in performance, Montana retired at the age of 38. This differs from Brady’s situation in a number of ways. First of all, Steve Young had two years to prove himself, and after such a long time, his teammates and coaches had set up a system for Young to succeed. In his book Best of Rivals author Adam Lazaruz claims that It was largely felt that the team was would function better lead by Steve Young that it would with Montana under center. Garoppolo has been a member of the Patriots long enough, that he knows the system. It is not likely the Patriots will change their offense drastically to accommodate him. Although the system won’t likely be changed for Garoppolo, there is another major difference between the Montana and Brady situations. When Montana was traded, he was 36 and retired at 38. Brady is 39, and even though he’d like you to think so, Brady is not going to play until he is 50. The drop off is likely to be sudden. This makes the need to find his replacement all the more urgent. For Patriots fans in particular, a change at quarterback is not something we’re used to. The last time Brady missed any significant time due to injury was the 07-08 season when Brady blew out his knee. For the past 15 seasons, Tom Brady’s familiar bark has been the one we’ve all heard calling out plays. Tom Brady has quarterbacked the team for more than three presidential terms and is likely to play over the same span that three presidents have sat in office. Two of them have served two terms. He’s the longest tenured active quarterback. He has lasted longer than every quarterback in the league and every coach except for his. Peyton Manning, who as we all know, retired after last season, started his NFL career in 1998, so Brady has only three seasons to play, to match Manning in length. In the major four professional sports, since Brady has been the starter, only two teams have equaled the Patriots’ number of championships won, the San Antonio Spurs and the Los Angeles Lakers, both of the NBA. Every year, experts ask, “Who is really the source of the Patriots success?” Would Brady be the quarterback he is, or at least have won as many Super Bowls, without the mastery of his coach? Would Belichick have won his four Super Bowl rings as head coach, without Brady? The question may soon be answered. As Albert Breer reported on the Boston morning radio show, Toucher and Rich, Bill wants the chance to prove himself without Brady. The only chance he’s had since 2001 has been the previously mentioned year when Brady tore his ACL and MCL in the season opener and Matt Cassel replaced him for the season. During that season, Cassel appeared to flourish and the Patriots moved on to an 11-5 record, but missed the playoffs after the AFC and AFC east had an unusually strong year. An 11-5 record has earned teams a playoff birth every year of Brady’s career. Belichick demonstrated that he can coach a team to a winning record without his franchise quarterback, but a year separated from an 18-1 record and a 16-0 regular season record, five losses is a steep drop off. Would Brady have lead the Patriots to a playoff birth? Since the Patriots lost a tie breaker for the division to the wildcard Dolphins and Ravens, it’s conceivable to think Brady’s experience could’ve won them one more game and lifted them into the playoffs. Thus Belichick likely wants to prove he can make the playoffs without Tom Brady. Should Garoppolo play well and Brady drop off suddenly, a smooth transition would save the Patriots draft capital in the future. Why spend a first round draft pick on a quarterback when you already have one. For example, if the Packers had not had Aaron Rodgers to replace Brett Favre, they may have lost out on other players. If the Packers had decided to pick a replacement quarterback early in the draft, after their star quarterback had left, it would be interesting to see what players each team would’ve missed out on. Obviously, this has many flaws, but if the Packers had reached into an early round for a QB to replace Favre, they may have missed out on Jordy Nelson in 2008. In the next draft, they may have missed out on B.J. Raji or Clay Matthews. These three players were key in their Super Bowl victory in 2010. If Garoppolo demonstrates even a slight potential to become the franchise quarterback for any team in the future, the Patriots could hold on to Brissett and Brady and trade Garoppolo for a large bounty. Brock Osweiler, who showed flashes of talent, but was largely mediocre during the 2015 season, fetched a 72 million dollar, 4 year contract. Just last week, the Minnesota Vikings traded for perennial disappointment, Sam Bradford from the Philadelphia Eagles for a first and fourth round draft pick. The price for a semi-competent quarterback is staggering, and if Garoppolo plays decently, the Patriots could trade him for a massive haul. This would provide them the ability to deepen their team, and perhaps extend Brady’s effectiveness once his own skills fade drastically. How do you think Peyton Manning won his last Super Bowl? The one thing the Patriots cannot do, is be complacent or indecisive, for the sake of appeasing their fans. It would be foolish to keep Brady until his arm falls off, just because fans would be upset if the team traded him. Whatever transpires over the next four weeks and even the next two years will show just how legendary Bill Belichick really is. There are so many different possibilities for what the next two years holds for the Patriots, the next two years will be highly entertaining.

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