February 3, 2002, is a day that lives in NFL history.
On that day, in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, a quarterback picked in the sixth-round and a written-off head coach defeated the 14-2 St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and began arguably the greatest run of excellence in NFL history.
In the 6,548 days since that game, the New England Patriots have won six Super Bowls, nine conference championships and quarterback Tom Brady has won three NFL MVPs. However, Jan. 4, 2020, could also be a day remembered in pro football history.
On that day, a young head coach and a dismissed quarterback went into Foxborough, Massachusetts, and shocked the Patriots.
On Saturday night, the Tennessee Titans, led by coach Mike Vrabel and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, defeated New England 20-13 at Gillette Stadium to move into the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. A game-clinching pick six by Titans cornerback Logan Ryan capped off a win in which Brady was shut down, and Titans running back Derrick Henry ran for nearly 200 yards. It was the first time the Pats didn’t make it past the wild card round of the playoffs since 2009 and their first time not in the Super Bowl since 2016.
This loss has caused many to believe that the dynasty is over. Now, I don’t think that the Patriots are going to be terrible for the next few years. Despite that, the days of the Patriots consistently being serious Super Bowl contenders are numbered and the first reason has to do with that legendary quarterback.
Possibly the biggest issue facing the Patriots in 2020 is whether Brady will return. He’s going to be a free agent this offseason and will have the choice to sign anywhere. Normally, New England wouldn’t let arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time hit free agency. But he is 42 years old and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been notorious in the past for removing emotion from decisions. The only other quarterback on the roster, Jarrett Stidham, threw just four passes this season and one was an interception.
Now, let’s say that Brady does return to New England. If that happens, a large amount of talent upgrades would be needed. First, at the skill positions. Top receiver Julian Edelman is 33 and has a long injury history. To make matters worse, no other receiver reached 400 yards through the air this year.
On the ground, they ranked in the bottom half this season in rushing yards. Major changes would be needed at both positions. The team also needs improvement at tight end as starting tight end Ben Watson had just 173 yards receiving.
Finally, on defense, New England will have numerous key players, such as cornerback Devin McCourtey, become free agents. NE also entered this season with the oldest roster in the league.
Even if we do see improvements, Brady could hamper the success. As mentioned before, he is 42 and ranked outside the top 10 in touchdowns and completion percentage in 2019. Watching the Patriots this season, it became clear that Brady cannot carry the team like he used to. Besides Brady, who won a Super Bowl last season at 41, the oldest quarterback to win the big game was Peyton Manning, who was 39, four years younger than Brady will be by next years’ Super Bowl. In fact, only five quarterbacks in NFL history have played until age 43.
Lastly, we could see the Patriots lose some of the brain trust that has helped maintain this dynasty. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been the leader of the offense for three Super Bowl wins, but he has been linked to the Cleveland Browns head coach opening. There is even a possibility the 67-year-old Belichick retires. However, that seems unlikely.
I am not saying that the Patriots have no chance of competing for a playoff spot in the next few years. Completely, writing off any team led by Brady and/or Belichick would be foolish.
However, don’t be surprised if we never see Brady or Belichick lifting the Lombardi Trophy as members of the Patriots again.
Follow Noah on Twitter @noah_ram1 and contact him at [email protected]