FOXBORO – It’s over.
Those simple words don’t just explain the end of the 2019 Patriots following a 20-13 loss to the Titans Saturday night at Gillette Stadium. They sum up what is likely the end of an unprecedented run in American sports history.
Eight straight trips to the AFC championship, nine Super Bowl games, six Lombardi trophies, all with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in charge.
Many Patriots fans will try to come to grips over the next few days and weeks, while watching other teams play in the NFL playoffs, with the realistic probability that the dynasty that Brady help guide has come to an end.
“We appreciate our fans,” Belichick answered when questioned about his message to fans through what a reporter called ‘thick and thin’. “I wouldn’t say it’s been all that thin around here, personally. Maybe you feel differently, but I haven’t heard too many fans say that. Of course we appreciate our fans. We have a great relationship with them, they’re here for us and we always try to perform our best so they can be proud of the way we perform.”
There was no magic from Brady like we’ve seen in the past, and as recently as Dec. 21 against the Bills. Brady looked human Saturday, completing 20-of-37 passes for only 209 yards, no touchdowns and one interception to Logan Ryan that was returned for the game-sealing touchdown with nine seconds left.
Brady is the biggest elephant in the room of elephants when it comes to veterans who may not return next season. He will turn 43 on Aug. 3, 2020. He will likely sit down with his wife Gisele and their children and decide if another season of punishment with a roster that is transitioning to youth is worth whatever money the Patriots are willing to offer.
“I don’t want to get too much into the future and stuff. I mean, this team has fought hard. We battled every day, we tried to get better, we worked hard to improve, and I was proud to be a part of this team. Not only this year, but every year.
“Again, I just don’t know what’s going to happen and I’m not going to predict it. No one needs to make choices at this point. I love playing football, I love playing for this team. I’ve loved playing for this team for two decades and winning a lot of games. And again, I don’t know what it looks like moving forward, so we’ll just take it day-by-day.”
No one needs to make choices at this point, Brady reminds us but Bill Belichick does need to start making plans. We have no idea – really – what Belichick is thinking about Brady, how much he’s worth and whether there might be a need to finally move on from a quarterback who has run the ship since Mo Lewis took out Drew Bledsoe on Sept. 23, 2001.
Does Brady have a sense of if he’ll be back with the Patriots in 2020, and does he want to be back?
“I love the Patriots. I mean, they obviously – this is the greatest organization, and playing for Mr. [Robert] Kraft all these years and for coach Belichick – there’s nobody that’s had a better career, I would say, than me, just being with them,” Brady said.
“So, I’m very blessed and I don’t know what the future looks like and I’m not going to predict it. So, I wish we would have won tonight and wish we would have done a lot of things better over the course of the season, but we just didn’t get the job done.”
AND TOTALLY REDEEMS HIMSELF pic.twitter.com/xWKS5HSqaE
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) January 5, 2020
Brady said he doesn’t think he’ll hang them up when asked but then added a major caveat.
“I would say it’s pretty unlikely, but – yeah, hopefully unlikely,” he said.
Hopefully unlikely. Those words are likely to stick with everyone close to him for a while. He’s in a very ambiguous place.
So, too are the likes of Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Slater and many others. In all, 20 players are free agents this offseason.
“It’s always the same. It’s like a crash landing, man,” McCourty told me. “You’ve got all your hopes you’re playing and you know it’s one game at a time, but everybody that makes the playoffs, you want to play well, you want to advance, and that’s what you see.
“How you view everything – you view everything with playing well and winning and advancing, and when you don’t, it’s just over just like that. We’ve been very fortunate here to make it far in these playoffs, but we’ve had this feeling before, and this feeling is no different. It sucks. Like, there’s no way to explain or tell it to you. Whether you’re under contract in the future, if you’re not under contract – like, I don’t care about any of that in this moment. It just sucks.”
No, Brady the competitor certainly doesn’t want his career to end with his last pass being a pick-6 to Logan Ryan to seal the game. But sometimes you don’t get to choose a Hollywood ending. That interception is pretty much an irrelevant pimple on a 20-year body of work that is better than any player in NFL history. Period. And his answer about it shows he knows as much.
“That happens when you throw the ball,” Brady said of the pick. “Wish it would have been a 99-yard touchdown. That would have been pretty cool, but it wasn’t.”
The defining moment of Saturday night was New England’s inability to punch it in the end zone from one yard out on first and goal late in the first half. Three runs and no passes and only three points, answered by a touchdown run by Derrick Henry on the other end to put Tennessee up for good before the half.
“Third down and red area were a problem for us. I don’t think those were particularly great areas – you’re right – over the course of the season. So, yeah. It was just a tough way to end it tonight, and again, I give them a lot of credit. They made more plays than we did. If we want to win those games, we’re going to have to do a better job.”
That is if Brady even has that chance next year in New England – or wants it.
“I think we’re all running out of time and chances every year that goes by,” Brady smiled. “So, I don’t think I’m the only one in that category in this room, or probably in any of these rooms.”
If that’s it for Brady, it’s been a ride of a lifetime for him, everyone who has played with and against him, coached him and against him, and for everyone who has watched him play.
“I just was in here when he was talking,” McCourty said. “I don’t know his future. That’s really on him, but I will say, from my second year being able to be a captain and sitting in those meetings and just hearing how he looks at the game, not just from a quarterback position but overall the game and hearing his input each week when we got ready to go on Friday mornings taught me a lot as a leader. [It] taught me a lot from just understanding the game of football and how he looked at the game and the dedication and the preparation he put in.
“I got to learn that from Friday mornings at 7 a.m. for nine years straight, I got to do that. Just the conversations I’ve had with him throughout the years has made me a better player. It’s hard to imagine Tom not playing football; it’s hard to imagine him not playing here. But, like you just said, the business of football is what it is, but no matter what, in my 10 years here to be able to learn from him and go against him, and from time to time intercept him at practice, has made me a way better player. I’ve appreciated everything he’s done for me and trying to help me out along the way.”
“It has been the experience of a lifetime,” Matthew Slater added. “He does things the right way and has all the success in the world, but still remains himself. I think that says a lot about who he is as a man and ultimately, I can more about that than him being a six-time champion. I am proud to call him a friend and thankful for everything he has taught me as a football player, but also as a man.”
Those words are so powerful because they capture what most players in the Patriots locker room have enjoyed over the course of Brady’s 20 years in New England.