These are dark days indeed...at least by the standards of the New England Patriots.
This is the first time since 2010 that the Patriots didn't at least advance to the AFC Championship Game. The team's 42-year-old quarterback is about to become a free agent for the first time in his two-decade career. New England has already lost one long-time assistant in special teams coordinator and wide receivers coach Joe Judge and could well lose another in offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels.
There have been no shortage of pundits speculating that Saturday's home loss to the Tennessee Titans was it—the end of the line for the Patriots as the big, bad bullies of the AFC. To an extent, that's true—the days of New England standing head and shoulders above the rest of the conference are over.
However, this is still a 12-win team that went undefeated over the first half of the year en route to winning the AFC East for a record 11th consecutive season. The defense ranked at or near the top of the NFL in a number of statistical categories. The dynasty at Gillette Stadium may be dying, but it hasn't flatlined—though it needs successful surgery during what has become the most important offseason of the Brady-Belichick era.
These Patriots could well have at least one more run at the big one left in them—provided a few things happen in the weeks and months to come.
Step 1: Bring Back the Golden Boy
The day after that season-ending loss, Brady didn't sound even a little like a player who was ready to hang them up. He wants to play—whether it's in New England or elsewhere.
"I think I'm just ... I'll explore those opportunities whenever they are," he told Peter King of NBC Sports. "If it's the Patriots, great. If that doesn't work, I don't know. I just don't know. I love playing football. I still want to play football. I think I still can play at a championship level. I've just got to go do it. I'm motivated to get back to work and training."
At his season-ending press conference, Belichick was cryptic about Brady's future with the only NFL team the signal-caller has ever known.
"I want to give the proper attention and communication and detail and thought into my input into those decisions," he said, via ESPN's Mike Reiss. "But any decision made is not an individual decision. There are other people involved. There has to be some type of communication, understanding, agreement, whatever you want to call it. That's not a one-way street. I hope you can understand that. One person can't just decide what everybody else is going to do.
"There's a lot of time, thought and effort and communication that goes into that. Now is not the time."
The guy who signs the checks in Foxborough, however, was more up front about his hopes for Brady in 2020.
"I love the young man like he's part of my family. Blood family," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, per King. "Anyone who's [helped us get to nine Super Bowls and been really selfless] has earned the right to control his future after 20 years. And you know, my hope and prayer is No. 1, he play for the Patriots. Or No. 2, he retires. He has the freedom to decide what he wants to do and what's in his own best personal interest."
Was Brady frustrated by the team's offensive struggles—struggles that manifested in his lowest passer rating since 2013 (among other admittedly less-than-stellar numbers)? Yes. Does Belichick know Brady isn't the player at 42 that he has been? Yes. And is it fun for fans of any number of teams and the people that cover them to imagine the most successful quarterback of the Super Bowl era donning the helmet of another club? My word, yes.
But if Brady moves on, it will mean bad things for both player and team. For the Patriots, that's it—the dynasty really will be over. Time to hit the reset button and begin another era. They may try to milk another year or two out of this bunch with another veteran quarterback, but it won't end well. Neither would Brady's time with team No. 2. It may be fun to imagine otherwise, but it doesn't take long to count how many aging quarterbacks made the Super Bowl with a second team.
Peyton Manning's Super Bowl win with the Denver Broncos had a lot more to do with their defense than Manning's arm. Kurt Warner and Craig Morton made the big game with team No. 2 but lost.
The list of aging signal-callers who experienced any real success after moving on (like Brett Favre in Minnesota and Joe Montana in Kansas City) isn't as long as the one of those who didn't.
Don't get started on how Johnny Unitas ended his career in San Diego. Or how Joe Namath ended his in Los Angeles.
As great as Brady has been, it would be an uphill climb filled with unknowns. At 43 by the time next season starts.
The list of 43-year-old Super Bowl quarterbacks is also short. As in nonexistent. Brady is already the oldest signal-caller (41) to both start and win one. Shaking things up wouldn't help his chances of besting his own mark.
Rampant speculation aside, the smart money is on Brady coming back for a 21st season with the Pats—provided that some assurances are made.
Step 2: Revamp the Passing-Game Weaponry
Assurances that steps will be taken to fix the biggest cause of the team's offensive struggles: one of the NFL's weakest receiving corps.
Whether or not McDaniels leaves is a toss-up. He's long been linked to the last head coaching vacancy left in the NFL. But that vacancy is the three-ring circus that is the Cleveland Browns, and McDaniels has passed on less-than-ideal situations in the past. Provided Brady returns, and if McDaniels doesn't, the Patriots aren't going to reinvent the wheel. They will either promote from within or hire a coach willing to run a similar scheme.
What does need reinventing are the team's pass-catchers. After New England released Antonio Brown, it became evident that its receivers (outside of Julian Edelman) couldn't separate from defenders. Teams simply doubled Edelman, and the passing attack crumbled.
The midseason acquisition of Mohamed Sanu Sr. from the Atlanta Falcons—a trade that cost the Patriots their second-round pick in April's draft—didn't much help.
While New England has just over $49 million in estimated cap space for 2020, per Over the Cap, a good chunk of that will be eaten up in accomplishing Step 1.
The biggest name among this year's free agents (Amari Cooper) more likely than not won't hit the open market. But there are players who will hit the open market who could help the team considerably, whether it's a youngster such as Robby Anderson, an aging veteran in A.J. Green or second-tier players like Breshad Perriman and Chester Rogers.
Green, in particular, could be an intriguing option—a former superstar on the downslope of his career who has had injury issues of late. It'd be a risky signing but one that likely wouldn't break the bank and could pay off in a big way.
The Patriots may also be the most likely team in the league to sign Brown—provided he's eligible to play.
The Patriots could also look to address the position with the 23rd overall pick, whether it's Clemson's Tee Higgins or Colorado's Laviska Shenault Jr. Don't rule out a double dip, either—adding a wideout in free agency and hitting the position relatively early in the draft. Or addressing the tight end position with a veteran such as Eric Ebron or Hunter Henry or a rookie like Notre Dame's Cole Kmet.
Add in a full offseason with the team and improvement in Year 2 from N'Keal Harry, and the Patriots would be headed in the right direction. Brady might not be in his prime, but that doesn't mean 2020 can't be better than 2019.
Step 3: Avoid Backslides in Other Areas
Addressing the Patriots' most glaring weakness is well and good—but if New England takes one step forward and two steps back, it will wind up in the same boat. It's important the Pats avoid significant declines in other areas—which is easier said than done.
New England led the NFL in total defense in 2019 and was second against the pass while finishing tied for seventh with 47 sacks. But that defense was exposed down the stretch and could use some athleticism and pop off the edge. Edge-rushers will be in play early in the draft and in free agency.
The defense also has free agents of its own to worry about. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr. and safety Devin McCourty played key roles in 2019. Keeping them all might not be feasible—but preventing the defense from springing a sizable leak is imperative.
McCourty will be the highest priority. He's indicated a desire to play his 11th season, and after a decade as a fixture on the back end in Beantown, he's a cornerstone of arguably the NFL's best secondary. Collins is coming off an excellent statistical season in his return to the Patriots, and he and Van Noy are capable of filling numerous roles.
Losing one wouldn't be the end of the world—and given the team's other needs and financial realities, it may be unavoidable. But at least one has to be retained as the leader of the linebackers.
The Patriots were relatively stout up front offensively in 2019—ninth in run blocking and fifth in pass protection, per Football Outsiders. But with starters Joe Thuney (left guard) and Ted Karras (center) set to hit free agency, keeping the band together might not be easy—especially after Thuney was named a second-team All-Pro in 2019.
If veteran center David Andrews can return in 2020 after missing all of 2019 with blood clots in his lungs, it will be a huge help—if Thuney leaves, Karras can kick to guard. If he can't, this could be the most difficult part of the retool to pull off.
For all that's been written about "fixing" the Patriots, this is still something of an oversimplified view of the most important offseason for the team since it used its first two picks on defensive end Richard Seymour and left tackle Matt Light back in 2001.
However, bang out these three steps and the Patriots will have an excellent shot at winning a dozen games and the AFC East for the 12th straight season. Of obtaining the first-round bye that evaded them in 2019. Maybe even hitting the 10th Super Bowl of the Brady-Belichick era.
As dark as things looked after the loss to Tennessee, New England is still less than one year removed from winning the Super Bowl. The Patriots aren't that far from a return to prominence.
The end of the Patriots is going to have to wait.