If Tom Brady doesn't return to the Patriots—which increasingly doesn't seem so impossible—the legacy of Brady and Bill Belichick will get a fresh examination. And if you look into the near future and envision an NFL universe where the Patriots are Brady-less, the Hall of Famer-to-be is a much safer bet to see his legacy get a boost than the team and coach he may be leaving.
The Patriots franchise is formidable, but Brady was always the true engine. Not Belichick. Not owner Robert Kraft. Not God or the Justice League or a Starfleet captain. And at least in the short term, that notion will gain some traction if Brady leaves and prospers wherever he goes, which is hard not to see happening. The Patriots, on the other hand, could be entering the football equivalent of an economic slowdown.
This is nothing against Belichick, the greatest coach in NFL history. This is nothing against the Patriots, the greatest franchise in NFL history. This is about Brady and how if it's true that a rising tide lifts all boats, he has been a tsunami.
No matter where Brady goes, he likely will not just succeed, but transform his new franchise for the better. It doesn't matter if it's the Chargers, 49ers, Dolphins, Lakers or the St. Louis BattleHawks of the XFL.
Team executives and coaches around the league, including some who might be interested in Brady, feel the same way. Belichick is respected; Brady is revered.
"Tom can turn a non-playoff team into one," one NFC assistant coach said, "and a playoff team into a Super Bowl team."
Conversely, the assistant added: "The Patriots will take several steps back if he leaves."
Every now and then, it's good to pause and appreciate what you have and what you could lose. The Patriots are hopefully doing that right now.
No one knows for sure whether Brady will leave, but the regard for him around the NFL is almost cartoonish. Coaches view him as a superhero, which is why if he does entertain offers outside of New England, every team that needs a quarterback should be expected to pursue him. His age (42) isn't seen as an issue because he is viewed as a singular force of nature capable of generating immediate and radical change for the better.
This may sound odd to say about a player as historic as Brady, but he remains underappreciated in some ways. Even now by the Patriots. They want Brady back, but they should be rolling out a red carpet, a blue carpet, one of those shaggy carpets from those '70s James Bond movies. Whatever the hell he wants to show him how much they want him back.
Brady isn't perfect, but he's the closest thing to perfect the NFL has ever seen. And when he retires, both the league and the Patriots will never see another player like him again.
Sure, perhaps the Patriots can get lucky and draft their own version of Lamar Jackson. Or maybe they sign Ryan Tannehill and he gives them some solid years.
The most likely scenario, though, is that New England will be left struggling to find a good quarterback. That's what happens most of the time. It takes years, and sometimes decades, for a team to find a solid starting quarterback. The Browns have been looking for a franchise QB since before our sun burned bright, and we still don't know if Baker Mayfield is the guy.
Worse, just as the Pats might be forced to navigate their post-Brady life, Brady might be in some place like San Francisco (although several team sources are downplaying that possibility) taking the 49ers back to the Super Bowl. And it's a good bet that unlike Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady would have connected with receiver Emmanuel Sanders for the game-winning touchdown with a minute left in this year's Super Bowl.
Maybe Brady goes to a franchise and plays behind a terrible offensive line, but he's done that before. Or he could play with subpar receivers. Well, he's done that, too. No running game? Check, did it.
But if Brady does leave New England, he'll no longer be playing under the best coach in NFL history. While Brady took care of the offense, Belichick fortified other parts of the team (defense and special teams) and instilled a team-first culture that almost every player bought into.
However, Brady played arole in spreading that culture as well. A few years ago, former teammate Rodney Harrison recounted a story to ESPN's Mike Reiss about Brady's work ethic and how it translated to everyone on the team.
"This was when I first got to New England, we had become friends and we were in the weight room. I show up around 6:30 in the morning and he says to me, 'Good afternoon!' So the next day, I get the hint, and come in 15 minutes earlier. Same thing: He says, 'Good afternoon!'
"Then the next day it's 5:45 in the morning, and he makes sure to say it twice: 'Good afternoon! Good afternoon!' So I make it at 5:30 the next day and before he could say anything to me, I looked at him and said, 'Man, I don't give a damn what you say, Tom, I'm not coming in earlier than 5:30!' We both laughed at that."
That is what the Patriots could lose, and what another team could get.
Be careful, Patriots. The path back to rest of the NFL pack is a steep one.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.