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Exit Interview: New England Patriots

For the first time in two decades, Bill Belichick’s team faces an uncertain future—perhaps one without Tom Brady

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the New England Patriots, who lost to the Tennessee Titans 20-13 in the wild-card round on Saturday.

What Went Right

You may have heard that the Patriots defense was very good, particularly in the first half of the season. New England didn’t allow an offensive touchdown until its fourth game, and through seven games the defense outscored opposing offenses 20-18. The linebackers dubbed themselves “the Boogeymen” and earned that title in a Week 7 annihilation of the Jets that caused quarterback Sam Darnold to say he was seeing ghosts. Stephon Gilmore emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year favorite, and two other cornerbacks were listed in Pro Football Focus’s top 25 at season’s end. Yes, the level of competition in the first half of the season left a lot to be desired, but you can play only who’s on your schedule. And for the first eight games of the season, the Patriots played their competition as well as any had in league history. The end result of their regular season was the stuff that most franchises would dream of: an 11th-straight division crown and a 12-win season, their ninth of the decade.

What Went Wrong

Of course, the Patriots are not most franchises—they’re perhaps the greatest dynasty the sport has ever seen. And for a franchise that’s won six Super Bowls and made nine since 2001, Saturday’s wild-card-round exit feels disastrous at best.

Much of that blame falls on the shoulders of the offense. Brady had one of his worst seasons as a pro, as he ranked 16th in ESPN’s total QBR (tied with rookie Daniel Jones) and had decade lows in touchdown passes (24), yards per attempt (6.6), and touchdown rate (3.9 percent). He failed to get on the same page as his receivers, routinely overthrowing them or bouncing balls off their hands. After years of bucking everything we thought we knew about getting old in football, the 42-year-old looked every bit his age.

Not all of the blame belongs to Brady: Despite New England’s best efforts, the team failed to surround him with adequate pass-catching talent. The early-season acquisition of Antonio Brown resulted in one game against the Dolphins and off-field problems that the Patriots couldn’t manage. Josh Gordon was cut midseason without much explanation from the team. (He was later suspended for again violating the league’s substance-abuse policy after signing with the Seahawks.) That left the Patriots with a rag-tag group of receivers. Philip Dorsett and rookie Jakobi Meyers had starring roles, but neither was a solution for a team desperately needing playmakers. New England traded a second-rounder to Atlanta for Mohamed Sanu; he tallied only 207 yards in eight games with his new team. The Patriots took N’Keal Harry in the first round last April, but he didn’t make his season debut until Week 11 and suffered many of the same problems other young receivers have when trying to learn this offense. While reigning Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman had 100 receptions for 1,117 yards, the Pats sorely missed the presence of Rob Growkoswki, who retired last offseason.

On the surface, this feels like a fixable problem; players like A.J. Green will be available in free agency, and Harry should develop into a stud. But the back half of New England’s schedule revealed the bigger issue: The rest of the AFC appears to have caught up. Three of the Patriots’ four losses came against the quarterbacks who should rule the next decade: Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Deshaun Watson. Even if New England rights the ship, gone are the days when we could pencil the team in for a first-round bye and a conference championship appearance.

Free Agency

What will Brady do this spring? His contract will void after this season, and it includes a provision that prevents him from being franchise-tagged. That means the three-time MVP—the on-field half of the greatest coach-QB combo of all time—will be a free agent for the first time in his 20-year career. All signs point to his leaving: Rumors of friction between Brady and Belichick date back a few years, and the decision to place his Massachusetts mansion on the market this summer has only stoked the flames of conspiracy. Given his age and performance this year, it’s hard to imagine the Patriots offering anything beyond a one-year deal, if that. Brady has made clear that he has no plans to retire, saying after Saturday’s loss it’s “unlikely.” (“Who knows what the future holds? We’ll leave it at that,” he said later in the press conference.) Owner Robert Kraft could intervene, but Pats fans need to prepare for a Tom Brady–less future. Belichick certainly has.

This means that for the first time since the 1990s, the Patriots face an offseason full of uncertainty. If Brady leaves, do they roll with quarterbacks Jarrett Stidham, who failed to impress in limited action this year but has reportedly improved, and Cody Kessler? Do they target someone like Teddy Bridgewater in free agency? Or will they trade for an undervalued asset and hope to strike gold? How the Patriots replace arguably the greatest QB of all time would be the most fascinating issue any team will face this offseason.

Beyond Brady, the Patriots have decisions to make on many key pieces. The list of players set for free agency includes two-time Pro Bowler Devin McCourty; Kyle Van Noy, the team’s best pass rusher this season; special teams captain Matthew Slater; wideout Philip Dorsett; linebacker Jamie Collins, who found new life in his second stint with New England; and guard Joe Thuney, who was named to the All-Pro second team on Friday. The Patriots could look very different in 2020, and not just because of the man under center.

The Draft

New England is currently projected to have 12 picks in April once compensatory selections are awarded. They’ll be without their second-rounder because of the Sanu trade, and the league may choose to dock them a pick for the sideline-taping snafu in Cleveland, but New England will have a bevy of capital to work with. Guessing what Belichick will do in the draft is a fool’s errand—I personally believe that his ultimate goal is to wheel and deal his way into having every pick in, like, the fifth round some day—but there are holes that he’ll need to fill.

The absence of starting center David Andrews, who missed this season with blood clots, had a knock-on effect that exposed a severe lack of depth on the offensive line. New England should address that early and often in the draft. Tight end will also be a position of need: In the Patriots’ first season without Gronkowski, they cycled through Matt LaCosse, Ryan Izzo, and the husk of Benjamin Watson. Unsurprisingly, none could fill Gronk’s massive shoulder pads.

But expect the Patriots to take the best player available whenever they’re on the board, regardless of their needs. For a team that’s used to making its first pick in the 30s or late 20s, having a selection closer to the middle of the first round presents a unique opportunity to add a blue-chip player to a young core. Perhaps that could even be the quarterback of the future.