Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Patriots Beat Writer, NCAA Analyst
When the 2019-2020 Divisional round of the NFL postseason began, the New England Patriots found themselves in a very unfamiliar position. Yes, they were at home. But not at Gillette Stadium. No, instead they were at their individual homes, warm and out of the elements while watching the Tennessee Titans take on the Baltimore Ravens for the right to play in the AFC Championship. For the first time since 2010, the Patriots would not be playing for the AFC crown, let alone the Super Bowl. While this season proved to be disappointing by the lofty standards annually set by the team from Foxborough, MA, there were several bright spots that made the sting of not advancing to the AFC title game only slightly more bearable. Let's take a look at those bright spots, shall we?
1. The ENTIRE defense:
Statistically speaking, this Patriots defense was arguably one of the best defenses in NFL history. Allowing 14.1 PPG, they pitched two shutouts, and held nine more opponents to 14 or less points during the season. Led by 2019-2020 DPOY Stephon Gilmore, this defense suffocated almost every offense that challenged them, only allowing more than 28 points once on the year. Many argued this was against weaker competition, but it’s not the Patriots fault that other teams had their struggles. You play who is on the schedule.
2. Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore:
In 2017, the Patriots acquired Stephon Gilmore from their AFC East rivals, the Buffalo Bills, via free agency. Since he arrived in Foxborough, he has delivered an impressive defensive output. But in 2019 he was exceptional. People (*ahem* Bills fans) criticized Gilmore for getting burned by John Brown for a touchdown in the Bills-Patriots divisional matchup, but one out-of-position play doesn’t take away from the fact that Gilmore actually scored more touchdowns this year than he allowed. Read that again. He SCORED more touchdowns than he ALLOWED on defense. Say what you want about his one major gaff on the year, but Gilmore was the biggest reason the Patriots had a 12-4 record, and yet another AFC East division crown.
3. Julian Edelman:
Jules, or “Squirrel” as he is often referred to, was was one of the lone bright spots on an offense that struggled to find its identity for the entire season. Finishing the season with 100 catches, six scores and 1,117 receiving yards, Julian was the safety valve that Tom Brady quite heavily relied on when other receivers struggled in clutch moments. In 2019, Julian celebrated his second best scoring season and his best yardage season ever. Not bad for a 33-year old receiver with a major late-career injury.
While all of these are great, with the good comes the bad… and that bad was pretty much the entire offense. At the beginning of the season, I wrote an article predicting a lot of what would happen, including Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown no longer being with the Patriots by season’s end. Boy, did I call that one. To be fair, almost anyone could have called it given Gordon’s substance abuse history and Antonio Brown being… well, Antonio Brown. But, I’m gonna chalk that up as a personal victory and not the fact that the writing was on the wall. LET ME HAVE THIS, OK?
If there was a dark spot for the defense this year, it came in Week 17 which, for New England fans, is a day they would rather forget. It was a day that cost them a much-needed first round bye in the AFC Playoffs. A day that made everyone truly realize the Patriots were in trouble. You could forgive the loss to the Ravens. Lamar Jackson was lighting up NFL defenses all season. You could look back and forgive the loss to the Chiefs; they won the Super Bowl this year, and the Patriots only lost to them by one score. You could even forgive the loss to the Texans, a team that played extremely well at home all year long. But there is no forgiving losing to the Dolphins who, in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, marched down the field led by Ryan Fitzpatrick, and won the game. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the AFC East Journeyman. The 5-11 Dolphins. Mike Gesicki (one of the lone bright spots to the entire Dolphins roster this season) was the hero of this game for not only Dolphins fans, but NFL fans all over. For the first time in almost a decade, the Patriots would be forced to play on Wildcard Weekend. Wild Card teams don’t historically make big Super Bowl runs, at least, not in New England.
We all know how Wild Card weekend went. Both representatives from the AFC East were forced to bow out in relatively embarrassing fashion. The Patriots, down just one point at halftime, could surely get a field goal late in the game to secure the W, right? The defense certainly did its part, effectively shutting down the upstart Titans offense, headlined by a recently resurgent Derrick Henry. But the offense failed to deliver. They went 30 minutes without scoring a single point, and the Titans advanced all the way to the AFC Championship.
Well, now we’ve reached the off-season of hurry up and wait. And this is the biggest waiting period that Patriots fans have had to endure in the past 21 years, with just one question on everyone’s mind:
“Where will Tom Brady play next season?”
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Tom Brady will be a free agent for the first time in his career, officially testing the waters of what other teams have to offer this March. Now, speculation has him going to almost every team in the NFL, so let's narrow it down and talk about why it makes sense for him to stay in New England to finish out his impressive and unprecedented career.
1. Bill Belichick:
While this one makes sense, we need to dive into WHY it makes sense. Bill has been in the NFL for a LONG time, and has spent the last two decades as one of the greatest coaches to leading arguably the greatest dynasty in NFL history, and while he has coached dozens of players, one thing has remained the same: Tom Brady under center. It would seem foolish for Tom to walk away from an offense that was perfectly built for him, even if this year produced less than desirable results.
The other side of the same coin would be if Bill would want Tom back. The two have a storied history, but it's well documented that Bill would be ready to move on from his six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback, even if the New England faithful might not agree. Why would he be fine with letting Tom Brady walk away and “start over?” Part of the reason Bill is so successful is the fact that he doesn’t care about who you are, what you’ve done in the past, etc. He just cares about what you can do NOW. It’s no secret that Brady’s numbers haven’t been as stellar these last two seasons, and ultimately it’s going to come down to Belichick deciding if he wants to work to re-sign the soon to be 43-year old veteran. If I’m Brady, I would try to stay with what I know for two or three more years and then ride off into the sunset. It fits, it’s familiar, and playing in New England just makes the most sense.
2. Free Agency Targets:
Recently, rumors have surfaced that the Patriots would be attempting to pursue Hunter Henry (doubtful) and A.J. Green (highly unlikely, but if Brady can go to Las Vegas, why can’t A.J. Green go to New England?) in this off season, meaning that they would certainly be parting ways with another player or two to free up cap space. These players both make sense IF they can stay healthy, which might be easier said than done. While Hunter Henry is still young, he has yet to play a full season, thanks to various injuries throughout his career. In fact, in 2019 he missed the first four weeks due to a fractured tibia, a major blow to the already-weak LA Chargers. Despite his injuries, Henry provides some exceptional blocking, great hands and the ability to stretch the defense and help other players on the offense. Henry would fit perfectly with the New England offense and provide Brady with a top quality tight end. Sure he’s no Gronk, but having him on the field would greatly help this offense.
Turning to A.J. Green now, he would provide a deep threat the Patriots desperately need. However, since 2014 Green has played just two full seasons (similar to current Patriot, Julian Edelman), including missing the entirety of the 2019 season. His best catch percentage came in 2016 (66%), which could either be attributed to the offensive scheme or his inability to stay healthy. Either way, you can bet that Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick would find a way to give Green far more opportunity than what he may have in Cincinnati should he remain a Bengal… assuming, of course, that he can again stay healthy.
3. For Himself:
Brady doesn’t say a lot of quotable things, but these two stick out when you think of Tom Brady:
"When I suck, I’ll retire.”
And, when asked which Super Bowl ring is his favorite, his reply was, “The next one.”
Brady has to hear the chatter that occurs when talking about how 2019 ended for him. He knows he’s getting older. It's no secret that Giselle wants him to retire and come home to his family. But Tom is easily one of the most competitive players in the history of the NFL, and while this season wasn’t statistically his best of his career, he still completed almost 61% of his passes and kept a 3 to 1 TD-INT ratio. Not exactly stellar, but not terrible by any means. He can still play. He knows that, everyone in the NFL knows that, and frankly any fan with half a brain knows that.
Also, Tom isn’t going to let his final pass in a Patriots uniform be an interception. He has far too much personal pride to allow that to be it. Yes, he is playing in a division with a potential changing of the guard primarily due to the resurgence of the Buffalo Bills, spearheaded by the exciting tandem of Sean McDermott and Josh Allen. But, if you have even watched Brady play for five minutes, you know that he isn’t just going to bow down and let someone walk over him, at least not if he can help it. Brady’s been dealt playoff losses before, not too many, but he’s not completely unfamiliar. But this loss felt different. This wasn’t a loss people can justify away like we’ve done when he lost in the Super Bowl, or in the AFC Championship game.
How should the Patriots address this whole situation? Bob Kraft has made it clear he wants to keep Tom in New England and will do whatever he can to make that happen. But here is the thing, Bob. You can’t expect Tom to continue to take a hometown discount on a contract. Yes, he’s 42. And yes, he’s in the twilight of his career. But he’s taken so many contract discounts to keep the team competitive that it’s embarrassing how little he was getting paid compared to quarterbacks who were doing significantly less for their organizations. The GOAT wants to be paid, and while he may take a small discount to stay in New England, the Patriots can’t really expect to retain him by being overly cheap.
The Patriots REALLY have to get a QB in this draft that they could start almost immediately, especially if Brady leaves. Jarrett Stidham isn’t bad by any means, but there just isn’t any “WOW” factor when it comes to the rookie from Auburn. Obviously getting Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa is out of the question. Additionally, many teams would have to decide that they are happy with their QB situation to pass on Justin Herbert, but Utah State quarterback Jordan Love could be a smart pick to make in the second round if possible, providing him with a year or two to sit behind Brady to study and learn. Jacob Eason would be a great grab in the second or third round as well, offering the Patriots another pocket passer in the QB room to soak in everything possible from Josh McDaniels. Trading away Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett seem like really bad deals at this point, but of course hindsight is always 20/20.
If they decide to wait until the second round to grab a QB (purely dependent upon the Brady decision), picking a deep threat or a tight end for the offense needs to be the focus, at least in the first round. Thaddeus Moss would be a great fit for the Patriots, being compared to Jordan Reed. (He is big, strong, hard to tackle, you know... the usual tight end things). Some have him going in the late first or early second round, and with big receivers like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs and Justin Jefferson likely off the board, Moss may be a wise pick. Moss may not be the guy the Patriots could get a great price for someone like Hunter Henry or *insert player of choice here*.
Of course you can’t discount Laviska Shenault from Colorado, but given his medical history it would be surprising to see him go in the first round. He’s got great toughness, he’s strong enough to break tackles, and he has enough strength to secure contested catches, something the Patriots offense desperately lacked all last year. Seeing him in Foxborough catching touchdowns from Brady would be a dream come true. And if the Patriots could somehow swing Moss and Shenault while retaining Brady, that would bolster an offense that finished with a deceptively high stat line thanks to the efforts of the defense and the hot 7-1 start they got off to last year.
We have to talk about it, but let’s say that Brady DOESN’T return to finish his career in Foxborough… What are the attractive landing spots outside of New England? Well, some make sense for the team, and others make sense for Brady. Let’s start with the ones that make sense for the team.
1. The LA Chargers:
Tom Brady playing with Austin Ekeler, *potentially* Hunter Henry, Mike Williams and more would be great, but this is an LA Chargers team who is competing with the LA Rams for fans and viewership. The offensive line is weak, and trading a veteran for an even older albeit better veteran is nothing more than to put cash in their pockets as they will undoubtedly attract fans from all over to watch Brady play in a new uniform and perhaps even get them to the playoffs. That would include keeping pace with Kansas City, the rebuilding Broncos and an upstart Raiders team for 2020. Brady to the Chargers? All about the money.
2. The San Francisco 49ers:
This one is purely about story lines. Nothing more, nothing less. Look at the facts. It’s no secret Tom grew up loving the 49ers, watching Joe Montana tear it up at Candlestick Park. The Patriots traded Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco, essentially telling the world that they didn’t need him. How wild would it be to have Tom go and win a Super Bowl with his childhood team, just as icing on the cake for an illustrious career? In all real likelihood, this isn’t happening. Definitely fun to speculate on, but this one would be all about storylines.
3. The Indianapolis Colts:
If I’m the Colts, I throw as much as I can at Brady to get him. The ultimate slap in the face to New England, and maybe get a chance to knock off the Patriots in the playoffs. Granted, the Colts finished 7-9, and Brady is maybe a three-win difference in that system at this point, but putting Brissett behind Brady for another year to get more study time? Not a bad move. Not likely, but if there was a sleeper team, the Colts are it. This one makes a lot of sense for the Colts to pursue.
4. The Chicago Bears:
This one would purely be to get rid of Mitchell Trubisky, and honestly, it would be a good move, just maybe not for Tom. The Bears have a great defense and a pretty solid offense, save the QB. Trubisky currently boasts 48 touchdowns to 29 interceptions in his young career, and that might be bad enough to get the front office to tell him to start packing his bags, or at least to get ready to ride the bench. Tarik Cohen, David Montgomery, Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel are good pieces on an offense that can be above average if they had a good quarterback under center. The weather conditions would be similar for Brady, and the Bears would have the cap space to bring him in for a year or two, especially if they get rid of Trubisky. It makes sense for the Bears more so than it does for Brady, but its an intriguing prospect nonetheless.
Moving on to teams that make sense for Brady (and ultimately both sides), we have to start with a Florida team, and not the AFC teams.
1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions last year, and it could be argued that they beat the Giants, Titans, Seahawks, Texans and Falcons with Brady’s eight picks he threw last year. There is also plenty of reason to speculate they win a few other games too, but these are their one possession losses on the season, two of them coming in overtime. With Mike Evans and Chris “The Demi” Godwin, Bruce Arians offers Brady some tools that he may not find anywhere else. And, focusing on Arians' pedigree for a moment, he was Peyton Manning’s first QB coach, and the Offensive Coordinator for the Browns the last time they were in the playoffs. Oh, and did I mention he won two Super Bowls while he was with the Steelers? Yeah, the man knows football.