Fans at Gillette Stadium held their collective breath. Tom Brady had the ball with 15 seconds remaining, in his own end zone, the Patriots trailing by a point. We’d been here before. New England would find a way out of it, right?
Wrong. Brady’s pass went straight into the hands of former team-mate Logan Ryan, and the Tennessee Titans secured the upset. This time there was to be no miracle, no ridiculous pass down field, no trick play. The Patriots’ post-season ended with a whimper.
If that is to be the last we will ever see of Brady on a football field, it will be a travesty. Not all great careers have fairy tale endings, but one as good as his at least deserves better than that.
On the face of it, it seems crazy that his future is even in doubt. Less than a year ago he was hoisting the Lombardi Trophy aloft, following victory over the much-favoured LA Rams. He has featured in the last three Super Bowls, winning two of them. It seems age really is just a number when it comes to the iconic quarterback.
However, the age factor is not something which can be ignored. At 42, he is unable to do what he once could. Much of his talent remains, but it became increasingly evident towards the end of the season that he is being overtaken by the younger generation.
Brady has previously stated on numerous occasions that he wants to play until he’s 45. Whether his body will let him do that is a question we cannot answer yet, but it would seem unlikely.
‘It would certainly not be fair to place the blame for this entirely on Brady. While he may have had one of his worst seasons by his own high standards, the Patriots offence in general was short on talent’
This season, the Patriots became extremely reliant on their defence. They conceded a mere 195 points in their 16 regular season games, considerably less than Buffalo, who conceded 237, and a huge gap to the third best defence, Baltimore with 270.
On offence, however, they struggled considerably. Six teams outscored them, with the Patriots managing just 420 pre-playoff points. In terms of total yardage gained, they ranked 15th.
Their early season form masked their flaws, with the team winning their first eight games against relatively weak opponents, before falling from 10-1 to 12-4, missing out on a first-round bye before crashing out in the wildcard round.
It would certainly not be fair to place the blame for this entirely on Brady. While he may have had one of his worst seasons by his own high standards, the Patriots offence in general was short on talent.
Tight-end Rob Gronkowski, one of Brady’s most reliable teammates who was with him for three of his Super Bowl wins, retired following their last title. Wide-receiver Chris Hogan, who was part of the Patriots team for their last two championship victories, departed to join Carolina in the off-season.
Other than Julian Edelman, the MVP of Super Bowl LIII, Brady had few dependable targets. Bill Belichick’s men did attempt to fix this with the signing of Antonio Brown, but that always felt like a move destined to fail, with the controversial wide-receiver lasting just one game before being cut amidst various misconduct allegations away from the field.
In many ways, it feels as if Brady was somewhat hung out to dry by owner Robert Kraft. At his age, talent alone was not going to be able to deliver another championship. Last year he was provided with the tools he needed to win, but this year too much offensive talent was not adequately replaced.
So, what of the future? Can Tom Brady still win football games? Of course he can. It is the question of whether he is still capable of winning Super Bowls which both he and the Patriots must answer.
Brady will be a free agent come March 18th if he has not agreed a new deal to stay in Foxborough.
He will have no shortage of options should Kraft and the Patriots decide to move on, with several teams, most notably Miami, Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and the LA Chargers all actively searching for their next quarterback. Even with several talented options available in the draft, the prospect of adding a six-time Super Bowl winner to your team could be too good to turn down.
‘It would appear mutually beneficial for the Patriots to keep him. It would give them time to search for his successor, whilst giving him a chance to avenge this season’s disappointments’
But Brady’s heart belongs in Boston. It would seem wrong to see him pull on another team’s jersey. Never playing again would be a better ending than seeing him struggling with a rebuilding team with little to no chance of getting near a title game.
New England’s options at quarterback are limited. They don’t have a young superstar waiting in the wings to take over. Jarrett Stidham is their current back-up and not considered by anybody as QB1 material.
Had Jimmy Garoppolo not been traded to San Francisco in 2017, he would’ve been a natural replacement. But he’s long gone and unless they are planning something drastic, such as a costly trade-up for a high draft pick, it’s hard to work out what their next move would be were they to cut ties with Tom.
Keeping Brady would not be a costly exercise, as he would likely agree to a short-term deal worth considerably less than his last contract. Retaining him, for one more year at least, would seem the obvious thing to do.
In the end it depends as much on what the man himself wants as it does his team. Would he really be willing to play elsewhere? Moving his family across the country, for one last contract on a team most likely not ready to win, is something it would be hard to see him doing.
Following that loss to the Titans – who have also since dumped No.1 seed Baltimore out of the playoffs – he reiterated his desire to continue playing and all but ruled out retirement. Whether he would feel the same if an offer to stay with the Pats was not on the table remains to be seen.
It would appear mutually beneficial for the Patriots to keep him. It would give them time to search for his successor, whilst giving him a chance to avenge this season’s disappointments.
If Brady bows out, he will do so as the greatest ever to throw the ball. But don’t bet against him walking out at Gillette Stadium again next autumn.
Photo via Flickr by Keith Allison at https://www.flickr.com/photos/27003603@N00/3866185527