During the past two decades, Super Bowl Sunday was often a Patriots Sunday.
Not this year.
The Patriots produced a 7-9 season, and failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
That was one aftershock of not having Tom Brady under center for the first time in two decades, with the quarterback leaving in free agency, and bringing Tampa Bay to Super Bowl LV.
Going forward, especially with Brady enjoying so much success with another team, are there more monsters hiding under the bed?
More to the point, are there even more ways the Patriots can be hurt by moving on from the 43-year-old Brady?
For starters, there are some who believe upcoming free agents won’t want to sign with the Patriots, because of how the Brady narrative turned out.
Why go to New England if Brady isn’t there, and the Patriots are no longer winning and competing for a championship?
Case in point: quarterback Matthew Stafford asked out of Detroit, and reportedly told the Lions to trade him anywhere but New England.
While Stafford’s motivation for avoiding the Patriots hasn’t been fully disclosed, it could be any number of reasons, from former Lions head coach Matt Patricia being back in the fold, to the Patriots essentially being in rebuild mode, or perhaps, not wanting to deal with the pressure of playing in a Boston market.
Add the lack of weapons, and it could be any one of those, or perhaps, all of the above.
At this point, it’s hard to say whether the Stafford case is a precursor for what’s to come. It’s hard to know with any certainty whether or not the Patriots will be able to lure and or land free agents they’d like to sign based on that example.
One reason for hope? Even without Brady, they still have the best ammunition to acquire talent — cash.
“Money is No. 1,” said NBC analyst and former Patriot Rodney Harrison, one of the best free-agent signings Bill Belichick has ever made. “At the end of the day, guys are going where the money is.”
And in that regard, the Patriots are flush, with an expected $60-plus million against the cap. So if Belichick is willing to spend, free agents are likely to come. In theory, at least, having money puts the Patriots in position to score on the free agent market.
“Before, you could sell them on having Tom Brady, winning a bunch of championships, winning a lot of games, and making a lot of money off the field,” said Harrison. “That’s not the case anymore. Now they’re going to have to overpay for veterans to come in here.
“Whereas before, a guy like me, when looking at it,” he went on, “I saw they had a good quarterback, they had a pretty good foundation, and something to build on.”
Harrison’s arrival in 2003 was a significant move in keeping the Super Bowl run going, and enjoying sustained success over a period of time.
The safety, a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, was interested in coming to New England because he thought he would have a chance to win, and Belichick made a good enough offer. So Harrison came aboard.
“I wanted to get with an organization that was all football. I just wanted to win,” said Harrison. “Along with being fairly compensated, I just really wanted to win.”
With Brady gone, do the Patriots have that same appeal? Is Belichick, one of the greatest coaches to ever walk a sideline, enough of a draw?
Maybe, but the quarterback situation changes the whole dynamic. It’s problematic. One would hope the Patriots have a plan this time, unlike last season, when they waited until the last minute to sign Cam Newton. Just having the Patriots in the mode of trying to fill the position, one of many in need of a boost, would give any free agent pause.
“At the end of the day, as great as Bill is as a coach, and that can’t be denied, he still has to have players who can make things happen on the field,” said ESPN analyst and former Patriot Damien Woody. “Guys would come to New England because of Brady. That’s just a fact. They wanted to play with a winner at the quarterback position, the most important position in sports. And when you don’t have that, that puts you at a huge disadvantage.”
With the climate, and the AFC East no longer being a creampuff division, and it’s an even tougher sell.
Woody, for one, isn’t sure Belichick will overpay for anyone, much less be the highest bidder for a free agent. So the money issue might ultimately prove moot if Belichick isn’t aggressive with his offers.
“New England isn’t the type of organization to break the bank open for players, and there’s no longer a guarantee of making it to the Super Bowl. So I think people are looking at this thing differently now,” said Woody. “What has been the constant? It was No. 12. They kept winning because they had Tom. So it’s different terms now.”
Terms that might not improve for quite a while.
Still, there’s considerable interest in seeing how Belichick rallies, how long it takes in order to reload, and what he does to get the Patriots back in the game.
While the aura has certainly dimmed, the fun will be in seeing how quickly they get off the mat. Some think it will be as soon as next season, while other predict a longer ascension back to contender status.
“Yeah, they’re restructuring. But that’s a good thing,” said Harrison. “They’ve had two decades of great football, now it’s time to retool and see what you can do. I think this is a great opportunity for Bill. It’s a great opportunity for the Patriots organization.”