The New England Patriots were hit with one of the stiffest penalties in NFL history this spring -- a loss of a first-round draft pick, a million-dollar fine and a four-game suspension for their All-World quarterback. This has caused much ado.
The loss of Tom Brady to start the 2015 season may be the biggest blow to the defending Super Bowl champions. The team's championship window has been open since the turn of the century, but it has never been so wide and yet so close to slamming shut than at this moment. Here are the defending Super Bowl champions led by the sharpest minds and perhaps the best passer of a generation. And here's the NFL undercutting that momentum, bringing the good times to a halt over a few pounds per square inch.
The Greeks codified hubris, but it has existed everywhere and for all time. All things die, including the great things, and so it is that the Patriots must crumble. DeflateGate may not be the Pats' final act of pride before the fall, but we can imagine how it might be. Brady will be 38 next season. Bill Belichick is 63. The Patriots have been able to gloss over roster deficiencies at times due to those two men. Physically, they can't do this forever.
One day, the end of the Patriots' unbelievable run of success -- six Super Bowl appearances and four wins in the last 14 seasons, 235 total wins in that span -- will come to an end. We know this. If that day is soon, this is what it might look like. Let's kill off the NFL's best franchise of the last 15 years, for no good reason other than because we can.
The arms race
Never mind the sanctions, the Patriots will be competing within an AFC East that engaged in an arms race that would impress even your despot of choice.
Here are all the terrifying things now in the division that weren't there before:
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Dolphins -- Perhaps the best defender in the league.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills -- Hasn't hit The Cliff just yet.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets -- Counting this because he was subtracted from the Pats.
Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets -- In fact, by that logic Revis should count twice.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Jets -- An honest-to-goodness No. 1 receiver for the Jets.
Here are less terrifying, but also pretty important additions:
Matt Cassel, QB, Bills -- Steady passer-type substance who will have A LOT of talent at his disposal.
Richie Incognito, OG, Bills -- Yeah, baggage, but he should shore up a poor interior line.
Greg Jennings, WR, Dolphins -- Like an older, saner, safer, cheaper Mike Wallace.
Antonio Cromartie, CB, Jets -- A damn good No. 2 CB for a secondary that gave up the worst TD:INT ratio in the league last season.
Buster Skrine, CB, Jets -- Perhaps an even better No. 3 CB.
The rest of the AFC East drafted well, too, and there are young players making leaps by the day -- Sammy Watkins, Ryan Tannehill and the like.
Which isn't to say that any of these teams have surpassed the Pats, but at face this is a much better division than it was last season. And the Patriots, at face, are worse, losing players like Darrelle Revis, Vince Wilfork, Dan Connolly and Kyle Arrington with the expectation that the Next Man Up will suffice.
But let's say the Patriots win the division again. They stumble through Brady's suspension, losing at Buffalo and Dallas -- and that seems okay, because they weren't any good to start last season WITH Brady. Brady comes back in Week 6 to drop a difficult debut at Indianapolis, but rebounds to beat the Jets and Dolphins in consecutive weeks at home. New England drops just one game until Week 17 -- pick your hiccup: at Giants, at Denver, home against Philadelphia, at Houston -- and it'll be a win shy of securing a first-round bye with 11 wins in an AFC with no clear team supreme.
The turning point
Then the Patriots will go to Miami and they'll lose. The Dolphins' new pieces will be integrated, Tannehill will be the full-fledged quarterback he was at times last season, and they'll secure their 10th win to lock up a Wild Card spot. No one will think much of any this, a late-season loss by the Patriots after a long and successful run. No one will think much of a Divisional round loss (to, let's say, the Chiefs) either -- it has happened twice under Belichick.
This will be the first omen, however. The tiny rip that compromises all structural integrity in the fabric. The foreboding that slowly rises then becomes panic as soon as it breaches surface. Brady is slowing down. Belichick is getting bored. The end is nigh.
The fatal flaw
The Patriots don't have much room to address team needs during the 2016 offseason. The interior lines, the receiving corps and the secondary all need help in either free agency or the draft, but they don't have a first-round draft pick and are, at the moment, projected to have the ninth-smallest space under a $150 million 2016 salary cap.
Jettisoning big contracts will be tricky. The best candidates to be released or traded are already supporting positions of need:
LB Jerod Mayo: Save $7 million if released.
DE Chandler Jones: Save $7.799 million if released.
LB Dont'a Hightower: Save $7.751 million if released.
DE Jabaal Sheard: Save $5 million if released.
WR Danny Amendola: Save $4.133 million if released.
OT Sebastian Vollmer: Save $4.187 million if released.
The Patriots will be heavily relying on its 2015 rookie haul in 2016. First-round defensive tackle Malcom Brown will have hopefully emerged as a contributor, but even with him, third-rounder Geneo Grissom and fourth-rounder Trey Flowers, the defensive line may be thin -- Sealver Siliga has nine career stars in four seasons, Alan Branch only appeared in eight games and started two last season, and Dominique Easley hasn't been healthy since tearing his ACL during his senior season at Florida.
On the offensive line, fourth-rounders Shaquille Mason and Tre Jackson may be called into immediate along the interior, but fourth-rounders aren't guaranteed long-term starters. Jackson is potentially ready from a physical standpoint, but Mason likely needs seasoning.
So the Patriots will be relying on heretofore unseen NFL players to keep from collapsing inside-out. They're trusting that they are still the smartest guys in the league, and there's good reason for that. It's also a strategy that's naive to unforeseen circumstances.
Before the 2016 season, Brady attempts to rally his teammates by giving them a gift. This isn't unusual. He frequently gives his teammates Uggs as Christmas gifts, and gave Malcolm Butler the truck that comes with winning Super Bowl MVP to honor the little-used defensive back for making a game-winning interception.
This gift is different, however. It isn't a nicety, but rather a token from the Pats' past, to remind his teammates of New England's heyday of heydays. A silver pendant in the shape of the Lombardi Trophy, inscribed on one side with a quote by Belichick:
For a team to accomplish their goal, everybody's got to give up a little bit of their individuality. And that's what these players did and that's why they're champions.
Brady believes that the team's mentality has slipped, and that his teammates thought that an early exit from the playoffs was OK because of that magical run after the 2014 season. He wants to remind his teammates that losing stinks, that he is madder than anyone and that should change. They need to know that whatever personal glory they think they feel does not exist except within the context of the team.
Brady is the last remaining player on the Patriots with multiple Super Bowl rings with the team after Vince Wilfork was allowed to walk away in free agency in 2015, making Brady the only consistent presence within an organization that plays loose with its loyalties. His deterioration during the 2016 season is all the more horrifying as a result.
The Patriots start hot, winning five straight to begin the season. Optimism is renewed. Returns to Glory are foretold. All is right in New England and all is right with Brady.
Until his arm starts to go.
The Patriots may not ever give it a name. Belichick mumbles something about an "arm thing." There may be mention of a nerve, or elbow, or shoulder, or all three working in terrible union. The truth is that few quarterbacks make it to 39 years old in the NFL, and how their bodies react at that relatively advanced age isn't well-documented beyond a few bits of anecdotal evidence.
There are two real success stories: 1) Brett Favre earned MVP murmurs at 40 with the Vikings in 2009, but his 2008 season with the Jets was only mediocre, and in 2010, at 41, he experienced a sharp decline. 2) Warren Moon posted his second-best season quarterback rating (91.5) at 39, and had a good 41-year-old season during his first year in Seattle.
Beyond those two, all other notable names faded away:
Mark Brunell: Benched by Washington in 2006 at 36 years old, played mop-up for the Saints and Jets thereafter.
Vinny Testaverde: Strong six-game stretch for the Jets in place of an injured Chad Pennington at age 40. Weak starter for the Cowboys at age 41, posting a 76.4 rating across 15 starts. Threw for 952 yards with the Panthers at age 44 before retiring in 2007.
Rich Gannon: Career ended with a helmet-to-helmet collision in Week 3 of his 39-year-old season in 2003. Year before that ended with shoulder injury after seven games.
Doug Flutie: Had a late-career resurgence, starting his only 16-game season at 39 years old with the Chargers. He still threw more interceptions than touchdowns, however. Became a bench player after that. Played a hell of a long time, but was not an effective passer in his later years.
The New York Times profiled Brady before the 2015 Super Bowl. He is a man who describes his need to win "in notably desperate terms," and whose own father predicted "it will end badly" when the Patriots move on to another quarterback. The rest of the 2016 season is a disaster. The Patriots lose twice to the Dolphins, and win just four games to finish with fewer than 10 wins for the first time since the 2002 season. As in 2002, the Patriots just miss the playoffs and relinquish the division crown.
Brady throws 20 interceptions for the first time in his career. An arm that was never a great strength looks notably weaker. He efforts to complete passes that were once routine. He tries desperately, if only to prove he still is who he was. He drags the team down with him.
The 2017 season could end in a number of horrible ways. Brady will be in the final year of his contract, so the Patriots may let him flail, hoping he rediscovers what made him magical then let him walk away -- to another team, or into retirement -- as soon as a 7-9 season mercifully ends. They could even cut him and eat $6 million to save $10 million in cap space. Either way, the gilded Brady era in New England ends on a somber note. Maybe he spends a year or two as a stopgap starter or prized rookie mentor on another team, but this isn't what he wants.
Belichick simply walks away, giving Robert Kraft and fans the courtesy of a farewell celebration before shuffling off.
This is more or less how modern NFL dynasties fall. They are sustained by great quarterbacks and/or great coaches, and they deteriorate when one or more of those pieces move on. The 49ers recorded at least 10 wins every season from 1983 through 1998, then plummeted to 4-12 in 1999 when Steve Young suffered a concussion against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3 in what would be his final NFL game. The early-90s Cowboys fell apart during the 1997 season when alleged in-fighting between Troy Aikman and head coach Barry Switzer compounded a host of off-field problems. Switzer retired after a 6-10 season and the Cowboys haven't gotten out of the divisional round of the playoffs since.
The Patriots aren't special in that sense. They are subject to the same everyday problems a lot of teams have. The defense has ranked as low as 31st in the NFL in yards allowed in a season and still made the Super Bowl. The offense has had four different leading rushers in the last seven seasons. A different tandem has led the team in receiving in each of the last five seasons.
New England has had a lot of great players, but Brady has been the linchpin to success. Take him away -- as the 2015 suspension will, and age may soon -- and the Pats seem more ordinary.
Don't take that as hate. Few would question that the Patriots are the class of the NFL, and that's because they have been a tremendous team, and not because they cheat. In fact, it's because the Pats have been so good that we've buried them, to show how close seemingly immortal teams are to their own mortality.
Sometime after it's all over, whether in this concocted future or a more likely scenario that has New England competing for championships as far as we can feasibly foresee, Brady may look upon his pendant, or some other trinket, and think about how it ended, what he was and what he gave up to succeed. Belichick told his players to give up their individuality, but then constructed a team that was so individually Brady that it can only disappear along with its quarterback.
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