After Mo Lewis of the Jets delivered a crushing hit on Drew Bledsoe of the Patriots on Sept. 23, 2001, New England turned to a sixth-round draft pick named Tom Brady to take over as quarterback.
Little has been uncertain for the Patriots since that day. Year after year, Brady played quarterback nearly every game, and the team won almost all of them. Maybe there wasn’t a trip to the Super Bowl every season, but the Patriots’ six titles in that span are the envy of nearly every professional franchise in American sports.
But Brady’s longevity as an elite quarterback has been a windfall for the Patriots that was destined to become a predicament someday. That day seems to have arrived.
Suddenly, things feel more than a little uncertain in New England. For the first time in 10 years, the Patriots had to play in the wild-card round. And then, despite being a 6-point favorite and playing at home, they lost to the Tennessee Titans, 20-13, on Saturday.
There has seldom been much of an issue about the Patriots’ re-signing Brady over the years, but now he is set to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career.
And with the 42-year-old Brady coming off an uninspired season by his standards, a question that long seemed unthinkable has surfaced: Does New England even want him back? Or is it time for the franchise to move on?
After the playoff loss, Brady said retirement was “pretty unlikely.” But there were those who read deep meaning into his use of the past tense in statements like: “I was proud to be a part of this team.”
While Brady will have decisions to make, the ultimate decision is likely to be made by the other ever-present personality of the 21st-century Patriots: Coach Bill Belichick. Never one to indulge the news media, Belichick would not be drawn into a discussion of Brady’s future after Saturday’s defeat.
The Patriots also have to make decisions on several other key players approaching free agency, including offensive lineman Joe Thuney and safety Devin McCourty. And some longtime players like receiver Julian Edelman, 33, are aging. Are the Patriots in need of some quick fixes or a total rebuild?
If the Patriots do move on from Brady, it is not immediately clear who would become their starting quarterback. The rookie Jarrett Stidham has won some praise for his practice-field play, but it’s a long way from there to an N.F.L. game. A trade or free-agent signing could bring a veteran to town for a few years, or a young quarterback who hasn’t gotten his chance. The problem is, all of those are speculative choices; no team is going to let a proven quarterback in his prime get away.
A decent number of Patriots fans think the team made a mistake trading away Jimmy Garoppolo: He fared well filling in for Brady during the Deflategate suspension in 2017, but with Brady still playing well, the team couldn’t commit to Garoppolo as the starter in the near future.
Now Garoppolo is starting for the San Francisco 49ers, who will host the Minnesota Vikings in a playoff game on Saturday.
The Patriots’ 12-4 regular-season record means that barring a trade, they will draft near the bottom of the first round, as usual, so the elite quarterback prospects like Joe Burrow of Louisiana State and Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama will be well out of range.
Then there’s the question of what will happen to Brady if his time in New England is up. For years, he was looked on enviously by nearly every other team. But will one of them want a 42-year-old player with a high profile who might not relish a role as a temp, backup or mentor?
Could the Browns, after a disastrous season, be looking for a splashy signing? Is time up for Philip Rivers with the Chargers? How about Carolina, where Cam Newton got hurt and Kyle Allen did not light up the field?
Seeing Brady in another uniform no doubt would cause anguish in New England, especially if there is not a proper heir in place.
It is not uncommon for superstar quarterbacks to be cast off before they’re finished playing. But in most cases, their longtime teams had to make room for another rising star. Joe Montana gave way to Steve Young in San Francisco, Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck in Indianapolis.
The Patriots have no such answers to the possible end of the Brady era, only a lot of questions.