Tom Brady’s stunning announcement Tuesday that he was leaving the New England Patriots – yes, still shocking even when you could see it coming for months – whisked me back to 1999. That’s when the greatest sports dynasty of my lifetime (sorry, Yankees fans), Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, disintegrated into a contrail of grandeur and glory tinged with bitterness.
Both in the moment and hindsight, it surely felt that Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson had a seventh NBA championship push in them, especially in a lockout-curtailed ’99 season conducive to – yes – “load management” for an older team. But intransigent general manager Jerry Krause infamously broke up the band, ensuring there wouldn’t be another running of the Bulls. Chicago missed the playoffs the next six seasons and, post-Jordan, have never returned to the NBA Finals.
Bill Belichick, unable for the last year to find a way to keep Brady – now on his way to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – is responsible for doing the same to a franchise that has reigned over the NFL like none ever has in the league’s 100 seasons. It may be another century or more before another organization approaches such football dominance again.
DYNASTY OVER? Patriots’ run looks to be coming to an end
But make no mistake: The New England juggernaut is dead, and Belichick isn’t going to “Patriot Way” himself into some kind of quick fix that would permit the 67-year-old mastermind to somehow prove Brady – the only common denominator player in the Pats’ six Super Bowl triumphs – was just another interchangeable variable in his imminently solvable Lombardi quadratic equation.
After two decades, here are four factors revealing why the Patriots will finally join the ’60s Packers, ’70s Steelers, ’80s 49ers and ’90s Cowboys in the NFL’s dynastic cemetery:
There’s no apparent successor
As Brady exits stage left, Belichick doesn’t have the luxury of drafting Andrew Luck or turning to Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers … or, ahem, Jimmy Garoppolo. A scan of his quarterback depth chart reveals journeyman Cody Kessler and 2019 fourth-rounder Jarrett Stidham, who was so ineffective mopping up for Brady in his pro debut against the Jets – Stidham was sacked, then threw a pick-six to Jamal Adams during his only drive – that TB12 had to re-enter the game.
The Patriots must now weigh their alternatives. With Philip Rivers and Teddy Bridgewater finding new teams, Jameis Winston is the most notable free agent remaining. Andy Dalton, Nick Foles and Cam Newton are apparently on the trade block. But all of them also come with varying peccadilloes.
And history suggests none is going to capture any Brady pixie dust even if they come to New England. The only quarterbacks to start and win a Super Bowl in the same season they joined their team were Trent Dilfer (2000 Ravens) and Nick Foles (2017 Eagles). Both were imported as backups, and Foles at least had some organizational familiarity in his second stint with Philadelphia.
Draft likely won’t have timely answer
What do Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson have in common? Besides being surefire future Hall of Famers, they’re the only quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl the year after they were drafted. No rookie has started under center on Super Sunday. So, yet another daunting historical obstacle.
The 2020 draft appears to feature four first-round caliber passers in LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love. However with the 23rd overall pick and no Round 2 selection, New England – which normally stockpiles draft capital – will probably be fortunate to get within striking distance of Herbert or Love, though neither is generally regarded in the same category as Burrow or Tagovailoa.
There’s always a chance a future MVP can be plucked with the 199th pick … because, well, there’s always a chance.
Little ammo to reload
The Pats don’t have a second-rounder because it was shipped to Atlanta last season for receiver Mohamed Sanu. Oops. Their No. 23 pick is unlikely to produce a bounty unless Belichick finds a desperate trade partner … unlikely, if not out of the question.
And then there’s the salary cap. New England had barely more than $3 million in available space as of Tuesday evening, according to overthecap.com, after re-signing veterans Matthew Slater and Devin McCourty and franchising Joe Thuney.
Maybe Thuney could be moved in a tag-and-trade scenario. But as solid as he is, how many teams are going to be shaken down for a guard suddenly in line to make left tackle money in 2020?
As for other assets that could be divested? Receiver Julian Edelman, the Super Bowl LIII MVP, will soon turn 34 and is coming off knee and shoulder injuries. Running back Sony Michel has his own injury history and looked decidedly average in his sophomore campaign. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and third-down back James White have obvious value in New England’s puzzle … but elsewhere?
That pretty much leaves 2019 defensive player of the year Stephon Gilmore as the most marketable commodity on the roster. But how many teams think they’re just an expensive 29-year-old corner away from the promised land?
For years, Belichick had little trouble recruiting talent to Foxborough. Quality players were willing to take less money and/or suppress their egos in exchange for the annual opportunity to chase a ring … while teaming with the greatest quarterback of all time.
But what enticement is there now?
Going to be hard to enlist topflight talent into a football corporation that views players as fungible resources and requires them to check their personalities at the door – a reality that caused retired Rob Gronkowski, among others, to chafe. And there are sure to be plenty who look forward to running roughshod over an organization long infamous for often shady tactics.
Following decades darkened by ineptitude, New Englanders have enjoyed 20 years of virtually uninterrupted football fun.
That’s over now. RIP, Patriots.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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