FOXBOROUGH, MA – For the first time in three years, the Patriots won't enter the offseason following a Super Bowl appearance.
Now the franchise that has hoisted six Lombardi trophies faces questions it has rarely had to address during its run of success over the past two decades.
Tom Brady's future in New England is the biggest unknown. The 42-year-old quarterback says it's unlikely he will retire, but also acknowledged following Saturday's 20-13 wild-card loss to Tennessee that nothing is certain regarding where he could suit up next season.
“I love the Patriots. I mean, they obviously — this is the greatest organization. Playing for Mr. (Robert) Kraft all these years and for coach (Bill) Belichick, there’s nobody that’s had a better career, I would say, than me," Brady said. "I don’t know what the future looks like and I’m not going to predict it.”
Belichick said there was no timeline on making a decision on Brady, but conceded the six-time Super Bowl champions' situation is unique.
“Everybody's situation is different," Belichick said. "Certainly, Tom is an iconic figure in this organization. And nobody respects Tom more than I do.”
Meanwhile, the futures of several players that made up the core of the Patriots' most recent run of Super Bowl also are up in the air.
The list includes safety Devin McCourty special teams captain Matt Slater, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and offensive lineman Joe Thuney. Multiple teams are also expected to take another run at luring away offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Van Noy said Sunday that where he plays football 2020 has crossed his mind.
“Of course. If I told you I didn’t, I’d be lying," he said. "But right now, this is sit back and wait, get better in the offseason — which I’ve done each and every year. This time is gonna be nothing different.”
Following an 8-0 start, the Patriots lost four of their final five games to end the season. It's an uncharacteristic finish for a team that had reached at least the AFC championship in each of the previous eight seasons.
“Certainly, when the season doesn’t end the way that you want it to, it is like a crash landing. It is very emotional," Slater said. "But the reality is that it is going to end like this for all but one team and, unfortunately, this year we aren’t that team.”
The Patriots' biggest strength in 2019 was clearly a defense that allowed a league-low 14.1 points per game during the regular season and had an NFL-best plus-21 turnover differential. Assuming changes are on the way on the offensive side of the ball with or without Brady, New England must do what it can to ensure it retains enough of its defensive core.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Offensively, if Brady does stay he'll need more playmakers around him than he had this season. That will probably mean spending some money on revamping the receiving group yet again. The offensive line had injury issues, but building more depth there also should be a priority.
Van Noy followed up a strong 2018 season with a productive 2019. He finished second on the team with 6 1/2 sacks and was fifth with 56 total tackles, including a fumble return for a TD. He figures to garner a lot of attention on the open market and it will be interesting to see how much the Patriots are willing to keep such an integral part of this defense on the roster.
Receiver Julian Edelman has experienced some of the highest points of his career over the past four years. He made huge plays during the Patriots' historic Super Bowl comeback against Atlanta in the Super Bowl following the 2016 season and won Super Bowl MVP honors in New England's victory last season against the Rams.
He led the Patriots during the 2019 regular season with 100 receptions, 1,117 yards and six touchdowns. But nagging injuries took a toll on him late in the season. He was mostly a non-factor in Saturday's loss to Tennessee, catching just three passes for 30 yards on five targets.
1-3 — That was Belichick's record this season against his former assistants. Belichick entered 2019 with a 14-10 record against Al Groh, Eric Mangini, Jim Schwartz, Romeo Crennel, Nick Saban, McDaniels, Bill O'Brien, Matt Patricia, Brian Flores and Vrabel. In addition to Saturday's loss to Tennessee, he split during the regular season with Flores, including the regular-season finale loss that dropped the Patriots to the wild-card round. He also lost to O'Brien's Texans. Belichick went 0-2 during last season's Super Bowl run, losing regular-season matchups with Patricia and Vrabel.
HOW TO GET IT RIGHT
Tough decisions await Belichick and not much will be known about what direction he plans to take until Brady's future in New England is resolved.
Jimmy Garoppolo seemed to be the franchise's heir apparent at quarterback before he was traded to San Francisco in 2017. The coaching staff likes Jarrett Stidham, who was drafted in 2019 and beat out Brian Hoyer to be Brady's backup in the preseason. But Stidham threw just four passes during his first NFL regular season, so putting the offense in his hands next season would signal a complete rebuild on offense.
Throughout his time in New England, Belichick hasn't been shy about moving on from players he felt were past their prime or seeking contracts that exceeded value in relation to their age.
While it seemed before this season there was no chance Brady would join that list, the offense's shortcomings this season could cause Belichick to reassess his thoughts about a quarterback that will be 43 years old at the start of next season.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower
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