Editor’s note: Each day during the week of Dec. 31, NESN.com will feature content based on key events from Robert Kraft’s tenure as owner of the Patriots. “Krafting a Legacy” will examine how the Patriots got to where they are today following Kraft’s purchase of the team.
All good things must come to an end. So must all great things, which Patriots fans will someday learn the hard way.
In the case of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, the dynamic duo responsible for three Super Bowl wins and five Super Bowl appearances, no one knows exactly when the thrilling ride will pull into the station for everyone to hop off. Perhaps the duo itself doesn’t even know when the incredible journey will cease to exist — and if either does, he’s doing very little to tip his hand.
This unavoidable ignorance on our part, however, does nothing to stop the fact that Robert Kraft and the Patriots organization will someday be looking for the next Belichick and Brady, no matter how unsavory or impossible that situation sounds.
Belichick and Brady both kicked off their Patriots careers back in 2000. Their arrivals are well-documented, with Belichick arriving via a shocking trade with the Jets, and Brady amazingly falling into the Patriots’ laps in Round 6 of the NFL draft. Two years later, the pair had already accomplished something that no other coach-quarterback duo in Patriots history had: win a Super Bowl.
Neither was satisfied, though, and knowing what we know now, we shouldn’t expect either one to ever be satisfied. Neither Belichick nor Brady has anything left to prove, yet here we are in Year 13, with the Patriots once again vying for a spot in the big game — a common destination throughout the tandem’s tenure. Not only that, but the Pats are approaching the situation as if they’re still in search of ring No. 1, and that mindset starts at the top.
Even though Patriots fans must appreciate the Belichick-Brady era while it lasts, speculation about the duo’s expiration date will only grow each season going forward. It could be one year from now, three years, five years or even longer, but the simple fact is that we’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning. It’s hard to imagine given the results still being achieved, but age can creep up in a heartbeat.
There’s no telling if both Brady and Belichick will ride off into the sunset together, although it only seems fitting, but finding suitable replacements could prove problematic. Transitioning from coach to coach or quarterback to quarterback is always difficult, and doing both at the same time is extra painstaking. Simultaneously replacing two first-ballot Hall of Famers, meanwhile, is a once-in-a-generation predicament, and it’s even harder when you have absolutely no idea when that situation is coming.
Now, given the professionalism of both Belichick and Brady, it wouldn’t be surprising to see each give Kraft and Co. an indication of when retirement could be knocking. But no such indication has been given yet, at least to everyone’s knowledge, and Brady has stressed that he’d like to play until he’s 40. That would mean five more seasons of Tom Terrific, and judging by Brady’s high quality of play, perhaps five more years are in the cards. It’ll be interesting to see if he follows through, and if Belichick comes along for the ride each season.
The idea of five more seasons with Belichick and Brady leading the charge in New England is enticing, as it essentially means five more cracks at the Super Bowl before a hiccup or two is to be expected. However, it also leaves some question as to when the Patriots should begin grooming the duo’s successors, as doing so is pivotal to avoiding a total setback.
Looking at the Patriots right now, it’d be easy to tab offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as Belichick’s successor and Ryan Mallett as New England’s quarterback of the future. But if both Belichick and Brady are going to stick around a few more years — perhaps five — it’d be surprising to see McDaniels and Mallett sliding into those roles.
McDaniels is thought to be drawing interest from teams looking to hire a new head coach, and he has stated that he’s staying in New England. The writing on the wall suggests that there could be some organizational understanding that he’ll be the guy in charge once Belichick is ready to hang up the clipboard, but if Belichick sticks around for another three, four, five years, is McDaniels really going to want to sit by idly as head coaching opportunities come and go?
A similar problem exists for Mallett, who many people assumed would learn a great deal under the tutelage of Brady. Sure, the potential is there, and you could do worse than handing the offensive keys over to Mallett, but the Arkansas product will turn 25 before next season. It’s hard to envision him continuing to stick around in New England in a backup role, especially as teams seek a quarterback and his trade value rises.
What does this all mean? Well, the Patriots are obviously in a good spot with Belichick and Brady still in the mix for the foreseeable future. And if Belichick and/or Brady were to suddenly decide they’re tired of being great, the Patriots could probably survive rather than completely sink. The problem is that each season Belichick and Brady stay in New England, the more difficult it’ll become to retain the two guys who, at least temporarily, seemed like logical successors.
This in no way means the Patriots would be better off with Belichick and/or Brady retiring — anyone stating such should be fit for a straightjacket. What it does mean, though, is that the eventual replacements might not be in the organization as of right now.
So Pats fans, enjoy every last second of the current ride. It’ll be easy in the coming years to start thinking about where the team should turn once Belichick and Brady retire, but doing so will only make you regret not drinking in the greatness while it lasted.
As Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”