How do you replace the face of a franchise? The unquestioned on-field leader of a 20-year dynasty? The greatest quarterback in NFL history?
With Tom Brady now plying his trade in Tampa Bay, the New England Patriots are about to find out.
Matthew Slater played 12 seasons with Brady in New England, reaching five Super Bowls and winning three. On Monday, 13 days after the 42-year-old QB announced he was leaving the Patriots and 10 days after he officially signed with the Buccaneers, the special teams standout spoke at length about the need for his team to forge a new identity as it closes the book on the Brady era.
“Certainly, when you talk about Tom and everything that he’s meant to the organization, our team — a lot of our identity over the last 20 years been centered around him,” Slater said in a conference call with New England reporters. “And anytime you transition away from a player like that, it’s a tall task. … You don’t want to downplay, obviously, guys like Tom and (kicker Stephen Gostkowski) and what they meant to us. You have to find a way to deal with that personally and process it. And I think as a team, obviously, we’re going to have to process the fact that Tom’s gone, do it in a healthy way and then be able to move on.
“We’re going to have to find a new identity for ourselves. But I think part of that identity is going to be built upon things that we’ve always stood for and will continue to stand for as long as this organization is led by the people that it’s led by. That’s going to be selflessness, hard work, making good decisions. As far as how that affects the whole team, I should say doing what’s best for the football team, serving one another, not having any level of expectation that things are going to be handed to us. These are ways that we’ve always operated, and I think we’re going to have to continue to operate in the same manner that we always have and find a new identity for ourselves.
“Certainly, I’d be lying — or anyone would be lying — if they said that over the last 20 years, a big part of our identity has (not) been centered around Tom and what he’s done for us. But again, players come and go. The reality is no player plays forever. So at some point in time, you have to have pillars that you stand upon that are not going to fall regardless of who’s in or out. I think we have good pillars in place. I think we’ll continue to try to push guys to seek those pillars, stand for those things, and hopefully that leads us in a good place as we head into this season and go about the process.”
The identity will change. The goal, Slater said, will not.
The Patriots won’t be punting on this season or taking for a high draft pick in 2021. Their target — continued dominance of the AFC East and a seventh Super Bowl title — remains the same even in a post-Brady world.
“I don’t think the goals change at all,” Slater said, echoing comments teammate Devin McCourty made after Brady’s decision. “The standard doesn’t change at all. The pillars that we stand upon, they don’t change at all. I think if you go into the season with a defeatist attitude, you can’t expect to be successful. We’re not the victims here. We have a great opportunity here. We have a lot of good football players, a tremendous coaching staff, and you don’t have time to waste any season in the NFL. We all know it stands for ‘Not For Long,’ and I think all of us can appreciate that a little more now considering the circumstances we’re facing.
“We have to go into the season expecting more from ourselves than anyone outside the building expects from us. We have to go in with the same drive, the same focus and the same determination. And if we don’t, we shouldn’t even step foot into the building, because we’re already going to be beat.”
Brady’s departure, Slater acknowledged, will prompt a necessary “evolution,” both in New England’s offensive makeup — welcome to the spotlight, Jarrett Stidham — and in its locker room dynamic. But after two decades of unrivaled success, such a change was inevitable.
No. 12 is gone, but the Patriots still boast a strong contingent of veteran leaders — a group strengthened by Slater’s and McCourty’s decisions to re-sign with the team this offseason. Both are longtime team captains. Running back James White, center David Andrews and linebacker Dont’a Hightower also held captaincy positions in 2019, and safety Patrick Chung has done so in the past. Wide receiver Julian Edelman is one of New England’s longest-tenured players and an authoritative voice in the locker room.
“I don’t think there should be any fear or angst as we go into kind of uncharted waters here,” Slater said. “We should embrace the challenge. We should lean in on one another, trust our process, and I think we’ll be OK as far as leadership is concerned. We’ll just take things one day at a time.”