part 1: The History
Tom Brady, a household name across much of the U.S. since the early 2000s, has an undoubtably historic resume in the National Football League. Whether its his endless list of passing records, his age-defying longevity and consistency, or his 7 Superbowl championships, Brady is widely known as the undisputed G.O.A.T. of American football.
Nonetheless, Brady’s teams – offenses in particular – have not always been star-studded. His long-term relationships with the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Deion Branch and a barrage of other all-time receiving targets makes it difficult to think of a time in which Brady didn’t have much help.
The 2018 NFL season came after 2 consecutive Super Bowl visits for the Patriots; Superbowl 51 against the Atlanta Falcons, and Superbowl 52 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots defeated the Falcons 34-28 in what is the greatest post-season comeback of all time (down 28-3 late in the 3rd quarter), and suffered a devastating 41-33 loss to the Eagles that following year. 2 years prior to their win over the Falcons, the Patriots had defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 in Super Bowl 49. In short, the Patriots had a streak of improbable post-season success just prior to 2018, visiting the Superbowl 3 times in 4 years.
Following their Superbowl loss to the Eagles, controversy and theories of discourse between Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick ran rampant. They came primarily as a result of Belichick’s unexplained benching of corner Malcom Butler just prior to the game, the same Malcom Butler who won the Patriots a Superbowl 3 years earlier against Seattle with a last-minute interception.
Just before the game, during the performance of the national anthem, Malcom Butler could be seen crying while his teammates comforted him.
The most popular theory painted Belichick as the mastermind behind the Patriots loss. It claimed that Belichick had wanted to stick with then-backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, even going as far as to shop Brady with other teams such as the San Francisco 49’ers. Belichicks reasoning was primarily Brady’s age, as he was about to be pushing into his 40s at the time.
When Patriots owner Robert Kraft got wind of this, he put a stop to it immediately. Belichick was forced to instead send Garoppolo to the 49’ers on the cheap, and Brady remained the Patriots quarterback.
Garoppolo then won his 5 starts with the 49’ers to end off the season, earning himself an over 100-million dollar contract extension with the team.
According to the theory, Belichick held the grudge and felt that he had earned the right to make the moves he felt were best for the team. When Kraft stepped in, Belichick was furious. It was clear that Kraft valued Brady over Belichick, and thus Belichick had a point to make.
Now we arrive at Superbowl 52, where the Patriots were set to matchup against backup quarterback Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots were the clear favorites, as Belichick had been historically dominant against inexperienced starters, and after all, Brady was the MVP favorite.
The Patriots had a dominant defense in 2017, ranking 5th in points allowed with just 18.5 points allowed per game. Offensively, they were second in points scored.
Then, as the story goes, Belichick decided to prove his point in the Superbowl. Belichick would, in short, force Brady to try and win the game without Belichick’s masterclass coaching. Pulling Butler would throw the defense off just enough to prove damaging, and Brady would have to put on one of the greatest Superbowl performances of all time to defeat the Eagles.
The Eagles went on to score 41 points, and despite Tom Brady’s record breaking 505 passing yards and 3 touchdowns, arguably the greatest Superbowl performance by a quarterback in NFL history, the Patriots 33 total points just wasn’t enough to keep up with Philadelphia.
The theory is often supported when looking towards Belichick’s uncharacteristically silent coaching on the day. Despite multiple calls that were challengeable and possibly game-altering, Belichick never threw the challenge flag.
Despite the wild theories and the heartbreaking loss, the Patriots inevitably moved on.
In the offseason following the Patriots loss to the Eagles in Superbowl 52, New England lost several key offensive pieces. Running back Dion Lewis, wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola, tight end Martellus Bennet, and offensive tackle Nate Soldier were among these key losses.
In terms of additions, the Patriots brought in a rookie first round running back in Sony Michel along with a rookie first round tackle in Isaiah Winn. They also traded for blindside blocker Trent Brown from the 49’ers, and Julian Edelman would be returning from a lost season due to injury following a quick 4-game PED suspension to start the new season.
While the balance of offensive additions and losses was a bit lopsided, the Patriots had compensated for it with a bolstered defense, signing defensive lineman Danny Shelton, corner Jason McCourty, and edge rusher Adrian Clayborn.
Thus, the Patriots weren’t in too deep of waters headed into 2018. Sure, they had suffered some big losses in the receiving room, but the run game was looking to get a boost from some key O-line and running back additions.
Brady would likely be throwing to Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and college lacrosse star Chris Hogan as his top three targets following week 4.
The Patriots would look to shine again following their 13-3 2017 season, and facing the Texans, Jaguars and Lions to start their 2018 season seemed to bode well for that goal.
Check back next week for part 2: the season.