The Last Night of the Patriot Dynasty

The Patriots’ season ended with an AFC Championship Game loss in Denver and a year from now when the 2014 NFL playoffs are happening, it will be a decade since the Patriots’ last championship.

Since I met Mike Hurley from CBS Boston back in 2009, we have spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the Patriots’ dynasty and how 2001 to the present day has mirrored what the Yankees endured from 2001-2008. So with the Patriots’ latest run at a fourth Super Bowl being stopped by Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it made sense to send Hurley an email about the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.

Keefe: I have been thinking since Sunday night how we are going to open our book The Last Night of the Patriot Dynasty. I have had a few ideas of how to best start what will be a magnificent piece of literature, but I figured it would be best to consult with you over the opening

The only difference with our book and Buster Olney’s book (The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty), which we plan on modeling ours after, is that he had a definitive answer to when the last night of the 1996-2001 dynasty was. So I guess my first question would be: When was the last night of the Patriot dynasty?

Was it that 2005 playoff loss to the Broncos? Was it the 2006 AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts? Was it the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants? Was it Sunday night in Denver? Before we get into the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era and whether or not the duo will ever get that fourth Super Bowl, I need to know when the dynasty ended. Or has it not ended?

Hurley: Hi, Neil. As I read through your email, I could see a vivid picture of you wearing a gleeful smile while tap-tap-tapping away at your keyboard, typing about the downfall of the Patriots. This ought to be a fun time.

To me, the dynasty ended in Denver in 2005, but only in retrospect. At the time, you couldn’t have known the dynasty was over, because they could have gone on to win in ’06 and ’07, and they would have had five Super Bowls seven years. The dynasty would have been alive and well.

But by my definition of a dynasty (there’s no real definition), you have to win championships in clusters. And the Patriots haven’t done that for nine years running.

Keefe: Nine years seems like a long time because it’s Tom Brady and Bill Belichick and the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick Patriots we’re talking about. I know how long that can feel because I watched the Derek Jeter/Mariano Rivera/Jorge Posada/(somewhat) Andy Pettitte Yankees go nine years without a championship while spending a bajillion dollars trying to win one from 2001-2008. But really when you think about it, nine years isn’t long at all for one team to go championship-less. I bet in the offseason leading into the 1970 NFL season, the Jets thought they had a team capable of repeating. Now here we are 45 years since Joe Namath upset the Baltimore Colts and the Jets have never even gone back to the Super Bowl, let alone win it again.

But when you win three in four years, make two more since then and lose three AFC Championship Games since then and your only “down” season in the last decade happened to be when your franchise quarterback was knocked out for the year in the first game of the season and his backup (who hadn’t started since high school) went 11-5, there’s going to be pressure. There has been this aura around the 2005-2013 Patriots the way there was for the 2001-2008 Yankees in that everyone just always expected them be there in the end because that’s what they had gotten used to. But like the Patriots’ heartbreaking losses in the 2006 AFC Championship Game, Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI, the Yankees had the 2001 World Series, 2003 World Series and 2004 ALCS.

Last week you wrote about how Boston sports fans shouldn’t take for granted the run the Patriots are on, even if they were to lose on Sunday (which they did) and that other organizations would do unthinkable things just to reach the playoffs, let alone assume they are going to be in the AFC Championship Game.

So why is it that the Patriots are viewed as having a letdown year once again after going 12-4, winning the AFC East again, earning a first-round bye and winning a divisional round game? Are Boston fans who are on life tilt being ridiculous?

Hurley: I think anyone who is freaking out about the loss is definitely overreacting, and as much as I believe that it’s incredibly rare for a team to be able to accomplish this kind of sustained success in terms of winning seasons, I think the Patriots will forever be a victim of their own success. It wouldn’t make sense for all the fans to be happy with just reaching the conference title game when that team built its reputation as a regular Super Bowl champion.

On top of that is the fact that the Patriots no doubt left at least one but maybe two Super Bowls on the board. They should have won in ’06, but they flat-lined in Indy, and they should have won in ’07, but they got smacked in the mouth and had no idea how to respond. And on top of THAT, you’ve got the ever-present reality that the “window is closing” for Brady. Surrounding him with rookies (Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins) and nobodies (hi, Matthew Mulligan) while kicking Wes Welker to the curb is a really odd way for the Patriots to do business when their quarterback is 36 years old.

So I think you add all those things together, and that explains most of why people are upset around here. But I think folks will have a much bigger problem with the way things are after Brady retires. That’s not going to be very fun.

Keefe: Well, at this rate, maybe Brady will never retire? I think it would be better that way. Just like I think it would be better if Derek Jeter plays forever and if this whole Mariano Rivera retirement thing were just a big joke.

When it comes to Brady, it’s definitely weird that his receiving corps without Rob Gronkowski is atrocious. Julian Edelman became the newest version of Wes Welker (I’m only saying that because I know how much you hate when people say that) and he was a defensive back being asked to defend Victor Cruz two years ago. Danny Amendola didn’t really pan out this year the way people thought he would when Welker left (maybe I can insert our GChat conversation about Amendola) and someone named Matthew Mulligan caught a touchdown pass this season.

The Broncos clearly see their window built around Peyton Manning and have planned accordingly by giving him more receiving threats than the entire AFC East has combined. What I don’t get is how the Patriots don’t realize their window is built around their quarterback as well and all they have done since their last championship is continue to take away each of his favorite receivers. They didn’t want to pay Deion Branch and it cost them in 2006. They got rid of Randy Moss in 2010 for nothing. They low-balled Wes Welker. Why do the Patriots operate this way?

Hurley: Back in the Branch days, Belichick likely felt invincible. Winning three Super Bowls tends to have that effect. All that needless game of hardball did was take a surefire championship away from Brady and the Patriots. Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel didn’t work out — who could have known??!!

Moss was different because his skills declined rapidly and he had no idea how to adjust. He became a jackass and they got rid of him as quickly as possible.

Other notable negotiations gone wrong came with two staples of the franchise — Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins. Both eventually agreed to long-term deals, with Mankins even becoming the highest-paid guard in the league, but the Patriots didn’t make it easy.

And then there is Welker. I contended immediately after he signed with Denver that it was something personal with Bill, and that much was essentially confirmed Monday when Belichick went out of his way to call out Wes for “one of the worst plays I’ve seen.” It was a simple football play that was worthy of a flag only because of its timing, and Bill wants to make it out to be aggravated assault. What a joke.

If Bill wants to be mad about something, he should mad at the GM who treated the franchise leader in receptions and the best friend of the Hall of Fame quarterback like a piece of dirt, all but begging him to leave via free agency. But, well, Bill is the GM, and I’m not sure he’s excellent at that job. Great coach for sure, and he made a good number of key signings to complement those Super Bowl rosters, but he hasn’t been able to build a championship team since losing the players left over from the Parcells/Carroll eras.

Keefe: Tom Brady started his postseason career with a 10-0 record and is since 8-8. No, he doesn’t play defense (like Plaxico), but aside from that blowout of the Tim Tebow Broncos in 2011, he has put together a stretch of mediocre playoff games.

On Sunday, he admitted he wishes there was more he could have done to help the team and this was a week after the Patriots destroyed the Colts with their running game, a game in which Brady wasn’t asked to do much. And on Sunday, Brady seemed way off the mark on deep balls that would have changed the momentum, feel and potentially the outcome of the games on throws he would have complete in the pass. Was that on TB12 or the cast of receiving characters we mentioned earlier?

No athlete gets better with age, especially as they approach 40. Well, unless their name is Barry Bonds and their fitted hat size suddenly becomes 19 1/4. I don’t think Tom Brady is done. Far from it. But how do you explain these last few years of postseason mediocrity?

Hurley: Well this weekend, I think Brady was just OK. He didn’t go all Andy Dalton on us, but with his team having so much less talent than the Broncos, Brady needed to be exceptional. And he wasn’t. It was likely a combination of being sick and also the fact that weird things happen to Brady and the Patriots every time they go to Denver. In the Brady/Belichick era, they’re now 2-5 in Denver, and that includes two devastating playoff losses. But still, if he hadn’t been throwing to Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan (he only had 23 catches at Maine) and Matthew Slater, he probably would have at least put together a more impressive statistical output.

You are discounting his 344-yard, 3-touchdown day against a pretty good Houston defense in last year’s divisional round, but yes, Brady’s been a pretty average quarterback in the playoffs going all the way back to the 2007 AFC Championship Game. I think each game has its own reasons. The Baltimore playoff games, in which the Patriots are 1-2, always seem to come on frigid, windy days that are unfriendly to quarterbacks. In the Jets loss in 2010, Brady threw an interception for the first time in three full months, and he looked like he had no confidence for the rest of the night. Justin Tuck ate him alive in the Super Bowl and made the quarterback’s job tough that night, and on Sunday I think he just didn’t have anything.

I don’t think he’s done either, as he’ll be 37 years old next season. Peyton Manning is 37 and he seems to be doing pretty well out there in Denver. I really think Belichick needs to feel the urgency (like, starting right this very second) to “load up” like he did in 2007. There aren’t a ton of great free agents available (Emmanuel Sanders, Eric Decker might be at the top of the heap), but back in ’07, Randy Moss wasn’t available. Belichick got him anyway.

I think the time is now to make a huge move for a great receiver (will Larry Fitzgerald squander his entire career in Arizona?), add another two in free agency, and give Brady the tools to actually compete. If they don’t do it now, we may never see Brady win another Super Bowl. And whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that’s a tremendous waste of Hall of Fame talent.

Keefe: It’s a tremendous waste of talent because I do like Tom Brady because he’s a Yankees fan, but I’m happy the Patriots continue to not give him the necessary pieces to succeed because if they were to give him real NFL receivers, it would mean happiness for Boston sports fans.

Six years ago, the Patriots were one win away from football immortality and Tom Brady was one win away from ending any conversation or debate as to who the best quarterback of all time is. A fourth Super Bowl in seven years to cap off a perfect season would have been one of the most unbelievable accomplishments in the history of professional sports. And even though the Patriots didn’t win that game, he still had the chance to get that fourth Super Bowl two years ago against the Giants once again.

He still has the three Super Bowls, but they came nine, 10 and 12 years ago. He’s certainly in the conversation as the best ever, but he isn’t the definitive answer he could have been. So what are we to make of Tom Brady’s legacy now even if the book isn’t closed on him yet?

Hurley: I had to deal with seeing the word “legacy” thrown around 24/7 last week in advance of the AFC title game, so thanks for bringing that back. Really, thanks.

Winning another one surely would augment his resume (obviously), but no matter what he’s done in the past nine years and no matter what he will do for the next three, it doesn’t erase the past. And that past has him winning three Super Bowls, which is something only three other guys have done in the history of the sport. You’re right about ’07, and that night will go down as the biggest missed opportunity in NFL history. The 1972 Dolphins might not even have been that great for all I know, but they’re still famously celebrated today, 40-plus years later, for their perfect season. The 2007 Patriots team was going to be that, with two extra wins, with the best quarterback ever, in the best offense ever. They were going to be the best team in the sport’s history, yet because they couldn’t match the Giants’ effort, they became just another Super Bowl loser.

So yeah, Brady’s LEGACY won’t be what it could have been, and maybe should have been. But he’s still right there in the special group of the best quarterbacks of all time. I’m not saying he’s better than Joe Montana, but what often gets lost in his 4-0 record in Super Bowls is his overall postseason record of 16-7. Brady’s record is 18-8.

Fortunately, Ryan Mallett doesn’t look like he’s quite as talented as Steve Young, so Brady should get his chances to write the final chapters of his LEGACY with the Patriots before his WINDOW CLOSES.

Keefe: The Patriots have won 176 games since the start of the 2001 season, including 18 playoff games, but the two times you had trips to the Super Bowl on the line in the last two AFC Championship Games, they lost. The loss on Sunday cost you a trip to New York City.

Here in New York, it’s been hockey season and only hockey season since Nov. 24 when the Giants lost to the Cowboys. It’s hockey season in Boston now too. Maybe I will see you on March 2 at Madison Square Garden for Rangers-Bruins. Between now and then, think about how we should open our book.

Hurley: I have a pretty strong suggestion for the book cover: Friggin’ Jay Alford.