There is not a lot of sympathy for Patriots fans in America today. Nor should there be. We have had a good run, a better run than any fan base deserves, if team success were based on any kind of objective merit system. The New England Patriots last had a losing season–their 5-11 campaign in Bill Belichick’s first year as head coach–when Bill Clinton was still president, and I was an awkward 5th grader. The plight of the Patriots fan is that our football team loses so infrequently, it is so much more devastating, and the fans of the other 31 teams cannot wait to pounce on our misfortune. Like I said, it’s not the kind of thing I expect to get too many sympathy points for, but it is the kind of thing fans of the Yankees or the Warriors (albeit for a much shorter, more concentrated period) might relate to. This time, it feels a little different, as I process the ninth Super Bowl my favorite football team has played in my life.
The Philadelphia Eagles got the best of the Patriots in a thrilling 41-33 shootout. The game ended on a Tom Brady Hail Mary throw bouncing around, eventually falling on the ground uncaught. I saw that movie before in 2012 when the Pats lost to the New York Giants for the second time. Even if a Patriot came down with the ball, they would have needed a successful two point conversion to force overtime. It would have taken a longshot on top of a longshot, followed by a coin flip, because the defense was not going to stop the Nick Foles and the Eagles (and I never thought I would be writing that in a Super Bowl recap).
Their better chance to win came two minutes earlier, when Brady seemed poised for yet another 4th quarter comeback. It was just expected that Brady would do it again. He had come through so many times before in that spot, as recently as two weeks ago in the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. These were the moments that made Tom Brady.
It was in that spot 16 years ago against the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI that Brady pulled his first miracle, the first time Brady did his job in the biggest game of the year. Hall of Fame coach, broadcasting legend, and video game mogul John Madden said on the telecast that the Patriots should play for the overtime, and Brady made a fool of him as he marched the Patriots into Adam Vinatieri’s kicking range. When Adam’s field goal attempt split the uprights, my dad and I celebrated a little too loudly and woke up my four year old sister, who came downstairs crying. “Kelly, don’t be sad! No one picked them! No one picked them!” I remember my dad trying to console her as the Patriots were crowned champions for the first time in their 40 plus year history. Madden retired nearly a decade ago, his broadcast partner Pat Summerall passed away five years ago, and that sleepy four year old is going to be 21 this summer, but Brady was in that spot yet again. Then Philadelphia’s defense got to him.
Brady had the ball stripped from him, and an Eagles defender pounced on the bouncing football. The Patriots, to their credit, played hard until the end, but the game was over in that moment. The funny thing was that I spent the last two weeks preparing for the worst, and intellectually I could understand that the Patriots could and might lose, and unlike the previous two Super Bowl appearances against the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons, the game never got out of hand. There was no 28-3 moment. There was no setup for a Malcolm Butler miracle, even if Butler wasn’t in Belichick’s doghouse. The Patriots had stayed in the game, but they were never able to get the stop they needed on defense. But when the Patriots got the ball on the 25 yard line, with more than two minutes to go, it was the first time I was convinced the Patriots would win. As soon as I thought Brady would do it again, the ball and the season were ripped away.
The future of the Patriots going forward is less certain than it has been in a while. The team was built this year to need a 40 year old quarterback to be nearly perfect, and that is hardly a sustainable model. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will be the next coach of the Indianapolis Colts, and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is going to be the next coach of the Detroit Lions. The Patriots had an insurance policy for Brady falling victim to the normal quarterback aging curve, but that was taken away when they traded backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers in the middle of the season. Brady and Belichick will not be there forever, and when they are gone, the Patriots will be no different from any other team. This run should not have lasted as long as it has.
I realize how lucky Pats fans have been. Nothing makes you appreciate sustained success in football like long stretches of futility in baseball and hockey. Once upon a time, the Celtics were the dynasty that spanned multiple generations, and in 1986, it may have looked like it would just keep going, but it didn’t. It can go away quickly for even the best franchises.
I got into football in the 1996 season. I was six. That year the Patriots were the young overachieving team that reached the Super Bowl and lost to Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. I thought having your favorite team in the Super Bowl was just a thing that happened, but in the years that followed with Bill Parcells leaving New England and Pete Carroll overseeing the decline of a once promising team, I came to appreciate how special that 1996 team was. Bill Belichick righted the ship after a few bad drafts and a few disappointing seasons following Super Bowl XXXI, finally unlocking the full potential with the core developed by Parcells. When Drew Bledsoe got hurt and Tom Brady took the starting job, the Patriots reached levels football teams were not supposed to reach in the salary cap era. The winning culture established in New England was so infectious that it even rubbed off on the Red Sox, and in time the Celtics and Bruins got out of their decades long funks as well. It could not last forever, but maybe it would.
Ten years ago, I was a senior in high school, and the Red Sox were a couple of months removed from their second World Series title this century. In June of 2008, the Celtics would win their first NBA title since 1986, and the Bruins were showing their first signs of promise with the core that would go on to win the Stanley Cup in 2011. That was the year I first tried my hand at sportswriting, and the biggest story of all was the undefeated regular season of the New England Patriots.
I went into Super Bowl XLII against the Giants thinking there was no way the Patriots could lose. The game was just a formality. Yes, the Giants pass rush had given the Patriots trouble in Week 17, but Belichick and Brady would get it done. They would do their jobs. They always did in the Super Bowl. When that did not happen, the reality of the NFL hit me. The Patriots were just as capable of blowing the Super Bowl as the Greatest Show on Turf Rams were in 2002, and Brady was 30. There might not be many more opportunities as golden as the one they just squandered, and that realization was reinforced when Brady tore his ACL in the first quarter of the first game of the following season. If you told me as a college freshman in the fall of 2008 in the days after Bernard Pollard destroyed Brady’s knee that Brady would be starting in the Super Bowl in 2018, I would have laughed at you. I was confident Brady could come back from that injury, and even though it was his first major injury, nobody plays at that level until they are 40.
The second half of Brady’s career has been every bit as incredible as his first Super Bowl run as a second year, 4th round quarterback out of Michigan was improbable. From the high-flying Randy Moss years, to the transition from Wes Welker to Julian Edelman, to the rise of Rob Gronkowski, to the determination to keep his job with Jimmy Garoppolo breathing down his neck, Tom Brady took the friendly debate about the greatest ever and made everyone else bow down and call him GOAT.
After all that, we expected him to do it again, and by the looks of it, the coaching staff and the defense were leaning on him to do it all, too. The most successful football club of the 21st century thought their best chance to win was to put all the weight of a championship effort on the shoulders of a 40 year old, and the fact that he almost pulled it off says everything you need to know about Tom Brady. He may have been defeated by the actual game clock, but it is still not safe to bet against him.