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MINNEAPOLIS – When it was over and Tom Brady had logged the greatest passing performance in Super Bowl history, his last emotional completion came on one knee. Moving through deafening silence just minutes after a 41-33 defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the toughest and most prolific losses of his career, the New England Patriots quarterback stepped behind a black curtain and dropped down as his wife and kids closed around him.
“Group hug,” Gisele Bundchen said.
Brady buried his face in Bundchen’s shoulder for a moment, then turned and whispered to one of his crying children.
“Hey buddy, it’s OK. We did our best and tried our hardest,” Brady said. “It will be OK. Now I get to pick you up and take you to school every day.”
For the GOAT, it was a rare and vulnerable moment in Super Bowl defeat, when there is hollow solace in having put on one of the greatest offensive shows in the history of the NFL’s biggest stage. But in the final equation, Sunday night meant little more than frustrating failure. After one of the more trying seasons of his career, the ultimate payoff had eluded him. And it did so in the cruelest fashion: beginning with the ball in his hands, in the waning moments that have come to define his career; but essentially ending with a sack and fumble that scuttled a potential game-winning drive.
“Losing sucks,” Brady said afterward. “That’s part of it.”
This is how Brady and the Patriots will be remembered after this one – with the Eagles hoisting the Lombardi Trophy; with Nick Foles at the MVP podium; and with significant change ahead for the franchise. Two coordinators will depart in the coming days. Roster changes appear inevitable, including the departure of once-beloved cornerback Malcolm Butler, who was benched by the coaching staff Sunday. And maybe even a little contemplation from Brady himself, who fought off questions Sunday night about another black curtain that is naturally and methodically drawing nearer.
“I expect to be back, so we’ll see,” Brady said. “I mean, it’s 15 minutes after the game ended, so I would like to process this a little bit. I wouldn’t see why I wouldn’t be back.”
From a performance standpoint, there’s little question of whether Brady can return and lead the Patriots after an offseason of retooling. He smashed his own Super Bowl record with 505 passing yards, meticulously dicing up an Eagles defense that repeatedly knocked him around. In arguably any other Patriots season, coming back from a 22-12 halftime deficit to a 33-32 lead deep into the fourth quarter would have resulted in a win. But this wasn’t like most other seasons. Instead, a Patriots defense that rebounded from a horrendous start in the regular season finished with a bookend of failure, allowing the Eagles to roll up 538 yards on offense.
If the punishment Brady took on offense doesn’t leave him with something to think about this offseason, parts of a mini rebuild should. Not only did tight end Rob Gronkowski say he’s going to contemplate his future in football this offseason, but the Patriots seem to have given up on Butler, who didn’t play a single defensive snap in a stunning coaching decision.
There’s also the overall performance of the defense, which was more overmatched against the Eagles than any other Patriots Super Bowl team. All of this has to be a bitter pill for Brady, who has consistently played with one of the most undervalued contracts in NFL history. In offseasons where football mortality is contemplated even more, it’s no small thing surrendering maximum earning capacity in a way that allows the Patriots to invest in the defense.
But the defensive build failed dramatically this season – partially due to injury, but also through some past roster-grooming mistakes that corrupted depth. In past Super Bowls, the Patriots overcame the smallest or largest weaknesses through coaching and scheme. But that was not the case Sunday, as nearly every part of the defense had key breakdowns. From the defensive line that rarely got to Nick Foles. To the linebackers who too often got isolated in the trash on key running plays. To parts of a secondary that made repeated coverage errors or missed tackles.
“Obviously [we] didn’t do a good enough job coaching,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We missed a lot of opportunities offensively in the first half. Didn’t play good enough defense. Didn’t play good enough in the kicking game. It just wasn’t quite enough against a good team.”
In past Super Bowl failures against the New York Giants, not being good enough was hardly a reason for offseason alarm. Those crushing losses were tempered by the large swath of Brady’s prime left ahead of him. Or the knowledge that Belichick always seemed to have more to prove or accomplish. Or that from the outside, the Patriots’ edginess never really interfered with the team’s harmony.
But Sunday night’s loss comes in the face of some unavoidable realities. Brady turns 41 in August. Belichick turns 66 in April. The coordinator positions are expected to be turned over to younger, greener coaches. Parts of the Patriots’ depth chart also need an infusion of either youth or talent. And lest anyone forget it, team owner Robert Kraft has gone as far as to acknowledge tension in the organization.
Viewed with a longer lens, it’s becoming apparent that this isn’t going to last much longer. One of the major pillars is going to give out in the near future, altering a dynamic that has elevated this dynasty for so long. And while it’s unlikely that it happens this offseason, the critical nature of the next few months is clear. There is at least a micro rebuild coming. It’s doubtful Gronkowski retires. It’s dubious to think the secondary will crater without Butler. And it’s unthinkable that Brady or Belichick could walk away after being just minutes from another Super Bowl win.
But the inevitable winter is coming for this franchise. The Patriots did their best. They tried their hardest. And it wasn’t good enough. Now Brady heads home to spend time with his family, contemplating what this longest of seasons means as the black curtain draws closer on his career.