FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — From the six gleaming Lombardi Trophies that welcome you the moment you step off the elevator into the team's business offices, to the New England Patriots Hall of Fame that's just outside the main entrance to the stadium, to the massive banners that hang in the south end zone reminding everyone of those half-dozen Super Bowl wins in just 17 years, The Standard is everywhere at Gillette Stadium.
And on Sunday, the physical embodiment of The Standard, Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr., was on hand to be feted for the memories he provided and the wins he was part of and the miracles it seemed he sometimes conjured up.
But it's hard to watch the franchise he loves — at halftime Brady told the crowd, "one thing that's for sure and will never change is I am a Patriot for life" — these days and believe The Standard is being met.
The Patriots opened their season welcoming the reigning NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles to Gillette, promptly dug themselves a 16-0 hole, and lost, 25-20. New England is now sub-.500 (25-26) in the three seasons and one game since Brady departed after the 2019 season for Tampa Bay, where he played for the Buccaneers for three years before retiring for good in February.
Time has passed since his last game with the Patriots, but everything about Brady remains familiar to fans, and so many of the things he did here remain familiar to him. As the opening strains of his signature warm-up entry music, Jay Z's "Public Service Announcement," began to play, Brady unzipped a navy blue windbreaker to reveal his now-iconic No. 12 jersey, then did what he always did when he ran onto the field for the first time at his home stadium, sprinting (well, in this case, jogging; he is 46 after all and was never fleet of foot in his prime) toward those Super Bowl banners, screaming "let's [expletive] go!" and pumping his beloved right arm.
If his goofy grin was any indication, he loved it. They loved it.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) September 10, 2023
Not so lovable: the inability of the post-Brady Patriots to consistently win close games or put up enough points to win in a league that has shifted heavily toward offense. Since drafting Mac Jones in 2021, New England is now 0-11 in his starts when the opponent scores 25 points or more. Jones also has only one fourth-quarter comeback and one game-winning drive in his 33 NFL games.
That is not The Standard. What is the once-vaunted "Patriot Way," an idea at one point used so often it became hackneyed?
On Sunday, Jones was tagged with a pick 6 on New England's first possession, a pass intended for Kendrick Bourne that was high and a little wide. Bourne batted the ball up, Eagles corner Darius Slay happily caught it, and wove his way downfield for a 70-yard score to put Philadelphia up 10-0.
No sooner did the Patriots get the ball back did they turn it over again, this time with veteran pickup Ezekiel Elliott fumbling. Five plays later, Philadelphia had another touchdown.
New England battled back, and for a moment it seemed like Brady's magic was available just by him being in the building — a six-play, 75-yard drive ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to a shockingly wide-open Bourne with just under four minutes to play. The score cut the deficit to five.
But after a hard hit by Jabrill Peppers caused Jalen Hurts to fumble on the Eagles' next play, the Patriots did nothing to move the ball, and as if to underscore that this team isn't what it used to be, the offense was flagged for delay of game on a gotta-have-it fourth-and-12 try.
"You've got to be your best at the most crucial moments. Penalties, different things throughout the game — clean [those] up. We have to be better," center and captain David Andrews said. "It's hard to beat a good football team when you're trying to beat yourself."
It's unfair to lay everything that's happened the past couple of years on Jones. It was always going to be a near-impossible situation for the quarterback that assumed Brady's long-term mantle in New England, and Bill Belichick's gobsmacking decision to have career defensive coach Matt Patricia and career special teams coach Joe Judge serve as co-offensive coordinators last season was inexcusable. That choice, along with the Patriots' recession back to mediocrity, have led to reports that Belichick is on the hot seat this year, what once seemed like a job for life now far less certain.
Brady's sustained success is uncommon. It's part of why he is so revered. A decade of greatness in the NFL is incredible. More than two decades' worth is basically unprecedented. Turnover in the NFL being what it is, only nine current Patriots played with Brady and had a front-row seat to his greatness, on the game field, the practice field and the classroom.
He demanded a lot of those he played with, but he also demanded a lot of himself.
Sunday night, Jones sounded a bit like Brady when he put the loss on himself, reasoning that the Patriots fell behind early because of him. Linebacker Matthew Judon wasn't hearing it, saying the QB is "a dog."
"We did pretty good, but not good enough to get a win," Peppers added.
At some point, the close calls and narrow losses and frustrating inability to win when the defense has a less-than-stingy outing have to end.
That's not just The Standard ushered into New England by Brady, it's the standard if you want to win in the NFL. In 51 games since Brady left the Patriots, the team is struggling to maintain it.