ATLANTA – With the New England Patriots, it never takes long for thoughts to turn to the next season, the next Super Bowl run, the next accomplishment and the next championship to add to the pile that already has been stacked astoundingly high.
Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have demonstrated over the years that they have the same insatiable appetite for winning. The most recent Super Bowl triumph never seems to be enough.
So after the Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl title Sunday in nine appearances in the big game over an 18-year span of dominance overseen by Belichick and Brady, the question became: Can they do it again next season?
And the answer, as it always is with them, seemed to be: Why not?
“It doesn’t ever get old,” center David Andrews said following the 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history. “There’s so much work that goes into it. It’s what you dream of as a little kid . . .. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world. It’s the most [grateful] feeling in the world to be part of this team, to be part of the locker room with those guys, the way they fought all year, the adversity we fought all year. It doesn’t get old.”
Belichick turns 67 in April. Brady turns 42 in August. Neither gave any indication late Sunday night of having plans to step away on the heels of this latest Super Bowl win. Belichick credited owner Robert Kraft with giving him the means to compete annually for championships.
“We have a lot of great people in the organization,” Belichick said. “It starts at the top with Robert and his family. He’s given us great support in all the things we need to do to be competitive. Again, we have a great group of players and coaches that work extremely hard to compete the best we can. I’m happy that things worked out for us this year and we were able to be the best team in football this season. That’s hard to be in this league. But these guys earned it.”
Brady had said before the game there was no chance that he’d retire after it. He said afterward that he felt the same way.
“It doesn’t change anything,” he said in an interview with CBS before he left the field.
Last season’s talk of Brady and Belichick being at odds, and the accompanying speculation that the end of their history-making collaboration could be at hand, seemed like a distant memory by late Sunday night. The friction between them appeared to have been greatly reduced this season, by many accounts. Brady spoke appreciatively Sunday night of being involved in the “challenging” football culture created by Belichick. The success just keeps building on itself, and former Patriots defensive mainstay Vince Wilfork addressed the team Saturday night on the eve of the game.
“It’s pretty sweet, man,” Brady said at his postgame news conference. “I think we do play for each other. Vince came and spoke to us [Saturday] night and it means a lot. There’s been a lot of guys [who have been] part of this journey with this team. It’s just been fun to be part of it. You just do your best every day. Coach makes it a challenging football environment. The pressure’s always on. And for moments like this, you have to rise to the occasion.”
Barring an abrupt reversal by Brady or Belichick on the retirement issue, it’s difficult to envision the Patriots not being in championship contention yet again next season. They have, after all, played in eight consecutive AFC title games. They’ve reached three straight and four of the last five Super Bowls.
Belichick remains at the top of his coaching game. He held things together during a 1-2 start to this season during which many wondered whether the Patriots finally were too old and too worn out to regroup this time. He badly outmaneuvered the Rams’ boy-wonder coach, Sean McVay, on Sunday. The Rams were surprised by the zone coverages used in the secondary by the Patriots, who were a man-to-man team all season, and by the constant stunting up front by the New England pass rushers. McVay readily acknowledged that he’d been out-coached.
Brady, at age 41, was not the league MVP this season that he’d been last season at 40. He wasn’t at his sharpest Sunday. But he was plenty good enough, particularly during the AFC playoffs.
There is roster remaking to be done. Tight end Rob Gronkowski contemplated retirement last offseason, and many wondered if Sunday’s game was his farewell.
“That will be decided in a few weeks or so,” Gronkowski said after the game, in which he had the key catch to set up the night’s lone touchdown.
Safety Devin McCourty also raised the possibility during the buildup to the game of retirement this offseason. Meanwhile, the wide receiver corps must be addressed. Julian Edelman, the Super Bowl MVP, is under contract for next season. But Chris Hogan, Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett are eligible for free agency. Josh Gordon is under indefinite suspension by the NFL under its substance abuse policy.
Defensive end Trey Flowers and left tackle Trent Brown are potential unrestricted free agents and would be in great demand if they reach the open market. Other prospective free agents include cornerback Jason McCourty, who made a key play Sunday to break up a would-be touchdown catch by the Rams’ Brandin Cooks, and defensive tackles Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown.
On his coaching staff, Belichick will have to replace linebackers coach (and de facto defensive coordinator) Brian Flores, set to become the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Some believe he will hire Greg Schiano, the former head coach at Rutgers and for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and most recently the defensive coordinator at Ohio State.
The Patriots became the first team since the 1972 Dolphins to win a Super Bowl after losing the previous season’s Super Bowl. Belichick has spent two decades ensuring that the so-called Super Bowl hangover is an affliction for other teams, not the Patriots. He knows how to deal with getting a late start readying for free agency and the NFL draft, with protecting veteran players from the wear and tear of all those additional postseason games, with retooling the roster and keeping everyone hungry for more.
The work and planning for next season undoubtedly will begin very soon. In Belichick’s world, there is little tolerance for pausing for very long to savor victories. But as of late Sunday, the Patriots were leaving themselves just a bit of time to enjoy their latest triumph.
“Tonight it’s about celebrating with my teammates,” Gronkowski said, “and that [retirement] decision will be made a week or two down the future . . .. We’re going to have a good time. Bill told me he’s partying tonight.”