Five years ago, as New England waited for the next wallop in what would by mid-February become the city of Boston’s snowiest season on record, this humble reporter was lucky enough to be walking the temperate streets of Phoenix, Ariz.
I was there for Super Bowl XLIX. (That’s the one when Malcolm Butler became immortal, in case you’ve got your Roman numerals mixed up.) I was there on behalf of the Union Leader, and as the delegate for New Hampshire’s state-wide newspaper I was really fortunate one afternoon to come upon an event featuring Eagles coach Chip Kelly, the Granite State native and former UNH offensive coordinator.
He was a big deal back home. He was a big deal in the NFL at the time, too, actually — which is why this memory from 2015 relates to the process of team building the Patriots are about to undertake in 2020.
It’s only been five years, but think about all that’s happened since:
*At the time, Kelly was coming off back-to-back 10-6 seasons as coach of the Eagles. He’d been a hot coaching hire after college success at Oregon, and was in such good standing with the Eagles’ organization that a few weeks earlier he’d added head of football operations to his title.
*A year later, though, some of the shine had come off. He was fired by Philadelphia before the end of the 2015 season.
*The next year he took over as the head coach in San Francisco. His quarterback was Colin Kaepernick, who was in the midst of his national anthem protest, but by season’s end both were out of a job.
*Kaepernick, of course, has become a cultural icon (or iconoclast, depending upon your perspective).
*Kelly worked in TV for the 2017 season, then got back into coaching at UCLA. He’s already spent two years there, with a 7-17 record suggesting he’s a long way removed from the coveted coaching commodity who was headlining Tostitos’ exhibition — “chip,” get it? — in Phoenix that afternoon.
*Meanwhile, the 49ers replaced him with Kyle Shanahan. His team lost its first nine games, then traded for Jimmy Garropolo. Then it suffered through another poor season after Garropolo tore his ACL. But this past season they put it together and won the NFC.
*And as for the Patriots, before Butler made an eternal fool of Pete Carroll, they hadn’t won a Super Bowl in a decade. They’ve won three since.
*They’ve even lost one in that span — to the Eagles team that cut ties with Kelly, in fact.
*And in that defeat Butler’s Super Bowl role changed from opportunistic hero to the guy whose opportunity never came. He left Foxborough soon after, and has already been gone for two full seasons.
If any of that seems more like history than the happenings of the last half-decade … that’s the point. It’s only been five years, yet look at how much has changed in the careers of guys like Kelly, Kaepernick, and Butler. Look at how much the history of the franchises have been altered in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New England. Look at how different the landscape of the league is now, compared to early in 2015.
Look at it and you may see that the notion of “building toward something” is overrated in the NFL — and that even if the Patriots prioritize the present in putting together they’re 2020 team it won’t necessarily cost them a chance to remain competitive in the years to come.
Unless you’re the Brady-Belichick Pats, success is typically fleeting in the NFL. But so is failure, too, for most teams. Take as proof that in the past five years, all but three teams have made the playoffs at least once. Or that, in the same period, 21 of the 32 teams have celebrated a division title. Or that since January 2015 there have been 17 clubs — more than half the league — that have appeared in either the AFC or NFC championship game.
The biggest question hovering over the Pats’ offseason plans relates to whether or not they will re-sign Tom Brady. But it’s worth noting that seven of the 12 teams to make the playoffs in 2019 had a different starting quarterback on opening day of the 2017 season, including three of the four clubs that played for their conference championships. Four of the seven ultimately found their quarterback with a first-round draft pick. Two traded for veterans. And the last threw guaranteed money at a free agent.
That says there are multiple means of making an impactful — and immediate — upgrade at that spot. And that it may not require the grooming or development it did in the past.
Players come and go, with rosters typically reshuffling a couple dozen jobs every year, even in years that follow Super Bowl championships. A talent core is important, of course, but those also ever-evolving as injuries and age create attrition, so when it comes to creating continual success and building a consistent contender the key isn’t the assets in uniform. It’s having a quality coach with an enduring system.
That’s why some teams are regularly in the mix and why their lulls don’t tend to last too long. Bill Belichick is the king, but it’s why the teams led by Andy Reid, Pete Carroll, John Harbaugh, Mike Tomlin, and Sean Payton all posted winning percentages of .600 or better over the last decade, and why they’re perennially in the conversation. Conversely, it’s also why teams that appear on paper to be teeming with talent fall short of expectations or turn into flashes in the pan.
So when free agency opens across the NFL a month from Tuesday, the Patriots should be in a power position because of their power structure. Belichick and Nick Caserio will be leading the decision-making process, with the support of the Kraft family’s ownership. There may need to be some rearranging done to the roster, particularly depending upon what Brady and their other incumbent free agents decide to do. But there’s no need to fully reset or reload with a longer term in mind — because there really is no such thing as “long-term” in NFL life.
For further evidence of that, consider that it wasn’t until about a week after Kelly was touting Tostitos, and three days after Butler’s interception, that 18-year-old Lamar Jackson committed to attend the University of Louisville. He enrolled in the school that fall, played three seasons for the Cardinals, won a Heisman Trophy, saw 31 teams pass over him in the draft, played two seasons for the Ravens, and was this month named the unanimous choice for NFL MVP.
The Ravens couldn’t have planned for that. Not when he was in high school. Not even when they drafted him with the No. 32 pick in 2018. Instead, Baltimore kept trying to build competitive teams, trusted what it had established, and put it together. There was one losing season in there, but generally they’ve had it both ways. Rather than by into the overrated idea of rebuilding with a bigger-picture focus, they’ve contended while they were constructing.
And the Patriots can, too.