Just like 1994 Bulls without Michael Jordan, my hunch is the Tom Brady-less Patriots will be just fine

Terez Paylor
Senior NFL writer

For those of us old enough to remember Michael Jordan’s greatness, the best part about watching “The Last Dance” has been the way it has served as a refresher course for things you already knew about a golden era of hoops but likely forgot because, you know, it happened 25 years ago.

Take, for instance, Episodes 7 and 8, which aired Sunday night. In between all the M.J. pettiness — and oh my God, if you didn’t cackle at a glassy-eyed Jordan smirking, shaking his head and saying “The Glove ... I had no problem with The Glove,” then I don’t know what to tell you — there were also some awesome nuggets.

Take the part about the 1994 Bulls. These days, that team is most remembered for being the group that Scottie Pippen inexplicably quit on when he didn’t get to take the last shot in a playoff game against the New York Knicks. But man, the lead-up to that moment was a great reminder of how awesome that team was to watch.

I was just 10 at the time, but with M.J. out of the mix and Pippen as the Bulls’ newly minted alpha dog, those guys retroactively reminded me of my favorite hoops team of all time, the ’04 Pistons. They shared the ball, they played hard and they played defense. As Larry Brown would say, they played the right way, and they won — 50 games, in fact. And they did it as a team, silencing every reporter and every fan who constantly wondered how they’d fare without His Airness.

It was an interesting watch for nostalgic reasons, sure, but it was also interesting as a football lover, because I can’t help but draw parallels between that Bulls team and the 2020 New England Patriots, who just lost pro football’s GOAT in Tom Brady.

Ever since Brady and his buddy, Rob Gronkowski, fled pro football’s most no-fun workplace in March, all we’ve heard are people who have long tired of the Patriots, ready to shovel dirt on their graves.

There are doubts about Brady’s apparent successor, Jarrett Stidham, with some noting that he was just a fourth-round pick last year who threw only four passes as a rookie. Some also have concerns about their defense, which lost three key contributors from the league’s top-ranked unit in free agency.

I don’t share those concerns as I’m convinced the Pats will win at least nine games and make the playoffs.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is too competitive not to win at least nine games this season, even without Tom Brady. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

In Bill Belichick, we trust

Why? Well, start with Stidham. My faith in him is quite simple. If he is New England’s quarterback come the season opener (whenever that is), and not some veteran like Cam Newton, that means the Patriots believe in him, and more important, that means Bill Belichick believes in him. 

That’s good enough for me because Belichick is far too competitive and far too competent as a head coach to tank. If he’s the Patriots’ quarterback, chances are the dude’s gonna be fine.

Never forget: Belichick once went 11-5 with Matt Cassel, who could not throw the deep ball. Stidham, once the No. 6 prep quarterback in the country, has better arm talent than that.

As for the Patriots’ defensive losses, well, there is no sugarcoating that. The three key veterans they lost are good players. Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins are versatile, do-it-all linebackers who combined for 137 tackles, 28 quarterback hits and 13½ sacks in 1,876 snaps, while nose tackle Danny Shelton provided 612 valuable snaps as a run-stuffer with a flash of pass-rush juice. 

To be sure, the three all fit Belichick’s system like a glove and were major contributors to the league’s No. 1 defense in 2019. That explains why Detroit’s Matt Patricia signed Collins and Shelton in free agency, while Miami’s Brian Flores lavished a $51 million contract on Van Noy. Both coaches are Belichick disciples, and both use similar systems as their former boss. It would be a mistake to think all three players won’t significantly help their new teams.

It would also be a mistake to think the Patriots cannot replace their production when Belichick has basically spent the past two drafts preparing to do so

Kyle Dugger, their second-round pick this year, gives off some Collins vibes. Meanwhile, Chase Winovich and Josh Uche, two top-100 picks the past two years, are promising edge rushers who could help replace the sack production of Collins and Van Noy. Anfernee Jennings, another top-100 pick, seems to have a little Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower in him. Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick a year ago, looked promising in limited action as a down lineman. Perhaps he can replace some of Shelton’s production.

My point: New England has a lot of intriguing young defensive talent, and they still return nine starters from the league’s top unit. They’ll be fine on that side of the ball.

So, if the defense is good again, and Stidham — or whoever they run out there at quarterback — is adequate, then why are we supposed to believe that the league’s best-coached, best-run organization is supposed to win fewer than nine games?

Do your job, and rally around the team ethos

After I watched Andy Reid go 9-7 in 2014 with a receiving corps so bad not a single one of them caught a touchdown pass all year, I became convinced that any team with elite coaching will likely win at least nine games in today’s NFL. 

Additionally, this year’s Patriots not only have elite coaching, they also have plenty of motivation to shut people up. Brady became a bona fide star in New England, someone whose presence drew a lot of media attention. Even though he’s gone now, teammates will very likely be asked many questions about Brady, much like the ’94 Bulls were asked about M.J.

Expect this to create a rallying cry for this year’s team, a group of 53 men who should be inspired to prove everything they’ve accomplished in recent years wasn’t solely because of Brady. Expect Belichick, a master strategist and a certified GOAT himself — not unlike Bulls coach Phil Jackson — to take advantage of this and use it to fuel the “us” and “team” ethos he has built the organization on. 

And just in case you’re still not convinced, there’s even a history of great, Hall of Fame quarterbacks moving on and the team rallying behind the next guy.

Sure, the 2012 Colts were led by Andrew Luck (in his rookie year, but still) and went 11-5 without Peyton Manning. But the 2016 Broncos, led by Trevor Siemian, went 9-7 without Manning. The 2000 Dolphins, led by the immortal Jay Fiedler, went 11-5 without Dan Marino. Stidham, if he’s the guy, can at least be as good as those guys.

You can also find instances of great quarterbacks leaving and their teams instantly going to the pits. However, both the 2008 Packers (6-10) and the 2001 Cowboys (5-11) had below-average defenses holding them back. Considering the Patriots have finished in the top 10 in defense for eight straight seasons (and again, return most of their starters), that seems unlikely.

Don’t say you weren’t warned when the Patriots are playing their asses off defensively this fall, controlling games with a bruising rushing scheme and spreading the ball around via a quick-strike attack — football’s equivalent to the way the ’94 Bulls executed Tex Winter’s triangle offense by sharing the ball — all while emphasizing the “team” aspect Belichick has become famous for instilling.

The Patriots may not have Tom Brady anymore, but as long as Bill Belichick is there, you can never count them out.

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