In case you wondered, I get asked the $15 million question of this NFL postseason in Kentucky as much as or more than I would in Maine.

“What’s Tom Brady gonna do?”

Kalle Oakes, Sports Columnist

Probably they’re trolling me, which is the rest of the world’s default setting when it comes to communicating with New England Patriots’ fans. Or maybe they believe I’ve somehow acquired inside information, which is a sign that I’ve tricked quite a few folks into taking me way too seriously.

Whichever is the case — and most of the time I can discern the difference — the reply is a half-smirk and a sheepish shrug.

Because what other answer is there at this point? I’m guilty as anyone of extending Brady godlike status over the past two decades, but until the start of the new league year, that position is evolving into somewhat of a Brady agnostic. In other words, I’m not sure I know, but I’m positive you don’t, either.

Let’s just put this into a little perspective. The idea that we’re asking these questions about a guy who will be 43 years of age in his next training camp is absurd. Same dude just threw for 4,057 yards and 24 touchdowns against eight interceptions, albeit with his most uneven statistical patterns in recent memory. He was better — much better — early on.

But the initial end result was the same. Only once in Brady’s 18 healthy seasons as a starter have the Patriots not won the AFC East title. This, in an era when the NFC East and NFC South were pretty much on a four-team rotation sharing their trophy a year at a time, That, in an epoch when the fear of long-term brain damage is persuading all-pros at other positions to exit stage left at 30, and when a different 20-something signal caller one or two seasons out of college is hailed as the next guy to “revolutionize the game” each autumn.

Suggestions of 40 being the new 30 or 20, or whatever other fertilizer we mere mortals feed ourselves to pretend we’re not creeping closer to a pine box, notwithstanding, this current conversation is akin to asking out loud if the Red Sox are about to ink a 55-year-old starter or if the Celtics will extend an offer to a power forward who just turned 50.

It defies logic, and it’s yet another tribute to the once-in-a-lifetime, master craftsman with whom we’re dealing. Brady has given the New England fan base the equivalent of two, perhaps three, hall of fame careers. He owes us less than zero. Let’s make sure to put that on the table first and foremost.

That said, for the first time in the five-plus years we’ve been facing up to reality and acknowledging that this day was near, I think it’s fair to say the ball isn’t in Tom Brady’s hand.

The real questions: What are the New England Patriots going to do? What is Bill Belichick’s gut feeling and long-term vision for that position on his football team? And how much rank will be pulled in Robert Kraft’s contribution to the handling of this conundrum?

Three years ago when we all had a much more contrived national conversation about this issue, when Foxborough was deemed not nearly a big enough place for Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo to coexist, the outcome was cut-and-dried.

Contrary to the belief of some in our everybody-loves-the-backup world, the decision was no decision at all. Brady then gave the Patriots a more realistic chance to win it all than Garoppolo now. And winning it all is the only immediate concern of any self-respecting pro sports franchise. Brady’s starring role in securing the franchise’s fifth and sixth Lombardi trophies confirmed that the right decision was made, no matter how much some of us amateur player personnel directors fear it may have mortgaged the future.

With all due respect to the most prolific cat ever to play the game, “duh” is a far less acceptable answer to these questions in 2020 than it was in 2017. That being said, the current backup, Jarrett Stidham, appears to have far more in common than Kevin O’Connell or Rohan Davey than Jimmy Garoppolo.

So the issue becomes twofold. How does Brady compare with the other solutions on the open market? And does one of those answers become a viable alternative — even though on the surface they aren’t worthy to carry Brady’s smoothie blender — if the Patriots use the new financial outlook to structure the roster differently?

You don’t need a lifelong background in the league or access to a telestrator to see that the shield is transitioning back into a federation that’s dominated by defense and ball control. The number of true “franchise quarterbacks” is in single digits.

America’s team du jour, the Tennessee Titans, have saddled up Derrick Henry and asked Ryan Tannehill simply not to screw it up. At the more electrifying end of the spectrum, a stronger case than you think can be made for Mark Ingram, Marshal Yanda, Ronnie Stanley, Mark Andrews and University of Maine product Patrick Ricard being the real impetus for Lamar Jackson’s regular-season success with the Baltimore Ravens.

Right now, the Patriots sorely lack tight ends who can catch the ball, offensive linemen who aren’t turnstiles, and a running back who can pound the rock more than 15 or 20 times per game and be productive. Fixing the first two issues, of course, might also repair the latter.

Acquire talent at those time-honored key spots, arguably becoming crucial again as they were in the 1980s, and the likes of Andy Dalton, Teddy Bridgewater or Ryan Tannehill could possibly mind the store efficiently enough to keep us from speaking of the Patriots’ era of excellence in the past tense.

No, no, a thousand times no — nobody of that ilk is in the same solar system with Tom Brady in terms of talent in his heyday. But in a throwback league where completing 10 or 11 passes in a game can once again take you deep into January, such a game manager could be a shrewd way to bridge the gap while building a new, championship infrastructure.

What are the Patriots gonna do?

Due diligence, hopefully, without engaging in the kind of unproductive nostalgia that could set back the franchise for a decade or more.

Kalle Oakes spent 27 years in the Sun Journal sports department. He is now sports editor of the Georgetown (Kentucky) News-Graphic. Keep in touch with him by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @oaksie72.

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