In a dozen seasons in New England – all spent working alongside Tom Brady – Patriots captain and Pro Bowl special teams ace Matthew Slater has proven himself an extraordinary leader and locker room spokesman.
During a conference call Monday afternoon, those skills were on full display as Slater talked about the work-in-progress 2020 Patriots, a team that will have to build a “new identity” with the G.O.A.T. Brady having somewhat shockingly moved on to Tampa Bay in free agency.
“We can’t not acknowledge the fact that Tom’s gone and certainly there’s going to be an evolution that occurs in our locker room, an evolution that occurs within our offense,” Slater said with refreshing honesty when asked about a potential leadership void without Brady. “But that time was going to come in some way, shape or form. What the void is? How we fill it? I can’t really speak to that now. I think it’s important that guys stay within themselves. We’ve all been gifted to lead and do things in our own way. And you just have to continue to do that. You don’t try to do anything extra. You don’t try to go above and beyond, because guys are able to quickly sniff that out. ‘Oh, he’s not being himself.’ Authenticity is going to be huge for all of us that are leaders on this team and for young leaders that we need to step up. We’re going to have be ourselves. We’re going to have to stick to our principles and lead the best way that we can.
“I don’t think that there should be any fear or angst as we go into kind of uncharted waters here. We should embrace the challenge. We should lean in on one another. Trust the process. And I think we’ll be OK as far as leadership is concerned and we’ll just take things one day at a time.”
Slater also made it quite clear that you “don’t want to downplay” what Brady meant to the Patriots nor the role TB12 played as essentially the centerpiece of the team for the last two decades.
“You have to find a way to deal with that personally and process it. As a team obviously we’re going to have to process the fact that Tom’s gone,” Slater said. “Do it in a healthy way and then be able to move on. We’re going to have to find a new identity for ourselves. But I think part of that identity is going to be built upon things that we’ve always stood for and will continue to stand for as long as this organization is led by the people that it’s led by. I think that’s going to be selflessness, hard work, making good decisions as far as how that affects the whole team, so I should say doing what’s best for the football team, serving one another, not having any level of expectation that things are going to be handed to us.
“These are ways that we’ve always operated. I think we’re going to have to continue to operate in the same manner that we always have and find a new identity for ourselves. I’d be lying, or anyone would be lying, if they said that over the last 20 years a big part of our identity has (not) been centered around Tom and what he’s done for us. But again, players come and go. The reality is no player plays forever. So, at some point in time you have to have pillars that you stand upon that are not going to fall regardless of who is in or out. I think we have good pillars in place. I think we’ll continue to push guys to seek those pillars, stand for those things and hopefully that leaves us in a good place as we head into the season and go about the process.”
As much as Brady meant to the team and will be missed by the organization as a whole, Slater also focused on his individual relationship with his respected former teammate.
“When you talk about Tom and everything that he’s meant to this organization, our team, a lot of our identity over the last 20 years has been centered around him. Any time you transition away from a player like that it’s a tall task,” Slater said. “There are a lot of emotions involved as you try to process it, especially for me personally. But I think the one thing that I’m feeling right now is a ton of gratitude. I feel a ton of gratitude towards Tom for the way he always treated me, the respect that he always showed me from the moment I walked in this locker room, the humility with which he has always carried himself and has continued to carry himself with and just the friendship that we have.
“I am thankful for the experiences he provided me on a football field, the experiences I’ll take with me and cherish the rest of my life. Some magical moments being his teammate. But I’m more grateful for his friendship, the man that he is, the way that he loves his family, the example that left behind for so many of us. Certainly thank you doesn’t do it justice, but I have a lot of gratitude when I hear the name or think about the name Tom Brady.”
But Slater also made it clear that there will be no excuses allowed in the post-Brady era in Foxborough. The identity may change. The challenge may be greater than ever. The expectations remain high.
“I don’t think the goals change at all. The standard doesn’t change at all,” Slater declared. “The pillars that we stand upon, they don’t change at all. I think if you go into the season with a defeatist mindset, then it’s tough to be successful. We’re not the victims here. We have a great opportunity. We have a lot of good football players. We have a tremendous coaching staff. You don’t have time to waste any season in the NFL. We all know it stands for Not For Long. I think all of us can appreciate that a little bit more now considering the circumstances we’re facing. We have to go into the season expecting more from ourselves than anyone outside the building expects from us. We have to go in with the same drive, the same focus, the same determination. And if we don’t, we shouldn’t even step foot in the building because we’re already going to be beat. So let’s come in there with the same goals. That’s going to be from day one. Come in working hard, doing your job, working to perfect your craft. And not worrying about what everyone else is doing. Let’s take care of yourself, first and foremost. Start small and hopefully it grows into bigger things. But I think our mentality as a team and our approach to what we’re doing has to be the same that it’s always been.”