The last time Bill Belichick was here, coming off a frustrating loss with the foundation of his New England Patriots seemingly uncertain, the loudest critics were taught the harshest lessons.
Dial it back to fall 2014, when the Patriots suffered a brutal 41-14 Monday night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Quarterback Tom Brady had an awful game. The wide receiving group was leaning on middling veteran Brandon LaFell. The offensive line was cracking. Even an extremely talented defense had just been diced up and battered by Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and 1-2 running back punch of Knile Davis and Jamaal Charles.
When the team boarded its plane for the trip home, it might as well have been traveling in a body bag.
“Let’s face it, they’re not good anymore,” ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said that night, in a postgame comment that has followed him for years. “They’re weak.”
History gets fuzzy as the years go on. However, Dilfer was hardly riding solo with many predicting that Chiefs loss as the death rattle for the Patriots dynasty. Something just felt different that night. After all, nothing lasts forever, right?
Anyone who knows the Patriots knows the rest of this story.
New England resoundingly responded to that 2-2 start to win the AFC East for the sixth straight year. Then, Belichick, Brady and a disgustingly good defense ran all the way to a win in Super Bowl XLIX.
New England rolled to five more division titles (11 straight through last season), three more Super Bowl appearances (including two wins) and a general reminder that what we perceive as a Patriots death rattle is almost always a brief and fixable sinus infection.
You simply could never predict the date of an inevitable Patriots teardown. It didn’t matter how many draft blunders were absorbed or free agent mistakes were made. As soon as you were bold enough to stamp the dynasty’s death certificate, Belichick, Brady and a rotation of reliable veterans and assistant coaches would make you look like a fool.
Comparing Patriots’ 2020 tailspin to 2014 hiccup
That brings us to 2020. Large parts of that dynamic changed and a pandemic season nudged New England into a subtle 2-5 tailspin following Sunday’s 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
All of which was prefaced, in case you missed it. Brady left town. Eight Patriots opted out, including significant losses (linebacker Dont’a Hightower, tackle Marcus Cannon and safety Patrick Chung) and likely valuable role players (fullback Danny Vitale, special teamer Brandon Bolden and wideout Marqise Lee).
The rest of the New England roster looks as uncertain as ever. Where there aren’t holes, there is age. Even a quarterback spot that looked promising in the hands of Cam Newton is open for some debate.
When you look at the prospectus top to bottom, this is far worse than 2014.
There is no still-in-his-prime Brady to cover for mistakes. There also isn’t the young defensive talent from that season. Frankly, there doesn’t appear to be a wave of reinforcements on the way, either.
The key opt outs are all in their 30s and will be one more year into the winter of their careers when 2021 rolls around. You can add wideout Julian Edelman and defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty to that list, too. Even Stephon Gilmore turns 31 at the start of next season, which is creeping close to where most cornerbacks approach a precipitous decline.
No matter how good Belichick is as a head coach, aging rosters with a void of top-shelf young talent tend to fall hard. That’s what the Patriots are staring at right now.
General manager Bill Belichick can’t bail out head coach Bill Belichick
Maybe that’s why Belichick went on Sirius NFL Radio last week, providing a rather expansive explanation — or excuse, depending on how cynical you want to be — to his friend, protector and former offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis. Belichick framed New England’s current talent predicament as largely salary-cap related. Which is true, but only partially.
“We’re playing more young players than we’ve played in the past,” Belichick said, as transcribed by ESPN’s Mike Reiss. “A combination of reasons. We were pretty heavily invested in our team in the past few years. From a salary-cap standpoint, we didn’t have much flexibility at all. I think that was obvious on the Cam Newton contract. Then we had some opt outs, so we lost some players there that would normally have been giving us significant amount of play time. And then like every year, a couple guys are banged up and we’ve missed some guys here and there in certain games.
“I think when you combine it all together, there is opportunity there, and some of that opportunity has gone to younger players. Again, because of our cap situation in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.”
It’s always interesting when Belichick takes time to explain something as he sees it because he rarely feels compelled to do so. That he’s doing it in friendly hands raises red flags because it prevents the follow-up question that Belichick has zero interest in entertaining.
And that question is this: Could it be that part of the current situation with this roster is that a number of decisions made in the draft and free agency by general manager Bill Belichick haven’t worked out?
Lackluster draft picks, free agency put Patriots in this spot
To be completely fair to Belichick, there are circumstances that play into the Patriots’ 2-5 start. The opt outs mattered. Injuries have mattered. Newton’s positive COVID-19 test mattered. And above all else, Brady’s departure mattered.
None of it takes away from the fact that he’s the greatest coach in NFL history. You can split hairs about that reality overlapping with Brady’s career arc, but it is what it is. He has the rings, and he’ll be polishing them while we argue over who was most responsible for the success.
However, it certainly isn’t the kind of general managing run that wins awards. At the risk of the aforementioned lesson from 2014-19, this edition of the Patriots feels like it’s a chapter coming to a swift end.
Over the past decade, Belichick’s drafts have been solid and maybe above average but certainly nothing special in terms of continually reinvigorating the foundation with a wide swath of young pieces worthy of contract extensions.
In fact, Belichick’s drafts since that fateful 2014 season have been particularly middling, with zero Pro Bowlers selected out of 52 picks between 2014-2019. This is the window that should have provided a significant base of starters or key backups for the current roster, and it’s just not there. That’s either because many of the picks didn’t pan out or Belichick didn’t see the value in signing a few of them to long-term deals.
That’s not to say there wasn’t talent in those classes.
Cornerback Malcolm Butler was signed as an undrafted free agent and had a short flourish as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Others have had nice careers thus far, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back James White, defensive end Trey Flowers and offensive guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney. Parts of the 2019 and 2020 classes also boast potential long-term pieces.
There is no escaping that Belichick has strung together several free agent classes in a row that flowed into this season’s flat tire. However, the team had to shore up parts of the operation where draft picks didn’t pan out.
The wide receiver spot, for example, has been a long-running thorn in the team’s side. There’s little evidence that left to his own devices, Belichick is cut out to draft a star wideout in the NFL.
We don’t even need to go into depth when it comes to the signing of Antonio Brown and trading for Mohamed Sanu, two decisions that left a deep gash in the recent Belichick general managing record.
Is total rebuild necessary for the Patriots?
The team is in a type of disrepair that is unlike 2014. That is breathing life into a scenario that many believed would unfold when Brady went out the door. That moment when Brady departed, some predicted, would be when the dynasty closed up shop and had to do an entire overhaul of the interior.
Newton playing flawlessly might have changed that, but he has been a roller coaster that is sometimes a function of his own flaws and sometimes a function of the players the offense is utilizing around him.
Now, we’re looking at a roster with aging parts that can’t last and young parts that don’t look capable of engineering a turn-on-a-dime micro rebuild.
There’s no shame in being here. That it’s so jarring in New England is the result of 20 years of unrivaled dominance.
Now, it’s time for the franchise to turn the page back to an earlier chapter of Belichick’s career that he hasn’t tackled in decades: the total rebuild that can define his legacy after Brady.
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