The New England Patriots got a taste of how most non-contending teams operate in the NFL: Out of sight, out of mind. After controlling the AFC East for two decades, the 2020 Patriots finished 10th in the conference, reduced to an afterthought in their own division after the Buffalo Bills finally broke through with an elite 13-3 season. Even the Dolphins finished with more wins than the Patriots for the first time since 2000, the year Bill Belichick and Tom Brady came to New England.
But Belichick was on his own, almost literally, last year. In the first season without Brady, the Patriots saw their 19-season streak of winning seasons end with a 7-9 record, and their record streak of 13 straight 400-point seasons also ended with the worst offensive performance by New England since that dreadful 1992 season.
Based on the roster the Patriots put on the field, the results were not surprising. Now a 69-year-old Belichick with a revamped roster will try to get the team back to its winning ways. Many of the top sportsbooks have the Patriots with an over/under of 9.0 wins. While the dynasty is in fact over, was last year just a blip on the radar, or is the Belichick era really done with winning seasons too?
On the Last Season of PATRIOTS: The One Where a Pandemic Replaces Tom Brady
Last season was just about the worst-case scenario for Belichick and the Patriots. After letting Brady leave, the Patriots had a losing record, but still won enough games so that the draft pick was only high enough to snag the fifth quarterback in the first round (Mac Jones) instead of one of the top players. Meanwhile, Brady went to Tampa Bay and won the Super Bowl MVP again after throwing two touchdowns to tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to play with his old quarterback instead of his old team.
All those things definitely happened, but the idea that the 2020 Patriots were a Brady and Gronk reunion away from winning a championship like Tampa Bay is one of the biggest myths in NFL history. The truth is the Patriots have been on the decline for years, and as de facto GM, Belichick shoulders much of the blame for not stopping the hemorrhaging of roster talent.
From 2014 to 2020, the Patriots drafted one Pro Bowl player and that was punter Jake Bailey. That’s right, a punter. In the five draft classes from 2016 to 2020, the Patriots only used three first-round picks, and one of them was on wide receiver N’Keal Harry, a bust to this point as Belichick has always struggled to scout wideouts. Remember when he traded a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu in 2019? Left tackle Isaiah Wynn, a 2018 first-round pick, has only played 18 games in three seasons. After trading stud pass-rusher Chandler Jones to Arizona in 2016, Belichick has not had a defender reach 8.0 sacks in any of the last five seasons.
Despite winning the Super Bowl in the 2018 season, that was a difficult 11-5 season for New England, which lost five games, most by double digits, to teams that failed to even make the playoffs. The Patriots were fortunate to win the AFC Championship Game in overtime against the Chiefs, then to grind out an ugly 13-3 Super Bowl win over the Rams. That sixth ring should have been New England’s Last Dance, borrowing from the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan. Gronkowski retired after the season and the Patriots basically ignored filling such a void at tight end.
While the Patriots started 8-0 in 2019, it was always a fool’s gold start, keyed by historic defense against an embarrassing slate of opponents. Once the Patriots lost to a real team in Baltimore, the season unraveled. Brady had arguably the worst season of his career, and New England finished 4-5 in the last nine games, including a wild card loss at home to the Titans, Brady’s final game with Belichick.
The split between Brady and Belichick was going to be the dominant storyline in New England, but the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the offseason at a league-wide level. Did Belichick sense that 2020 could be a lost season? Whether by design or not, COVID impacted the Patriots more than any other team in the NFL last year. New England had a league-high eight players opt out of the season due to the pandemic, three more than any other team. That included starting offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, safety Patrick Chung, and standout linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
- The top 16 players in offensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 11,114 snaps for the team that year.
- Those same 16 players contributed 3,842 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with nine players not playing a single snap for the team.
- The top 16 players in defensive snaps on the 2019 Patriots played a combined 9,855 snaps for the team that year.
- Those same 16 players contributed 6,726 snaps to the 2020 Patriots with six of the top 11 players not playing a single snap for the team.
Even during the season, the Patriots were not spared by the virus. Their most important player on offense (Cam Newton) and defense (Stephon Gilmore) contracted the virus and missed some time. Newton had two of his worst games after getting the virus while Gilmore later had a quad injury end his season.
Not only were the 2020 Patriots barely recognizable on the field, but it just never felt that the team was taking the season seriously as far as being a contender. Even the Newton signing was a late addition in the last week of June after the Patriots bypassed other quarterback options in free agency and the draft.
In 2019, the Patriots played the softest schedule in the NFL. Last year, it was one of the harder ones with 10 opponents that finished .500 or better. A big part of that was Buffalo and Miami stepping up in the division, a challenge the Patriots rarely ever had to worry about in the Brady era. The Patriots also went from playing the terrible NFC East to a strong NFC West that sent the Rams and Seahawks to the playoffs. Just like in 2019, the
Patriots lost again to the Chiefs and Texans, but at least they beat the Ravens this time for their only win over a 2020 playoff team. Still, the start of the season was not that bad with the Patriots turning to a strong running game to get Newton going in wins over Miami and Las Vegas. He passed for 397 yards in Seattle but came up a yard short of a game-winning touchdown that would have put the Patriots at 3-0.
Then COVID hit Newton at a bad time as the Patriots played in Kansas City, the new leaders of the AFC. However, New England’s defense forced Patrick Mahomes into a bad throw on 28.6% of his passes, a season high and the third-highest game of his career. Three of the four worst games in Mahomes’ career by bad throw percentage (source: Pro Football Reference) are against New England, so Belichick knows how to defend him better than most.
The Chiefs only scored 19 points on offense that night, but a late pick-six thrown by Jarrett Stidham wrapped that game up for the Chiefs. Had Newton been healthy to play, it could have been a different outcome as backup quarterback play doomed New England that night. When Newton returned after the bye against Denver, he was awful in a 18-12 loss to a very beatable Broncos team.
Two weeks later against Buffalo, the Patriots ran the ball great again and had a shot for a win over a playoff team, but Newton fumbled the ball in the red zone down by a field goal in the final minute. Newton, who had a career-low 47.0 QBR in 2020, has a history of coming up short in these moments, but those late failures against Seattle and Buffalo especially hurt. That put the Patriots at 2-5, their worst start since Belichick’s first year in 2000. Everything about the playoffs felt out of reach at that point.
Fittingly, that rain-soaked win over Baltimore had the Patriots at 4-5, the same record they had in their last nine games with Brady. But even after getting to 6-6, the limited offense was not fooling the likes of the Rams, Dolphins, or Bills, who held the Patriots to a combined 24 points in those three losses. Believe it or not, but the 2020 Patriots averaged the same points per drive (2.00) as the 2019 Patriots (1.99).
But without all the turnovers and great field position provided by the defense – the Patriots dropped from first to 21st in that area – the season was less successful. The run-heavy plan under Newton resulted in the fewest offensive drives in the league while the 2019 Patriots had the third-most possessions. The Patriots will need to find a better balance between the run and pass in 2021 to be more successful on offense.
With Julian Edelman (knee surgery before retirement) done after six games, no tight end to speak of, and the best receiver being Jakobi Meyers, the Patriots were not built for passing success in 2020. While Brady would have done better than Newton simply because he is a better passer, it is hard to see how the Patriots were going to contend for anything with the cupboards being so bare.
The Notable Changes for 2021
In Belichick’s own words, the Patriots “sold out” to go all in for championships during that 2014-18 run. He also mentioned that the team was out of money and only paid Newton $1 million for 2020. Whether you agree with him or not, it is now up to him to restock this roster and continue winning games.
The Patriots have taken a very aggressive approach to turn the roster over again this year, utilizing trades, free agency and a significant draft pick. But first, how about those COVID opt-outs? While Chung retired at safety, Hightower should be back at his starting linebacker spot. He was always the most important of the opt-outs. Cannon was traded to Houston, but the Patriots made a lateral move in bringing back right tackle Trent Brown, who started for the team in 2018’s Super Bowl season before going to the Raiders.
The big-money signing was giving Baltimore edge rusher Matt Judon $56 million over four years. He is already going on 29 years old and got a slow start to his career, but he led the Ravens in sacks and pressures last year. This is the kind of player the Patriots have been lacking since Jones left for Arizona. The defense also returns linebacker Kyle Van Noy after he spent a year with Miami. The Patriots lost a McCourty brother (Jason), but he was going on 34 and coming off a bad year. If Jalen Mills plays more like he did with the Eagles last year, then that could be an upgrade for the secondary to go along with Gilmore and J.C. Jackson.
Scoff at Meyers as a WR1 if you want, but he looked really good at times last year as New England’s best receiver. He will have more help this time after the Patriots added Nelson Agholor, who had a breakout year with the Raiders. Kendrick Bourne also had a career year for the 49ers and should contribute, but the biggest change comes at tight end, which the Patriots have finally addressed since Gronkowski retired.
The Patriots inked Hunter Henry to a three-year deal worth $37.5 million. Henry has had some injury issues and he was never at a Gronkowski or Travis Kelce level with the Chargers, but he blows away anything the Patriots have trotted out at the position the last two years. The Patriots also gave Jonnu Smith $50 million over four years after he scored a career-high eight touchdowns for the Titans last year. He is a good athlete and can give the Patriots their best two tight end formations in years with Henry.
None of these receiving options have a 1,000-yard season on their resume, but it is a deeper and more talented group than what the Patriots tried to win with a year ago. We also know the running game can be quite effective with Newton, Damien Harris, and Sony Michel. James White is still there as a very reliable receiving back.
Finally, the Patriots added some first-round competition for Newton in the form of quarterback Mac Jones. He only led Alabama to another undefeated season and title while throwing for 4,500 yards, completing 77.4% of his passes, and averaging an absurd 11.2 yards per pass attempt. His 96.1 QBR in the 2020 season is the highest college season in ESPN’s database since 2004.
Jones will see a downgrade of the talent around him in going from Alabama to New England, but you know Belichick and buddy Nick Saban have talked this one over in detail before that pick was made. With college numbers like that, it will be interesting to see what kind of career unfolds here in New England for Jones, but for 2021, it is still Newton’s job to lose.
It would not be a surprise to see the Patriots get off to a 3-0 start before hosting Brady in his return to New England in Week 4. That feels like a game the Patriots will lose, but it is also one of the only games on the schedule where the opponent has a better roster, better quarterback, and a competent coaching staff.
If Belichick could get seven wins out of last year’s roster, then 10-7 feels very possible with this year’s team. That would mean losses to the Buccaneers, Bills (twice even), Cowboys, Titans, Browns, and we’ll pencil in another late-season loss in Miami, Belichick’s biggest house of horrors outside of Denver.
Can the Patriots beat the Saints without Drew Brees at home or the Texans in Houston possibly without Deshaun Watson? Of course. Can they win on the road against the Colts, Chargers, and Falcons? Yes, they practically own those teams anywhere. Another sweep of the Jets and win over Sam Darnold with the Panthers? Sure. The last home game of the season is Jacksonville, and Belichick against a rookie quarterback (Trevor Lawrence) is almost always a good NFL pick.
I like the over in wins. Buffalo should still be the favorite in the division, but this New England team is far more interesting than the half-assed version it put out there last year. Now if the Patriots can just avoid COVID and fumbling with the game on the line, then they can get back to their preferred role of being the team we love to hate. As 2020 proved, being hated is still better than being irrelevant.
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