Being Bill Belichick means getting a lot of benefit of the doubt. Six Lombardi trophies buy a lot of leeway, and they should. Tom Brady departed following 2019, and Belichick’s New England Patriots went 7–9 in 2020, ending an 11-year streak of AFC titles. But that was a bridge year, as Belichick tried to replace an irreplaceable quarterback. The season’s pandemic interruptions were the cause for even more patience. The next year brought a new long-term QB bet in first-round draft pick Mac Jones, and the Patriots went 10-7. Jones went from pretty iffy-looking to pretty good-looking as the year went on and turned in by far the best rookie season of any of 2021’s new class of signal-callers. Despite a rout at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, once the Patriots got to the playoffs, it was an encouraging season.
But 2022 was not, and now it has ended with a whimper: Despite dropping four of six games entering Sunday, the Patriots were win-and-in for the playoffs if they could pull off an upset against the Bills in western New York on Sunday . Instead, they lost 35-23, failing even to cover an 8.5-point spread and slinking into an offseason of uncertainty. The Patriots didn’t conjure any of the magic that they’ve so often found in challenging spots over Belichick’s career. It was the Bills who did that, when Nyheim Hines returned the opening kickoff the length of the field for a touchdown in the team’s first game back since the Damar Hamlin medical crisis of the previous Monday. Instead of being the protagonists of their own story, the Patriots played the role of the Washington Generals. They let up a second kickoff return touchdown to Hines later on and also made a parade of offensive errors that helped doom them.
Now, for the first time in a long time, they’ll head into an offseason in which there is no particular reason to think Belichick will get them back to the NFL’s upper echelon any time soon. If 2020 marked a post-Brady reset and 2021 a first step back towards prominence, 2022 was the year that posed the question of whether Belichick’s iteration of the Patriots has anything left in the tank. It may not.
The Patriots of the Brady-Belichick era, from 2001 to 2019, were standouts in all three phases of the game. With help from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, the Patriots put a chameleonic offense around Brady, sometimes playing ground-and-pound bullyball and other times being just as spread out and pass-oriented as any team in the league. The Patriots put different stars around Brady over the years but almost always scored. Belichick is a defensive master, and despite only having a few individual superstars on his defense, the Patriots matched their league-best scoring offense across those 19 seasons with a league-best scoring defense. The team’s special teams were almost always amazing, too. Kickers Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski became household names. A kick coverage man with one reception in his NFL career, “receiver” Matthew Slater joined the team in the fifth round of the 2008 draft and went on to a career that some people think will get him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Then 2022 saw the Patriots’ various advantages melt away. Jones was pretty good as a rookie, but he declined almost across the statistical board in his second professional season. In a way that is hard to comprehend unless one sat through a lot of his games, he also emitted horrendous quarterbacking vibes, rarely looking like he was about to do anything special for his team. He made bushels of ugly throws and cultivated at least a mini-reputation as a dirty player, something that can be charming for a linebacker but not for a mediocre quarterback. Sunday was among his low points, as he threw three interceptions, sat in the negatives in expected points added per game, and couldn’t even pretend to keep up with the Bills’ Josh Allen. Belichick has never appeared to have a lot of game-calling trust in Jones, and earlier this year, the coach sat Jones down in favor of fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe. What happened Sunday was why.
Jones may or may not be salvageable as anything more than a warm body. McDaniels, Belichick’s longtime offensive coordinator, left after last year for a so-far uninspired head-coaching tenure with the Las Vegas Raiders. To replace McDaniels as his play-caller, Belichick tapped Matt Patricia, a longtime defensive coach who returned to Foxborough in 2021 after leaving the Patriots for his own utterly cursed head-coaching tenure with the Detroit Lions. It was the kind of move that many coaches couldn’t get away with trying, but Belichick could because of his unimpeachable track record. It didn’t work, as Jones regressed and the offense was, to be generous, middling, ranking 17th in scoring (21.4 points per game) and 24th in EPA per play. The leading receiver for the third year in a row was Jakobi Meyers, who for the third year in a row did not reach 900 yards. The defense (20.4 points allowed per game, 11th in the league) was pretty good, but not one of Belichick’s classically dominant units that could pick up an unimpressive offense and carry it to the playoffs.
If you’re into symbolism, the Patriots’ special teams woes might be the most telling. So long a hallmark of Belichick’s great teams, the kicking, punting, and coverage game was a collective liability this year. The two return touchdowns allowed on Sunday were a sad exclamation point at the end of an entire game year of brutal kickoff coverage. The team’s punters (plural) were the worst in the league. Kicker Nick Folk was automatic inside 40 yards but not very good from a distance. Slater, the team’s longtime coverage ace, was crying on the bench as the seconds ticked down on Sunday. He and another franchise legend, safety Devin McCourty, look to be on the verge of retirement.
The Patriots finished 8–9 after starting 6–4. They weren’t good, but they weren’t exactly bad, either, and will probably never fall into too deep a ditch as long as Belichick is coaching. He’s too good, and the Patriots have too many solid players at too many positions to land too high a draft pick. (Their 2023 first-rounder is slated to be No. 14.) The franchise’s high floor forecloses any obvious path to a quarterback who could help the Patriots compete in the QB-rich AFC over the next five years. Coming into this season, it looked possible that Jones would be that guy. Now it is maybe plausible, but far from likely. Belichick was not effusive about him on Monday.
In Brady’s less spectacular years—and the one he missed almost entirely with an injury, in 2008—the defense and special teams were so good that the team probably could’ve been competitive even with a decent, non-Hall of Fame quarterback. Jones might still deliver that. But Jones in this version of the Patriots, with a good-not-great defense and calamitous special teams, is a different proposition.
These Patriots may just sit in the corner of purgatory that is roped off for NFL teams that are neither good enough to compete nor bad enough to land a cornerstone QB in the draft. Lots of NFL teams have been stuck in this box in recent years, most recently the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints, as their franchise QBs, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, declined and then retired.
There is no big shame in that, but there is also no exceptionalism. It is what happens to teams when time runs its course in a league with a salary cap and a draft order that is inverse to the standings. The Patriots are not bad. They are only normal, finally subject to the same gravity that eventually comes for everybody.