Monday morning dawned with the Patriots out of the playoffs for the second time in the past three seasons and Bill Belichick on an autopsy Zoom call.
The most pressing question (after establishing that the soon-to-be-71-year-old-Belichick would be back for a 24th season) was whether hindsight revealed to Belichick that his post-Josh McDaniels plan for the offense didn’t work real good.
Not surprisingly, Belichick clinched, covered up and ran around the ring until the bell rang on the video call.
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We’ll probably see him again for a terse 10 minutes at the owner’s meetings in late March. By then, he’ll claim looking back at decisions that led to the Patriots having one of the league’s worst offenses in 2022 as being irrelevant. Maybe they will be by then. It was what it was and c'est la vie.
But the Patriots will pay in 2023 for the dubious decisions to install Matt Patricia as play-caller, de facto offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, name Joe Judge the quarterbacks coach and then install a new offense. In order for next season’s Patriots to get better, they first have to crawl out of the hole dug and recreate momentum lost.
On July 26, Belichick spoke about the "dramatic improvement" Mac Jones made in the offseason.
"He's made tremendous strides," Belichick said. "He did a great job last year, but he's starting from a much, much higher point this year than where he started last year. So, his offseason work has been significant, and I think everyone recognizes how well he prepares and how much further along he was than he was a year ago."
And with all that improvement, Jones finished with 14 touchdowns and 11 picks, took 34 sacks (including 19 in a four-game stretch in October and November), got his ass booed heavily and lost his s--- at the sidelines on numerous occasions down the stretch. All while the Patriots spent more than any team in the league on their tight ends and the second-most in the league on wide receivers.
On the aforementioned call, Belichick explained his offensive hiring decisions by wrapping himself in the impenetrable defense of "doing what’s best for the football team."
But why, I asked, was that best for the football team? Even us idiots in the media thought it was doomed.
"Yeah, I would -- again, at that point in time, at every point in time, I've always made what I felt like were the best decisions for the team," Belichick answered. "That's all I can say. You can have your opinion on it -- whatever it is, I understand that. But I always did what I felt was best for the team in every area at every point in time since I've been the head coach of the New England Patriots. And I'll always continue to do that. I'll put the team first and do what I feel is best for the team.
"Whether you agree or disagree with that, that's up to you. You know, I respect that, but I'm always going to do what I feel is best."
Were there plainly no other options? Did he actually think it would work? What led Belichick to conclude that this course was best? That’s what he never lets us get to.
But letting two guys (who came cheap because they’re still collecting from the teams that fired them) do jobs they’d NEVER DONE BEFORE was like taking a flamethrower to $60 million worth of cap space while stunting the growth of the promising quarterback.
It was dubious in the spring and summer when it became clear that Judge and Patricia were running the offense. But we suspended some disbelief when Belichick smirked at every play-caller/OC question we posed.
"Well, we’ve doubted weird decisions before and sometimes they work out and we look dumb for doubting … let’s see how it looks."
It looked worse than we thought it would even with the flurry of Week 18 competency. The Patriots were 26th in total yards, 24th in rushing yards, 21st in rushing yards per attempt, 20th in passing yards, 21st in interception rate, 28th in total first downs, 27th on third downs, 29th on fourth down, 32nd on third down, 28th in goal-to-go situations and 28th in time of possession.
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Somehow, I imagine the now data-reliant Belichick pointing out those numbers would have been higher if the Patriots hadn’t been so proficient at scoring defensive touchdowns. Down here in post-Brady purgatory, the goalposts get moved quickly these days.
The Patriots played OK offensively in the final 10 quarters of the 68-quarter regular season. But that late flurry couldn’t help them avoid a 2-5 close to the season with the only wins coming against Kyler Murray-less Arizona and Tua Tagovailoa-less Miami. Over the past four seasons, the Patriots have closed 2-5, 1-4, 1-3 and 2-4. That’s 6-16.
The two signature wins of this Patriots season came on October 9 and 16 with Bailey Zappe at quarterback. They beat the hell out of two other non-playoff participants, the Browns and Lions. The following week, they got pounded 33-14 at home in primetime by the Bears, the worst team in the league this year.
After that came a three-game "tear" with two wins over the Zach Wilson-led Jets and Sam Ehlinger’s Colts. Jones, under a no-more-picks edict after the Patriots spent the offseason telling him to be more aggressive, got sacked 16 times in those three games. But the Patriots got to 6-4.
Then came the now-annual swoon.
From 2000 to 2018, Belichick’s Patriots were 61-13 in December/January regular-season games. They were 36-4 at Gillette. They are 8-13 since 2019.
As I was finishing this screed, I thought, "So what do I really want? What’s the point of vomiting up these ever-more depressing numbers? When would I like to hear from Bill? Do I need the Jim Calhoun ‘I f---ed up’ press conference moment? Do I want the greatest coach in NFL history relieved of his duties?"
I guess I just want to understand the why. Time was, Belichick would offer that privately and it would help. Now? "Gods do not answer letters," is how John Updike excused Ted Williams' refusal to acknowledge Boston fans after his final at-bat in 1960. And Bill doesn't justify via email or Zoom questions.
So we’re left trying to smoke him out with stats and indignation, which winds up in diminishing returns. The Patriots as we knew them are gone. Around here, people want to know how and why they left and whether they’re coming back.