Even if the offseason and the opt-outs gave us a heads up that the Patriots could stink this season, actually seeing it in the flesh is alarming.
The roster is awful. There aren't star players on offense who have been there forever to fix it. There isn't an Offensive Line Whisperer to patch any hole. Key players are missing on defense. Collectively, it's bad, but they still have one of the most important stars in the league: Bill Belichick.
Really, that's what's prevented me from totally freaking out about the Patriots. Even if they're bad this year, they'll have all the cap space in the world, a high draft pick they can presumably spend on a top quarterback prospect, opt-out players back in the fold and the best coach in the world.
That's not a terrible situation. It would be without the coach, though.
And I'm genuinely asking: Do we know that Belichick is going to stay and see the next phase through?
Do we know that Belichick won't take a step back at some point, look at the Patriots' situation, deem it unlikely that he'll get another ring here and decide to actually enjoy some time away from coaching?
The answer is probably something like "can't see him leaving, but we don't know." However small the chance may be, we've learned over the years that assuming anything with Bill Belichick is a waste of time.
Maybe it'll only take a year or two for Belichick to get the Patriots back on track to being a real contender, but if he leaves before they're in that position? Hoo boy, it could be a while. Just look at what the other AFC East teams have been without a great coach or quarterback.
When I talk about seeing the next phase through, I don't mean staying forever.
Belichick is 68 right now. He'll eventually move on. But if he were to move on, say, after this season, there would be no quarterback and no reason to believe the Patriots would be particularly competitive in the future. Maybe the opt-out guys retire. The Patriots would lack any sort of sure thing.
But Belichick can make it better for whoever's next. At the very least, he can find the next quarterback and make the team competitive. At best, he can stay long enough to win another title or two and hand it off when the team is back on top. The worst thing he could do would be to leave with the team looking something like it does now.
The roster issues are obviously his doing. Unless the plan was to stink and get a high draft pick, which you have to doubt given that Cam Newton has been awesome before, the plan was seemingly to use this year to feel out what life is like without Tom Brady. Then the opt-outs came and here we are. They stink, but Belichick could fix that with a 2007-type spending spree and ... a 2010-style draft class (or maybe 2012? God, the options are really limited when it comes to finding a great Belichick draft class).
Or maybe Belichick figures this team is too far away and he calls it a day. That would truly be a return to the dark days, but I don't think the Patriots are there yet. They've still got the guy who can win with a decent roster, as long as he sticks around to build it.
Given all the people the Patriots no longer have -- Tom Brady, even Dante Scarnecchia -- having Belichick has never been more important. We look at what we've seen the last couple of weeks and probably think it can't get worse, but that's only two weeks. Without Belichick, we could be looking at years of that.