The Patriots are done; but now they are only just beginning

The Patriots are done; but now they are only just beginning

FOXBORO — Less than 12 hours after the Patriots were whisked from the postseason, Bill Belichick was at a podium in the Gillette Stadium media room on Sunday morning.

It was his wrap-up press conference, an exercise that usually comes a lot later in the month.

Nine times in 20 years, it’s happened in February. This year is a marked exception: the Patriots are done playing football earlier than they’ve been since the 2008 season.

The only times the Patriots were done playing football by the first week of January were after the ‘00, ‘02 and ’08 seasons — the years they didn’t make the playoffs under Belichick.

Sunday morning’s session was long on solemn appreciation for the team’s effort, short on explanations about what went wrong over the team’s last nine games.

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Future plans were treated as a third-rail topic since Belichick knew that cracking the door open to 2020 projections would invite a stampede of “What about Tom?” questions.

“We’re less than 12 hours here from the end of the game; I’m sure there are a lot of questions about the future,” he said in a preemptive strike. “Nobody has thought about the future. Everybody’s been focused and working on Miami and then Tennessee, and that’s where all the focus should have been and where it was. Whatever’s in the future, we’ll deal with at some later point in time. We’re certainly not going to deal with it now.”

Truth be told, they can use every second between now and the start of free agency in mid-March to get ready for the reboot, reload or rebuild.

The Patriots need more coaches. That’s not even taking into consideration that some — most prominently Josh McDaniels — may be leaving.

Belichick was the defensive czar in 2019 even if Stephen Belichick was the one on the headset talking to Dont'a Hightower.

It was a role the elder Belichick kind of had to take. Brian Flores, Brendan Daly and Josh Boyer all left the organization a year after Matt Patricia went to Detroit. Greg Schiano backed out of the defensive coordinator job he seemed to have taken so Belichick basically said, “Screw it, I’ll do it myself.”

On offense, Joe Judge was splitting time between his specialty — special teams — and working for the first time with wide receivers. And not experienced wide receivers, either. With N’Keal Harry, Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers, Judge was working to get NFL kindergartners ready to play with the Steven Hawking of quarterbacks.

McDaniels will probably leave a year after receivers coach Chad O’Shea and quarterbacks assistant Jerry Schuplinski left.

The Patriots need to draft better. Twelve of the 32 players the Patriots have selected in the past four drafts have made measurable contributions. Not horrendous. But Joe Thuney is the lone Pro Bowl-caliber player. The others are N’Keal Harry, Chase Winovich, Jake Bailey, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Deatrich Wise, Malcolm Mitchell, Jacoby Brissett, Elandon Roberts and Ted Karras. That’s a collection that’s mostly unproven or just OK.

Nowhere in that mix will you find a tight end, a position the Patriots ignored in the draft for most of the decade.

The Patriots need to do a better job in free agency.

Last March, they were beaten to the punch on wide receivers Adam Humphries and Cole Beasley. They couldn’t entice tight end Jared Cook to sign.

In both 2018 and 2019, they scrambled for wide receiver solutions after starting the season understaffed. They wound up bringing aboard two of the league’s most undependable players at that position — Josh Gordon and Antonio Brown.

A parade of old, injured or mediocre personnel has been cycled through — Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Bruce Ellington, Demaryius Thomas, Jordan Matthews (you get the point). A dynamic, reliable player like Danny Amendola wasn’t replaced. An explosive player like Brandin Cooks hasn’t been either.

The Patriots went from having the best tight end in NFL history to cycling through a group that included Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Lance Kendricks and Ryan Izzo before settling in on Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse, who combined for 30 catches.

Belichick: Brady 'iconic' but QB's future not up to coach alone

The Patriots need to figure out what they want to do with the most successful player in NFL history. In the short span of time between the end of the game and Sunday morning, I’m encouraged by the tenor of the conversation.

Brady stated his love and appreciation and Belichick — thankfully — didn’t give a merp-shrug-snort response when pressed on the fact Brady’s expiring contract is a liiiiiittle different than everyone else’s.

“Tom’s an iconic figure in this organization, and nobody respects Tom more than I do,” Belichick said.

Anything less than that and we’d have a week of “Bill hates Tom” talk.

He loves him. Whether he wants him around to play quarterback for him at the going rate for greats? We’ll see. Whether Brady wants to take what he’s offered, try to find a new gig or reluctantly retire? We’ll also see on that.

What’s the process look like from here? Belichick wasn’t too revealing so I looked back to look forward. At the breakup press conference following the 2009 season there was a 5,100-word bull session.

Asked about next steps, Belichick said, “The first thing we do is try to evaluate our team in all the things that we do — how much motion do we use, how each player played, what type of progress was made or wasn’t made, if there was a direction — whichever way the progress was going, whether going forward or if it was declining, and take a look at the team going forward in terms of what players we have, what players we don’t have and then gradually make determinations on how to improve those things.

“We’ll take a look at all of our practices, all of our mini camps, training camp schedules, all those things,” he continued. “We’ve done that a little bit along the way, but then we put all that together and discuss it, whether it’s as a coaching staff, or an organization, or sometimes in consultation with different players, whether it’s a specific situation or a group situation, whatever it happens to be.

“All that is put together, we talk about it and eventually we make decisions on players, on system, on scheme and how we do things. Some things stay the same and some things change. It’s inevitable there will be change next year.”

The change then was drastic — by October the following year, Randy Moss was out, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez and Deion Branch were in, a string of eight consecutive AFC Championship game appearances began the very next season. That was Patriots 2.0.

The 3.0 relaunch is in development.

Curran: The offseason of uncertainty begins

How coaches, GMs are reacting to Tom Brady's free agency at NFL Scouting Combine

How coaches, GMs are reacting to Tom Brady's free agency at NFL Scouting Combine

The future of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a hot topic at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

This event gives teams a great opportunity to scout the best players in the upcoming NFL Draft in both on-field and off-the-field settings. However, amid all of the talk about the next generation of star quarterbacks, a 42-year-old veteran also looms large.

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Brady is able to test the free agent market in March for the first time in his career. He's arguably the greatest player in pro football history, and even at this later stage of his career, he'd still be an upgrade at quarterback for many teams.

Here's a look at how head coaches and general managers of teams that could be potential landing spots for Brady in free agency are reacting to questions about the six-time Super Bowl champion's future.

Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers, after 15 years of being the starting quarterback of the Chargers, will test free agency and not return to the franchise. This situation opens the door for the Chargers to bring in a veteran like Brady or use the No. 6 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to find a franchise quarterback.

Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers could be in the market for a quarterback with starter Jameis Winston hitting free agency. Winston became the first player to throw for at least 30 touchdowns and at least 30 interceptions in the same season in 2019. 

Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins aren't close to being a Super Bowl contender, but they do have almost $90 million in salary cap space at their disposal. Brady also knows Flores well from their many years together in New England. 

Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans
The Titans are a popular landing spot pick for Brady, but Tennessee might not even need a quarterback if it re-signs Ryan Tannehill. He's set to become a free agent after leading the Titans to a 7-3 finish in the regular season and a run to the AFC Championship Game that included upset wins over the Patriots and Baltimore Ravens.

John Elway (general manager), Denver Broncos
Drew Lock was pretty impressive to end the 2019 campaign, so it makes sense for the Broncos to build on that success entering his sophomore season. He has the potential to be a franchise QB.

Chris Ballard (general manager), Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have quarterbacks Jacoby Brissett and Brian Hoyer signed through next season. 

Perry: Will Patriots opt for mobile QB if Brady leaves?

Jalen Hurts 'wouldn’t mind' chance to learn from Patriots QB Tom Brady

Jalen Hurts 'wouldn’t mind' chance to learn from Patriots QB Tom Brady

Jalen Hurts is one of the most interesting quarterback prospects entering the 2020 NFL Draft.

He began his career at Alabama but transferred to Oklahoma for his final year of eligibility as Tua Tagovailoa established himself as the Crimson Tide's starting quarterback. 

Mock drafts are all over the place on trying to project where Hurts will land in the draft. Some of them have him going as high as the second round, while others see him as more of a third- or fourth-round selection.

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The Patriots need to figure out their long-term plan at quarterback regardless of what Tom Brady decides in free agency. Hurts is an intriguing option for the Patriots if they want to select a QB, and he was asked about Brady at the NFL Scouting Combine on Tuesday.

Hurts was one of the best mobile quarterbacks in college football last season. He completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,851 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also ran for 1,298 yards with 20 rushing touchdowns. Hurts absolutely is worth drafting in the first few rounds and would make a solid backup/third-stringer for the Patriots or any other team.

Lamar Jackson's MVP-winning 2019 season could change how people in the NFL view dual-threat quarterbacks, and that might be good news for Hurts with the draft not too far away. Jackson is a better passer than Hurts, but you could make the case the Sooners star is more athletic. In addition to his obvious talent, Hurts also played in a ton of pressure-packed games for Alabama and Oklahoma, so he knows what it's like to play in must-win matchups. 

It'll be interesting to see where Hurts goes in the draft, but given his talent and experience, it wouldn't be shocking to see a team take a chance on him sooner than most would expect.

Perry: Will Patriots opt for mobile QB if Brady leaves?