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

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL opt-outs: Complete list of players who won't play in 2020 season

NFL training camps officially began Tuesday, but there were some notable absences.

Kansas City Chiefs offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif became the first NFL player to opt out of the 2020 season last Friday, citing health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Since then, multiple players have followed suit, continuing a trend across all major North American professional sports of players declining to participate in their seasons as COVID-19 persists in the United States.

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The Patriots especially have felt the impact of this trend: Six New England players -- including star linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- already have opted out, the most of any NFL team.

Below is a running list of the players who have opted out of the 2020 NFL season, according to reports or team/player confirmations. The list is sorted alphabetically after the Patriots, with the date of the players' opt-outs in parentheses.

New England Patriots

RB Brandon Bolden (July 28)
OT Marcus Cannon (July 28)
S Patrick Chung (July 28)
LB Dont'a Hightower (July 28)
WR Marqise Lee (August 1)
OG Najee Toran (July 27)
FB Danny Vitale (July 27)
TE Matt LaCosse (August 2)

Arizona Cardinals

OT Marcus Gilbert (August 4)

Baltimore Ravens

OT Andre Smith (July 28)
WR/KR De'Anthony Thomas (July 27)

Buffalo Bills

CB E.J. Gaines (August 2)
DT Star Lotulelei (July 28)

Carolina Panthers

LB Jordan Mack (July 28)
LB Christian Miller (August 3)

Chicago Bears

DT Eddie Goldman (July 28)
S Jordan Lucas (August 3)

Cincinnati Bengals

OT Isaiah Prince (July 31)
DT Josh Tupou (July 31)

Cleveland Browns

DT Andrew Billings (August 4)
OL Drake Dorbeck (July 29)
OL Drew Forbes (July 29)
OL Colby Gossett (August 4)

Dallas Cowboys

CB Maurice Canady (July 27)
WR Stephen Guidry (July 28)
FB Jamize Olawale (August 2)

Denver Broncos

OT JaWuan James (August 3)
DT Kyle Peko (July 28)

Detroit Lions

DT John Atkins (July 29)
WR Geronimo Allison (August 2)

Green Bay Packers

WR Devin Funchess (July 28)

Houston Texans

DT Eddie Vanderdoes (July 28)

Indianapolis Colts

DB Rolan Milligan (August 5) 
LB Skai Moore (August 4)
DB Marvell Tell (August 5)

Jacksonville Jaguars

EDGE Larentee McCray (August 1)
DL Al Woods (July 31)

Kansas City Chiefs

OG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (July 24)
RB Damien Williams (July 29)

Las Vegas Raiders

LB Ukeme Eligwe (August 4)
CB D.J. Killings (August 3)
DE Jeremiah Valoaga (August 3)

Los Angeles Rams

OT Chandler Brewer (July 31)

Miami Dolphins

WR Allen Hurns (August 4)
WR Albert Wilson (August 5)

Minnesota Vikings

NT Michael Pierce (July 28)

New Orleans Saints

TE Jason Vander Laan (July 28)
TE Cole Wick (July 28)

New York Giants

WR Da'Mari Scott (August 2)
LT Nate Solder (July 29)

New York Jets

OL Leo Koloamatangi (July 28)
LB CJ Mosley (August 1)

Philadelphia Eagles

WR Marquise Goodwin (July 28)

San Francisco 49ers

WR Travis Benjamin (August 4)

Seattle Seahawks

OG Chance Warmack (July 27)

Tennessee Titans

OL Anthony McKinney (July 28)

Washington Football Team

DT Caleb Brantley (July 27)
LB Josh Harvey-Clemons (August 3)

Free Agents

G Larry Warford (July 28)

Can Cam Newton handle being called out by Bill Belichick? Ex-Patriots DT has doubts

Can Cam Newton handle being called out by Bill Belichick? Ex-Patriots DT has doubts

Will Cam Newton be able to take the same kind of verbal upbraiding that Bill Belichick directed at Tom Brady over the years?

Kyle Love, who started his career in New England before spending the past five seasons in Carolina, has his doubts.

Love spoke with Andrew Callahan of The Boston Herald about Newton’s prospects as a Patriot.

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And while Love was high on the potential for success, he mentioned a dynamic that we’ve spoken about on NBC Sports Boston recently. How well will Cam take the heat?

“This is just my opinion, but I don’t feel like Cam can take the pressure of coaches talking down about his play,” Love told Callahan. “If he had a bad game in Carolina, the coaching staff wouldn’t say much to him because they may have felt he could be a little frail about it or maybe pout. They never really corrected to the point Bill used to correct Tom.”

It’s a very intriguing point and it will be a dynamic that Newton’s new teammates will no doubt watch closely. Will Newton feel entitled to different treatment? Will Belichick be a kinder, gentler version of himself so as not to rankle Newton?

Belichick could easily write a best-seller on sports psychology and leadership. He’s got a feel for who needs what kind of coaching and when.

Newton is a 32-year-old former superstar on a prove-it contract who’s had his football life turned upside down. Regardless of the invulnerability his social media posts try to convey, there’s probably a guy in there who’s got a shadow of a doubt about how this is going to go. He’s walked across the bridge to Belichick. An arm around the shoulder might fit better than a boot in the ass as the two men get going.

With Brady, there was a method to the meanness. First, Brady didn’t come in as the No. 1 overall pick and Heisman Trophy winner. So when Belichick railed at him during his first camp, “I can’t stand it. can’t stand it, run it again! Huddle up and run it again, Brady!” Brady did it with the knowledge his chubby self could be on its way back to San Mateo.

As Brady became more accomplished, Belichick tamped down celebrity quarterback tendencies as best he could and Brady — attuned to Belichick’s worries he would go Hollywood and get soft — responded.

Belichick — knowing he had a willing target who could take the heat — would turn it up on Brady knowing the impact it would have on everyone else.

First, nobody was above criticism. Second, Brady’s response was almost always to attack back with his performance.

Patriots Talk Podcast: Should Pats give Newton a raise with newfound cap space? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Martellus Bennett recounted last May how this all worked.

“One day we were at practice and the defense is crushing us," Bennett said. "We can’t complete any passes. Sometimes they do the install and it’s just the right install. So we come into the meeting and Bill (Belichick) always had bad plays of the day and he’s just calling out Tom, ‘We have quarterbacks that can’t make throws.’

“I’m like ‘This is Tom Brady. He can make all the throws.’

"I’ve never seen coaches really call out the quarterbacks in group meetings. I sit right behind Tom because I’m the quarterback whisperer. I like to whisper in their ear when I see things. So, after we break that meeting, I go to finish my workout or whatever and Tom is in there doing dropbacks. He’s just throwing dropbacks. He’s pissed off. The next day we go 33 for 33 or something like that at practice, and from then I was just like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be great.’ I’ve never seen anyone that didn’t shut down. He was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna show you tomorrow.’ He just picked them apart. Take this, take that.”

"He'll call out anybody," Bennett said of Belichick. "I try not to laugh sometimes because, like, the way he does it is funny to me. I find Bill to be hilarious. But he calls everybody out. That's the first team I've been on where I felt everyone was equal."

The stories are legion.

“Bill’s going to be Bill, and he’s going to let Cam know how he feels no matter what. Everybody is treated equal, and I actually love that about Bill because that let the whole team know you’re going to be held accountable,” Love told Callahan.

“Being a professional in New England is different from being a professional in Carolina. It’s a whole different ballgame,” Love said. “Bill wants things run a certain way, wants things practiced a certain way and said a certain way in the classroom and in the media. New England is not for everybody. Every player does not fit well there physically or mentally.”

Brady’s longstanding willingness to get aired out for the sake of getting aired out eventually waned. But before it did, it was frequently cited as a lesson in what it meant to play for the dynastic Patriots.

The interplay between Newton, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and how quickly they get comfortable is a fascinating part of this preseason.

And there’s really no time for walking on eggshells.