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.
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.
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.