Right around the time the pandemic drove everyone inside for good, plenty of NFL teams were caterwauling about getting hosed on their draft preparation.
What about medicals? What about interviews? What about the way we’ve always done it?
I pointed out at the time that Bill Belichick’s favorite ancient Chinese general/military strategist/philosopher Sun Tzu had an apt saying that the Patriots would likely embrace at draft time. “In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.”
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Nearly four months later, chaos still reigns in the NFL. And the reigning Biggest Brain in the Business remains primed to take advantage of the chaos.
It’s not ideal for any team to spend an entire offseason with no OTAs, in-person classroom work, minicamps or even a moment to shake hands.
The Patriots are a team moving on from the greatest quarterback in NFL history and on to guys named Brian or Jarrett who are … not the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. They just threw a life preserver to an almost wholly unknown entity in Cam Newton who is Brady’s quarterbacking polar opposite in terms of style.
Now they have no preseason in which to see how any of them perform. Or joint practices. And merely a handful of padded workouts. Compared to other seasons, they will know almost nothing about their team when it takes the field for its first game.
All that uncertainty. To Belichick, it’s a beautiful thing.
Because their first opponent, the Miami Dolphins? They’ll know less than zero.
Will the Patriots open the season with Newton or Stidham under center? Will they have enough offense installed to make full use of Newton’s array of talents? Will they lean on the end-of-’18 approach which emphasized the power running game? Can their rookie tight ends know anything at all in the cram session they will undergo?
They have an offensive line that’s returning intact (albeit without a legendary offensive line coach). They have a stable of veteran running backs with varied talents and two very veteran receivers – Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu – that are among the league’s smarter wideouts (I’m not holding 2019 against Sanu). And they have the league’s best offensive coordinator who’s been making more with less for a long time.
On defense, the place where it may matter most – in the secondary – they are overloaded with talent and experience. They won’t be having bust after bust back there.
Meanwhile, Belichick’s ability as a teacher is legend. And he understands the whole class can only go as fast as its slowest student. So get the basics down and run them to perfection.
Honestly, can you even imagine how daunting this season looks for someone like Joe Judge who’s in his first year with the Giants? Or Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland or Matt Rhule in Carolina? There’s really no way those teams can be expected to know anything about themselves until November. And by then it’s too late.
The Patriots may not know exactly what style they’ll ultimately play. But they know who they are. They know how they do things.
Remember the start of the 2016 season when Tom Brady was suspended? There was an expectation the Patriots might coddle Jimmy Garoppolo, keep it simple and not put him in a position to fail. They went wide-open. He played his ass off for six quarters. Then his shoulder broke.
The next week, the Texans had to deal with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. They didn’t do so hot. While the offense was basically the same – there were enough wrinkles incorporated to catch Houston flat-footed on defense. The Texans also got overwhelmed on special teams that night which – as always – could be another hidden advantage for the team in 2020.
The subterfuge, the element of surprise, taking advantage of uncertainty and staying poised when the other team is getting frantic – all of it is elemental Belichick.
Think of the 2020 season as a pitch-black corridor. It bends. It drops. It’s dangerous. Every team has to walk it.
Right now, there’s probably not an owner in the league that wouldn’t look at their own head coach and wonder how much better off they’d be with Belichick at the front of the line.