Always remember and don’t ever forget how bleak things looked for the Patriots at the start of 2021. Last January, they were putting the finishing touches on a 7-9 season. They overachieved to get there.
Their post-Brady roster was problematic. They had no in-house answer at quarterback. Their rookie tight ends did practically nothing so that position remained a black hole. Their wide receiver crew consisted of Jakobi Meyers.
A long string of swings-and-misses during at the top of the draft for a half-dozen seasons meant there was precious little depth on a roster that was rudderless on offense and getting old and slow on defense. There were no potent pass-rushers and their best coverage player -- Stephon Gilmore -- was recovering from quad surgery and interested in more money.
There was a path to avoiding more sub-.500 seasons. Spend responsibly in free agency. Find a mid-tier free agent quarterback or get some improvement from Jarrett Stidham. Unearth sudden-impact players in the draft and a quarterback project to develop.
But all that was set against the backdrop of what Tom Brady was on his way to in Tampa. Winning another Super Bowl. While he was riding the wave, the Patriots appeared adrift under their soon-to-be-69-year-old head coach.
With a new year upon us, let’s look back at key moments from 2021 that shaped an amazing rebuild and made this year one of the most fascinating in New England Patriots history.
The day after the pandemic-plagued regular season ended with a win over the Jets, Bill Belichick does one final Zoom with the media to close the curtain on a 7-9 campaign.
"I know it’s been challenging for all of us and I appreciate what all of you have done to ... make it work and we made it work," he said to the media on the call. "So thank you for that."
While acknowledging the relative "failure" of the team to make the playoffs, he notes the growth of the team and himself throughout 2020 with all the challenges it faced.
Asked for a preview of 2021’s roster building and whether the team will be aggressive, Belichick said, "Honestly, I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years. There’s a residual to that, but I would say we’re always trying to be aggressive."
That "residual" -- salary cap constraints felt in 2020 by dead money left over from Tom Brady and others -- would be gone in 2021. The Patriots would have a clear runway to spend. And as it turned out, few competitors with as much cash to fling around.
Days after an announcement that lame-duck President Donald Trump would be awarding Belichick the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Belichick declined the honor citing the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters bent on overturning the results of the presidential election. This was his statement.
"Recently, I was offered the opportunity to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which I was flattered by out of respect for what the honor represents and admiration for prior recipients.
“Subsequently, the tragic events of last week occurred and the decision has been made not to move forward with the award.
“Above all, I am an American citizen with great reverence for our nation's values, freedom and democracy. I know I also represent my family and the New England Patriots team.
“One of the most rewarding things in my professional career took place in 2020 when, through the great leadership within our team, conversations about social justice, equality and human rights moved to the forefront and became actions. Continuing those efforts while remaining true to the people, team and country I love outweigh the benefits of any individual award."
That last line about how the summer of 2020 was a learning period for the then-68-year-old Belichick is illustrative. It shows how adaptive, how willing to listen and evolve he was during that down season. And that adaptiveness continued in the 2021 offseason.
After paying the salary cap piper in 2020, the Patriots had close to $70M in 2021 cap space available to them. That was third-highest in the league. Everyone expected the Patriots to be busy when free agency began. How busy? I reported in late January that it would be an "extremely and uncharacteristically aggressive offseason" when the time to shop came.
Tom Brady, in his first season in Tampa Bay, wins the Super Bowl. The reaction nationally, locally and among fans and media was predictable. "Tom didn’t need Bill to win big. Could Bill win big without Tom?"
Another reaction within the walls of Gillette Stadium? "If he’s still good enough to win a Super Bowl, why did we let him go when we don’t have an answer at that position? What exactly are we doing?"
With free agency bearing down, the Patriots kinda needed a concrete plan at quarterback to pitch to prospective players. Tough to climb into a car if you don’t know who the driver is.
Just as tough? Getting behind the wheel when you don’t know the destination, which may have been a big part of Matthew Stafford’s reluctance to be traded to New England when the Lions made him available.
To remedy the situation, the Patriots re-signed Cam Newton. They now had a placeholder at the spot, a former MVP who was charismatic, willing to take the slings and arrows of criticism and motivated to prove people wrong. Signing Newton -- just like trading for right tackle Trent Brown a week earlier -- was the start of the free agent onslaught.
We said on the eve of free agency that Bill Belichick would come out hot. Real hot. We predicted a binge at tight end and in the front-seven. When the legal tampering period for free agency began, the Patriots hit those spots -- Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith at TE; Matt Judon, Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson in the front-seven -- plus wideout with Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor.
There are more names of re-signees and new signees, but the upshot is that March 15 and 16th was a binge that in many ways made up for some of the drafting bungles of the previous six seasons.
One interesting aspect of the Patriots' spree? They announced every signing as it happened during the legal tampering period. You’re not really supposed to do that and in years past, the Patriots adhered to that while others didn’t. This time, they gave the green light to let everyone know what they were up to.
For almost three months, the Patriots were on radio silence with the media. No access at the NFL Combine. No access at the Owners Meetings.
Finally, soon after the start of free agency, the owner spoke. And after watching Belichick star in "Spend Bob Kraft’s Money" to the tune of $172M in guaranteed cash, Kraft made clear he expected results.
"In the end, if you want to have a good, consistent winning football team you can’t do it in free agency," said Kraft. "You have to do it through the draft. Because that’s when you’re able to get people of great talent ... and get them at a price where you can build a team and be competitive. Once they get to their first contract, if they’re superstars, you can only balance so many of them.
"So the teams that draft well are the ones who will be consistently good. I don’t feel we’ve done the greatest job the last few years. I really hope and I believe I’ve seen a different approach this year. In the end it all comes out to what happens on the field and how well people execute."
As I wrote at the time, that wasn’t Kraft putting Belichick "on notice." It was Kraft confirming that he had noticed.
Kraft referenced a "different approach." The difference was, in the wake of Nick Caserio going to Houston, input from more people was sought. Dave Ziegler, Eliot Wolf and Matt Groh were big parts of a more collaborative approach. Kraft noticed. But he also made it clear he wanted results, saying, "Now we’ll see how good our people were in evaluating talent and the chemistry."
The pre-draft process for the Patriots was predictably passionate. Cam Newton was nobody’s long-term answer at quarterback. So would the Patriots vault up the board from 15 to take a dual-threat quarterback who could make plays with his legs as well as his arm? Would they stay put and take the best available defender and find a second-round project to develop under Newton? Or would they take the fifth-best quarterback in the first round?
As the draft drew close, it was believed the 49ers had moved up to No. 3 to take Jones. But when they took North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance -- the biggest project among the five top-tier quarterbacks -- the wait was on to see if the Patriots would get either Jones or Justin Fields.
It wound up being Jones. And right before the pick was made, Belichick went around the room double-checking that the rest of his brain trust was on board. A different approach indeed.
During the Patriots minicamp, Mac Jones began showing that all that acumen, accuracy and anticipation we were told he possessed were really there. The Patriots piled his plate high with as many challenges as they could in the controlled setting and gave him more reps than Newton in the middle of the three sessions. And it was clear that he was far from overmatched.
Even though the conventional wisdom was -- and would continue to be -- that Newton’s job as the starter was safe for 2021, Jones opened eyes. And set the stage for a legitimate camp battle to see who would be the starter.
After skipping mandatory minicamp in June then saying in early July, “I just want what I’m worth,” Patriots Pro Bowl corner Stephon Gilmore reported to training camp. Because of the fine structure for missing camp, it would have cost Gilmore a ton to hold out. But he was put on the Physically Unable to Return list and never hit the practice field and the quiet stalemate continued with no comment on when or if he’d take the field.
Over the first few training camp practices -- before the pads came on -- Jones continued to snag attention with his command of the offense and production. We kept waiting for him to have a bad practice. Finally, during the first padded practice, he did. Late with throws, inaccurate in the red zone and noticeably bummed out with his performance, it was notable because he played like a rookie ought to.
The next time the team took the field two days later, Jones lit it up again.
Thursday, there was a helluva lot more throwing and a helluva lot more reps for Jones and he had a performance far more in keeping with his work on every day that wasn’t Tuesday. Accurate. On-time. Efficient.
What does it all mean? Long-term, not much. Nothing that happened last week, nothing that happens this week will be referenced in September. But short-term, Jones keeps stringing positive days together. That allows the coaching staff to keep putting more on his plate. The arrow is pointing up.
Through the first couple weeks of training camp, Mac Jones was, little by little, passing Newton on the depth chart. It wasn’t that Newton was having a bad camp. He was better than he’d been in 2020. But Jones’ accuracy and consistency didn’t fluctuate much on a daily basis. Newton’s did. Jones was clearly quicker at getting the ball away.
Then, days before the Patriots final preseason game, Newton tested positive for COVID. That meant, with the Giants in town for joint practices, the reps would all go to Jones. And he made the most of them with an August 25 practice that probably won him the job.
All through August, there was unshakable belief that Newton would be the starter and Jones would be his backup. Even as Jones outperformed Newton in preseason games and took far more reps in those and in practices, the fact Newton was the first quarterback on the field all the time seemed to be the main evidence.
Newton started the final preseason game, played sparingly, then gave way to Jones who played plenty. Given he’d missed a week of practice and was still relatively new to the Patriots system, that seemed to be a red flag. But it didn’t make sense. Especially since Jones had done so well throughout camp and in the week Newton missed.
Jones deserved the job. On Tuesday, the Patriots made it official. They released Newton outright and Jones was the starter.
The Patriots that took the field for the opener against Miami were far different from the team that left the field nine months earlier. Nine of the 22 starters were new including Jones, Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Matt Judon and Donta Hightower, who returned after opting out in 2020.
If the Patriots were wary of letting Jones throw in a showdown with fellow Alabama alum Tua Tagovailoa, it didn’t show. He went 29 for 39 for 281 yards and a touchdown (though his first dropback was a weird, spinning panic attack incompletion). Turnovers, penalties and defensive breakdowns at key junctures led to a 17-16 loss but the big takeaway from the day was that Jones -- again -- had responded to a big challenge.
The most highly-anticipated regular season game in Patriots history came in early October when Tom Brady and his defending Super Bowl champions came to Gillette Stadium for Sunday Night Football.
Brady and Belichick lived on the high road all week. Brady made his point. He was happy where he was. He didn’t see any benefit to or have any desire for victory laps. And Belichick, even though his team entered the game 1-2, knew there was no upside to relitigating the divorce. His team was on the right track. His post-Brady plan was underway.
The two sides had grown apart, sure, but over the distance that now separated them was an unbreakable bond of respect, appreciation and love for what they did together.
As it turned out, the whole night was cathartic. Patriots fans cheered Brady before the game then got to rooting against him the rest of the night. The game wasn’t decided until Nick Folk missed a 56-yard field goal off the left upright on a rainy night with a minute left.
The Bucs won 19-17. Brady and Belichick had a 20-minute postgame conversation in the Bucs locker room which must have been fascinating. And that was that. Except for the fact the Patriots were 1-3.
After the Bucs loss, the Patriots escaped Houston with a narrow win over the Texans, erasing a 22-9 deficit. But the following week, back at Gillette, the Patriots lost to the Cowboys in overtime, 35-29. For entertainment purposes, it was a great game. But as a gauge on the Patriots season it was troubling.
Dallas put up 567 yards of offense -- 445 passing from Dak Prescott -- and the Patriots' defense buckled in some must-stop situations. A questionable decision by Belichick to punt during overtime opened the door for a Dallas win and whether or not the Patriots fully believed in Jones ability to make high leverage plays.
At 2-4, the Patriots had issues. And, having dealt Gilmore on October 6, there was no potential cavalry on the way.
Two weeks after the loss to Dallas, the Patriots were on their way to the West Coast for the biggest game of their season. They were 3-4 and had little margin for error as they went to face off with Justin Herbert and the Chargers.
But just two weeks after getting riddled by Prescott, the Patriots defense had a great day against the loaded Chargers offense. That effort was needed because Jones labored through his least accurate game of the season until the fourth quarter, when he engineered a 14-play, seven-minute drive for a sealing field goal. That win showed that, if all three facets of their team played clean, they’d be hard to beat.
With the rest of the AFC languishing with injuries and inefficiency through November, the Patriots kept reeling off wins. They toppled Carolina, Cleveland, Atlanta and Tennessee to get to 8-4. Tennessee and Atlanta were racked with injuries; Carolina and Cleveland just weren’t good. But the Patriots had risen to the top of the AFC with a game at Buffalo on a Monday night awaiting.
It turned into one of the most fascinating and memorable games of the Belichick Era as they ran, ran, ran and ran some more in the snow and rain against the Bills. Jones threw just three times. The Patriots ran for 222 yards. Buffalo couldn’t get out of its own way in the howling winds and New England looked to have delivered a knockout blow in the division.
After the Patriots' bye week, the Indianapolis Colts did unto the Patriots what the Patriots had done unto so many teams before. Penalties, special teams gaffes and picks put them in a 20-0 hole. They tried to dig out but couldn’t.
A week later, at Gillette, the Bills got their revenge on the Patriots. The Bills rode quarterback Josh Allen while Jones labored for the second straight game and the Patriots fell, 33-21. The loss dropped the Patriots to 9-6 as 2021 closed.
The prognosis for the postseason remains good. But how well this edition of the Patriots with all its newly-indoctrinated players will respond over the next month will be fascinating to watch.
But for the Patriots, collecting and developing a core of young players, finding an answer to their quarterback question and having their rebuild well underway as the calendar flips to 2022?
It was a good year in Foxboro.