As he lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy after his New England Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams at Super Bowl LIII in 2019, it seemed unthinkable that Bill Belichick, the most successful coach in NFL history, could ever enter a season with his job on the line.
It was the culmination of a campaign in which he had led the Patriots to a top-place finish in the AFC East for the 16th time in 19 seasons, and for the 10th year in succession, as well as claiming the AFC championship for the ninth time. His sixth Super Bowl triumph confirmed his status as professional football’s most decorated coach.
Yet, after three years of stagnation, uncharacteristically ill-advised decisions and substandard performances, Belichick enters the new NFL season – his 24th in charge of the Patriots – coaching for his future in Foxborough.
The Patriots have posted a 25-25 cumulative record over the past three regular seasons. They have featured in just one playoff game – a blowout 47-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the 2021-22 wildcard round – since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay after that Super Bowl LIII victory.
Now the NFL’s most dominant team of the century enter the upcoming season as anything but playoff certainties.
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One of the primary questions lingering over the Patriots’ hopes surrounds Mac Jones’s aptitude as a starting quarterback on a team unfamiliar with mediocrity.
Jones was a first-round draft pick in 2021, and enjoyed a promising rookie campaign, throwing for 3,801 yard and 22 touchdowns to guide the Patriots to a 10-7 record and a return to the playoffs after missing out in 2020. Although he lacked the athleticism of many of his contemporaries, Jones appeared to have the poise, arm talent and self-confidence to, if not fill, at least grow into Brady’s sizeable cleats.
But Jones struggled last season, throwing for just 2,997 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, with the Patriots losing eight of the 14 games he started. When Bailey Zappe, a rookie fourth-round pick, replaced the injured Jones for two weeks, New England won both games and there was a clamor for the back-up to keep his place. When Jones returned to face the Chicago Bears in Week 7, he started poorly and, after throwing an interception in the second quarter, fans cheered when Zappe was returned to the lineup. Zappe immediately threw a 30-yard touchdown. Had the rookie not gone on to throw two interceptions in what was ultimately a 33-14 loss, Jones might have been out of a job.
One of the reasons cited for Jones’s sophomore struggles was Matt Patricia, who was the team’s offensive playcaller last season. It was a striking error of judgment from someone as wily, experienced and successful as Belichick to have handed the keys to his offense to Patricia, who is known more for his defensive acumen.
It’s a mistake Belichick, the Patriots’ de facto GM, has attempted to rectify. Belichick has hired Bill O’Brien, who briefly worked with Jones at Alabama, to replace Patricia as the play-caller on offense this season. O’Brien’s reign as head coach at the Houston Texans ended disastrously, although that was more to do with his skills as an administrator than his playcalling.
Zappe has gone from the 53-man roster, too. He was waived this week as the Patriots trimmed their roster (though soon brought back for the practice squad). There were reports back in April that Belichick might look to trade Jones, but with Zappe and Patricia out and O’Brien in, the Patriots have moved to empower their third-year quarterback, who turns 25 next week, ahead of what will be a make-or-break season.
New England have added former Steelers and Chiefs wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to provide an experienced, high-calibre target for Jones, but the fact that DeAndre Hopkins chose to join the Tennessee Titans over a move to Foxborough is indicative of the Patriots’ fall-off in recent years. In the Brady era, they were a prime destination for ring-chasing free agents.
They seem to have lost their touch in the draft, too. It was long a hallmark of Belichick’s tenure that the Patriots would unearth gems outside the first round. The likes of Sebastian Vollmer (58th pick in 2009), Rob Gronkowski (42nd in 2010), Marcus Cannon (138th in 2011) and Logan Ryan (83rd in 2013) all went on to contribute to multiple Super Bowl successes. In recent drafts, New England have struggled to add value.
Still, there are reasons for optimism. The Patriots boasted one of the better defensive units in football last season and they are likely to be strong on that side of the ball once again. The offense should improve under O’Brien’s stewardship and if Rhamondre Stevenson can build upon his 1,040-rushing-yards 2022 campaign, they’ll have a high-quality running back to ease the pressure on Jones.
The Patriots must contend with a strong division though. They have not finished last in the AFC East since 2000, Belichick’s first season with the team. But that is now a real possibility, given the strength of their divisional rivals: led by Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills are among the AFC title favorites; the Miami Dolphins, provided quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can overcome his concussion issues, are in shape to be one of the league’s most electric offenses; and the New York Jets, the division’s perennial strugglers, have acquired four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers.
The former New England linebacker Jerod Mayo is well regarded within the Patriots organization. He is currently inside linebackers coach on Belichick’s staff and, after his contract was extended this off-season, he has been tipped by some to eventually succeed the 71-year-old as head coach, with the expected plan being that Belichick will eventually transition into a front-office role. Comments from team owner Robert Kraft earlier this year caused speculation that future may arrive sooner than expected.
“Look, I think Bill is exceptional at what he does. And I’ve given him the freedom to make the choices and do the things that need to be done,” Kraft said in March. “His football intellect and knowledge is unparalleled from what I’ve seen, and when you talk to him, the small things analytically that he looks at.
“But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win, or you don’t. That’s where we’re at. I think we’re in a transition phase. I think we’ve made some moves this year that I personally am comfortable with, and I still believe in Bill.”
Another season of underperformance will test Kraft’s resolve. Belichick needs another 31 victories to pass Don Shula as the head coach with the most wins in NFL history. If the Patriots miss the postseason again, he may be forced to chase that record elsewhere.