We’re going to tread lightly here, since being critical of the on-field decisions and roster construction theory employed by the best head coach in modern NFL history has a way of coming back to make us all look silly.
Bill Belichick is not infallible, but just think of how many times his teams have slogged through September and October, causing us to leap off the couch eager to be among the ones who correctly pinpointed the end of the Patriot Dynasty—a run so incredible that it was actually several different dynasties overlapping one another. And then those teams shapeshifted, reviving themselves with new life in November and December, while bearing almost no resemblance to the (relatively) hapless early-season versions of themselves as they plowed their way to the postseason.
So maybe it’s more appropriate to put it in the form of a two-part question: When is it actually okay to wonder if it’s all falling apart, and what did Sunday’s shellacking at the hands of the 49ers mean in the grand scheme of things?
The rout was tied for the second-worst loss of the Belichick era, behind only a totally bizarro 31–0 loss to the Gregg Williams coached Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the 2003 season (Tom Brady threw four interceptions, while the Bills were buoyed by Drew Bledsoe and Travis Henry). Cam Newton had a quarterback rating below 40. He lingered aimlessly in the pocket and unloaded a handful of wild fastballs that were picked or tipped by a receiver reaching back behind his body. The defense was, from San Francisco’s opening drive, shoved around. Seemingly each member of the 49ers, including Jimmy Garoppolo, was able to lower their shoulder and blow a Patriot defender off his location.
New England did not neutralize any of San Francisco’s offensive stars. Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle all caught a majority of their targets while two 49ers’ running backs averaged more than six yards per carry.
This is all to say that it was not Patriot-like, even though Kyle Shanahan-led offenses have performed historically well against Belichick over the years. This game featured poor fundamentals, needless turnovers and an air of unpreparedness. But was it un-Patriot-like in the same way that strange opening afternoon in 2003 was? New England finished that year with 17 wins, the last of which came over the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. It’s the trap we fall into every time we project New England’s current reality too far down the road. This year’s Patriots still have both Jets games remaining, both Bills games remaining and their second Dolphins matchup to go. They also have several other subpar opponents lingering in the not so distant future.
The current season is obviously different, especially with Tom Brady flourishing in a Buccaneers offense peppered with star players and a talented, developing young offensive line. Around the same time New England was crawling for mercy points Sunday, Brady was tossing his fourth touchdown of the day and polishing a quarterback rating that was nearly 100 points better than Newton’s. There is an eagerness on everyone’s part to lay both teams, both coaches and both quarterbacks over one another like sheets on an old overhead classroom projector. Maybe that is what’s also forcing us to urgently question what the future holds for the Patriots, even if the Buccaneers and Patriots could not be in more different circumstances (the Bucs are all-in on 2020, willing to bring in big names on one-year deals; the Patriots’ defense saw a mass exodus of COVID opt-outs, and hopes those players will return next year).
Rest assured, the only person who may not be traversing this narrative right now is Belichick himself, which is what always makes doubting the future of the Patriots feel so uncertain in the first place. The safe thing, for now, is to admit that the Patriots can be struggling, the Buccaneers can be playing well and that those things have almost no correlation between them. It might also be safe to admit that, with a different quarterback for the first time in almost 20 years, those unpredictable, bizzarro afternoons are going to simply become a little more common without the irreplaceable efficiency the Patriots had during the height of Brady’s run.
Does that make them less dangerous in the long term? Maybe. Would you be willing to bet against them more often? That’s a harder question to answer, mostly because Belichick isn’t going anywhere.