The Patriots lost to the Dolphins on Sunday, making this the first time in 12 years that Bill Belichick’s team didn’t reach the postseason. That’s the one thing about this itineration of the Patriots that we know to be true—the one factual piece of information surrounding the league’s most analyzed franchise that will be endlessly dissected in the coming weeks and months.
The Patriots are often an avatar for our own feelings. For the conspiratorial, they are simply a dark force reshaping themselves for another 20 years of havoc on the unwitting AFC East. For the realistic, they are a dot at the low end of a logical scatterplot: For every 20 years of football, one or two will inevitably be bad. For the hopeful, they are fading. Maybe Belichick’s brand of football cannot survive without an equally maniacal quarterback. Maybe it’s time for the Dolphins and Bills to rise (and yes, Jets, maybe someday you as well).
It’s a great question for this Sunday and beyond—what did the 2020 Patriots actually mean in the grand scheme of things? When we look back on this season 10 years from now, what will an otherwise banal and (likely) sub-.500 season in the middle of a pandemic that didn’t feature some of the team’s most important players have warned us or told us about the future of what has been the sport’s greatest dynasty?
• Is it a sign of the end?
For once, the AFC East seems to be forming a phalanx around the Patriots. The Bills and Dolphins have either solidified a star franchise quarterback or are developing one. Both teams have laid the foundation for sustained success, unlike the only other legitimate challenger New England has had during the Belichick era, the hyper-microwaved and inevitably combustible Rex Ryan–era Jets. In that way, Sunday was a bit of symbolism. A Belichick disciple, Brian Flores, besting his mentor with a radically different team-building strategy than the one Flores came up in under his mentor. Flores was one of the few graduates of Belichick’s school who understood the value of identity; who did not assume that his internship in New England and proximity to the secret sauce was the team’s greatest strength.
• Is it merely a bump in the road?
There is an undramatic answer to all of this, of course. We may have simply seen what the absolute floor is for a Patriots team. The bare minimum of heady defensive talent. The bare minimum of quarterback play. The bare minimum of skill position talent out wide. The Patriots were still competitive in nearly all of their games this year, save for losses to the Chiefs, Rams and 49ers. Could even the most middling of free agencies by Belichick’s standards make up the difference and turn this team from 7–9 or 8–8 into a team that could easily finish 10–6? It’s also worth mentioning that only the Jaguars and Jets have more cap space heading into the 2021 offseason, and if you’re a veteran player hoping to generate some meaning out of your remaining years in the NFL, which of these three places are you going to pick?
• Is it just the beginning?
Throughout the last 20 years, the Patriots have been noteworthy in their ability to avoid ever being defined by one brand of football. The only way to be truly Belichickian is to be forever changing. Along those lines, Belichick has rarely had this combination of ammunition at his disposal: the No. 15 pick in the draft, per Tankathon, plus cap space outmatching the GDP of the oceanic island of Tuvalu. This is a coach who has cobbled together Super Bowl-winning rosters with the shavings of other irresponsible franchises around the league. Is it wise to doubt that he couldn’t do it now?
In that way, maybe Sunday and the inevitable parade of Belichick boo birds is just a prelude for everyone doubting the franchise to get humiliated again. Maybe, as they’re totally unburdened from all the financial commitments of the Brady era, as well as the players specifically tailored to make it run, we will see the groundwork laid for another 20 years of smart football.
How’s that for conspiratorial?