Our perception of how an NFL team should go through its internal checklist after a bad season is at once probably far too optimistic and not optimistic enough. There are some owners who steep their organizations in complacency. Some who are more comfortable with the familiar. Some who blow it all up because some middling former quarterback on ESPN told them to. Perpetually good teams don’t normally have that problem because they are good at self-analysis. Of course, some teams get good for a little while and lose the ability to do that as well.
So that’s why we’re here. With each team that drops from playoff contention, we will answer a 10-part questionnaire on where they are, where they’re headed and how to fix the holes along the way. Some projects will be bigger than others.
Which brings us to the Patriots, a team that has only missed the playoffs three times in the Bill Belichick era. This is the earliest the Patriots have been out of contention since the year 2000—a time when the device you are reading this on was merely a fever dream in the head of some futurist somewhere.
1. What went right this year?
Had the Patriots somehow hung on to beat the Dolphins last week, I was planning on making the case for why this was Bill Belichick’s finest season yet. It seems likely the team missed out on whatever quarterback prospect they wanted in the 2020 draft and decided to wedge Cam Newton directly into the lineup after a nonexistent offseason prevented them from developing Jarrett Stidham the way they wanted to. All that said, New England was relevant for a majority of the season despite a ton of high-profile opt outs. My colleague, Jenny Vrentas, made a good point on the Weak-Side Podcast that the second we heard trade rumors surrounding all-world corner Stephon Gilmore we should have taken that as an indication of what Belichick saw ahead in 2020. Still, four of his six wins came against teams with winning records and three of those wins came against teams currently in the playoff race.
2. What went wrong this year?
Cam Newton, while still an explosive talent, is not back at 100% and the wide receiver core around him was either not healthy enough or talented enough to make up the difference. The Patriots tried to lean into a throwback rushing offense that could grind opponents down, alter the possession share and hand the games over to their still-stout defense and in a lot of ways that was successful—no team has been passed against fewer times than New England this year. However, there was not enough of a counterpunch offensively to lift them over the hump in close games or keep them afloat against the McVay-Shanahan systems.
3. The Big Question this offseason
Will the Patriots reinvest in Cam Newton? I don’t hate the idea. There are far worse long-term solutions out there, especially with the direction the league is headed. Newton can certainly develop into the kind of player who can run the scheme effectively if he has the right complementary talent around him, and his dominance as an inside rusher only serves to further endear himself to Belichick and Josh McDaniels. As we mentioned before, there is a really important part of this offense that works. Imagine if you had a full offseason and a free agency period to make the appropriate tweaks.
4. Coach/GM outlook
When you have the greatest head coach in NFL history, who is also your GM, life is good in that department. The one interesting thing here: Matt Patricia, Bill O’Brien and a slew of other ancillary Patriots assistants will be back on the market this offseason. What does that mean for a coaching staff that had gone a little barebones after the defections of Patricia and Brian Flores? Could Belichick reup his arsenal with some familiar faces of the golden years? Also of note: Quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch is now the head coach at the University of Arizona, so the all-important QB coach role needs filling.
5. Key free agents
• Joe Thuney, guard
• J.C. Jackson, cornerback
• Cam Newton, quarterback
• James White, running back
• Deatrich Wise Jr., defensive end
• Brian Hoyer, quarterback
• Jermaine Eluemunor, tackle/guard
• Damiere Byrd, wide receiver
• Jason McCourty, defensive back
• David Andrews, center
• Lawrence Guy, defensive tackle
• Adam Butler, defensive tackle
6. Top priority
I would say quarterback, but there is a reason Belichick has a top-15 draft pick and a trove of cap space for the first time in a long time. This roster has needs that must be addressed up and down the depth chart. On one hand, he gets back a great deal of trusted veterans who can turbo charge his defense. On the other, Belichick has some big decisions to make on the offensive line. And yes, there is a matter of the two best quarterbacks on the roster both hitting free agency.
7. Positions of need
Quarterback, wide receiver, defensive tackle/edge, cornerback, offensive line.
8. Sensible plan to fix them
Sign Ryan Fitzpatrick this offseason and draft Alabama’s Mac Jones, allowing one of the all-time great bridge quarterbacks to run your offense for a year while developing a rookie starter. There’s a good chance that Belichick will have better information on Jones, who plays for one of his best friends and contemporaries (Nick Saban), than anyone else in the draft. If that report card comes back clean, it would be sensible to see the coach recreate a bit of what he had in 2000—an established veteran who can win games now and a young project nipping at his heels.
9. Outside-the-box idea to fix them
Sign Dak Prescott.
If there is one coach who could lure a rehabilitating Prescott away from the Cowboys, would it not be Bill Belichick? Prescott seems to fit everything Belichick wants in a passer and was on pace for his best season before he got injured. He is going to cost a boatload of money, which is entirely anti-Belichickian. But with cap space in hand, would it be worth the investment to snag Prescott or goad him into requesting a sign and trade after he’s whacked with the franchise tag again?
10. Next time we'll realistically see them in the playoffs
2021. Come on.