Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and as strange as that sounds, it’s equally jarring to imagine Bill Belichick entrusting control of the Patriots' offense to someone other than the six-time Super Bowl champion. The last time New England headed to training camp with someone other than Brady as the entrenched starter was 2000, when the job belonged to Drew Bledsoe.
New England is being written off as a serious 2020 contender not only because Brady is gone, but because of an exodus of talent in free agency. (New England has cap issues, with just $4.9 million available, the third-lowest total in the league.) Belichick must work some magic if the Pats are to extend their title streak in the improving AFC East to 12. More realistically, New England might go through a soft rebuild. Here is some advice for Belichick on how to handle what comes next:
Try to make it ugly
After a fast start in 2019, New England’s offense hit the skids in the second half of the season. Starting with their first loss, against Baltimore, the Patriots topped 24 points in a game just once the rest of the way, and were held in the teens four times, including their season-ending loss to Tennessee. If that’s how things devolved with Brady under center, it’s only going to get worse this season. New England’s best chance to win and stay competitive in the division is to return to Belichick’s roots: playing stingy defense and winning close games late.
See what you have in Stidham ...
Brian Hoyer’s return to Foxborough immediately set off speculation that he would have a chance to compete for the starting quarterback job. But Belichick should give second-year QB Jarrett Stidham every opportunity to show what he can do. There’s always the chance that the Pats will somehow luck into yet another franchise quarterback, even if the downside includes some ugly losses in the process. Starting Hoyer (59.1 % career completion percentage) would be a vanity move that likely would keep the Pats around 8-8 or maybe 9-7, but not make them any kind of threat in the playoffs. The future must be now in Foxborough. That said …
... kick the tires on Cam
Cam Newton, released by the Panthers, is a free agent. The questions about his health (shoulder, foot surgeries) are valid, but Belichick would be crazy not to at least do his due diligence on the former MVP. Rumors have swirled that Belichick desires a dual-threat quarterback, and while Newton’s propensity for running and taking contact have likely shortened his career, he is still one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the league. If he’s healthy, the Patriots should consider signing him. Newton-led New England would likely be one of the bigger threats in the AFC.
If the Pats stay away from Newton, or Jameis Winston, or any other available veteran quarterback, Belichick must pay close attention to the little things even more than he usually does. One reason he has had so much success over the years is his ability to find players willing to follow the Pats’ simple, devastating mantra: Do your job. Laying the groundwork for the next great run of Patriots football is as much about finding players that mesh philosophically with the franchise as it is about finding guys with great talent.
Appear like you’re actually enjoying yourself
Go look at some early videos from the Brady-Belichick run of dominance, and you see a head coach who is both significantly younger and significantly less miserable-looking. Somewhere along the line, Belichick became tight-lipped to the point of absurdity, and really started to lean into the “Darth Vader” role with the media. Many have said that he’s very different behind closed doors, and much more affable toward his players. But it wouldn’t hurt if he occasionally addressed the media in a tone other than, “I wish I was getting a root canal.” Lighten up, Bill!
Defense, defense, defense
Belichick has never won a Super Bowl with a scoring defense ranked worse than eighth in the league. Brady’s greatness bailed the Patriots out time and again, but their defensive excellence was also a foundational pillar of their success. Belichick should use the majority of his 12 draft picks on defense, and try to rebuild a unit that lost Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Danny Shelton in free agency, among others. In addition to a first-round picks, New England has three third-rounders. It was awarded three compensatory picks (a third-rounder and two sixth-rounders), so it has plenty of draft fodder.
Reinvent the wheel – again
In 2002, the Pats stunned the Steelers in their opener by throwing the ball 25 straight times against a shell-shocked defense. Such an aerial display was mostly unheard of in the league at that time, but it was a harbinger. Alternately, the Patriots have zigged when other teams have zagged in recent years, recommitting to the running game and trying to hammer teams into submission. Belichick could cement his genius even further by taking a risk and trotting out a completely new offense with an unproven quarterback.
Don’t rely on turnovers
In 2019, the Pats forced two or more turnovers in six of their first eight games, going undefeated in the process. They forced two or more just three times over the final half of the season, and failed to produce a turnover in three games, going 1-2 in those contests. Much of what New England did to start the season was unsustainable, and may have created a false sense of defensive confidence. Belichick needs to get his group back to basics and more of a bend-don’t-break philosophy.
Prepare for pain
Opposing fans have been waiting for this. Some in the media have been waiting for this. Opposing teams have been waiting for this. Everyone smells blood in the water around the Patriots, and unless Stidham or Hoyer are outstanding, New England could struggle in 2020. There’s a good chance Belichick posts his worst record since a 5-11 record in 2000. The franchise that defined both success and arrogance in the 21st century is likely going to take its lumps. If teams have a chance to blow out the Pats, they’re going to take it to the extreme.
Tank for Trevor?
With 273 wins, Belichick is within shouting distance of Don Shula’s all-time wins record of 328. Would he be willing to tarnish his record for one season in order to get the first pick in the 2021 draft, and select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence? It would be short-term pain for long-term gain, and would be yet another case of Belichick playing chess while everyone else plays checkers. The question is: Could his ego handle it?
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