Mazz: Is this the end of the Bill Belichick era?
As we were warned by Tom Brady Sr., it won’t end well. At the time, Brady was speaking about his son’s time with the Patriots. He might just as well have been talking about the end of the Bill Belichick era.
Or, for that matter, most any legendary coach or player.
In the case of Belichick, that doesn’t necessarily mean an ugly breakup with a franchise he helped bring to unprecedented heights so much as it means an ugly end on the field, where the Patriots were beaten, bullied and bludgeoned Sunday by the New Orleans Saints, 34-0.
And lest there be any doubt, these aren’t the championship-caliber Saints of the Drew Brees and Sean Payton era. No, these are the relatively ordinary Saints coached by Dennis Allen and quarterbacked by Derek Carr, the former a coach with a career record of 18-40 and the latter a similarly hollow leader who has posted two winning seasons in nine years as an NFL starter.
“Just plain and simply, we’ve got to find a way to play and coach better than that,” an exasperated Belichick said after the beatdown. “So that’s what we are going to do, start all over and get back on a better track than we’re on right now.”
We’re obviously playing with words and meanings here, folks, but Bill Belichick is 71.
It’s a little late to start over.
The end comes for all of us, of course, but somehow we almost fool ourselves into thinking it will be some kind of celebration. It rarely is. In the case of Belichick, much has been made of his pursuit of Don Shula, who holds the NFL record for career wins (regular- and post-season combined) by an NFL coach. Now we have to ask if Belichick will ever get there and, if he does, what he (and it) will look like when he crosses the finish line.
But at the moment, if seems like a far more relevant topic for discussion.
Over the last two weeks, the Patriots have suffered consecutive defeats by the scores of 38-3 (at Dallas) and the aforementioned 34-0, an unprecedented succession of embarrassment in the history of the franchise. (And that’s saying something.) According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Patriots have never suffered consecutive defeats by 34 or more points, which seems cruelly ironic. Before Belichick took over, after all, the large majority of Patriots history was defined by on- and off-field ineptitude, the team ranking 22nd among 31 professional football franchises in winning percentage since its inception in 1960.
But we already knew much of that.
What we don’t know now is where this is all heading – and at seemingly at breakneck speed.
These Patriots? They’ve lost their last two games by the combined score of 72-3 and now stand at 1-4 for the season, their only win coming against the New York Jets. They are in last place in the AFC East they owned during the Tom Brady era. Only one team in the league (Carolina, 0-5) has a worse record. New England’s point differential is second-worst in the league to only the New York Giants, the franchise with which Belichick made his first major mark on the league as defensive coordinator and currently coached by one of his former assistants, the now-embattled Brian Daboll.
As for the details that Belichick once mastered, they are now piled against the coach as indisputable, damning evidence: entering last night’s game between San Francisco and Dallas, the Patriots ranked 30th in the NFL in turnover differential at minus-8, with only Minnesota and Las Vegas (next week’s opponent) both at minus-9; in five games, the Patriots have 10 giveaways, second most in the league, including three interceptions returned for touchdown and a strip-sack fumble that was returned for another score; New England ranks 30th in scoring offense, 21st in scoring defense, 24th in offensive yards per play. In the last three games the Patriots have scored one touchdown, that coming on a play in which blocking tight end Pharaoh Brown surprised the Jets with a 58-yard touchdown reception on one of his two catches (and targets) this season.
Meanwhile, the Patriots rank 28th in the NFL with 3.4 yards per rushing attempt and 27th with 6.2 yards per pass attempt. They can’t run, can’t pass, can’t block and, understandably, can’t win.
Sunday, with 9:55 left in the third quarter, the Pats faced a fourth-and-3 at the New Orleans 40-yard line while trailing 24-0. (It was the second and last time they would reach the Saints’ 40.) Belichick nonetheless elected to punt, gaining only 27 yards in field position when New Orleans returner Rashid Shaheed fair caught the ball at the 13-yard line.
Belichick was asked later whether he had considered going for it.
“Until we’re better on third and fourth down, I don’t think so,” he said somberly.
Now, how you may feel about all of this is a decidedly complex question, if for no other reason than the fact that, at once, Belichick has been one of the most accomplished, brilliant, arrogant, condescending, distrustful, deceitful and generous sports personalities ever to walk a sideline or foul line of any kind. Under his watch, the Patriots have been punished more than once for breaking league rules. They have also been to nine Super Bowls, winning six of them. Belichick’s team has been a model for excellence and he has been the embodiment of hubris, a lifelong football junkie who strived to be among the gods and has flown too close to the sun.
Now, seemingly within reach of Shula, his wings are melting.
Does Belichick deserve to be fired? In the big picture, no. But given the current state of the team, it’s now in play. Belichick’s decision to “support” Mac Jones last season with offensive “coordinators” Matt Patricia and Joe Judge was a colossally stupid decision, one that could only be made by someone like him. Simultaneously, he has built a roster devoid of high-end talent and seemingly ill-equipped to compete in a sport played with great speed in open space. Belichick’s philosophies now feel as anachronistic as he does, which is a nice way of saying that football seems to have passed him by.
So, what happens from here? Only heaven knows. Certainly, Patriots owner Robert Kraft can’t be happy that his team is now a relative laughingstock. If and when Belichick’s days are numbered, he won’t be unceremoniously dismissed so much as he will be politely ushered to a comfortable chair. He certainly deserves that and more.
Over the years, Belichick’s teams have had more than their share of dramatic comebacks, but this Patriots season suddenly has an air of inevitability to it. The Patriots are short on talent. Their schedule is difficult. And after 20 years with a heaven-sent quarterback who had, as Tom Brady himself once said, all the answers to the test, he now has a quarterback in Mac Jones who looks both overwhelmed and is in way, way over his head.
The NFL season is now nearly one-third complete.
As we all know, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
But as Bill Belichick has pledged to “start over” with the 2023 New England Patriots, maybe it’s even simpler.
Maybe it’s just over.