Felger & Mazz

Felger & Mazz

Felger & Mazz

Always, for everyone, Judgment Day looms. In this instance, the case for firing Bill Belichick is as stacked as it has ever been.

As such, make no mistake about the biggest story in Boston sports as we open 2024 on this Tuesday, Jan. 2: the great Bill Belichick – and we ae being quite literal there – is entering perhaps (likely?) his final game as the head coach of the New England Patriots. The Patriots are 4-12 and in contention for the No. 2 overall pick in next year’s annual draft. They have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl LIII almost five years ago. They have dipped to a level of failure the region has not seen from its football team since days that immediately preceded the arrival of Belichick’s mentor, the estimable Bill Parcells.

So where is this going? Nowhere good, it seems, no matter how you feel about the complicated coach of the Patriots. During his time in New England, Belichick has been, at once, arrogant, brilliant, stubborn, caustic, childish, a genius and a curmudgeon, one of the NFL’s greatest ambassadors and perhaps his own worst enemy. He has also been nothing if not human, a quality that ultimately leaves him i the same place as everyone else in the final analysis.

Vulnerable.

What Patriots owner Robert Kraft elects to do with Belichick in the next week is still open to debate in the eyes of many, if for no other reason than the fact that Belichick’s accomplishments here should never be minimized. Was Tom Brady more important? Almost certainly. Red Auerbach himself said the same about Bill Russell. But someone still has to put out the balls and blow the whistle, and Belichick – like Auerbach – stands as arguably the greatest coach in the history of his sport.

And yet, entering Sunday’s 2023 season finale against the coach’s hated New York Jets in Foxboro, the case against Belichick returning – and for his firing – seems as open and shut as it has ever been. If Belichick and the Patriots break up soon – however the formal phrasing, the reasons will be clear.

  • The Patriots have been disintegrating for some time now

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots arrives prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 31: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots arrives prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

    Oh, the 2023 Patriots may very well be the victims of a perfect storm, which is say they have dealt with a combination of injuries and scheduling challenges, among other things. But mismanagement has also been a major factor. The Patriots have been constructed poorly, most notably through the draft, especially on offense. Even the staunchest Belichick loyalists often suggest that keeping him as a coach almost certainly requires to firing him as both general manager and head of football operations. But given Belichick’s controlling nature, massive ego and sizable shadow, this is a solution akin to splitting the proverbial baby. It simply cannot be done.

    This year, while national voices expressed shock at the suggestion of Belichick’s dismissal, the truth is that the Patriots have been, at best, spinning their wheels since Tom Brady departed. New England is 13-24 in its last 37 games. The Patriots have one player getting serious Pro Bowl consideration this year and he is their punter, Bryce Barringer. On either side of the ball, they have very few core players considered to be current or future cornerstones. Belichick hasn’t been just the coach of the Patriots during this time. He has been the architect.

  • Belichick’s poor handling of the quarterback situation

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 18: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches his players, including quarterback Mac Jones #10, warm up before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Patriots 30-24. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 18: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches his players, including quarterback Mac Jones #10, warm up before a game against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium on December 18, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Raiders defeated the Patriots 30-24. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

    Did Belichick want Mac Jones? Did he not? Certainly, we can debate. But this much is indisputable: Jones had a relatively promising start to his career, going 10-7 during a rookie season that landed the Patriots in the playoffs. What Belichick and the Patriots have done to him since has been nothing short of negligent, starting with the incomprehensible appointment of Belichick loyalists Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as Jones’ primary offensive coaches in 2022. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien was brought on boards in hopes of rectifying that problem in 2023, but Belichick left Jones without an offensive line or requisite talent at the skill positions.

    None of that is meant to exempt Jones. who has been exposed by the team’s better play under backup Bailey Zappe. But it’s not like Zappe has been stellar, either. Since Tom Brady departed, the Patriots rank 29th in the NFL in passing touchdowns, ahead of only the New York Jets, New York Giants and Carolina Panthers. At the same time, Patriots passers have thrown the fifth-most interceptions. From Cam Newton to Jones to Bailey, Belichick has destroyed the offense in what is an offensive era, suggesting his philosophies are both ineffective outdated. In the end, this might be the single biggest argument against him.

  • The deterioration of the coaching staff

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 17: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on from the sideline during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 17: New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick looks on from the sideline during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Gillette Stadium on December 17, 2023 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    If the decision to hire Patricia and Judge highlighted anything in 2022, it was this: Belichick’s unwillingness to ever extend beyond his circle or trust. Even when the Patriots had Brady, Belichick rarely hired anyone from the outside who might challenge his methods or his manner. He usually hired young, controllable, hand-picked and impressionable people from within. And it worked. Even O’Brien, who has had a relatively accomplished career as a head coach and assistant, felt like a way to appease Belichick’s insecurities as much as it did a way to properly support Jones.

    The point? The overall coaching on the team has worsened, too. (It hasn’t been just the talent.) Over the last four years, the Patriots have committed too many foolish penalties, too many turnovers, too many mistakes in general. Even Belichick’s defense – his hallmark – has struggled against good competition. Gating back to 2021, the Patriots are just 2-19 against teams quarterbacked by Brady, Josh Allen, Tua Tagovailoa, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Kirk Cousins. Both wins came against Buffalo – one this season and one in 2020, when the Pats won with just three pass attempts in a windstorm.

  • The mess on the offensive line

    DENVER, COLORADO - DECEMBER 24:  Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches from the sidelines during the 2nd quarter of the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field At Mile High on December 24, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

    DENVER, COLORADO – DECEMBER 24: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots watches from the sidelines during the 2nd quarter of the game against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field At Mile High on December 24, 2023 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

    So, how is this Belichick’s fault? Because no area on the field better highlights the organizational ineptitude. For starters, nothing – and we mean nothing – can undermine a team line bad offensive line play because it undermines everything on that side of the ball. The Patriots haven’t been able to pass or run – and, therefore, score – because, quite simply, they can’t block. The Patriots rank 29th in passer rating and 25th in passing yards. They rank 25th in rushing yards and 25th in yards per rush. And the offensive line coach is former Belichick draft pick Adrian Klemm, brought in more for Belichick’s familiarity with him than with his career accomplishments.

    But here’s the worst part: at this time a year ago, most everyone agreed that the Patriots biggest needs entering 2023 were on the offensive line. Got that? EVERYBODY KNEW IT. Belichick nonetheless tried to plug the holes with fringe free agents and later-round draft picks, relying on the chronically unreliable Trent Brown (benched last week) to anchor the group. In this case more than any other – on the coaching staff and the roster – Belichick and the Patriots got exactly what they bargained for: garbage.

  • Wretched special teams play

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 31: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots walks off the field after a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

    ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK – DECEMBER 31: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots walks off the field after a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on December 31, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images)

    On the one hand, we all acknowledge that special teams aren’t as important as they used to be. On the other, we criticize Belichick for his teams’ poor special teams play. So how can both things be true? Because, incredibly, Belichick continues to put resources and emphasis on special teams and because the Patriots still stink at them. Think about that. In the past few years, the Patriots have had punts blocked, run into opposing punters, missed field goals and botched return coverages. This year, they rank 31st in punt return average and 32nd in field goal percentage. And this is true despite the fact that, in the last five years, Belichick has drafted two punters (in the fifth and sixth rounds) and two kickers (in the fourth and fifth).

    Through much of that time, the special teams coach has remained Cam Achord, to whom Belichick has remained inexplicably loyal. The last two or three seasons, in particular, has seemingly called for a change in special teams coaching. Belichick has refrained. Like the offensive line, the overall handling of the unit – from the coaching on down – reeks of incompetence.

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