Is Bill Belichick under pressure in New England? A statement that should be unthinkable, but the reality of the situation for the future Hall of Famer is that his New England Patriots have to show they’re ready to compete in the AFC East for the first time since Tom Brady’s exit.
Brady’s departure after the 2019 season has resulted in a dramatic decline in the Patriots’ fortunes. In three years, Belichick’s team has recorded two losing seasons, and the one campaign that they returned to the post-season ended in a thrashing at the hands of the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round.
New England has not been competitive in the AFC East with the Bills, and the pressure on the Patriots has only increased with the arrival of Aaron Rodgers at the New York Jets. The Jets have been the Patriots’ saving grace, recording six-straight wins over their rivals over the last three years, but those days could be over with Rodgers under center for Robert Saleh’s team.
The Miami Dolphins too have caused problems for Belichick’s men, winning four of the six games between the two sides since Brady’s departure. When you add the factors of the Bills’ dominance of the AFC East, the potential Jets’ improvement, and the problems the Dolphins have caused the Patriots, Belichick, and his team could be staring down the possibility of finishing bottom of the division for the first time since 2000.
Given the reported unrest between Belichick and Robert Kraft, the Patriots owners may be tempted to move on from the Hall of Famer, especially with two prime head coaching candidates waiting in the wings in the form of Bill O’Brien and Jerod Mayo already on staff.
Why Have the Patriots Slumped?
Losing a Hall of Fame quarterback is tough to overcome, never mind the GOAT. Brady was the foundation of the team and allowed the Patriots to compete for Super Bowls even in seasons when the roster was talent-deficient, none more than his final campaign. Buffalo and Miami are prime examples of what happens when you struggle to replace a top-tier quarterback, with both enduring lengthy spells outside of the playoff picture after Jim Kelly and Dan Marino retired from the game.
It is a testament to Belichick’s program and outstanding coaching skill that the Patriots have not fallen into the lower depths of the NFL, accepting a top-five pick to attempt to rebuild the franchise with one of the leading quarterbacks out of the college game. But at the same time, that has arguably hurt the team.
New England is stuck in the middle ground and has been unable to break out of the cycle, and if you compare odds from the leading sportsbooks for the 2023 season that trend looks set to continue. Their odds to win the Super Bowl range from +6000 as high as +6600, highlighting how far the franchise has fallen in the minds of sportsbooks that would continually have the Patriots as top billing in the days of Brady.
A change in fortunes would hinge on the development of the offense. One of the primary reasons for the Patriots’ slump has been the performance of their offense for the past four years as it struggled even in Brady’s final year. The 2022 season was an embarrassment as Belichick’s gamble on naming former defensive coordinator and Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia as offensive coordinator backfired spectacularly.
At times the Patriots’ offense, which was already suspect with Mac Jones at the quarterback position, was downright laughable in their preparation and playcalling. It was clear that the offensive players were not on board at all and it resulted in a campaign of failure. Although an experienced offensive mind in O’Brien has arrived to replace Patricia, he still faces a challenge to allow the Patriots to compete with the powerhouses of the AFC Conference. Until then, New England is going to struggle to return to relevance, putting the spotlight on Belichick.
Reasons for Hope?
O’Brien has already had a positive impact on Mac Jones, rebuilding his confidence after a tumultuous season under Patricia. Jones had to deal with an ankle injury outside of his growing frustration with his offensive coordinator. Although he didn’t help himself with his antics on the field, Jones should never have been placed in the position by Belichick to be handed an inexperienced play-caller in his second NFL season. Jones now has the chance to regain the momentum that he showed during his rookie term under Josh McDaniels.
Running back Rhamondre Stevenson is one of the rising stars of the position in the NFL. His displays kept the Patriots competitive in the 2022 campaign, both carrying and catching the ball out of the backfield. Stevenson did it all for the Patriots in the midst of Damien Harris’ injury-hit campaign. After Harris’ departure, Ezekiel Elliott has been brought into support of Stevenson, offering experience and a threat in goalline situations. There should be a good one-two punch to support Jones in the red zone amid a lack of a top-tier wideout.
In 2022 Rhamondre Stevenson was 7th in Explosive Run % (7.6%), Leonard Fournette was 61st (1.6%).
He was 7th in MTF/Att (0.29), Fournette was 61st (0.12).
— Fantasy Points (@FantasyPts) July 19, 2023
Although their offense was one of the worst in the 2022 campaign, New England’s defense was one of the best units in the NFL. Belichick, his son Steve, and Mayo have crafted a formidable line-up that has suffocated many top offenses in the league. It will be tested following the retirement of the outstanding safety Devin McCourty, who was a standout in the secondary for over a decade for Belichick’s men.
Christian Gonzalez is an exciting prospect at cornerback, but there could be a lot of moving parts as the secondary settles into a new era without McCourty. The onus will be on Kyle Dugger, Adrian Phillips, and Jonathan Jones to fill the leadership void and bring on the next generation of talent in New England.
What to Expect
The Patriots have a tough opening sled of games in the first month of the season. It could well define the rest of their campaign. Belichick could be under pressure from the off should his team fall to the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins at home followed by trips to the Jets and the Cowboys.
On the other hand, if New England comes out first month 2-2 or even better it may change the whole perspective of the season. Belichick’s teams have been slow starters of late, but they can ill afford to be slow out of the traps this season. They can’t be playing catch-up in yet another campaign given the quality of the AFC East and the rest of the AFC Conference.
The Patriots have made a healthy habit of beating the poorer teams in the NFL, ensuring that they’ve maintained their standing in the middle ground. But, their record against the stronger sides in the league has been an issue.
Unfortunately for them, their record could be squeezed towards another losing season by a raft of improving teams. New England seems stuck in the mud at the moment with middling talent across the board outside of a few rare cases such as Matthew Judon.
It is the perfect storm for Belichick who has overseen an investment in the middle class of his roster. But with a lack of superstar talent, they’re not going to compete for Super Bowls, and teams that continually operate at 9-8 or 8-9 can easily slide backward by facing a stronger schedule. The last days of Belichick could be upon us if cannot arrest the slump.