So much of what made the Patriots a dynastic force for 20 years remains in plain sight. Bill Belichick stalks the sideline in a hoodie. The roster is dotted with players who contributed to Lombardi Trophy wins. The stadium walls are decorated with images of recent glories. It is enough to make one believe the Patriots’ excellence exists in the present tense. “In teams past and this team, there’s no big difference at all,” defensive lineman Lawrence Guy said.
Outside the environs of the Patriots’ facility, the difference is as clear as a November cold snap. The Patriots are 2-6. They have been outscored by 90 points, second most in the NFL, and their offense has scored the second-fewest points per game. The Patriots have not won a playoff game since the Super Bowl at the end of the 2018 season. They stand 27-32 since Tom Brady left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a loss in their lone playoff appearance included. Quarterback Mac Jones, chosen 15th in 2021 with the hope he would be Brady’s long-term heir, has regressed and ranks by any objective measure among the league’s bottom third.
The dearth of success has rattled a franchise that once stood astride the NFL. This week, discussion of how Belichick’s departure will unfold dominated Boston’s sports talk airwaves, with the baked-in — if still unknown — assumption it will be this offseason. Stability and excellence have been replaced by uncertainty and losing. Once immune to the league’s cruel capriciousness, the Patriots are now defenseless against it.
“It certainly has given me a little wider perspective as to what the NFL is and what the reality is for a lot of teams,” said Patriots captain Matthew Slater, a 16-year veteran. “It makes me remain humble and thankful for the experiences I’ve had here. Because it’s really difficult to experience success in this league, and we did it for a long time. I don’t want to say we took it for granted, but it was almost expected. In this league, things are so fluid. Winning and losing, that line is so thin. I appreciate those teams I was on earlier in my career even more.”
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The remainder of New England’s schedule is favorable. The Patriots have played seven games against teams currently .500 or better. They have only four such opponents remaining, including the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, the two teams they have beaten.
But the Patriots for years never needed concern for the quality of their competition. Their opponent Sunday provides a stark window into New England’s downfall. Over the two decades the Patriots became a crown jewel of the NFL, the franchise in Washington painted a portrait of dysfunction. When they meet Sunday, the team with the better record, the statistically superior young quarterback and the greater projected 2024 salary cap space will be the Commanders.
“You always hear the phrase ‘Patriot Way,’ ” said former safety Rodney Harrison, who played on two New England Super Bowl teams in the early 2000s. “ ‘The Patriot Way’ is just a standard. Obviously a lot of these young guys, they haven’t bought into that standard. It’s a standard of consistency, working hard, putting your head down, doing the right things, not being selfish, not getting penalties. It’s almost like a walk of discipline. That was the thing that really made us different than everyone else.
“That’s what I see that’s wrong with the Patriots. They’re not focusing on the little details. It comes from the top, where the coaches have to get that message through to the players, and it matriculates through the locker room. I just don’t see guys buying into what Coach Belichick is selling.”
‘Unfazed, unbothered’ — and regressing
The small margins the Patriots once used to shred teams have boomeranged on them. When they began their opening offensive possession of a Week 6 loss against the Raiders with a false start penalty, it was more exemplary than aberrant.
“The difference from us being 6-2 and 2-6 is just winning those close moments and eliminating bad football,” said defensive end Deatrich Wise, who played for the 2018 Super Bowl champions. “Great teams eliminate bad football. Teams that are trying to be great are still working on that.”
The struggles have not softened Belichick’s public dourness. On Wednesday, he scolded a reporter who asked about New England’s trade deadline process and his role in it, saying, “We’ve talked about this 50 times.” (Belichick, 71, offered an explanation with no clarifying information.) He answered queries with the phrase “getting ready for Washington” four times, wielding it when asked about both the trade deadline and the Raiders’ firing of coach Josh McDaniels, his former offensive coordinator. Asked about motivating a last-place team, Belichick shrugged, grimaced and muttered, “Coach the team the best I can.”
“He’s a coach that’s unfazed, unbothered,” Wise said. “He doesn’t care what the media talks about. He doesn’t care about outside noise. It’s how he always is — 2018, 2023; 2055, he’ll be the same dude.”
“He hasn’t let his foot off the gas,” Slater said. “He still coaches us with great detail, great urgency. You would figure, yeah, it’s easier to do that when everything is going perfectly. In a year when it hasn’t, to see that resilience has been impressive. I hope our team notices that.”
The Patriots’ post-Brady malaise has not been linear, and at times it has carried a hint of promise. In Jones’s rookie season, he won 10 games and took the team to the playoffs. He didn’t just coast behind a strong defense — New England’s offense scored the sixth-most points in the league, and Jones finished as the NFL’s 15th-highest-rated passer, one spot ahead of Bills star Josh Allen.
“It’s not drastically different [this season],” center David Andrews said. “That team got on the right track in the middle of the year. We still have an opportunity to do that, turn this thing around. We can’t go back and change anything, but we have nine opportunities here left.”
McDaniels left that offseason to coach the Raiders, and Belichick’s reconfiguration sparked the offensive spiral. He made Matt Patrica, a longtime defensive assistant and a failed head coach in Detroit, de facto offensive coordinator. With Patricia calling plays, Jones experienced painful regression from which he has not recovered. The confidence he played with at Alabama and as a rookie evaporated.
On a team with a proficient offense, one evaluator said, every Patriots wide receiver this season would be third or fourth on the depth chart — at best. Last offseason, the Patriots allowed Jakobi Meyers to leave in free agency, and with the Raiders this season Meyers has more yards and receptions per game than any New England wideout.
To observers of the Patriots, the 2020 retirement of offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was a crucial loss. For years, Belichick could count on Scarnecchia to mold young linemen into foundational players. “The best to ever do it,” Harrison said. The Patriots inducted him into their Hall of Fame this year, an honor they haven’t bestowed on even Bill Parcells, a head coach who took them to the Super Bowl. Pro Football Focus grades the Patriots’ line this year 29th in pass blocking and 22nd in run blocking.
Bill Belichick’s uncertain future looms over the NFL
Based on the NFL’s salary structure, the Patriots should be in position to stock talent around Jones. Brady took discounts to ease New England’s cap crunch, but he still accounted for more than 10 percent of the payroll. The Patriots’ talent drain has occurred when they should have ample resources: They devote $6.6 million of their salary cap to quarterbacks, third least in the NFL.
New England’s roster issues also stem from barren drafts. Cornerback Christian Gonzalez, chosen 17th in April and currently on injured reserve, appears to be a potential star. But mostly, the Patriots have either missed crucial picks or failed to keep the ones who hit. The last player they drafted in the first three rounds and then signed to a second contract was safety Duron Harmon, a third-round pick in 2013.
Even by some in his own organization, Belichick has never been viewed as a strong evaluator in the draft. He leans on his own opinions — gleaned from film study and workouts once the season ends, not the year-round, boots-on-ground work of scouts — and insight from college coaching friends. The Patriots once held a draft edge on rivals because Belichick understood the value of amassing picks in an inherently fickle venture, but the spread of analytical insights and modern front offices have eroded that advantage.
‘You got to win, man’
Belichick, whose sons Brian and Stephen have positions on his defensive staff, runs everything on the football side of the Patriots’ operation, a job that may have grown too demanding for one person, even a man of Belichick’s intellect and experience. The results and lack of progress post-Brady raise the potential of a tectonic change. Will team owner Robert Kraft allow Belichick to keep the entirety of his power? To stay at all? And would Belichick stand for being stripped of autonomy?
If the Patriots end up with a top-five draft pick and decide to restart with a quarterback, would the Patriots entrust a 72-year-old Belichick to develop him after watching Jones’s career arc?
Belichick approaches roster decisions with a notorious lack of sentiment. Does he receive leniency afforded to the greatest coach of all time? Or does he get the short leash so many of his great players — Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, even Brady — received in their twilight? If Kraft has learned from his coach’s unemotional management, Belichick would be under harsh scrutiny.
“Everybody has to be held accountable,” said Harrison, now an NBC analyst. “If you’re not playing as an individual player, you’re either going to not be there or you’re going to be on the sideline. I would say Bill would have to look at himself the same way. If he’s not getting it done as a coach, if he’s not being successful, and Kraft decided to go in a different direction — you got to win, man. You got to be productive. And if you’re not winning, you’re not being productive, Bill would move in a different direction. That’s just the way business works.”
Kraft has not changed coaches since he fired Pete Carroll the day after the 1999 season ended. He has not offered public thoughts on the direction of the Patriots this season, and through a team spokesman he declined an interview for this story. It is difficult to know his outlook on his franchise’s trajectory or the possibility of moving on from Belichick.
An interview Kraft gave NFL.com the week before Super Bowl XLIX — when the Patriots faced Carroll’s Seahawks — provides some insight. In short, what doomed Carroll — a lack of progress coupled with public pressure — is what the Patriots are enduring now.
“We went from a team that was in the Super Bowl to going to the divisional round, and then the wild card, and then we went to 8-8,” Kraft told NFL.com in February 2015. “The problem for Pete coming into our situation was we had been in a Super Bowl, we were very close … and it looked like our team was spinning down each year, even though he did an excellent job. So my perspective was, ‘Where are we going?’ ”
In the same interview, Kraft explained that the Patriots maintained their organizational structure when they hired Belichick. When he won a Super Bowl in his second season, Kraft granted him more authority and independence. But that didn’t mean he stopped evaluating.
“Look, the second year he was with us, he won a Super Bowl,” Kraft said in 2015. “… Over the next five years, as things evolved, I kept giving Bill more and more autonomy. And we won three Super Bowls in that period. And then I’ve always checked to be sure in my own way that he doesn’t abuse the power he has and his work ethic is very, very good.”
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History hovers over Belichick’s status. He stands 16 victories away from matching Don Shula’s career record, regular season and playoffs combined. He reveres football history and acutely understands his place in it. He is a preeminent football historian and donated his collection of football books, considered the largest in the world, to the Naval Academy.
“I personally don’t think Bill is worried about a record,” Harrison said. “This is something that he’s done his whole life and something he’s great at, and I think he’s just going to continue to coach until that drive and that passion isn’t there. … He still has a lot to contribute to the game. The man, he’s still a genius.”
The remnants of the Patriots’ dynasty remain. The banners. A handful of championship players. The grumbles from the coach’s podium. But the success that defined an NFL generation is gone. The Patriots are an empire whose time has passed, with no telling when, how or whether it will rise again.