In Bill We Trust. New Englanders have these words as ingrained in their fibers as Yankees Suck. But should they be? When you look at the six banners lining the south end zone at Gillette Stadium, it’s difficult to argue with the results. However, since Tom Brady’s departure to Tampa Bay in 2020, the results in New England have been middling; the Patriots are 18-18 since Brady became a Buccaneer. Moreover, the current situation in New England doesn’t inspire much confidence for a turnaround anytime soon.
Much of this can be attributed to Bill Belichick. No one can argue with Belichick’s resume, his legacy, and everything he has meant to the sport of football. No one is arguing that. However, Belichick’s team building over the past two years (and more, but we’ll ignore the N’Keal Harrys, Joejuan Williamses, Devin Asiasi/Dalton Keene double dips, and so many more draft hiccups for now) has left a lot to be desired.
Belichick has failed not because the Patriots are a bad team; they are not bad. However, they have spent through the nose to be decidedly mediocre. The best example of this comes at the skill positions. The Patriots have the highest cap figure dedicated to the wide receiver and tight end positions this year ($59.4M), per OverTheCap. We can trace this back to the 2021 offseason when the team doled out a combined $41M in average annual salary to Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne.
While these additions helped elevate a unit that previously featured the likes of Devin Asiasi, Ryan Izzo, N’Keal Harry, and Damiere Byrd in prominent roles, it also hamstrung the team financially and put a hard ceiling on the team’s offense. Smith, Henry, Agholor, and Bourne each fit into an archetypal role within an offense. They, along with Jakobi Meyers (ironically, their lowest paid and highest targeted wide receiver) and offseason acquisition DeVante Parker ($7.625M annual salary) are a theoretically complementary group. While they have the players that fulfill Matt LaFleur’s “areas of expertise,” they don’t have difference-making players, and they’re paying this group as if they do.
Belichick’s exorbitant spending at the skill positions has resulted in necessary cutbacks at positions formerly viewed as strengths of New England’s roster. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the Patriots lost the three best players they had heading into the 2021 season (Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, and Shaq Mason), for little-to-no compensation.
Belichick’s mishandling of the Stephon Gilmore situation cost the Patriots significant draft capital. During the 2020 season, rumors flew that New England was holding out for a first-rounder for Gilmore. After less than a year, the Patriots settled for a 2023 sixth-round pick when trading him to the Panthers. Waiting to trade Gilmore likely cost the Patriots at least a couple of rounds in draft capital.
New England trading Shaq Mason to Tampa Bay for a fifth-round pick this offseason can only be viewed as a cost-cutting venture. To an extent, a move along these lines was necessary; the Patriots were among the teams tightest to the salary cap this offseason and Mason’s $7.4M cap hit was one of the easiest places on the roster to cut costs, especially given Michael Onwenu’s status as a cheaper, almost as good alternative at right guard and the team’s eventual drafting of left guard Cole Strange.
The Mason trade is frustrating on multiple levels. For one, Mason’s contract is actually a relative bargain given his level of play. He consistently grades as one of Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded guards in the league, and what was left of his contract pales in comparison to deals recently signed by lesser players (including the player he replaced in Tampa Bay, Alex Cappa).
In addition to this, the fact that the Patriots were in a position in which they even needed to cut costs speaks to poor team building and roster management. With Jones on a rookie contract, this should have been a team with financial flexibility, adding players after a promising 10-7 2021 season. However, New England’s spending spree in 2021 left them tight to the cap in 2022, with no avenues to improve the team outside of the draft, the Parker trade, and some bargain bin free agent signings.
Letting Jackson walk in free agency was another direct consequence of the team’s financial recklessness in 2021. Jackson, an undrafted free agent in 2018, had been the best homegrown player New England had developed since at least 2016 when they drafted Joe Thuney. Most concerning about Jackson’s departure is the fact that it left the team without a proven replacement on the roster, and none were acquired this offseason. The Patriots are instead opting to play Jonathan Jones, who has played his entire career in the slot, opposite of Jalen Mills on the boundary, with Myles Bryant in the slot, with the hope that third and fourth-round rookies Marcus Jones (a slot-only player limited by his size) and Jack Jones can eventually grow into roles in the secondary.
Finally, arguably the most inexcusable move Belichick has made in the past couple of years actually has nothing to do with personnel on the field. When Josh McDaniels left New England, the team seemingly had no plan for how to deal with his succession as the offensive play caller. However, handing the reins to “senior football advisor” Matt Patricia, a career defensive coach and failed head coach in Detroit, and Joe Judge, his former special teams coordinator, borders on malpractice for Mac Jones’ development.
Jones has been coached by the best of the best dating back to high school; he attended the Manning Passing Academy, he was coached by the likes of Nick Saban and Bill O’Brien at Alabama, and he worked with Josh McDaniels during his first year in the NFL. Now, Jones has to deal with Matt Patricia pulling double duty coaching New England’s offensive line and coordinating New England’s offense, with Judge in his ear as the team’s quarterback coach.
If any other head coach made these staffing decisions, they’d be getting torched. If any other general manager spent the most money in free agency of any team of all time, only to be forced to trade his best offensive lineman and let his best defensive player walk one year later due to financial constraints, they’d be getting torched. Bill Belichick has the caché to do whatever he wants. He has the greatest resume of any coach in NFL history, and nothing he does over the rest of his career will change that. But blindly trusting his every move should be a thing of the past, too.
- Dec 02, 2022
- Dec 02, 2022