The decisions that led to this Patriots catastrophe: Barnwell on how they could get back on track
The decisions that led to this Patriots catastrophe: Barnwell on how they could get back on track

The New England Patriots would like to know when they can stop hitting rock-bottom. Things were bad after consecutive 30-point losses to the Cowboys and Saints, but an upset victory over the Bills was supposed to right the ship. Instead, the Pats have lost three straight since their home win over Buffalo, including an ugly 10-6 loss to the Colts on Sunday morning in Germany.

The blowouts were bad, but this might have been worse. Facing a Colts team in the middle of its own rebuild, the Patriots appeared to be in position to pull out a victory. After Mac Jones drove them into the red zone in the fourth quarter, though, the embattled quarterback tossed an inexplicable interception to Julian Blackmon at the 1-yard line, costing his team a chance at a go-ahead touchdown. Coach Bill Belichick then benched Jones for Bailey Zappe, but the backup threw a brutal pick of his own after a fake spike attempt to end the game.

At 2-8, the once-proud Patriots have the worst record in the AFC. They’ve been outscored by 97 points, a figure topped by only the Giants, who are starting their third-string quarterback. They are running out Jones, who looked like a franchise signal-caller during the 2021 season. The poise Jones showed as a rookie then has turned to flop sweat. The Pats look utterly broken on offense, and their quarterback looks to be getting worse each week.

A year ago, there was an easy solution: Move on from the ill-advised decision to hire Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to run the offense. Now, having replaced them with Bill O’Brien, Belichick is in a thornier situation. Jones has been struggling for the better part of two seasons. New England’s once-dominant defense has been a league-average unit, in part because of injuries. Belichick’s mercurial decisions with personnel usage from week to week are growing harder to understand, and they go over much better when his teams are winning than they do when they look lost.

With New England in the middle of a lost season, five seasons removed from its most recent playoff victory, and about to hit its bye week, there are going to be some tough conversations happening over the next several days. Should the Patriots really plan to fire or otherwise move on from Belichick — who has won six Super Bowl titles for the organization — either now or after the season? Should they permanently bench Jones, who is off the franchise quarterback track after excelling as a rookie? Everything feels up in the air.

Let’s have a thoughtful conversation about the Patriots before answering those questions. To understand what team owner Robert Kraft should do, you have to understand how this team got here. And while it might be simple to cast their decline around the departure of Tom Brady, the problems afflicting this organization began while Brady was still winning Super Bowls there.

Jump to a section:
The Patriots’ recent draft issues
The big free agent class of 2021
Why the Belichick doghouse matters
Does the winning formula still exist?
A very familiar coaching staff
What happens when teams fire a legend?
What should the Patriots do now?

It starts with the personnel

Throughout the majority of the Brady era, Belichick and the Patriots thrived by restocking the roster with draft picks. Belichick trading down throughout the draft repeatedly generated extra picks, giving the Patriots added capital even as they picked at the bottom of each round.

In the 20 years between Brady’s breakout in 2001 and drafting Jones with the No. 15 overall pick in 2021, Belichick had a total of three top-20 picks. The Pats still landed franchise cornerstones such as Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins. Belichick added Wes Welker via trade and signed vets Stephon Gilmore and Rob Ninkovich in free agency, but drafting and developing talent was at the heart of the Patriot Way.

There inevitably was going to be a reset when Brady left, and the Patriots were going to need to rebuild their roster. They were going to have more cap space to add free agents around a young quarterback — as we’ll get to in a minute — but they were going to need to hit on their draft picks. With Brady, Gronkowski, McCourty and Julian Edelman in their 30s, they needed to land star power in the draft to build a new core.

They haven’t. I’ll go from 2015 to 2022, which gives us eight years of drafts. The Patriots had 28 picks in the top three rounds of those drafts. While a team can get lucky and land on a standout in the later rounds, those first three rounds are where a franchise typically is going to find key players. Some of these players played roles in helping New England win Super Bowls, but ask yourself this: How many of them were valued as significant players at the end of their rookie deals, either by the Patriots or another team? Did they earn a second contract for market-value money? If they’re still on their rookie deal, are they on pace to get one?

First-round picks: DT Malcom Brown, LT Isaiah Wynn, RB Sony Michel, WR N’Keal Harry, QB Mac Jones, G Cole Strange

The Patriots also had one first-round pick stripped as a result of Deflategate. They traded a first-rounder to acquire Brandin Cooks, but gained back a Round 1 pick when they dealt the much-traveled wideout to the Rams the following season. These guys should be forming the core of the current New England roster.

I’m not sure any of them have turned out to be successful. Brown was a solid defensive tackle who signed a modest deal with the Saints; he was out of football by age 28. Wynn tore his Achilles before making his NFL debut and was never able to stay healthy, playing more than 10 games just once in five seasons with the Pats. He’s on injured reserve with Miami. Michel helped the Patriots win a Super Bowl, but his production wasn’t appreciably different from an average back during that run. He was traded to the Rams after three seasons.

Harry was a disaster, and Jones seems to be melting down before our eyes. Strange was solid as a rookie in 2022, but he has struggled to stay healthy this season. At best, the Patriots landed one guy who might land a meaningful second deal from this group, and it’s Strange, who doesn’t play a high-value position and is 25 years old.

Did picking toward the bottom of the first round hurt the Patriots? Could we find better players who were taken after those picks? Of course. Even if we just take the very next player off the board at those respective positions, though, New England can’t feel good about who it landed. Would it be better off if it had selected Eddie Goldman, Braden Smith, Nick Chubb, Deebo Samuel, Kyle Trask and Cam Jurgens? The only place where the Patriots landed the better player was at quarterback, and Jones was drafted at No. 15, while Trask came off the board 49 picks later.

What about the second round?

Second-rounders: S Jordan Richards, CB Cyrus Jones, CB Duke Dawson, CB Joejuan Williams, S Kyle Dugger, LB Josh Uche, DT Christian Barmore, WR Tyquan Thornton

It’s not getting much better. Dugger is a very talented playmaker at safety, and Barmore has been better in Year 3 after injuries slowed him in 2022, but the meme of Belichick wasting his second-round picks on defensive backs who can’t play exists for a reason. Those first four selections started a total of nine games for the Patriots. Dawson never took a single regular-season snap before being dealt to the Broncos for a swap of late-round picks.

The other players might be more frustrating. Uche seemed to break out when the Patriots moved him into a pass-rushing role last season, as he racked up 11.5 sacks over an eight-game span. He has played only 34% of the snaps this season, though, and the Pats didn’t move the 25-year-old in a deal at the trade deadline, meaning he’ll likely leave for nothing in free agency after the season.

Thornton was supposed to be a much-needed burst of speed for the offense, but he suffered injuries that cost him time to start the 2022 and 2023 seasons. He’s now healthy, but he has been in and out of the lineup; he was active Sunday but didn’t play a single snap in the loss to the Colts.

Again: What would have happened if the Patriots had just taken the next guy who came off the board at each respective point of these selections? It’s not quite as clear of a gap, but the would-be Pats are better. James Sample, James Bradberry, Isaiah Oliver, Greedy Williams, Grant Delpit, Willie Gay, Alim McNeill and George Pickens would be on the New England roster. While there are a few disappointing players in there, Bradberry, Delpit, Gay, McNeill and particularly Pickens are all players the Patriots would love to add right now. Thornton was drafted two picks before the Steelers standout.

The Patriots also made several trades in Round 2. They moved up for Dawson, with the Bucs staying put and taking a much better corner in Carlton Davis. They moved down in a deal with the Panthers, where Carolina landed valuable tackle Taylor Moton. Belichick also sent a second-rounder to the Falcons for Mohamed Sanu in a deal that looked bad at the time and aged terribly.

Do things get better in Round 3? We can’t expect the hit rate to be great here, but owing to trades down and compensatory selections, the Pats had a whopping 14 third-round selections to fill out their roster. How did it go?

Third-rounders: EDGE Geneo Grissom, G Joe Thuney, QB Jacoby Brissett, DT Vincent Valentine, EDGE Derek Rivers, T Antonio Garcia, EDGE Chase Winovich, RB Damien Harris, OL Yodny Cajuste, LB Anfernee Jennings, TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, EDGE Ronnie Perkins, CB Marcus Jones

Gulp. Thuney turned out to be a dream selection at guard, as he played more than 99% of the snaps during his five years in New England before signing a record deal with the Chiefs in free agency. He’s also the only hit out of this group. Jones excelled as a punt returner and jack of all trades last season, but he has missed most of 2023 with a torn labrum in his shoulder. Even if you want to count on him as a potential hit, that’s 2-for-14.

Brissett was dealt to the Colts for reserve wideout Phillip Dorsett before emerging as a high-end backup quarterback, and Harris ran for 929 yards in 2021, but most of the players here didn’t have significant pro careers. It’s OK to not land stars in the third round, but a team is at least hoping to add players who will be rotational contributors. Grissom, Valentine, Rivers and Keene barely played in New England before leaving. Perkins never played a snap for the Patriots, while Garcia was never able to play an NFL down because of what was reported to be a lung condition. The Pats did use a third-rounder to add left tackle Trent Brown in a trade with the 49ers in 2018.

In all, that’s 28 players who should be making up a significant portion of the Patriots’ roster. I’d argue two were hits: Dugger and Thuney. You could argue Strange, Barmore and Marcus Jones are works in progress. In that eight-year span, the Patriots didn’t land a single star on the upper end of the positional spectrum. It’s difficult to land difference-makers at quarterback, edge rusher, left tackle and wide receiver in free agency, so teams have to take them in the draft. Belichick tried, but his shots didn’t land.

The good news is Belichick did appear to land a star with his first-round pick in 2023. Cornerback Christian Gonzalez was a revelation early, only to suffer a serious shoulder injury against the Cowboys. Second-rounder Keion White has mixed in along the defensive line, while third-rounder Marte Mapu has spent most of his time on special teams. Day 3 picks Sidy Sow and Atonio Mafi have seen regular reps along the offensive line, and Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas have taken snaps at receiver, so this looks to be one of the more successful recent Belichick classes, especially if Gonzalez plays at a star level when he returns.

Are the draft classes proof Belichick is no longer capable of both coaching and running the personnel department? His former boss, Bill Parcells, famously once left the Patriots because he wasn’t allowed to “shop for the groceries.” Should the Patriots take away Belichick’s shopping privileges, even if doing so causes him to quit?

Maybe. Most executives don’t get eight years to prove themselves. If another general manager had Belichick’s past eight classes of drafts on his résumé, he would be out of a job. At the same time, we’re judging executives on small samples when it comes to top-100 picks, and general managers who look like draft geniuses can see their fortunes flip with time. Seahawks general manager John Schneider took multiple Hall of Famers early in his career, went through a lean run in which Seattle seemingly wasted its top picks each year, then nailed his 2022 and 2023 drafts. Belichick was an excellent drafter earlier in his career; did he suddenly lose his ability to identify talent?


The big free agent class of 2021

With the roster lacking talent and a cap situation precluding from the Patriots from spending money in 2020, Belichick did something he almost never did during the Brady era: go on a spending spree. He had been selective in spending money on stars such as Gilmore and Adalius Thomas in the past, but the veteran coach sprayed money across the board in the first couple of days of free agency in 2021.

While the Patriots let Thuney leave for a massive deal with the Chiefs, they responded by buying in bulk. Matthew Judon was the most notable name, but he was joined on defense by Jalen Mills, Davon Godchaux and Henry Anderson. In advance of drafting Jones in the first round of the draft that year, they signed a pair of veteran tight ends to big deals in Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry while adding Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne at wide receiver.

Many of those deals came with questionable price tags, a surprise for a team that had been so good at reading the market and making prudent financial decisions when it had brought in talent over the prior two decades, especially on offense. Smith and Henry immediately became two of the league’s highest-paid tight ends, only for Belichick to almost exclusively use Smith as a blocker. Agholor got a two-year, $22 million deal in a stagnant market in which more valuable wideouts ended up settling for one-year pacts.

It’s true those moves added an immediate spark to that year’s roster, a trend that happens quite often when teams make significant free agent investments. (The 2015 Jets and 2016 Giants are classic examples of those one-year bumps.) The Pats went 10-7 and advanced to the postseason, but they were stomped by the Bills in a 47-17 blowout in the wild-card round. Outside of Judon, who continued to play like a star, those moves didn’t add star power and covered up holes from those missing draft picks with unspectacular talent making more than those picks would have earned, squeezing the Pats financially in the process.

As we sit here in 2023, most of that free agent class is either gone, injured or buried on the roster. Judon is out with a torn biceps, suffered in the same Cowboys loss as Gonzalez. Bourne was in the doghouse last season before regaining his role and then tearing his ACL in late October. Mills hasn’t played more than 41% of the defensive snaps in a single game this season. Smith is with the Falcons, and Anderson lasted one year before moving to Carolina. Only Henry and Godchaux are left in the roles New England was expecting them to play when they joined the team.

Belichick’s biggest free agent addition since then hasn’t been great, either. The Pats essentially swapped Jakobi Meyers for JuJu Smith-Schuster this past offseason, and that move hasn’t aged well. Smith-Schuster had played only more than 60% of the offensive snaps in a game once before Sunday. He missed two games with a concussion, and when he came back in Week 8, the Patriots held him out for most of the game before finally getting him onto the field after Bourne’s injury in the fourth quarter. Against the Colts, he was suddenly an every-down receiver, playing 67 of 68 snaps. He caught one pass for 9 yards.


The Belichick doghouse

More than any other team in football, the Patriots suffer from bizarre, impenetrable stretches of player usage that don’t seem tied to any sort of rhyme or reason. Belichick signed Smith-Schuster and doesn’t have great options at wide receiver. Why sit him behind other options for most of the season? Why was Jalen Reagor good enough to see his role go from 13 snaps in Week 6 to 48 snaps in the loss to Washington before playing one snap in the Colts game?

If that was just wide receiver, I’d argue it was just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic, but this happens throughout the roster. Take cornerback. After playing just 10 defensive snaps over the previous three weeks, the Patriots inserted Shaun Wade into the starting lineup for the first quarter against Washington. Wade then didn’t play a single defensive snap afterward, with Jack Jones and J.C Jackson instead taking over.

After the game, Belichick refused to be drawn on his decision, suggesting Jones and Jackson hadn’t been benched for disciplinary reasons and that Wade had earned an opportunity. (SI’s Albert Breer later reported that Jackson had indeed been benched for being late to the team hotel.) It’s unclear why that opportunity happened to end right at the beginning of the second quarter, Jackson wasn’t brought to Germany for the team’s trip, and Wade played 48 snaps to Jones’s nine against Indianapolis.

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Belichick frustrated as Bailey Zappe throws game-sealing INT

Bailey Zappe, in for a benched Mac Jones, throws a game-sealing interception after trying a fake spike, and Bill Belichick shows his frustration.

The Athletic’s Jeff Howe reported that Jackson and Jack Jones were benched because of their performance, and Belichick has a lengthy history of benching players after they make mistakes. I’ve followed this as a running joke over the past couple of years, but it’s truly remarkable: If you fumble, struggle or make a mental mistake and you’re not an irreplaceable player, there’s a good chance Belichick is going to pull you out of the game. (Jones was released on Monday afternoon.)

The Patriots don’t have many irreplaceable players these days, and you saw Belichick’s emotions get the better of him when he benched Jones in the fourth quarter Sunday after the dismal interception. Jones’ pass was truly disastrous, but there was little point in turning to a cold Bailey Zappe outside of punishing the starter for his mistake. Zappe made a terrible decision when he attempted a fake spike, threw into quadruple coverage and tossed a game-sealing interception.

Making dramatic decisions about who he’s going to play, being gruff about it with the media and instilling a culture of mistake-free football is great if it works. If it doesn’t, the Patriots could end up with something like the Matt Patricia era in Detroit, where a coach without Belichick’s gravitas loses his locker room, doesn’t adapt and ends up costing himself a job. Belichick is rightfully afforded a certain level of gravity and respect by his accomplishments, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s still doing a good job of toeing the line between creating a culture of success and simply lashing out at players.


Does the Patriots’ winning formula still exist?

During the Brady era, the Patriots developed a well-earned reputation for executing at a high level. Things weren’t always perfect, but they rarely beat themselves. They made smart decisions. They managed the clock well and took advantage of the famous double-up at the end of the first half and start of the second. They were great on special teams and executed well late. Brady helped, of course, but many of those areas were outside of the quarterback’s purview.

The double-up around halftime was once a thing New England opponents feared on a weekly basis. Now, it’s a pleasant surprise when the Pats score twice in an entire game. Jones & Co. pulled it off six times between 2021 and 2022, but since kicking a pair of field goals on their final drive of the first half and the opening drive of the second half in last December’s win over the Cardinals, they have failed to execute a single double-up in their past 14 games. They’ve gone 2-12 in those contests, although their problems extend beyond simply failing to score on either side of the halftime show.

If you hear someone talking about how great the Patriots are on special teams, know they haven’t been paying attention. New England has collapsed there over the past few seasons. It still ranked No. 1 in special teams DVOA as recently as 2020, but it fell to 18th in 2021, ranked 32nd a year ago and was 29th through the first nine weeks of this season.

The Patriots probably will fall below 29th this week. Rookie kicker Chad Ryland missed a 35-yard field goal try Sunday, which prevented them from attempting what would have been a game-winning field goal on the final drive. Ryland is just 12-of-17. With returner Marcus Jones sidelined, his replacements have averaged just 6.8 yards per return, which ranks 27th. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the Pats also inherit the 27th-best average starting field position of any offense. When a team has no big-play ability and needs to string together first down after first down to score, every yard counts.

As for the late-game execution, you saw what happened Sunday. The Pats did pull out a 29-25 win over the Bills with a two-minute drill from Jones, but they came up short late on offense in losses to the Eagles and Commanders.

The 2022 season hinged on two late-game scenarios gone wrong. In the infamous loss to the Raiders, a 7-6 Patriots team was one fourth-and-10 stop away from taking over on downs and kneeling. Derek Carr converted to extend the game and then drove the Raiders 81 yards in just over a minute for the tying touchdown. The Patriots then drove to the edge of field goal range, called a useless draw with three seconds to go, and saw Meyers either lose his mind or execute the wildest plan to become a member of the Raiders you will ever see, throwing the ball to Chandler Jones on a lateral to hand Vegas a stunning victory.

The following week, the Pats were playing the Bengals close when they were handed a stroke of luck. A Ja’Marr Chase fumble gave them ball on Cincinnati’s side of the field, and Jones quickly drove them inside the 10-yard line. A Rhamondre Stevenson conversion set the Pats up with a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line with 1:07 to go in a four-point game, but Stevenson fumbled on the next play, handing the ball to the Bengals.

The Patriots were comfortable favorites to win both of those games in the final two minutes. If they won each of them, they would have been a 10-win team and probably would have made it to the postseason. Instead, they finished 8-9 and crashed out of the playoff picture, leading Belichick to make what appeared to be much-needed changes to the coaching staff.


A very familiar coaching staff

Something was peculiar about the candidates Belichick interviewed to replace Patricia and Judge. Each of the offensive coordinator options were qualified in their own way, but Belichick spoke to O’Brien, Patriots tight ends coach Matt Caley, Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell, then-Cardinals wideouts coach Shawn Jefferson and Oregon run game coordinator Adrian Klemm, who would later join the Pats as their offensive line coach.

All of those coaches have something in common: They already knew Belichick. Caley was on staff, while O’Brien already had a stint as the team’s quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011. McCardell played for Belichick in Cleveland, while Jefferson was on the Patriots while Belichick served as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator in 1996. Klemm, finally, was Belichick’s first draft pick after taking over the organization in 2000 and spent four years on the Pats’ offensive line.

Maybe this would be a minor concern if it was an isolated decision, but remember that Belichick hired two former coaches of his to run the offense before O’Brien. And when you look at the rest of Belichick’s staff, it fits into a few groups.

The Patriots have two coaches who used to be coaches under Belichick before leaving and returning in Judge and O’Brien. They have six coaches who were members of the organization as players, including Klemm and Jerod Mayo. They have two of Belichick’s children on the defensive side of the ball in Brian and Steve Belichick. Six other coaches on the staff have no pro experience outside of working under Belichick. The only exceptions are Will Lawing, who coached under O’Brien at Penn State and with the Texans, and Evan Rothstein, who worked under Patricia with the Lions before following him to New England.

It’s not my place to say that any of these coaches aren’t qualified, and I’m not suggesting that they aren’t suited for their roles. What is accurate, though, is that the Patriots are almost entirely staffed by coaches and players who either had preexisting relationships with Belichick or who had no pro coaching experience before joining the organization.

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Breaking down Mac Jones’ putrid fantasy numbers

Eric Moody breaks down another poor fantasy performance from Patriots QB Mac Jones.

There’s nothing wrong with bringing through your own coaches when you’re the best to ever do it, but as the Patriots falter now, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is it fair to wonder whether they need some semblance of new blood or a creative mind who hasn’t learned under Belichick? The outside zone-heavy offense Patricia and Judge tried to install last season was a decade behind the cutting edge. O’Brien ran a modern offense at Alabama last season, but owing in part to the personnel issues, New England doesn’t look modern schematically.

Belichick wasn’t always this way. Remember that he was the one who brought in Chip Kelly to talk with the Pats and explore his usage of tempo before Kelly joined the Eagles as their coach. Nick Saban, one of Belichick’s friends, has a steady habit of bringing in fired coaches as analysts to help rebuild their careers while adding fresh ideas and experienced voices to the Alabama staff.

Belichick probably won’t have a half-dozen former coaches joining the organization, and O’Brien isn’t the biggest problem in New England, but the Patriots don’t look anything like the best offenses we see around the NFL schematically. Would they have been better off hiring someone like current Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik to reimagine their offense? Should they let O’Brien mold it into something more like the Alabama attack Jones excelled in during his time there? Those should all be fair questions.

I don’t have those same concerns about the defense, because it has been the saving grace for the Pats over the past few seasons. Even with their drafting issues, they ranked third in EPA per play on defense in 2021 and second in 2022. They’re 17th this season, and that’s with losing their best pass-rusher (Judon) and their best cornerback (Gonzalez) for the season in Week 4.

It’s impossible to separate Belichick’s impact there versus that of Mayo and the other coaches, but I don’t believe the Patriots are behind the curve on the defensive side of the ball. If they fire Belichick or the coach otherwise chooses to retire, there’s a chance that whatever gains would be made by hiring an offensive coach might be countered by a Belichick-less defense taking a step backward.


What happens when teams fire a legendary coach?

One of the harsh realities of football is that even the greatest coaches typically lose their jobs. Belichick already has been fired once, when Art Modell said Belichick had sold him a “bill of goods” during his time in Cleveland. I don’t need to run through the record books to tell you how that move has turned out for all parties involved.

I wondered, though: What happens when a coach has already proved himself to be a legend and leaves? Do those organizations typically land on smart replacements? Do the coaches have another act elsewhere? There aren’t many comparable coaches to Belichick, but looking at coaches who have won at least two championships, let’s look at some legends to see what happened when they left their organizations:

Don Shula retired after a 9-7 season in 1995. The Dolphins hired a rather splashy replacement in former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, but the two-time Super Bowl winner was blown out 38-3 and 62-7 in his two trips to the divisional round. Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000.

Tom Landry was forced out by Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones after three consecutive losing seasons, culminating in a 3-13 season in 1988. He was replaced by Johnson, who saw Dallas drop to 1-15 in his first season before turning things around. Four years after Landry was fired, the Cowboys were champions.

Andy Reid was let go in Philadelphia after a 4-12 season in 2012, which marked Reid’s third losing season in 14 seasons with the Eagles. It has been retroactively treated as the natural ending point for an era, but at the time, many Philly fans saw Reid’s pass-happy style as too passive and thought he couldn’t pull out close games in the postseason. They hired Kelly, who lasted three seasons before giving way to Doug Pederson, Reid’s protege from the Chiefs. Pederson led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title in 2017.

Reid’s offense wasn’t past its sell-by date, and while he had struggles in the postseason, trading up for Patrick Mahomes magically turned him into a much better coach in January and February. Reid has transformed the Chiefs and won two Super Bowls over the past five years. It has worked out well for both parties.

Vince Lombardi gave up coaching duties for the Packers in 1968 and then left the general manager’s role in 1969. He joined Washington and led it to its first winning record in 15 years. He died before the 1970 season began. We don’t know how things would have gone for him in Washington, but the Packers won just one playoff game over the next 20 years before Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre turned around the franchise.

Chuck Noll retired after the 1991 season. His Steelers were still close to contention at 7-9, but they had made just one playoff trip over the previous seven seasons. Pittsburgh replaced Noll with 35-year-old coach Bill Cowher, who immediately took them back to the playoffs in each of his first six seasons at the helm, including a Super Bowl trip in 1995. Cowher finally won a title in 2005 and retired after a 8-8 season the following year, giving way to Mike Tomlin, who won his own championship two years later.

Several teams have needed to replace Bill Parcells, but the Big Tuna’s two title wins came with the Giants, who promoted Ray Handley from the offensive staff to replace the briefly retired coach. Handley inherited a Super Bowl winner and went 14-18 in two seasons before being fired and replaced by Dan Reeves. Handley never coached again.

Another two-time Super Bowl winner is Tom Coughlin, who was pushed out of New York after a 6-10 season in 2015. He has been replaced by Ben McAdoo, Pat Shurmur, Judge and Brian Daboll, which should tell you how things have gone since.

Mike Shanahan was fired in 2008 after going 8-8 and 7-9 in two final seasons with the Broncos. The Bowlen family hired Josh McDaniels to replace Shanahan, but the former Patriots assistant was gone by the middle of Year 2. John Fox righted the ship before being replaced by former Shanahan assistant Gary Kubiak, who won a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning and a great Denver defense.

Finally, Tom Flores was fired after a 5-10 season in 1988. It was just his second losing season in nine years with the Raiders, although he had failed to win a playoff game in four seasons since claiming Super Bowl XVIII. Team owner Al Davis replaced him with Shanahan, who was fired in the middle of his second season in a similar fashion to how and why McDaniels was let go in Denver. Art Shell took over and had the Raiders at 12-4 the following year, but the once-dominant Raiders have failed to win the Super Bowl in 35 tries after moving on from Flores.

I won’t include coaches such Joe Gibbs, George Seifert and Bill Walsh, who left while their teams were still among the best in football.

In looking through these examples, I was hoping to find some historical evidence hinting toward what happens when teams fire a successful coach. I’m not sure we have enough in the way of information one way or another. Instead, I found it’s extremely rare for a truly legendary coach to have a season as bad as the one Belichick is enduring. If you want to interpret that as this season being a horrible outlier or as proof that Belichick has lost it, that’s up to you.


What should the Patriots do now?

At 2-8, the Patriots are done competing for the playoffs. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them a 0.1% chance of making it to the postseason. The Upshot’s model suggests they would be only a 50-50 coin flip to make the playoffs if they ran the table the rest of the way, which would include wins over the Chargers, Chiefs and Bills. It’s probably not happening.

Assuming the Pats don’t make a dramatic recovery, let’s go over their various big decisions and what would or would not make sense. That starts with their coach.

Should they fire Belichick? I don’t believe they should. His work with the defense over the past few seasons suggests he’s still an incredible defensive coach. While the Pats have whiffed on a few second-round picks in the secondary, his ability to coax excellent results out of Day 3 picks and undrafted free agents isn’t random. The Patriots would suffer on defense if he left, even if they just promoted Mayo to the top job.

While Belichick’s star has flickered since Brady’s departure, there’s still some semblance of a legend here. His name still means a lot in NFL circles, which might help New England attract talent when money is close. If Belichick opens up his staff to fresh voices, coaches should want to work underneath him. As the most important voice in the organization, he still carries more weight than any other coach.

Belichick’s contractual status is famously a secret, but the future Hall of Famer is widely believed to be the league’s highest-paid coach. The Patriots would owe Belichick whatever’s left on his deal if they fired him, although all parties involved could negotiate a trade if one is to his liking.

The big-picture problem, though, is the Patriots can’t guarantee they’ll end up with a better coach than even the current version of Belichick by moving on. The Kraft family has needed to hire only two coaches since taking over majority ownership, and while it has chosen wisely in Belichick and predecessor Pete Carroll, most coaching hires don’t work. Unless Belichick is wholeheartedly dug in against any idea of change in New England, his positives outweigh the negatives.

Should they fire O’Brien? It depends. I don’t believe O’Brien is one of the biggest problems with this offense, but it’s also hard to look at what New England has done this season and believe that Jones has gotten much better than the guy we saw a year ago. The same bad habits Jones endured a year ago are rearing their head again in 2023. While O’Brien has implemented some of the Alabama flourishes that helped Jones excel as a college quarterback, this offense doesn’t have many easy solutions for the third-year pro.

I liked the decision to hire O’Brien, and I would endorse him sticking around, but I would give him more power to shape the offense to his liking.

If the Patriots fire O’Brien, it can’t be for the recently fired Josh McDaniels, even if Jones had his best season with the now-deposed Raiders coach in 2021. Belichick has to bring in an offensive mind whose primary experience has come outside of the Patriots’ system. It’s not as simple as hiring someone who has coached for Kyle Shanahan and/or Sean McVay, but Mike LaFleur would make sense. If the Chargers move on from Brandon Staley this offseason and don’t retain Kellen Moore, the former Cowboys coach would be an ideal candidate. Maybe they can’t fix Jones, but I’d like to see a fresh mind or two helping shape this offense.

Should they bench or move on from Jones? Over the rest of the season, no. It’s a waste of time. Zappe enjoyed a brief run as a cult hero for the Patriots in 2022, but he has posted a 34.2 QBR on 125 dropbacks over the past two seasons. (Jones is at 38.6 over that same stretch). The Patriots cut Zappe after camp in August, which tells us they weren’t afraid of losing him to another team for free on waivers. They were right, as Zappe cleared waivers and went to the practice squad. Rookie Malik Cunningham, who was rumored to be a bigger part of the offense before taking six snaps and being released, is also on the practice squad.

After the season, it’s a different story. The Patriots can’t head into 2024 with Jones as their unquestioned starter. Unless he dramatically turns things around in the second half, they will have little choice but to decline Jones’ fifth-year option for 2025, leaving him in a make-or-break contract year next season. He would cost only $2.8 million in 2024 if the Pats wanted to keep him as a backup, and he would theoretically have trade value, with the 49ers as an obvious landing spot given Kyle Shanahan’s reported interest before the Niners drafted Trey Lance.

All things considered, this won’t be the worst offseason if the Patriots do want to try to land a new starter under center. Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston, Gardner Minshew and Joshua Dobbs all project to become free agents, as does Brissett. Fellow former Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo is a likely cap casualty in Las Vegas, and Kyler Murray, Justin Fields, Daniel Jones and Russell Wilson could be trade options.

Of course, the Patriots also currently hold the No. 3 overall pick in the draft, a spot which would leave them agonizingly short of being able to pick quarterbacks Caleb Williams (USC) or Drake Maye (North Carolina) with one of the first two selections. If the Pats finish with one of the league’s two worst records, it would be difficult to pass up starting over at quarterback. At No. 3, they could try to move up or consider taking a passer such as Shedeur Sanders (Colorado) or J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) later in Round 1 or early in Round 2, but there’s no guarantee either will enter the draft. There’s still a lot of movement to go, but you get the idea: There are the top two spots, and then there’s everything else.

Whether it’s a veteran or a rookie with a significant chance of winning the job, there has to be a more notable name than Zappe competing with Jones in 2024.

OK, what are the moves the Patriots should make? In addition to adding fresh voices on the offensive side of the ball, they need to add help for Belichick in the front office. I still believe his instincts (and mathematical mind as an economics major) lead him to make smart decisions about how to maneuver up, down and around the draft. It’s tough to argue he has chosen the right players over nearly a decade-long span of drafts, though, and I’d want to see someone given meaningful power to make those decisions in the first few rounds of New England’s drafts.

This might be a trip wire for Belichick, who has exhibited no desire to hand over scouting or personnel duties to another person during his time with the team. He has formed successful partnerships in New England with Scott Pioli and Nick Caserio, though, and it’s fair to wonder if director of player personnel Matt Groh — another Patriots lifer — has been up to the task after Caserio left for the Texans in 2021. The Pats have lost lots of front office brainpower over the past decade; I would argue it’s time to bring in at least one experienced mind from outside the organization to play a meaningful role in player personnel.

That personnel executive, whoever they are, needs to prioritize getting this offense playmakers with speed. One stat I like to use to measure play-to-play speed is the 90th percentile max speed generated by a player across his snaps. This can still be usage-dependent, but the goal is to eliminate outlier plays where a player is just sprinting because of what’s happening around him (a long return or catch by another player or sprinting on a straight go route) to see who is actually fast on what amounts to a play where they’re not expected to max out their turbo button.

Among players with 100 offensive snaps or more, the only Patriots player who ranks in the top 75 here is Reagor, who is at 18.1 mph. Douglas is the only other offensive player in the top 125. The Dolphins have seven players in that same group. The Texans, this year’s stunning breakout offense, have six. Speed isn’t everything — and this stat isn’t a perfect measure — but I don’t think anyone watching New England would argue it looks fast on offense.

If the Patriots land the No. 3 overall pick and Williams and Maye are off the board, they have to run to the podium and draft top wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. (Ohio State). Belichick has not valued playmakers at that sort of level in the past, as he even required Randy Moss to take a pay cut when he traded a midround pick to land the future Hall of Famer from the Raiders in 2007, but the league has changed. Unless a team has a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback or the best tight end in league history, it needs at least one star wide receiver to keep an offense afloat. With all due respect to Edelman, the Patriots haven’t had that sort of game-changing playmaker in their passing attack since Gronkowski was at his peak in 2014-15.

Will adding new voices to help Belichick and playmakers for Jones fix the Patriots? Maybe not. They might require a more thorough overhaul. Belichick might not be the coach he once was. The roster might be too far gone. Jones might just not be a very good quarterback, even if he looked like a guy who could hold his own in 2021.

As I look closer at their situation, it’s tough to avoid remembering how this has really only been a recent run of dismal results for the Patriots. They were 6-4 through 10 games a year ago, and while there were clear problems with Patricia and Judge, it felt like Belichick would figure things out. The Pats were 9-4 with Jones as a rookie in 2021 before struggling down the stretch. Fans understandably aspire to more than a solid record and a playoff berth, but I don’t think Belichick is a materially different coach now than the one he was over most of the prior two seasons. Firing him would create more problems for the franchise, both now and in the years to come.

Bill Barnwell

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