MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — There were no secrets around the AFC East this offseason. Bill Belichick, from his window-lined office at the recently renovated Gillette Stadium, could see what the Miami Dolphins were building here, all those miles south of Foxboro.
Everyone knew how fast the Dolphins would play given the way they’ve used draft picks and trades to stockpile playmakers. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets bulked up offensively, too, kicking off an arms race of talent in the division.
Everywhere, that is, except New England.
There, the 71-year-old coach who oversees every inch of football operations wanted to win with grit, darn it, to beat teams by working harder and longer and with more physicality, knocking them down until they don’t want to get up anymore.
But either Belichick’s evaluation was out of touch or his execution of the plan was flawed. The Patriots aren’t the feisty contenders he envisioned. They’re not even a middling squad capable of keeping its playoff hopes alive. Instead, Belichick has built a bad football team that needs everything to go right just to stand a chance.
Sometimes it will. Against the Buffalo Bills last week, the breaks went their way. The Pats limited their mistakes and stayed out of tough downs and distances, and they earned a surprising win.
But more often than not, Belichick’s roster is just not good enough. That’s going to result in games like Sunday’s, which the Dolphins won 31-17.
If even the slightest thing goes wrong, these Patriots are typically unable to overcome it. Negative plays and penalties are drive-killers for this offense in the way they aren’t for, say, the Dolphins. Mistakes, like Mac Jones’ brutal interception while the Patriots were driving to try to tie the game, seem insurmountable. Missed tackles, like Jahlani Tavai’s on a crucial third down or Myles Bryant’s on a crucial fourth down, tend to turn into points for the opposition.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) October 29, 2023
You can’t win consistently like that.
That’s why the Patriots are 2-6 and why they now face some tough but vital questions about their future. The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday evening. The Patriots don’t really have a shot at the playoffs. So why not trade some players, especially ones on expiring contracts?
7 Patriots trades that would make sense: Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger on the move?
Belichick didn’t make the right moves with his roster in the offseason. Now he has a chance to make up for some of that. If you can get a third-round pick back for Kyle Dugger or Josh Uche, those deals should be seriously considered given that Belichick hasn’t re-signed either (despite ample opportunity). Those deals wouldn’t help the Patriots in 2023, but this team can’t be saved in the short term.
Perhaps what’s most maddening about the performance against the Dolphins is the opportunity that was there for the taking. After upsetting the Bills last week, the Patriots had a chance to turn things around. If they beat the Dolphins, they’d be entering the weakest part of their schedule with back-to-back wins and the confidence that comes from beating the top two teams in the division. Instead, Sunday showed that the win over the Bills was more of an aberration than suggestive of a team on the rise.
“Obviously, we had some chances, just couldn’t make enough plays today,” Belichick said in another terse news conference following the loss.
Belichick stood on the sunny sideline opposite Mike McDaniel and had to have seen what the rest of us did given how differently these teams are built.
Third-and-long is a near impossibility for the Patriots. For the Dolphins, it’s a chance to dust off some cool play that leaves Tyreek Hill or Jaylen Waddle wide open. When Miami faces a tough situation, it either turns to Hill (like on a crucial third-and-9 with six minutes left) or Waddle (like his third-and-9 conversion in the third quarter).
The Patriots simply don’t have playmakers like that. Journeyman Jalen Reagor is somehow now the team’s No. 3 receiver. Free-agent signing JuJu Smith-Schuster has been so bad that he didn’t play a single snap until both Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker were injured.
Now Mac Jones — Belichick’s chosen quarterback — is rattled, and his confidence may be broken beyond repair, at least in New England. Jones completed 19 of 29 passes for just 161 yards. He was sacked three times because he held onto the ball too long. He threw a terrible interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown. Jones endured a rocky season a year ago because of who Belichick brought in to coach him and who Belichick gave him to throw to. Now, Jones looks nothing like the exciting rookie of two seasons ago.
“You can’t do that as a quarterback — just throw it out of bounds or take the checkdown and move on,” Jones said of his interception.
The Patriots used to be able to win with overlooked playmakers because their old quarterback could make up for it. Not anymore. The Patriots are 27-32 since Tom Brady fled for Tampa.
The result of all of Belichick’s decisions — and a sixth loss in eight games — is that the Patriots are left to trudge through this season, hoping for either some signs of life that offer something to build on next year or a high draft pick.
Even in their darkest dreams, the Patriots never thought they’d end up here. Even if they knew teams like Miami would have more talent, the idea was that the vaunted Patriots culture wouldn’t let this franchise bottom out. Belichick was too good to put together a team that bad. Instead, they’re now closer to the No. 1 pick in the draft than a playoff spot.
“For someone like myself and a lot of guys on this team, we’re in unchartered waters,” said veteran Matthew Slater, he of 16 years with the Patriots.
Belichick stood with his arms folded much of the game — at least when he wasn’t yelling at the referees. His spot on the north sideline offered an interesting view.
Just above him, the Dolphins’ ring of honor is plastered around the second tier of the stadium. Below Section 320 is Don Shula’s name with the number 347 next to it, reflective of the total number of games he won in this league, more than any other coach.
Belichick is at 331. His goal of overtaking Shula seemed a simple two-year proposition at the outset of this season. After games like Sunday’s, it seems like it’s going to be a slog.
If the Patriots’ final nine games go the way their first eight did, there’s no guarantee Belichick will get to continue chasing that record in New England.
(Photo: Peter Joneleit / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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