We all knew it was coming eventually. One day the Patriots’ stranglehold on the NFL would have to come to an end, but no one could have predicted this. Going all the way back to the 2019 wild card round when Tom Brady took the field once again late in a close game, something Patriots fans had come to chalk up to nearly a guaranteed win, ended in a disastrous pick six to seal Tom Brady’s exit from New England. Fast forward to Sunday night, with Cam Newton and the Patriots taking the field with a chance to win in Buffalo and keep their playoff hopes alive, only for Superman himself to fumble the game away on one of his trademark QB scrambles. The fans won’t admit it, so I will do it for you. It’s done, the greatest dynasty in sports is dead. So how did we get here?
Plugging the Holes
Ever since the GOAT himself stepped onto the field for his first NFL snaps in 2001, the Patriots had complete dominance over the league. Six Super Bowl titles and nine appearances will earn you that recognition, and for 20 years, nobody doubted the Patriots. However, signs of cracks were always prevalent. Bill Belichick gets deserved credit as the greatest coach of all time, but his track record as a general manager leaves much to be desired. Sure he made some huge moves, like the Randy Moss trade and drafting Rob Gronkowski, but for every good move he also delivers some questionable ones. In the 2020 draft, one that experts had predicted to be possibly the best wide receiver class in the history of football, Bill drafted no receivers, instead opting for relatively unknown linebacker Kyle Dugger and some below average tight ends that have a combined one reception for eight yards and a fumble in 2020. You might be saying to yourself, “Dylan, that’s one draft, plenty of good GM’s have had a bad draft.” To that I say you are right, so let’s look at every draft since 2016 and see what Bill has managed to find. In 2016, the Patriots selected cornerback Cyrus Jones, guard Joe Thuney and quarterback Jacoby Brisset with their first three picks in the draft. Jones played 31 games in the NFL before becoming a free agent in 2019, and is still out there as we speak. Thuney is the best selection from this draft and continues to be a valuable asset on the Patriots offensive line, and Brisset played two games for the Patriots before being traded to the Indianapolis Colts, only to be replaced by the bones of Philip Rivers. So far we have two misses and one hit. With their first three picks in 2017, they selected defensive end Derek Rivers, tackle Antonio Garcia and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr. Rivers has played 11 total games in the NFL and has yet to see the field this season, Garcia has never played a snap and Wise has turned out to be a good defensive end, but not a game breaker by any means. For fairness’ sake, the tally stands at four busts, two hits. In 2018, their first three picks were tackle Isiah Wynn, running back Sony Michel and cornerback Duke Dawson. Wynn has been injured most of his career, including missing his entire rookie year and half of 2019, and is only now making his first consistent starts on the offensive line. Michel gave the Pats a terrific rookie season but has contributed little since, and Dawson has played 20 games and been a nonfactor on defense. Tally stands at six busts, three hits. 2019 was the year of wide receiver N’Keal Harry, with cornerback Joejuan Wiliams and defensive end Chase Winovich following behind. Harry has been a massive disappointment in his early career, Williams is invisible on the field and Winovich has been a good end for the Patriots in his young career. I’m going to leave out the 2020 draft, as we have not seen enough from the picks to determine their worth, but the complete lack of a receiver selection in this draft is puzzling to say the least. The final tally: eight busts, four hits. Clearly not a great track record. Add to that the complete failure to draft on the offensive side, and we get the team we see now. With no new weapons, and an aging Julian Edelman, it is no wonder that Brady wanted out as he moved to Tampa Bay.
Brady Bridge is Falling Down
Bill’s bad drafting helped push the Patriots to their current struggles, but as we saw for 20 years, Brady can cover any hole. So it was a massive surprise when we saw the offense struggle last year with Brady at the helm. In wins Brady was upset with the offense’s lackluster performance, and in losses he was despondent. The national media took victory laps claiming he was washed up, while local media pointed to a lack of weapons for him to throw to. Yet the Patriots were only one win off of a first round bye, and would have gotten it if not for a loss in Miami in the last game of the year. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the Pats met the Titans in the wildcard game, and the offense again struggled as Brady threw a season ending interception to former teammate Logan Ryan, ending his career in New England on a pick six. That offseason, Brady left for Tampa Bay to join Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and since then the Buccaneers have picked up Antonio Brown, Gronk and Leonard Fournette. While his exit from New England seemed improbable, in retrospect it was inevitable. A combination of bad drafting, lack of financial respect from the front office and the comments from Bill Belichick following “deflategate” all lead to pushing out Brady. This was made official through his final contract which forbade the Patriots from using a franchise tag on him, ensuring he would be a free agent at the end of the 2019 season. With seemingly no backup plan besides fourth-round pick Jared Stidham, the Pats signed free agent Cam Newton just before training camp, and he easily claimed the starting job. As we have seen however, filling in the shoes of the greatest of all time is no easy task, and Newton has struggled under the same offense Brady led to an 11-5 record last season. Newton has thrown an unbelievable two total touchdowns all season (for reference, Patrick Mahomes threw five touchdowns in one game this weekend). We all knew Brady’s presence was important, but very few people knew he was the literal life or death of this offense. The decision to play around with Tom and let him walk looks worse and worse by the minute, as Brady leads the 5-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Super Bowl contention, while looking like a possible league MVP.
How to Rebuild a Dynasty
After starting 2-1, the Patriots have lost four straight games and are the only team in the NFL that has not scored a single offensive point in the first quarter. They rest at third in the AFC East behind the Dolphins and Bills, and their playoff hopes are essentially over. This team needs a rebuild badly, as they are the oldest team in football this year, and more importantly, they need a reliable quarterback. Keeping on track to get a top-10 pick or better in this year’s draft will present them with plenty of options at that position, including Ohio State QB Justin Fields, Alabama prospect Mac Jones or even North Dakota State play caller Trey Lance. Secondly, they need a bonafide number one receiving option, either through the draft or from a blockbuster trade at the deadline or during the off season. Finally, they need to be sellers at the deadline. Shipping off older players and high salary guys needs to be a priority for a team desperately looking to get back into contention sooner rather than later. Some might argue that defense needs to be one of those three priorities, but I’m not as concerned about the defense as most are. They are missing almost their entire linebacking core thanks to opt outs and injuries, which is likely to change next season as we hopefully (please let it finally end) move past the COVID-19 pandemic that has plagued us for the better part of 2020. On top of this, Bill has a much easier time finding quality defensive players in the draft than offensive weapons, even in later rounds or undrafted altogether. For these reasons I feel that the way back to success is through picking a reliable quarterback in the draft, finding a young or proven number one receiver that can lead your team for years to come and finally being sellers at the deadline and moving on from players who are not part of your short and long-term future.
The Patriots have a lot of work ahead of them if they want to return back to the glory of the Brady era, as Belichick and Robert Kraft fight through a history of bad drafting, poor trading and the loss of the greatest quarterback of all time. However, New England does have a road map of how to get back to the top, they’ve done it before back in 2001, and with the same guys at the helm, who’s to say they can’t do it again? If there is anything I learned over 20 years of winning, it’s that you should never bet against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.