They said goodbye to the GOAT and hello to one of the toughest schedules in the NFL. They are inserting an unproven, unheralded second-year player at their most important position, and like every other teamin the league, they are prohibited by pandemic restrictions from instructing their players in the usual way.
Business as usual it is not.
The coronavirus pandemic is a disruption for NFL teams across the board, but for the Patriots and Bill Belichick, the upheaval of a routine they have spent 20 years perfecting compounds what was already the most volcanic offseason of a two-decade union. Six Super Bowl titles or not, Belichick is facing his longest odds to win another one any time soon.
Well, in the view of one longtime friend and observer, perhaps not. As Phil Simms sees it, if Belichick manages to make something good out of this season, if he can win with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback instead of Tom Brady and with a schedule that includes three West Coast games and another Midwest stop at defending champion Kansas City, then the NFL had better be prepared. New England dominance won’t be going away after all.
“I would say this: If the Patriots have a winning season — and Bill will hate this — but I think that’s a tremendous plus, tremendous, given everything,” Simms said. “And if they have a winning season, then look out, they’re coming back and it’s going to turn, go right back into another era of winning. I really believe that.”
Simms, the longtime CBS analyst who quarterbacked the Giants while Belichick helped the franchise win two titles as their defensive coordinator, knows the exactness with which Belichick approaches his job. And after years of behind-the-scenes visits to prepare for the games he called on national broadcasts, Simms has no qualms about thinking the virus-imposed layoff hurts the Patriots more than it does other teams.
“This time being off, for as meticulous as they are, how they teach, this does hurt teams like them more,” Simms said. “I don’t care if other coaches get offended, it’s the truth. They piece it together from the ground up, they never rush that building process. This will hurt them as much as any team. It’s not all the same; I’m sorry, guys, but it’s not.”
That more than anything has Simms believing this season will be one of the most challenging of Belichick’s career, and if Belichick can thrive despite the unprecedentedly strange offseason, he will be off and running into a new, post-Brady future.
The caveat remains — “It’s a brutal schedule, brutal,” Simms said — but it’s not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of the NFL’s most tireless worker.
“Just being around [Belichick], and I’m being really truthful, he’s always excited,” Simms said. “When the season is over, the combine, free agency, OTAs, training camp, everything. He doesn’t like it; he loves it. He can’t wait for each stage.
"I’ve never met anybody like him. He shows no wear and tear, no lack of enthusiasm for teaching. And that’s what he is, an unbelievable teacher.”
One whose star pupil bolted for the warm and sunny coast in Tampa Bay. Brady no doubt will change the culture of the Bucs’ locker room, his seriousness of purpose alongside buddy Rob Gronkowski’s affable goofiness bringing a combination of Patriot experience from which every new teammate can benefit.
While those two Pro Bowl stalwarts have every right to be content leaving Belichick’s uber-strictness and ultra-demanding ways in the past, so too should Belichick be rightfully confident that his approach will continue to work with those they left behind.
Simms can remember distinctly how highly he thought of the Stidham pick two years ago, when a few post-combine calls from coaches affirmed what his own eyes had told him after seeing Stidham play first for Baylor and then for Auburn.
“I remember watching his junior year at Auburn and thinking, ‘God, I really like this guy,’ ” Simms said. “I liked his arm, he is a good athlete, good enough for sure.
"No, he’s not going to be Lamar Jackson, but he’s going to move around well enough. He throws a ball that you can catch.
"It’s funny, after the combine was over, I had a few coaches call me about other things and two of them, out of nowhere, said, ‘The quarterbacks, this Stidham kid, I really like him.’ I said, ‘I do, too. I’m surprised to hear you say it, coach.’ They said, ‘We’re not going to draft him, we don’t need it, but I really like him.’ ”
The Patriots, of course, did draft him, using the 133rd pick overall (fourth round) to end a college journey that took Stidham from a reneged verbal commitment to Texas Tech to a one-year stint at Baylor and to two final seasons at Auburn.
And after one year inside Josh McDaniels’s system, Stidham now has the reins of the Patriots’ offense. It’s like a peaceful transition of power, except Belichick is the one completely in charge anyway.
“Listen, I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t know," Simms said. "Everyone knows it. It’s business as usual up there.
“They’re not running around going, ‘What are we going to do?’ We know that. A great way to describe it is that it’s as if they are soldiers, they just march, and that’s what they do. It never changes.
"They’re just so steady. They’ve got it down and they keep working on it, saying, ‘We do what we do.’ When there are new ideas, they add onto what they’ve got. They keep building and building.
“I’m sure there’s no anxiety, I know people don’t believe that. I’m just telling you I know, they’re not going, ‘Oh no!’ If there’s any anxiety, it’s that they drew the hardest schedule in the NFL.”
With a brand new starting quarterback.
It’s a lot to overcome. But get it right this year, and Simms believes this: Watch out, NFL. The Patriots are still here.