The 2020 season will forever be known as the year that many of the Patriots’ streaks came to an end.
This is the first season since 2008 they didn’t win the AFC East or even make the playoffs. The first season since 2000 they will finish with a losing record, sitting at 6-9 entering Sunday’s finale against the Jets. The first season since 2002 they had a four-game losing streak.
But 2020 will also go down as something bigger — the year that our collective confidence in Bill Belichick was shaken.
“In Bill we trust?” After this season, it’s more of a question than a statement of fact.
Belichick has a storied track record of making unconventional decisions work — such as getting rid of Lawyer Malloy and Logan Mankins right before a season, or letting the clock run down on the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Certainly Belichick has made some wrong calls (hello, Malcolm Butler), but six Super Bowl rings, nine conference championships, and 17 division titles speak for themselves.
But Belichick ran out of magic fairy dust in 2020. His first season since 1999 without Tom Brady was, unequivocally, a dud. Belichick’s roster decisions backfired. His game management was sloppy. He went on the radio to make excuses about the salary cap. And he was unable to make anything work at quarterback, lending credence to those who believe that Brady was really the engine of the Patriots’ dynasty.
Certainly the roster looked a little lean entering the 2020 season, after losing Brady, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon in free agency and Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, and Marcus Cannon as COVID-19 opt-outs.
A slide back to the pack was expected. But Belichick wasn’t able to coach his way out of it.
His free agency plan of “do nothing” turned out as expected. The big move to replace Brady was to wait three months and sign Cam Newton for the league minimum when no other team would offer him a starting job. The big move at receiver was signing journeyman Damiere Byrd.
The result was an offense that has struggled to throw the ball in an era of unprecedented passing numbers, as the Patriots couldn’t rekindle any of Newton’s 2015 MVP magic. The Patriots enter Sunday’s finale ranked 28th in scoring (19.9 points per game), and their eight TD passes would be the fewest in the NFL in eight years.
“Some of the worst, boringest offense I’ve ever seen,” Fox’s Terry Bradshaw said last month.
The defense also sorely lacked athleticism in the front seven, though the Patriots were surely caught off guard by the departures of Hightower and Chung. But they were gashed by Jimmy Garoppolo, dissected by Deshaun Watson, and ripped apart by Russell Wilson. They allowed the Dolphins, the NFL’s 32nd-ranked rushing team at the time, to rush for 250 yards. The Patriots have just 21 sacks, fifth fewest in the NFL.
“We were clearly outcoached, outplayed, just out-everything,” Belichick said after the 49ers loss. He gave almost the identical quote after losses to the Rams, Dolphins, and Bills.
And Belichick’s recent draft struggles continued into 2020. N’Keal Harry, the 2019 first-round pick, has 292 yards and two touchdowns this season and is looking like yet another bust at receiver. The two tight ends drafted in the third round in 2020 — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — have combined for two catches for 10 yards all season.
Subsequently, a lot of unfamiliar things happened to the Patriots.
▪ A 33-6 loss to the 49ers in October was the Patriots’ worst home loss in 21 years under Belichick — until the Bills broke that record with a 38-9 win at Gillette Stadium last week.
▪ They lost to a rookie quarterback (Tua Tagovailoa) for the first time in 11 games.
▪ A loss to Denver dropped the Patriots to 39-1 under Belichick when the opponent doesn’t score a touchdown.
▪ It took the Patriots eight weeks to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter.
▪ Four opposing players earned Player of the Week honors after facing the Patriots (including three in the last six weeks).
▪ The Patriots are 6-9 against the spread, just the second time since 2003 that they are under .500 (2009).
This was a season in which several rivals finally got the better of Belichick. The Bills became the first division opponent to sweep the Patriots since 2000. Sean McVay, stuffed in a locker in Super Bowl LIII, shredded the Patriots on national television. Kyle Shanahan, he of 28-3 infamy, also torched Belichick on national TV. The Dolphins and Bills pulled off fake punts in consecutive weeks against the Patriots, though the Dolphins’ was called back because of a penalty.
The final ignominy: The saga of receiver Isaiah Ford. Belichick traded a late-round draft pick to the Dolphins for him, subsequently released Ford, then saw Ford re-sign with the Dolphins and catch passes against the Patriots in Week 15. Score one for Belichick’s pupil, Brian Flores.
Most surprisingly, Belichick was far below his standards when it comes to game management, where he usually thrives. Analytics website EdjSports ranked Belichick 26th among head coaches when analyzing his fourth-down decisions.
In the loss to the Seahawks, Belichick’s refusal to call a timeout at the end of the game cost the Patriots at least one extra play. In the loss to the Rams, the Patriots were caught with their “dime” defense on the goal line and didn’t have enough muscle to defend a 1-yard quarterback sneak. In the loss to the Chiefs, the Patriots lost track of their timeout situation right before halftime.
In the first Bills game, Belichick called a surprise onside kick that backfired spectacularly. In the second Bills game, the Patriots only had 10 defenders on the field for a crucial fourth-and-1 play, allowing Josh Allen to scramble for 22 yards. In the second Dolphins game, the Patriots were busted for 12 men on the field coming out of a timeout.
To be fair, no matter what happens over the rest of his career, Belichick will still go down as one of the best, if not the best, to ever twirl a whistle. It’s not like he has stopped putting in the work or forgot how to build a football team. This was only one bad season, and there are few people on the planet better suited to rebuilding the Patriots than Belichick.
But 2020, his first season without Brady, was the first time that most of Belichick’s moves backfired.
In Bill we trust? Yes.
Unequivocally? Not anymore.