The Patriots haven’t played a game since early January, but if you’re a fan, rooting for them has been awfully fun over the last two months.
Big spending. The top free agents. An entirely new offense. And, as of Thursday night, a new franchise quarterback.
The Patriots offseason is a birthday bash and Christmas morning all rolled into one.
The 2020 season stung too sharply for the Patriots not to respond. Their first season without Tom Brady resulted in a 7-9 record and some of the worst offensive football in the NFL. Brady won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots were punching bags all the way.
“It was horrible,” team owner Robert Kraft said.
Well, there’s only one way to rectify that: Party time.
Bill Belichick has won six Super Bowls as a head coach, but 2021 marks the first time he was the NFL’s offseason champion.
Kraft allowed Belichick to write several big checks when free agency opened in mid-March — a total of $175 million guaranteed, a league record for one offseason.
The Patriots signed two receivers, the speedy Nelson Agholor and ascending youngster Kendrick Bourne. They signed a high-priced edge rusher in Matthew Judon, and fortified the defense with the returns of Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. Which of the top tight ends should the Patriots get, Hunter Henry or Jonnu Smith? How about both?
This week, the Patriots added the final piece — the franchise quarterback. Alabama’s Mac Jones fell in their lap at No. 15, and Belichick made Jones the first quarterback he has ever drafted in the first round. Cam Newton is still the starter for now, but the Patriots will soon enough be Jones’s team.
The excitement over the pick was palpable, not just for Patriots fans.
“Jones going be the best QB out this draft,” tweeted Buccaneers pass rusher Shaquil Barrett.
Jones is certainly not a perfect prospect. He was the fifth quarterback drafted in the first round, and he’s not much of a runner. His muscle definition is, shall we say, less than inspiring.
No matter. For now, his selection gives fans reason to be excited about the Patriots again.
“Mac Jones to New England — best pick of this draft,” ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky declared.
The drafting of Jones capped a wild, captivating, and unorthodox offseason.
This is not how the Patriots usually conduct business. As Kraft acknowledged to Peter King of NBC Sports in March, “We always made fun of the teams that spent a lot in the offseason.”
Belichick usually looks for value. Or to do the unexpected. The well-worn joke before the draft was that since everyone expected the Patriots to take a quarterback, they would trade down and draft another safety from Rutgers.
But in 2021, Belichick zigged when everyone expected him to zag. He zigged right into a free agency bonanza and a new franchise quarterback.
Belichick hasn’t done many media interviews in 2021, and he would never admit this, but the man who named his boat “Eight Rings” looks like he was sufficiently humbled by the 2020 season.
Belichick’s faults were all exposed — his struggles in the draft; his inability to develop receivers; his demanding personality that turned off Brady and Rob Gronkowski. His reputation took a beating, with Brady delivering the knockout blow by winning another Super Bowl.
This offseason is noticeably different. Belichick has dispensed of his smarter-than-you persona for an every-fan approach to football. He’s not trying to buck conventional wisdom this time around.
Every Patriots fan cried out for better weapons at receiver and tight end, so Belichick signed four of them in free agency. Expensive ones, too — not value players.
The critics hounded Belichick for trying to win with Newton off the bargain bin, so Belichick drafted Jones in the first round.
He is acknowledging that, yes, sometimes the fans do know what they’re talking about. And, no, he’s not trying to diminish the value of the quarterback position.
A video posted to the Patriots’ social media pages Friday suggests Belichick has been humbled by his team’s poor draft record the past five years. The video showed the Patriots brain trust making the decision to draft Jones, then making the phone call Thursday night.
Belichick was notably collaborative, asking all four of his top lieutenants if they were comfortable with picking Jones. One criticism of Belichick in recent years is that he ignores his scouts and goes rogue with draft picks, relying more on his friendships with certain college coaches. But the video put out the message that Belichick is now a team player.
Thing is, Belichick isn’t just trying to win football games. At 69 years old, he is starting to think about his place in NFL history.
The free agency spending spree was about his legacy as a coach. Belichick is only 36 wins (including postseason) away from Don Shula’s NFL record of 347. Belichick paid for productive veteran players because he wants to win as many games as quickly as possible. And he knows that the 2020 season provided ample fuel for the “he’s never won anything without Brady” crowd.
Meanwhile, drafting Jones was about Belichick’s legacy as an architect. Not only did the great Bill Walsh win three Super Bowl titles in San Francisco, but he left the Niners with Steve Young and a championship roster. Belichick can stake his claim as the greatest championship-builder in sports if he can develop Jones and set up the Patriots for long-term success.
Whatever Belichick’s motivations, the 2021 offseason has been a welcome and refreshing change of pace. Big spending, new receivers, and a new first-round quarterback.
Belichick made the Patriots fun again.
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