The Patriots are taking the side-view mirror approach to regaining relevance and revamping their roster —objects are closer to contention than they appear. Judging by his actions thus far, Bill Belichick doesn’t believe the Patriots are that far away from regaining contender status.
You can’t generally fault the moves emanating from Fort Foxborough thus far this offseason, particularly bringing in wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Mike Gesicki on team-friendly contracts to bolster an anemic passing attack. Bravo.
The problem, however, is that Belichick looks to be repeating the error he made last offseason when he wrote off losing four of the final five games and getting drubbed by Buffalo in a 47-17 defeat as a detour, not the Patriots’ path.
Following an 8-9 season that ended one win shy of a playoff berth, he is overestimating what he has and underestimating the gap between his team and the real contenders.
The Patriots need a jolt, a jump-start, a significant leap forward talent-wise somewhere crucial to break free from the 25-26, zero-playoff-win loop created the last three seasons. Instead, Belichick is making solid, incremental upgrades.
While re-signing nearly all of their players from a top-eight defense that was the strength of the team, shoring up shaky special teams that allowed three of the NFL’s six kickoff-return touchdowns, and addressing offensive shortcomings with proven vets sounds good on paper, it’s not drastic enough to change the Patriots’ lot.
As (briefly) former Patriot Terrance Knighton wisely tweeted as a life lesson, don’t confuse movement for progress. The Patriots are moving forward toward a better roster, but the type of thunder strike it will take for them to challenge the current overlords of the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills, is still lacking.
Real progress would need to come in the form of a true No. 1 receiver or a true franchise quarterback. Paging DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Jackson.
Acquiring either player would be costly and risky. Hopkins will be 31 in June, has lost some explosiveness, and wants a new contract. He also has an awkward history with the man tasked with resurrecting Mac Jones and the Patriots offense, Bill O’Brien, who dealt Hopkins away as head coach of the Houston Texans.
Jackson is in franchise-tag limbo. He is locked in a protracted contract stare-down with the Baltimore Ravens, praying for someone to bestow upon him the lucrative contract quarterbacks of his quality usually get by breathing. The tag means any team that signs Jackson to an offer sheet must be willing to surrender two first-round picks and ostensibly north of $40 million per year — the going rate for young QBs with a pulse and a playoff berth — for his services.
In both cases, you have to commit and be all-in. As Frederick B. Wilcox is credited with saying, “Progress always involves risk. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first base.”
The fear here is that despite all the bluster from the Krafts in an unprecedented letter to season ticket-holders about “critical evaluations” of football ops, the Patriots basically stay the course with obvious upgrades and value.
Here’s hoping the Patriots powers that be don’t delude themselves into believing they’re a few tweaks and fixes away from being back atop the division.
That’s how they landed here in the first place. Here’s what Belichick said after that playoff loss in January of 2022 about the state of a franchise that looked light-years behind Buffalo:
“Yeah, well I think we have to take a good long look again, not at just one game, but at all 18. But you’re right. [That] game was the least competitive game that we played last year. So again, is that what we are, or is that a bad night?”
He hewed closer to the bad night/one-off theory, then compounded matters by selecting coaching frat buddies Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to run the offense. That sank Jones’s sophomore season and the team’s entire campaign.
This offseason has some of that familiar feel with re-signing nearly all his defensive players, including workaday linebackers Mack Wilson and Raekwon McMillan — both of whom played less than 24 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
JuJu is a great pick-up, but he doesn’t possess WR1 juice. He’s not the guy who had 1,400 yards his second season in the league anymore and generally has been at his best when he has Hall of Fame-caliber QB play. That’s not the Patriots.
So either Belichick is right and poor coaching on offense and special teams by his hand-picked coaches doomed the team last year to an inconceivable degree or he’s deceiving himself for the second straight offseason.
Look around the division. The Bills are perennial contenders with Josh Allen. The Dolphins, who made the playoffs, got Jalen Ramsey to team with Xavien Howard and form arguably the best cornerback tandem in the league. Miami already wields the best wide receiver tandem with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
The J-E-T-S are on the verge of landing Aaron Rodgers to shore up their one glaring weakness. Rodgers or no Rodgers, they boast better offensive weapons than the Patriots. They also boast the defense that Belichick seems to think he has.
The Patriots defense ranked seventh in offensive points allowed, but lost to every upper-echelon or dynamic QB on the schedule. It feasted on backups, young pup passers, and journeymen. It split with Jared Goff (a dominant 29-0 shutout) and Derek Carr, two guys who fit the definition of middle-of-the-pack passers.
This is not the defense that held Allen to just one touchdown pass, a 55.7 completion percentage, and a 64.4 passer rating in two games in 2022. That’s the Jets.
It’s also understandable for Belichick to point to the special teams and feel they cost the Patriots a playoff berth. They factored heavily in losses to the Vikings on Thanksgiving, the Raiders (a league-leading fourth punt blocked since 2021), and in the season finale in Buffalo, when New England allowed two kickoff-return touchdowns.
However, the margin the Patriots need to make up isn’t going to be found on special teams. Sorry.
Belichick and the Patriots still have heavy lifting to do via the draft, a trade, and/or free agency. They can’t be Patriot Pollyannas again, believing they’re closer to contention than they appear.
That’s an optical illusion and a delusion.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.