The bye-week lull is over, and the Patriots get back to work Sunday. Seven games left to play in this awful season. The immediate conversation revolves around who will start at quarterback — Mac Jones, Bailey Zappe, Will Grier, take your pick — but the bigger discussion remains centered on the fixture standing on the sideline.
Bill Belichick has made many of his coaching bones proving his acumen coming out of the bye, a 16-7 record since taking over the Patriots in 2000 just one of the countless examples of how good he has been at his job. But despite nearly five decades of coaching in the NFL, it’s safe to say Belichick has never been in the position he is in right now, never come out of a bye with more questions than he has answers, never been in the crosshairs of a conversation that wonders whether Sunday’s game is but a first step toward the exit from a storied career in New England.
As tough as things seemed after a Week 8 loss in Miami dropped the Patriots to 2-6, there was always an expectation of stiff AFC East competition. But the ensuing two losses that preceded the bye week — the ones against the Commanders at home and against the Colts in Germany, the ones in which the offense scored 22 total points and pushed Jones to the bench, maybe for good, the ones owner Robert Kraft has pinpointed as near must-wins — changed the conversation entirely.
Now, the engines are revving on Belichick’s likely departure, with rumors coming from all corners. There’s Dan Orlovsky on ESPN, citing no real sources but saying he’s heard Belichick already has an exit plan in place, including a new coaching destination. There’s Brandon Staley tripping all over himself in Los Angeles, making speculation of a Belichick-Justin Herbert combo all too easy to entertain. There’s former Patriot Super Bowl winner Jason McCourty saying on Rich Eisen’s show, “I think in New England, they blow this thing up after the season.” There are new owners in Washington who might look at their team’s loss to the lowly Giants and wonder whether it’s time to clean house.
That all of this swirls around the Patriots during Giants game week must only make it worse for Belichick. Outside of his tenure in New England, Belichick spent the second-longest stretch of his coaching life in New York. A two-time Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator from 1985-90, Belichick worked for the Giants starting in 1979, when he was hired by mentor Ray Perkins, and he worked with special teams and linebackers before Bill Parcells handed him the keys to the defense.
He has never been shy about his appreciation for the storied New York franchise.
This is what he said before a regular-season matchup in 2019: “There’s so much history there, you could write a book about that.”
He shared some feelings about what made the franchise special:
“Of course, the Mara family, single ownership. They’ve certainly been through all the phases of the league, and not only have done things very professionally and for the good of the game on the field, but present everything well off the field as well — their family and their organization and just the way they do things.
“So that’s a storied franchise, and it goes way, way back. I was very, very fortunate to be a part of that great organization for 12 years and I learned a lot there from so many people, some who are still there, most of whom aren’t.
“But they put together a tremendous group there in the ‘80s, starting with Coach Perkins, so I was very fortunate to be a part of that.”
Those comments were made prior to a Thursday night game, back when a relatively rare Giants-Patriots matchup automatically drew national interest. Unlike this Sunday’s 1 p.m. tilt — when the biggest stakes are for draft order rather than playoff seeding — there was a time when this game would have had heat, would have been a juicy matchup rife with stakes and history, pitting two franchises with deep and lasting connections.
Imagine the fun of wondering how annoyed John Mara remains at Belichick for recommending he hire Joe Judge as his head coach, or reliving the ill-fated text Belichick sent Brian Flores instead of Brian Daboll, congratulating the former on a job that actually went to the latter. Mara is still chafed at that one, given its inclusion in Flores’s discrimination lawsuit against the NFL.
Imagine the horror of Patriots fans being reminded again that it was the Giants who denied them two more Super Bowls for Tom Brady and his coach, having to hear again how Eli Manning won both of the head-to-head QB battles and another former Parcells assistant, Tom Coughlin, led the way.
But neither team is in any position to crow now, limping into a Thanksgiving Sunday with one team unwilling to name a QB and the other starting a former practice squadder whose name would have been perfect for a character on “The Sopranos.” Tommy DeVito earned his first career win last weekend against Washington, but he has made more headlines for still living at his New Jersey home where his mother cooks his meals.
There’s no such levity in New England, where a coach gets back to work at the center of a conversation he’s never experienced before.