For New England, there are some parallels between what the 2000 team went through in December and what the 2020 roster is enduring right now, specifically at quarterback. And while there’s debate as to what Belichick should do with the last two games — play veteran Cam Newton or give second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham a shot — there was a similar back-and-forth 20 years ago.
In the late stages of the 2000 season, after a banged-up Drew Bledsoe struggled and the Patriots were eliminated from the postseason with a 34-9 loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving, people started pushing for the Patriots to give youngster Michael Bishop a look.
Bishop, who was taken in the 1999 draft out of Kansas State, had shown flashes in a handful of appearances to that point in his career, including an impressive preseason run and a successful Hail Mary at the end of the first half in a game against the Colts that set the stage for a win over Indy. It piqued the curiosity of New England fans, who were looking for a spark at the end of what had become a relatively listless season.
Was Bledsoe’s job in jeopardy? Not likely. Fans just wanted to know what they had in Bishop.
But when he was asked in the days after the loss to the Lions about the idea of giving some of the youngsters like Bishop some extra playing time, Belichick offered a thumbs down, saying the team’s approach had it pointed in the right direction.
“As disappointing as the [Detroit game] was, the attitude and commitment level is as good as it’s been all year,” he said. “People have asked about experimentation and playing others. I think there are other players ahead of those players.
“If you play somebody that a coach feels has other players ahead of him, I don’t know what message you’re sending to the rest of the team. The message that I’m trying to send is that each week, we’re going to do everything we can to win.”
Belichick was also asked specifically about Bishop and his chances. He referenced the fact that the 2000 team was close in many of those losses; ultimately, that group would lose seven games by seven points or fewer.
“If it was 41-0 every week, that would be one thing. But every week, you can look at a handful of plays in the games we’ve won or lost that have made a difference in the game,” he replied.
“A lot of those players are the future of this team. The closer we can get to doing it right, the better off we’re going to be. Rather than doing it with players who have yet to establish themselves, we’re going to do it with players who will play now and in the future.”
For the record, Bishop saw limited action down the stretch, finishing a combined 0-for-2 in November and December. (One of those was an unsuccessful Hail Mary in the regular-season finale against Miami.) Bishop returned to camp in 2001, but to Belichick’s point, Bishop was ultimately deemed one of the players who was not a part of the “future of the team,” as he was cut loose prior to the start of the 2001 regular season. (That cleared a path for another backup quarterback to seize the starting job that year.)
Fast forward to 2020. The Patriots are out of the playoffs, and people want to see Stidham under center for some of the same reasons. While it’s a different season with different players, there are some parallels beyond the questions at quarterback; namely the fact that the 2020 team also had a knack for playing close games. Four of the eight losses this year have been by seven points or fewer. In addition, while the win-loss record isn’t ideal, Belichick has praised the roster on several occasions for staying positive throughout an unprecedented season.
“I think our entire team has gotten better pretty much weekly,” Belichick said after the 45-0 blowout of the Chargers earlier this year. “We’ve just got to keep grinding. I think with our work ethic and our attitude and willingness to try to improve … we’ve been able to do a better job of coaching and playing complementary football.”
The flip side is that Belichick hasn’t been nearly as accommodating this time around when it comes to answering questions about who will start the rest of the way.
“We’re not answering that question every day. We’ve been through this for a month,” Belichick said last Wednesday.
“How about if I let you know if we’re going to make a change?”
At least historically, Belichick doesn’t seem to be inclined to make a move simply because it might offer a short-term spark. However, one thing to consider is that the coach wants to try and do what he can to set the youngster up for success. The more optimal scenario for Stidham could very well be starting next week against the woeful Jets instead of Monday night against the playoff-ready Bills. Heading into the offseason on an up note would seem to be a more palatable option.
No matter what happens over the last two games, the Patriots are heading into an offseason full of questions at quarterback: Re-sign Newton? Give Stidham the job? Use your draft capital (New England is on track for the 15th overall pick; the last time the Patriots had a choice that high was when they took Nate Solder 17th overall in 2011) to take someone? Or target a veteran, either in trade or free agency? It sets up to be a fascinating few months.
While the Bledsoe-Bishop debate put the capper on the 2000 season, it was a different quarterback who emerged the following year and went on to have a nice little run of success. So maybe this is all moot. But while the 2020 Patriots don’t necessarily have anything on the line the rest of the way as a team, how the snaps are doled out the rest of the way could very well provide a snapshot as to how New England will approach this offseason. Particularly at quarterback.
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