Patriots

The Patriots have been in a state of uncertainty before, and things tended to work out

Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe
Does Bill Belichick know something we don't know? It wouldn't be the first time.


In the quest for context, and maybe some comfort too as Bill Belichick takes a — well, let’s call it perplexing — approach to recalibrating the Patriots offense after longtime coordinator Josh McDaniels’s departure, I found myself thinking about other times during his 23-year tenure when the team entered a season with significant questions.

The Patriots, of course, enjoyed unprecedented success when Belichick and Tom Brady worked in tandem, winning six championships and reaching nine Super Bowls from 2000-19. The Patriots were so consistently excellent — I still don’t think their achievements are put in proper perspective in the context of NFL history — that it might be easy to overlook those periodic times when a question mark hovered over a season, even when Brady was here.

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By my subjective accounting, these were the top five Not Sure How This Is Going To Go starts to a season in the Brady/Belichick years. (I’m excluding the first two post-Brady years — the Cam Newton quarterback purgatory in 2020 and Mac Jones’s rookie season last year — because of course those seasons were surrounded by mystery. That’s always the case when there’s a QB change.)

5. 2009. The roster remained talented, albeit aging on defense. But we still needed confirmation that Brady would be the same after missing the final 15⅞ games in ‘08 with a knee injury, then having to deal with a scary infection post-surgery.

I do not expect any of you to admit it now, but I recall hearing from people who thought the Patriots should trade Brady and retain Matt Cassel. You know who you are. I see you.

4. 2014. The Patriots hadn’t won a Super Bowl since ‘04 and had been thwarted in the AFC Championship games in ‘12 and ‘13. So it came as a stunner when Belichick traded six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers in August for backup tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick, then went with someone named Jordan Devey as a Week 1 starter.

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It’s wild that the Patriots never won a Super Bowl with Mankins, probably the second-best guard in franchise history. But they did win it the year they traded him. Wonder if that affects his Hall of Fame case.

3. 2003. The 2002 Patriots weren’t a bad team, following up their Super Bowl XXXVI victory with a nine-win season, missing the playoffs on the regular season’s final day. But they did require some upgrades, particularly at safety, where Lawyer Milloy, Tebucky Jones, and Victor Green could not make any big plays in ‘02.

Even after the signing of Rodney Harrison, few expected Milloy — a heart-and-soul type in that Marcus Smart kind of way — to be let go, but that’s exactly what happened before the ‘03 opener after Milloy refused a pay cut. The Patriots did not handle it well, losing, 31-0, to Milloy’s new team, the Bills.

A few months later, the Patriots would throttle the Bills by the same score on their way to winning their second Super Bowl.

2. 2010. After a noncompetitive 33-14 loss to the Ravens in the ‘09 wild-card round, Belichick cut ties with assorted malcontents and brought in an influx of young talent, which included cornerback Devin McCourty and a pair of tight ends, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The result: The Patriots went 14-2 and scored 518 points, third-most in franchise history, before being upset by the Jets in the divisional round.

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It still boggles the mind that for a few weeks that season, the Patriots had Gronk, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Hernandez, and Julian Edelman on the roster at the same time.

1. 2001. Maybe this one ought to be disqualified, since there really weren’t any expectations at all after Belichick went 5-11 in his first season. The whole darned thing was a concern. The only thing we knew for sure was that Drew Bledsoe, who had just signed a nine-figure extension, would be the quarterback for the long haul. So much for that, huh?

After Bledsoe was sidelined by a violent hit, a skinny former sixth-round pick seized the day, moment, job, and everything else, and Brady, as you may have heard, led the Patriots to the most unlikely win in Super Bowl history. After the 1986 Celtics and 2004 Red Sox, this is the favorite season/team of my lifetime.

Man, that was fun to revisit all of that. And maybe it gives a little spark of confidence that Belichick knows what he’s doing in this moment, right now, even as his offensive line struggles to master a zone-blocking scheme, the play-calling situation appears to be somewhere between weird and deliberately mysterious, and his second-year quarterback deals with an unnecessarily high degree of difficulty.

Brady was the ultimate safety net, of course, and it cannot go unacknowledged that Belichick is 17-16 since the greatest quarterback in NFL history went south to Tampa after the ‘19 season. But Belichick also has a pretty high batting average on decisions that we would describe as “curious” at the time.

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It also must be noted that Belichick seems to be in a consistently good mood despite his team’s uneven performances, which I take as a sign that he believes all of this is fixable with repetition and will be remedied by the opener Sept. 11 against the Dolphins.

I hope I’m reading that right. Because if I’m not, it might just mean Belichick is not reading his team right for the first time in forever. And then we’d really have something to be concerned about.

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