We’re On To Irrelevance?

Back in 2014, the New England Patriots were struggling.  As FOX Sports recounted the following September:

One of the most important turning points of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning season last year came in a Week 4 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots were blown out of the water, 41-14, with many pegging New England as “done” after starting the season 2-2.

Following the loss, Bill Belichick gave one of his most “Belichickian” news conferences of all time. He responded to reporters’ questions by saying “we’re on to Cincinnati” five times, letting everyone know that he had moved on from the loss to the Chiefs.

That interation of Belichick was terse, defiante and determined.  He also had a veteran quarterback with a Super Bowl victory to his credit (actually, two), outstanding talent and a relatively easy AFC East as a road to the playoffs.  And you know what happened after that.

Contrast that to how the BOSTON HERALD’s Doug Kyer described what went down yesterday in Foxboro  with the 2023 version of Belichick and his troops:

The Patriots fell 34-0 behind perhaps their worst offensive performance of the year and in one of the worst losses of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach. The Patriots appeared to hit rock bottom last week in a 38-3 drubbing at the hands of the Cowboys. At least that loss came on the road against what’s considered one of the NFL’s top teams. The Saints had struggled to move the ball on offense heading into Sunday’s game.

“Obviously, it was a poor performance today here,” Belichick said postgame. “So just plain and simply, we’ve got to find a way to play and coach better than that.”

A telling point in Sunday’s game came when the Patriots were down 24-0 on the Saints’ 40 facing a fourth-and-3. Belichick’s decision to punt was met by a raucous chorus of boos from the remaining Gillette Stadium faithful.

The head coach had obviously lost faith in (quarterback Mac) Jones and his offense. “Until we’re better on third and fourth down, I don’t think so,” Belichick said when asked if there was any thought of going for it.

Yep, it was a darn good day to hoist more that a few Sam Adams, and make sure a sober Uber driver was available.  Definitely not a good day to be a young, impressionable Pats fan.

The only thing remotely close to cheers that were heard yesterday were when this decision was made:

Jones was mercifully pulled from the game for backup Bailey Zappe after going 12-of-21 for 110 yards with two interceptions. Zappe finished 3-of-9 for 22 yards.

Clearly, there’s not even a Matt Cassel around anymore.

Which now makes the Patriots’ season far more intriguing.  At 1-4 in a tightly bunched AFC, the Patriots are far from mathematically eliminated, though it’s difficult to imagine even Belichick turning this team around.  And he is tantalizingly close to breaking what some have considered an unbreakable achievement–the all-time record for wins by an NFL head coach.  At 331 including playoff victories, and one shy of his 300th regular season win, he trails Don Shula by just 16.

(Irony upon ironies: the only time a Patriots team was shut out by a larger margin than yesterday was a 52-0 shellacking by the 17-0 Miami Dolphins in 1972, coached by….Don Shula).

Earlier in the Belichick era, a goal such as Shula’s win total would be seen as easily within reach within a couple of years.  Sometimes, perhaps even within one. (save for the likes of David Tyree).

But a group where reaching out to Bailey Zappe is considered worthy of cheers?  Who knows how long those 16 wins might take to ahcieve?  And at age 71, the clock is, in Chris Berman’s words, going TICK..tick..tick..tick…TICK!!!!!

And no one, especially Belichick, has ever considered owner Robert Kraft and his family patient.  And Kraft is 82.  Younger wife, to be sure, but still.

So we’re likely in the coming weeks to see more articles like the one THE ATHLETIC’s Chad Graff dropped this morning:

There weren’t many fans left for the final few minutes of the New England Patriots’ second-worst loss of the Bill Belichick era. But the few who remained at Gillette Stadium stuck around to boo as the final seconds ticked away.

Belichick walked across the home turf, left with the frustrating task of shaking hands with New Orleans Saints coach Dennis Allen, who’d just beaten him and his team 34-0, the first time in the Belichick era that the Patriots were shut out at home with their starting quarterback (the only other shutout came in 2016 when Jacoby Brissett, the team’s third quarterback, played through a ligament tear in his thumb).

All of that has left the Patriots in a place that’s tough to acknowledge but hard to avoid any longer: Bill Belichick should be on the hot seat.

And I doubt in a town like Boston that’s gonna stop until one of two things happens.  The Patriots recreate 2014.  Or Belichick and the Pats part ways.

The Pats visit Vegas next Sunday, and the Raiders admittedly have their own problems, but then have back-to-back divisional matchups with Buffalo and Miami (the latter on the road) after that.  This is looming to be 2-6 or worse.

So were I am a betting man (save it, we both know I can’t afford to be), I’m leaning on the latter.

But were that to happen, it would be tragic for a record so storied to be denied strictly by the quality of the talent that Belichick has around him.

If only there was a team, perhaps not too far from New England, that had quality talent, a veteran quarterback, and an overly patient owner willing to try and grab a few headlines?

Oh, I don’t know.  Can you think of any?  Perhaps one that had previously decided to hire Belichick before?

The conventional wisdom of how this all played out has been Belichick was incapable of working for Woody Johnson, said overly patient owner.  But as ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini wrote on the 20th anniversary of that one-day stint, Belichick himself only admits to bad timing:

Essentially, the problem I had with the whole arrangement eventually was, when all this transpired, there was no owner. Mr. [Leon] Hess passed away before the ’99 season. There were two potential owners, and that was [Woody] Johnson and [Charles] Dolan. I hadn’t spoken with either one, but I had issues with both. It wasn’t Mr. Hess anymore, which was the original agreement. … That whole ownership configuration at that time was a major factor in my decision.”

Belichick has owned the Jets and Johnson ever since–indeed, their one win this season was a 17-10 squeaker in MetLife Stadium.  And time–not to mention a chance at history–has a funny way of healing some old wounds.

Scoff if you will, but I’ve seen stranger things happen.

Honestly, while the mere thought of this likely curdles the blood of both Pats and Jets fans, let me remind them that once upon a time Leo Durocher moved from the Brooklyn Dodgers, who he built into a World Series contender as manager only to miss out on managing them in it due to a year-long suspension, to the New York Giants.  The Giants made a World Series three years later, and beat the Dodgers in the process in a memorable three-game playoff won by a walkoff homer from Bobby Thomson.  My father’s portable radio didn’t survive the three-story fall it suffered when he reacted in frustration to that turn of events.

I’d rather think about some possibilties of someone like Bill Simmons or Matt Damon throwing a brick through their HDTV if a Belichick-led Jets were to beat the Patriots in a playoff game, or, more likely given where the Pats are, beat them for win number 348.

Because the alternative is for Belichick to merely fade away, into irrelevance.  Which is a lot farther away than was Cincinnati.




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