We can all agree –even the most reactionary, defensive Tom Brady acolytes among Patriots fans with questionable loyalties these days – that Bill Belichick remains the person in the New England organization most capable of doing his job. Right?
Mired in the midst of three-straight losses, including Sunday’s embarrassing bullying by Jimmy Garoppolo’s 49ers, Belichick remains a master game planner and tactician.
He is not, however, a magician.
And that’s the problem these days. Belichick the coach – yes, we’re going down that road, at least tangentially – is saddled with a roster of talent that simply isn’t up to NFL par. Of course that roster was assembled by Belichick the GM, even if the Dont’a Hightower-led COVID-19 opt-outs were out of his usual total control.
No longer going to battle with a GOAT QB or a breadth of roster talent that he’s used to, Belichick’s own contributions may indeed be the biggest difference between the Patriots winning and losing games in 2020.
Over the years, New England’s proven veteran talent on both sides of the ball could lead the way to victory in most games. Belichick didn’t have to pull out his game plan strategic tricks until special occasions like a Brady suspension or tight AFC playoff battles with Baltimore or even Super Bowl showdowns.
Now, though, the margin for error provided by his on-field talent is virtually non-existent.
Unfortunately for Belichick and his team, the advantage in the coaching ranks has been minimal or even negated during the Patriots first three-game losing streak in nearly two decades.
Three weeks ago was the hastily rescheduled trip to Kansas City to take on the more-talented Chiefs. Not only did Belichick have a disrupted preparation process that included day-of-game travel, but maybe more importantly he was taking on fellow future Hall of Famer Andy Reid.
Newly-minted a Super Bowl Champion, Reid has proven over the years, including in a Super Bowl, more than capable of battling wits, play calls and game plans with Belichick, even coming away with big wins.
Belichick has a major advantage in matchups with most NFL coaches, but Reid is not one of them. Playing it tough without Cam Newton in a game they easily could have won with even average QB play, the Patriots flew home losers.
That was followed up by a postponed battle with the Broncos in the middle of New England’s mini COVID-19 outbreak, the Patriots getting barely a couple practices in over the two-week lead up to play Denver. The result was an ugly loss to a Broncos team that may or may not be more talented than the Patriots on paper, Vic Fangio coming away with the win that in no way was an indication of the battle of coaches. Belichick was left with the loser’s lament of not enough practice time. It sounded like a rare excuse from the coach, but it was also the truth. He simply wasn’t able to impact the matchup in anything close to a traditional fashion.
Finally came Sunday’s embarrassing blowout at the hands of the 49ers. Even with its own major injury issues, San Francisco may have more all-around talent than the Patriots at this point. The visitors also had the guidance, leadership and well-schemed play calling of Kyle Shanahan, a guy who’s also proven ready to battle Belichick to the finish over the years, including a Super Bowl. This time, though, he didn’t need to fight to the finish as his 49ers cruised to victory, leaving Belichick claiming his team had gotten better during a renewed week of practice despite the fact that he certainly had no way to verify that fact by New England’s performance on either side of the ball.
The good news is that assuming that COVID-19 has run its unpredictable course in Foxborough, Belichick should be able to assert his sideline superpowers on his team and upcoming matchups at this point, New England’s hopes for the season hanging in the balance. Even with the trade deadline approaching, the Patriots aren’t likely to get markedly more talented in the coming weeks. The struggling Newton will remain the team’s quarterback. The wide receiver, tight end and front seven will remain notably undermanned.
But, Belichick will have his chance to…wait for it…do his job. It starts this Sunday afternoon in Buffalo against the AFC East-leading 5-2 Bills. Belichick may not have as much talent, but he will have his opportunity to display his immense worth defending Josh Allen and in a sideline showdown with Sean McDermott.
In fact, the Patriots would seem to have the obvious coaching advantage in every game they play the rest of the season, save for maybe the Nov. 15 Sunday Night Football showdown with the always-tough Ravens and rival John Harbaugh.
Belichick, Brady and a Patriots roster with a depth of talent over the years made for a winning formula in New England far more often than not on the way to dynastic results.
But Brady is in Tampa Bay riding an ultra-talented roster to victory. Belichick is left in New England with arguably his least talented lineup in nearly 20 years leading to the type of losing that hasn’t been seen since the coach’s first season in Foxborough in 2000.
Belichick can’t lean on his quarterback anymore. He can’t rely on veteran playmakers to carry the offense and defense.
Nope, Belichick has to be his own greatest strength these days in New England. He has to outcoach the opposition each week if the Patriots are going to win. As he often says after losses, New England has to play it better and coach it better. But to play it better they almost certainly have to coach it better.
In many ways, Belichick bet on his own abilities for this season and he’s losing, both literally and figuratively in his first campaign without Brady in decades.
Belichick is no longer part of a winning formula for the Patriots, he’s pretty much the team’s best/last/only chance to salvage a season that’s on the verge of disaster. With the going getting tough, it’s time for Belichick to get things going.