While most of New England kicks back and relaxes this Labor Day, the region’s favorite football team remains very much a work in progress.
After a dismal-at-times summer of training camp practices and poor preseason play, the Patriots now have less than a week to get ready for the regular season opener Sunday afternoon in what will be a hot and muggy Miami against an upstart, hope-filled Dolphins squad.
Ready or not, the games now count. Each week will end with a winner. And a loser with a capital L.
But don’t worry too much Patriot Nation, because Bill Belichick himself doesn’t seem to be worrying the summer away. Mr. Do Your Job -- whose only bottom-line, production-based job is to win football games for boss Robert Kraft’s team – is taking a wait-and-see approach to his new roster heading into a new season.
Belichick has spent weeks seemingly lowering expectations. All summer has been about the “process,” particularly for his new-look offense under the direction of curious coaching choices Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Second-year quarterback Mac Jones has picked up the company line and run with it more often than he had to frustratingly scramble away a bad pass play on the practice field. Jones keeps softly chastising media members that focus too much on things like a successful play or scoring points, “results” that aren’t the “process.”
Recently Belichick has, on multiple occasions, emphasized the unknown nature of his team, one that won’t come into clarity until well into leaf-raking season and beyond.
“I don't think you really know where your team is until you get to about midseason, mid-October. Play five, six, seven games, match up against some different teams, see for real what your strengths and weaknesses are, and your opponents as well,” Belichick said this week, pushing off an early evaluations.
“To really be in real game condition probably takes through the month of September and maybe into October,” Belichick said.
The coach even acknowledged the idea that many a Patriots’ fan and media defender has espoused in recent seasons when the team gets off to a slow September start like its 1-3 opening efforts last fall.
“I've heard a lot of people comment on it. September is an extension of the preseason, building your team, developing your team. I think there's some truth to that,” Belichick said before getting to the actual meat of the early season matter. “But games start now, so it's important to be competitive early. I think we saw some of that last year. But we see it every year, but certainly saw it last year.”
Even though New England took advantage of a soft midseason schedule a year ago to win seven games in a row on the way to a return to the postseason, the Patriots could have been in much different position last January had they not given away very much winnable games against the Dolphins, Saints and Bucs in the first four weeks.
This year’s schedule may be even less forgiving and more dependent on winning the most winnable games when they present themselves, even the ones in the “extension of the preseason.”
The first two weeks of the season come against opponents who might just be on a similar level as New England. The Dolphins are an unknown under first-year coach Mike McDaniel, but certainly hope to be in Wild Card contention with the Patriots behind the big boy Bills in the AFC East.
Meanwhile Week 2’s trip to Pittsburgh faces a Steelers team in a similar transition as the Patriots. They were a borderline playoff team a year ago and are figuring out their quarterback situation but have never had a losing season under Mike Tomlin.
If the Patriots can find a way to steal the first two games of the year on the road, it certainly doesn’t mean they are Super Bowl- or even playoff-bound. There will be a long season with lots of difficult games ahead.
But if New England stumbles out of the “extension of the preseason” gates the way it did in the actual preseason and on the practice field this summer, well the season will seem even longer. Because 0-2 could easily turn into 0-4 against the Ravens and Packers.
That would mean the “soft” middle portion of the schedule – the Lions, Browns, Bears and Jets (twice) – would be spent trying to play catchup, attempting to get back to .500 in an AFC race that appears to be as crowed with talented teams as ever.
Maybe Belichick is right. Maybe we won’t know if the 2022 Patriots are a good football team until midseason, sometime around Halloween.
But we might just know if they are a bad football team in the first two weeks of labor in Miami and Pittsburgh. Because if New England loses those two games, well, there’s a real good chance the season is just about over before it even really gets going. Banking on banking late-season wins against the Bills (twice), Bengals, Raiders and Vikings is anything but a palatable Patriots plan.
Belichick may be taking a wait-and-see approach, but it seems like we won’t have to wait too long to see what the Patriots are, because the idea of seeing New England hit its stride in November and play its best football down the post-Thanksgiving stretch into the playoffs is an outdated dream of a dynasty past.
These Patriots, in this season, with this schedule need to win now or it won’t really matter later even if they round into the midseason form their coach may optimistically envision.