Relative failure: Recent history shows Bill Belichick’s Patriots were overdue for 2020-type season

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The NFL postseason kicks off Saturday afternoon with what’s now called Super Wild Card Weekend. More teams. More games. More action for fans across the league to devour.

But there will also be something missing.

Things are not so super in New England, where Bill Belichick’s 7-9 Patriots are left on the outside of the postseason for the first time since 2008 and just the second time during the modern New England football dynasty born back in 2001 in Foxborough.

Playing on Wild Card Weekend had been seen as a relative failure at Gillette Stadium over the last two decades, including last January, but the reality is that Belichick and his team were long overdue for the type of season they labored through in 2020 – a sub-.500 campaign leading into an early offseason with an eye on a rather extensive albeit hopeful rebuild. The reality is that 2020 wasn’t THAT bad of a season in New England – the team was after all still in playoff contention in December -- and even this relative failure was a tremendously long time coming.

Looking at the 19 seasons from 2001-2019, the Patriots were a successful outlier in a league built for parity. Beyond the nine Super Bowl trips and six Lombardi Trophies, New England was a winning, competitive constant in see of pigskin failure and organizational turnover.

New England missed the playoffs twice in those 19 years.
By comparison current playoff squads from Cleveland and Buffalo missed the postseason 18 and 17 times, respectively. Even other successful, Super Bowl-winning franchises like the Packers (5), Colts (6), Seahawks (6), Steelers (7) and Eagles (7), missed the playoffs twice or three-times as often as the Patriots. The average NFL team missed the postseason 12.2 times in those 19 seasons.

The foundation of the consistent success was quite obviously the triumphant triumvirate of owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. That was as obvious to organizational insiders contributing to the success as it was the world watching from afar in awe.

“It’s always three things as far as I’m concerned,” said longtime Belichick assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia, arguably the greatest offensive line coach in football history. “We have great ownership, a great head coach and we had the greatest quarterback of all time. And I’ll add a fourth to that, we’ve had good players here. There is no doubt about it, we’ve had good players. All have made great contributions to it. And as a result of those things we were able to sustain continued success.”

Success that saw New England win 10 or more games in 18 of 19 years. The 2008 Patriots, a squad that Scarnecchia described as “resilient” and “amazing,” actually missed the postseason despite an 11-5 record after Brady went down with a torn ACL in the first quarter of the first game of the year.

While the Patriots were hitting double-digit wins 18 times, the average NFL team had just six such seasons in 19 years. The Colts and Packers did it 13 times, the Steelers in a dozen years and the Ravens, Eagles and Seahawks in 10 campaigns. On the other end of the spectrum, those now rebuilt Bills and Browns won 10 or more games just once in 19 seasons, while Washington and the Lions did it twice.

Beyond the top talents at the three key positions, Scarnecchia noted another factor, one that took place more behind the scenes than on the field.

“Organizationally, too, I think that we did -- I shouldn’t speak for the organization this way but now I’m on the outside looking in -- I thought we did an amazing job managing the salary cap in a tough, tough time to do that, the hard cap. And I think that was a direct result of some guys taking less and in particular the one guy taking less because he could have made it really hard,” Scarnecchia said, noting Brady’s team-friendly contracts over the years.

Managing the cap while building a stronger roster from top to bottom helped the Patriots go a full 19 seasons without a losing record when the average NFL team had 8.7 years with a losing record in that span. The Steelers were right on New England’s heals with just one losing season since 2001, while the Ravens, Packers, Colts and Eagles had four such seasons. Oh, and the Browns (17) and Lions (15) found a way to lose more games than they won on nearly an annual basis.

While Brady’s contracts were helpful with the cap, keeping the books in order also often required that difficult decisions be made with some of the franchise’s most notable, productive players. Lawyer Milloy was cut. Adam Vinatieri was allowed to leave as a free agent. Richard Seymour and Logan Mankins were traded. And those team Hall of Fame talents were just the tip of the tough decision iceberg.

“I’ve sat in those meetings and it was like, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ When you would let this guy go knowing he’s got a couple years left, but he wants this much money and it’s going to be hard. We would let guys go who were towards the end but not quite at the end, still had some good playing days left,” Scarnecchia said. “We did it because we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t put ourselves in salary cap hell. I think that allowed us to sustain a pretty good level of excellence over a long period of time.”

That’s an understatement, especially when it comes to division titles. New England won the AFC East crown 17 times between 2001 and last season. The Packers did it a pales-in-comparison 10 times. The Steelers, Colts and Eagles took nine division crowns. Conversely, the Bills, Browns and Lions never accomplished the feat. The Jaguars, Dolphins and Jets were crowned just once, the latter two in the Patriots’ two disappointing seasons since 2001. An average NFL franchise won 4.3 division titles since 2001, less than a quarter of New England’s dominance.

Really as much as the Patriots were driven to succeed over the years, they were apparently even more driven to avoid failure that was so common in so many other NFL locales.

“I was always so afraid like a lot of coaches and coaches everywhere, of that egg that’s going to get laid that you don’t want because you played lousy or you didn’t prepare very well or you didn’t take someone seriously,” Scarnecchia explained. “No matter how things were going or how good a team we had, an embarrassment was waiting right around the corner if we didn’t do the things the way we needed to do them to our standards. 18-0, we didn’t play very good. And we got what we deserved. To me, those things are the things that are as strong at sustaining you as anything because you are never ever going to take anything for granted. ‘Oh, we’ve got Tom Brady.’ Or, ‘we’ve got Bill Belichick.’ We just never, ever thought that way.

“We were all after the same thing. We were trying to put out a football team every week that would play to its highest ability. We wanted to play great. To play great you have to coach hard, you have to get them to see the vision and to follow through. You just take it one at a time, as clichéd as that is, one at a time and you have to try to do your best every week.”

Even with personnel changes throughout most of the roster other than quarterback, there was relative stability in the coaching staff and the overall program that was in place under Belichick. The same systems installed in Belichick’s arrival in 2000 and 2001 remain today. Coordinators and assistants came and went, but the systems remained constant.

Even now, with Brady on to Tampa Bay to continue this personal postseason streak on Super Wild Card Weekend, Belichick remains the foundation upon which the Patriots were built and will be rebuilt.

Belichick is the only coach in the NFL who’s been in place since 2001. The Ravens, Seahawks and Steelers have had two coaches in the span. Meanwhile the Raiders have had 10, the Browns and 49ers eight and the Bucs, Dolphins and Bills seven.

“I think he’s as driven with those motivational factors that I just explained, fear of failure,” Scarnecchia said of Belichick. “He doesn’t want to fail, man. OK? And he’s never, ever going to say those horrible three words: we got it. Because we don’t. He never got too enamored with himself. Believe me, when things didn’t go right, we all knew about it. He wouldn’t accept mediocrity on the practice field. He wouldn’t accept it in the staff in preparation or anything else. We had to do everything we could getting ready for games. There were never any threats or anything like that. It’s just the standards were so high, because we all knew what the rewards could be if we were able to sustain it.”

One thing, though, that Scarnecchia wanted to make quite clear is that as much as there were foundational pieces that led to the Patriots success since 2001 and ways the team went about its business on the road to victory, there wasn’t a Way.

“We never took anything for granted. Did I know that we were special? I would never use that term to describe our organization, our system,” Scarnecchia said. “In fact I’ve always cringed when I’ve heard the phrase ‘The Patriot Way’ because I’ve never, in all the years that I’ve been in staff meetings and part of the organization, within the staff I’ve never heard those three words uttered out in front of everybody. I’ve never heard that before. I don’t believe it.”

But be does believe in the future in New England, in what Kraft and Belichick have in front of them.

“You have an owner that’s driven,” Scarnecchia said. “He has an amazing way about doing things. Does he know what’s going on? Yes, he knows what’s going on. And I think he, if necessary he will ask the questions and wonder about things. That’s my opinion. I don’t know that. I’ve never seen that conversation between those two, but you have strong ownership and you have an organization that really wants to be successful. Will it get back? Yeah, absolutely it will get back.”

So the Patriots missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They were overdue in a league were 25 teams missed the postseason in the last two years heading into 2020, 30 in the last four years. Only the Chiefs (2014) could even approach half of the duration of the Patriots 12 straight years with a postseason bid.

What “back” will be may be up to interpretation. Will the Patriots return to the postseason? Yes. Are future division titles in the offing, even with Buffalo seemingly well positioned to take over team-to-beat status in the AFC East? Probably.

But will New England get back to its consistent winning ways? Will any team for that matter see a run like New England has seen over the last two decades?

“I never try to say that that was something special, that it will never be achieved again. The world of sports and the world in general is rift with people that thought that and all of the sudden it does happen,” Scarnecchia concluded. “I think it’s very hard to do because of all the aforementioned reasons. Those being you better know what you’re doing on the salary cap, you better have sustained great health at that one great position, at quarterback. We’ve all seen, and I’m not stabbing at anybody here, how hard it was without Tom this year. And really in fairness to Cam [Newton], how hard it is to come in with no preseason, no OTAs, none of that stuff and then have to come out there and try to do your best. It aint’ easy. That’s a hard position to play. The hardest position in all of sports. The hardest thing in all of sports to do is be an NFL quarterback, I think. And they are hard to come by.”

And it’s the biggest question the Patriots face now entrenched in their longest, most important offseason in decades. One that begins with an absence from the postseason after a losing record that’s as rare in New England as it was overdue.