Patriots pushing the boundaries of patience this year with big changes coming in 2023

75756A5E-120A-4932-810C-2FD980DB785E

In a world where championship rings are expected and people get testy when they haven't seen a duck boat parade since 2018, impatience is the virtue people extol the most -- never settling for less than a banner-worthy performance.

That’s why it feels like Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is really pushing it with a likely third consecutive post-Brady year that won’t see a true Super Bowl contender.

As optimistic as some circles might be about this team, there's no escaping reality. Even if they scrape together 9 or 10 wins as they did last season (against a tougher schedule, too), that might not be enough to even earn a wild-card spot, let alone prove they can win four playoff games, in an AFC that looks like it was patterned after Squid Game.

Right now, New England is going into a season with their best overall player at the moment being Matthew Judon, who was a home run free agent for most of 2021 but fell off a cliff down the stretch.

One would hope Mac Jones firmly takes that crown by the end of this coming year, but what does that look like? A small leap forward? An MVP-caliber season? Simply outplaying incompetence around him? Okay, let’s not act like he’s playing for the 2021 Jaguars or Bears. It just strains belief to think a second-year jump from Jones will really make this version of the Patriots, with its cadre of quirks, the best team in the league.

Belichick seemingly knows all this and appears to be adjusting his schemes to fit the cold, hard truths about his roster. But even those concessions and possible philosophical shifts need an explanation you can sure he's not going to give out.

Now, if you try hard enough -- and trust me, I've been trying -- you can maybe contort yourself into enough of a mental pretzel to see what the Patriots might be trying to accomplish in 2022.

Some parts are easier to reconcile than others. As much as the Shaq Mason trade baffled everyone at the time, the move makes a lot more sense when you consider they’re replacing Mason with a player who graded out better than he did in 2021 via Pro Football Focus and costs a fraction of the price in Michael Onwenu. Similarly, Cole Strange stands a good chance of playing to Ted Karras’ dependable level at least by the end of the season.

Similarly, a room full of average-to-good receivers doesn’t have to be an issue if they’re all healthy (big “if” with DeVante Parker in the mix). Unlike last year when Nelson Agholor, Jakobi Meyers, and Kendrick Bourne were basically the team’s only receivers, they should finally have enough variety to maximize this group properly and get a better return on investment from Agholor and Jonnu Smith down the line. The lack of a “true” No. 1 isn’t ideal, but it’s not as if the Patriots haven’t proven time and again you can win without one in the past.

Now, this whole Matt Patricia-Joe Judge thing? Aside from keeping some continuity and perhaps streamlining/adding wrinkles to the system, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, don’t expect me to get you pumped for this. Seeing the glass half-full is one thing. Trying to convince yourself it's half-full when you're not sure if there's any water in it to begin with feels like reality-bending of The Matrix proportions.

Even though changing play-callers can have benefits for an offense, it’s hard to see this as one of those situations with the inexperience of both Patricia and Judge and the wacky logistics of Patricia potentially coaching both the offensive line and…the entire offense. At best, the offense will be more or less what it was last year. (At least in that case, we could look back and say this storyline was largely overblown). But this could definitely get weird and, dare I say, even bad.

Also, as cool as it is that the Patriots could lean into their strong safety group (pun intended) to balance their desires to stay strong against the run and defend the wild speed in their division, having your linebacker and cornerback rooms be arguably the worst two position groups on the entire team will inevitably hurt. I like how rookie Jack Jones played in spring camp as much as the next guy, but putting the hopes of that position on a fourth-round pick feels like a problem.

The reality of the situation here is that the Patriots are largely playing out the string on a short-term gamble while keeping an eye on the big picture.

The enormous amount of money they spent in the 2021 off-season bought them three wins last year and will keep them competitive this season. But it also allowed them to quickly cycle out of that money within two years. New England is currently set to wield more than $65 million in cap space for 2023. That's the second-highest projected total in the league for next year behind only the Chicago Bears, who will likely be significantly worse than New England this year, and far more than any team in the AFC East.

On top of that, the Patriots have pushed very little money into the future, having only restructured David Andrews and Deatrich Wise Jr.'s deals to this point. As such, they won't have much, if any, dead money hampering them next year, meaning they can go in without fear of landing in cap hell in short order.

In the meantime, Dr. Belichick, whose mad football scientist brain has concocted six different ways of winning a Super Bowl champion, will take on the challenge of turning a team without a single superstar into a contender. Good luck with that.

If it doesn’t work, some will inevitably call for Belichick to be on the hot seat or even step down, because that’s a totally reasonable take.

But arguably the real test of whether Belichick can truly bring this team back to where it belongs will be next season, with a bevy of space to create a heavyweight fighter around Jones in his third year. (If you recall, Year 3 was when the Buffalo Bills truly threw their chips in behind Josh Allen, for those concerned about "wasting" Mac Jones' rookie contract.)

Until then, the legendary coach and his team will demand something they hardly ever did during 20 years of excellence, which also happens to be the one thing this city rarely has for its sports teams: patience.