It’s not often that the glass covering the panic button ever comes close to being broken here in New England, but Sunday’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers certainly puts things in perspective.
The Patriots have been one of the most solid and consistent organizations in all of football for nearly two decades, with the team having not finished with a losing season dating all the way back to 2001. The last one came during Bill Belichick’s first season in 2000 when they finished 5-11.
The difference from Belichick’s first year and 2001 was obviously Tom Brady, with Brady joining the team in 2000 after being selected in the sixth round. His elevation to the starting role the following season established them as a perennial contender and helped them become one of the NFL’s elite.
Brady started off his career winning Super Bowls in three out of his first four seasons, and had it not been for a badly separated shoulder in 2002 (that according to reports would have potentially sidelined him had the team been able to play in January), it might have been four in a row. A healthy Brady likely would have made that so.
Nevertheless, the point is, Brady certainly changed things. His departure earlier this offseason was obviously tough to take, with the team forced to turn the page and start planning for life with him no longer under center.
Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon, and it’s safe to say, things aren’t looking so good.
In fact, Sunday’s day of football was about as bad as it gets in terms of giving Bill Belichick a reason to be pretty frustrated heading into Monday morning.
It obviously started with his team getting blown out at home against a player who he reportedly never really wanted to part with in the first place. Jimmy Garoppolo made his triumphant return on Sunday by missing just five passes after finishing 20-of-25 for 277-yards while guiding his team up and down the field for a 33-6 win over his former team. Fortunately, no fans were in the stands at Gillette Stadium for this one, as one can only imagine how many would have spent the entire fourth quarter pouring salt in that wound.
Newton hasn’t played well as of late for the Patriots.
To make matters worse, the player who Belichick brought in to replace Brady this offseason, Cam Newton, has looked terrible in his last three starts and just continues to regress and it’s not like he has an option who would seem to be an obvious solution. Thanks to Newton’s COVID diagnosis a few weeks ago, Belichick was already forced to see Brian Hoyer get some unexpected playing time, with Hoyer using his opportunity to make severe mental gaffes in key situations that led to him being benched. Hoyer would have been better off not getting his opportunity, as that debacle not only saw him spend the remainder of that game on the bench, but also saw him get kicked down the depth chart.
As a result, after Belichick waived the white flag and benched Newton on Sunday, Jarrett Stidham came in and didn’t exactly instill any confidence. The second-year player added to Newton’s interception total by adding one of his own after he made an ill-advised pass behind Julian Edelman for the turnover, leaving him not immune to their current mess at quarterback.
Meanwhile, out in Las Vegas, Brady was busy improving the Buccaneers to 5-2 after putting up 45-points against the Raiders. Brady has continued improving each week, looking just as good as he has in past seasons. He spent his Sunday throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions while dropping dimes to what is certainly a more stacked offensive group of weapons than he would have had at his disposal had he stayed here. He made it look easy, in normal Brady-esque fashion.
For the Buccaneers, they’re putting themselves in position to compete for their Division and to make a playoff run. For the Patriots, they now face the reality of a must-win game next Sunday out in Buffalo that could potentially decide their season.
It’s certainly an unusual situation Belichick finds himself in and it quietly has to be a bit irritating. Sunday’s lopsided loss was the largest home loss during Belichick’s tenure and, according to ESPN’s Stats and Info, ended their streak of 286 straight games without a 3-game losing streak. He also finds himself in a situation where he needs an answer to a problem where, for now, there doesn’t seem to be a solution. Much of the talk has centered around their lack of weapons but it’s being exacerbated by a player in Newton who hasn’t looked like himself since their last-second loss to the Seahawks weeks ago.
Sunday was a bad afternoon for Newton during the Patriots loss to the 49ers.
He’s been erratic throwing the football, whether it’s overthrowing guys, throwing behind them or throwing the ball at their feet. Newton told reporters after the game that he’s physically fine, but if that’s the case, it only makes the issues that much more concerning. Stidham didn’t do anything to drive a wedge in Belichick’s decision making process, with the head coach telling the media that Newton will remain the starter.
That doesn’t change the fact he has an offense that can’t put up points. Newton walked away from Sunday’s game joining Drew Bledsoe as the first Patriots player with 0 touchdowns and multiple interceptions in back-to-back games since Bledsoe did it back in 1995.
The difference? Bledsoe was in his third season dealing with a horrific shoulder separation (which ironically, came during a loss to the 49ers that year). Newton is an experienced veteran who claims to be healthy.
Needless to say, if ever there was a time where Belichick is being tested, this is the year. This week now becomes a critical one if the Patriots plan on being in the mix in January, or if they’ll tap out and start looking toward the future. It’s obviously uncharted territory for the veteran coach who suddenly seems to have more questions than answers. Worse yet, there doesn’t appear to be anyone on the roster that can help him fix the problem.
We all know Belichick has the mental toughness to help guide his team through this type of adversity. Newton has talked the talk in his weekly interviews on WEEI so far this season and seems to understand what’s at stake.
Fortunately, for Newton, Belichick isn’t giving up on him. But it doesn’t change the fact that if things don’t turn around, Belichick may be in for one of the most trying seasons of his coaching career in New England.
The bad news is, while Belichick maybe up for the challenge, Newton and the other quarterbacks haven’t proven they can deliver. Unfortunately, “it is what it is” and it’s certainly going to be interesting to find out who, if anyone, will help salvage what’s left of this season.
Belichick gave Newton the vote of confidence that he can be that guy. Let’s hope for Belichick’s sake that Newton lives up to his end of the deal.
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