Bill Belichick likely knows he’s put himself in a bad situation, and now he may ultimately cost himself his job if the Patriots continue sliding backward, given their 1-5 start.
The drums have started beating more and more loudly the last couple of weeks when it comes to his future with the team, and it’s likely only going to continue. Following back-to-back blowout losses against both Dallas and New Orleans, Belichick and Bill O’Brien at least somewhat stopped the bleeding this past Sunday in Las Vegas, but the end result was still their fifth loss of the season.
While it was a stark turnaround in a game that came down to the wire before they again came up short, there were no moral victories on Monday. Instead, it was just a continuation of the last two weeks, with the frustration reaching a new level.
As a result, any chance of regaining any optimism outside the confines of Gillette Stadium seems to be quickly slipping away. Even worse, it also certainly feels like, given some of the other reports that have emerged recently, that doubt is even beginning to creep into New England’s locker room, which is probably the most alarming sign.
As it currently stands, the Patriots sit at 1-5 through six weeks, and it’s tough to feel optimistic about anything to this point. Their offense has been shut out, held to 3 points, and hasn’t reached the 20-point mark since the first week of the season, having scored 17, 15, 3, 0, and 17 since.
They can’t get anything going consistently, and the results are what they are. It essentially has the club sitting in last place within their own Division, two games behind the 3-3 Jets. Four other teams (Denver, NY Giants, Chicago, and Arizona) are 1-5 while just Carolina remains as the only NFL team yet to get into the win column in 2023.
This is uncharted territory, to say the least. When asked if “this is a 1-5 roster in his mind,” Belichick sort of alluded to the fact he knows there’s definitely a problem when it comes to the group he’s put together.
“The record is what it is, so … use the Bill Parcells quote [‘you are what your record says you are’] on that one,” replied Belichick.
The long-time Patriots coach has essentially put himself in the crosshairs as his personnel decisions on the offensive side of the football continue to plague his club. As a result, the talk will likely continue to center around the fact his team doesn’t seem to be responding, which is only part of the story.
The more realistic take is the fact that they’re just not talented enough to execute what’s being asked of them.
Looking at this roster, they’re a mess. It’s tough for a coach to do much when the general manager leaves them in a tough spot, and given that he holds that role, he’s certainly handicapped himself.
Belichick’s trying to coach a team where he’s basically tied one hand behind his own back as he tries to navigate his team through what’s been more or less a disaster of sorts through six weeks.
We know about the issues along their offensive line, but there’s clearly a lot that went wrong there in terms of some bad luck that brought them to this point. Cole Strange and Reilly Reiff were both injured during the preseason, removing their starting guard and perspective starting right tackle from the equation. Also lost to injury was Conor McDermott, who, while not necessarily a fan favorite, is certainly someone who would be better to have out there right now than Vederian Lowe at right tackle.
He was released in September with an injury settlement, but according to reports, McDermott was brought back to the team’s practice squad on Tuesday.
Sidy Sow was a player they hoped to work into that spot but hasn’t yet been able to make the transition from guard to tackle. Calvin Anderson, who missed most of the preseason due to an undisclosed illness, played 100% of the snaps at right tackle in Weeks 1 and 2 but has spent three of the last four games relegated to special teams, while being inactive against New Orleans two weeks ago.
Strange’s knee injury, according to NBC Sports Boston’s Tom Curran, requires surgery, but Strange has been trying to play through it in his limited action. His absence has hurt their ground game, as Rhamondre Stevenson’s average yards per carry has been significantly better when Strange has been on the field.
Instead, it’s been rookie guard Atonio Mafi who has filled in for him, and he hasn’t been as effective. Strange hasn’t played since Week 3 against the Jets, and even then, he didn’t make it through the whole contest.
He’s since been inactive over the last three weeks. Given their record, if things continue, one would expect he’ll shut things down at some point.
Mike Onwenu was brought along slowly all preseason, and he still appears to be ailing, with the club sitting him down on Sunday after he’s been in and out of the line-up. That’s seen both Sow and Reiff each fill in during his absence.
The overall result has been an inability to get any continuity going and it’s seen both Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe under constant duress, which when you take into account the issues it’s caused their ground game, has left them essentially able to do very little.
Needless to say, Belichick and offensive line coach Adrian Klemm are trying to coach up a group that’s fallen like a house of cards since the preseason started, which has made it nearly impossible to get enough consistency to be effective on that side of the football through the first six weeks.
This one is probably the most glaring. The departure of Jakobi Meyers might essentially be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Patriots, and Sunday was another glaring example.
The apparent decision to sign JuJu Smith-Schuster was seemingly a result of analytics that favored Smith-Schuster’s ability to get yards after the catch, which a recent report indicated Belichick wasn’t necessarily on board with that idea, albeit that’s how things ultimately went.
The only problem is, Smith-Schuster’s knee injury he suffered last season has clearly hampered him this year, leaving the Patriots without a player who was expected to shoulder a lot of the load in the passing game.
Instead, Meyers did on Sunday what he did so well here in New England, catching the football and moving the chains as the Raiders took control early and the Patriots were never able to play this one on their terms.
Comparing their production in this offense, it’s not even close. Through six games in his final season in New England in 2022, Meyers had 24 receptions for 321 yards, along with a touchdown – and he also missed two games over that span (vs Baltimore and at Green Bay) due to injury. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster has just 14 receptions for 86 yards and zero touchdowns so far this season, and he was inactive for the first time this year Sunday after the concussion he sustained last week against New Orleans.
Say what you want about Meyers, but he remains extremely adept at finding an opening, making the reception, and moving the chains. It was business as usual for him again on Sunday when he hauled in 5 catches for 61 yards along with a touchdown, essentially accumulating in one game Smith-Schuster’s entire season total for yards, coming up short by just 24. Four of those five receptions also moved the chains or added points to the scoreboard.
Smith-Schuster has been a non-factor so far in 2023. (PHOTO: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
That put Meyers’ total for the season at 30 receptions for 335 yards and four touchdowns. That’s nearly four times as many yards as Smith-Schuster and obviously four more touchdowns. And Meyers missed a game earlier this season (Week 2 @Buffalo), so it’s a fair comparison. The best part for Meyers is he’s playing alongside Devante Adams, which has allowed him to be that dangerous in one-on-one match-ups while teams worry about Adams.
Yards after the catch mean little if you can’t get open and catch the football to start with. So far, Smith-Schuster has struggled doing just that, and it’s left the Patriots severely handicapped in that regard.
Fortunately, Kendrick Bourne has started settling in, and he came alive for what was his biggest performance so far this season. He caught 10 passes for 89 yards on Sunday, which was his highest single-game total as a Patriot and the most since Week 1 against the Eagles, where he caught six passes.
Six had been the most he had caught in a single game prior to Sunday, with Week 16 against Cincinnati in 2022, and Week 3 against the Saints in 2021 being the last time he also had that many receptions.
But Bourne has had a tough time with no one really to compliment him. DeVante Parker remains as inconsistent as ever, with Parker continuing to struggle to get separation and the drop on Sunday on their final possession spoiled any chance at a last-second win. He’s still the team’s number one receiver but he’s better suited as a #3 or #4. Unfortunately, the club is so devoid of talent that he’s forced to be a primary target and he has just 13 receptions for 136 yards on 22 targets (59% completion rate) for the entire season thus far.
Demario Douglas has obviously been a bright spot but the Patriots have limited his targets after his early season fumble and last week’s concussion cost them his presence in Las Vegas. Kayshon Boutte hasn’t seen action since Parker was inactive in Week 1, and his post of “Free me” on social media after he was inactive again on Sunday likely isn’t going to help his cause.
Boutte showed flashes in the opener against the Eagles, but two receptions where he failed to get his feet down, including one in the critical moments of that game, have seemingly left him on the outside looking in. The fact he wasn’t out there Sunday was interesting, especially since it was Jaylen Reagor who was the one who was active and was in on 14 snaps against the Raiders.
Overall, save for Bourne and Douglas, there’s just not much of a threat on offense for Jones or any other signal-caller to throw to. That’s been apparent on third down all year, with Jones currently sitting at 29-of-58 (50%) with 19 first downs and two interceptions, while Bailey Zappe has been just 1-of-7 (14.3%) without a conversion in relief of Jones in Weeks 4 & 5.
Unfortunately, it’s why even with Bill O’Brien, the absence of a receiver who can carry the load has been this team’s Achille’s heel. The worst part about it is that at 1-5, the Patriots likely won’t be actively looking for help and that means that the next 11 weeks will potentially be just has frustrating as the first six.
Jones has struggled all season. (PHOTO: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)
Mac Jones’ rash of turnovers to start the season have certainly been aggravating, but it’s obviously hard not to attribute some of that to the issues above. Jones has had a tough time getting into any type of rhythm since only a handful of plays have given him any amount of time to work and it’s difficult to operate with your head on a constant swivel trying to be aware of pressure for the sake of also trying to avoid a sack.
That’s difficult for any long-time veteran, let alone a third-year quarterback, or a second-year quarterback, for that matter, in Zappe.
Factor in the sliver of space that they’ve both had to try and fit the football in, and that obviously explains the troubles we’ve seen through the first six weeks.
That being said, Jones’ turnovers have been his number one issue, and the game against Dallas was the one that really did him in and may have closed the door on his time here. In that game he had a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, as well as two ill-advised throws back across the field, one of which was returned for a touchdown. He also threw another interception while falling away, which accentuated issues with his mechanics and fundamentals that had been inconsistent all season to that point.
The latter issues have been the root cause of his turnovers, which is frustrating considering how much he preached those things during both his rookie year and last season.
He got away from those during his one miscue Sunday, throwing an interception while rolling to his right to Hunter Henry in the first half where he didn’t square his shoulders and threw the ball falling back. The ball instead sailed away from a wide-open Henry and was picked off, squandering a potential scoring opportunity while adding to the littany of miscues he’s had this season.
However, unlike the previous two weeks, Jones actually bounced back with a phenomenal second half. He missed just three passes from that point on over the final two quarters, completing 16-of-19 (84.2%) for 103 yards, including 11-of-13 in the fourth quarter where his only two incompletions came on a deep ball that drifted out of bounds to Tyquan Thornton, and the perfectly thrown ball to DeVante Parker on the final series, which was dropped but was probably his best pass of the season.
That was the most signs of life he’s shown all year, but the problem is, it may be too little, too late.
As it currently stands, if the Patriots do ultimately decide he’s not their guy, things may reach a point where Will Grier will get a look, as might Malik Cunningham as they try and put together some intel to take with them into the offseason.
In the meantime, the protection likely won’t improve much, and neither will who he’s throwing the football to. Whether or not Jones can start stringing some good performances together will be interesting to watch, but it may only be a matter of time before players like Bourne or Henry could be on their way out if the club opts to start trying to cash in any of their assets with the goal of looking toward 2024, which will only further complicate things.
What’s sort of crazy is that despite the issues personnel-wise on defense, this is a team that’s somehow managed to continue to be competitive on that side of the football. The loss of Daniel Ukuale, Christian Gonzalez, Matthew Judon, were obviously brutal, along with having a secondary thinned out thanks to injuries to Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, as well as missed time by Jonathan Jones, who only recently returned. Bringing back J.C. Jackson has at least helped stabilize that group, and the result was another outing where they held the Raiders to just 19 points before their safety at the end of the game.
Their defense has remained their strength despite the fact the offense has struggled. The over 30-point losses stemmed primarily from both the offense giving up points, along with either being put in brutal field position following a turnover, or the fact the offense couldn’t stay on the field and they were worn out due to a big tilt in time of possession.
But for those wondering if the players have tuned Belichick out, that hasn’t been the case so far on that side of the ball.
Still, for a coach who is preaching to his players on the other side to get it together and eliminate the mistakes, it certainly feels like it’s less about coaching and more about ability given what we’ve seen through the first six games.
Unfortunately, this is what Belichick the GM has given Belichick the coach to work with. For a guy who has played a key role in a lot of this franchise’s biggest moments over the last twenty plus years, it’s hard to believe that things have gotten to this point.
And it now could mean these final 11 weeks could be the last of his tenure, and the sad reality is, if that does indeed happen, it’s ultimately going to be because he didn’t give himself enough to potentially stop it from happening.
Posted Under: Patriots Commentary