I’ve been following the NFL for over 20 years now. My introduction to the league began with the upstart New England Patriots defeating the highly favored St. Louis Rams in Superbowl XXXVI. They followed up that win with two more Superbowls over the next three years and a dynasty was launched.
Between 2001 and 2019 the Patriots only had a single season with less than 10 wins. They won the Superbowl 6 times and lost it 3 times. They made the conference championship game 13 times. They only failed to make the playoffs twice in all that time, once after losing Tom Brady to an injury during the first game of the season (they still won 11 games that year).
For as long as I’ve been watching professional football the Patriots have been a staple, the one constant, a dynasty that should not have been possible in this day and age.
Their demise has been predicted many times over the years and each time the Patriots proved the doubters wrong.
But not this time.
This time the dynasty is finally, tragically over and it ended as the poet T.S. Elliot once opined “not with a bang but with a whimper.”
The greatest player of all time, Tom Brady, left the team following the 2019 season, and while Head Coach Bill Belichick managed to keep the team treading water for the next three seasons, the castle has come crashing down in 2023. The New England Patriots, for the first time since the 2000 season, Belichick’s first with the team, are going to finish with less than 7 wins and among the worst teams in the league.
So how did we get here? How does the greatest dynasty the sport has ever known go from the top of the mountain to the bottom all in a few short years?
There are a number of factors obviously, but the easy answer, the one many fans and talking heads default to, that Tom Brady walked away, is far too simple and unrealistic. Brady is amazing, the single greatest player of all time and it’s not up for debate. But to think he was single-handedly responsible for the monumental success of the team is foolish to say the least.
Just look at the 2008 season where Brady was injured in the first game and lost for the season. The team still managed to win 11 games with Matt Cassel at QB. Matt Cassel, the quarterback that never started a single game in college. Matt Cassel, the quarterback that, outside of the 2008 season with the Patriots and one good season as the starter for the Chiefs, would finish his career with a record of 16 wins and 35 losses.
Even without Brady the Patriots managed to go 25-25 between 2020 and 2022. That’s a far cry from their time with Brady, but it’s still respectable.
Brady was critical to the team’s historic success, but he was far from the only reason why they have now collapsed to the bottom of the barrel.
The biggest reason for that collapse by far is personnel. Over the past several seasons the Patriots have failed to bring and develop good players at a rate conducive to maintaining average success in the NFL, much less the amount of success the team found over the previous 20 years.
Between 2001 and 2015 the Patriots drafted Matt Light, Richard Seymour, Deion Branch, Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostkowski, Jerod Mayo, Matthew Slater, Patrick Chung, Sebastian Vollmer, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, Nate Solder, Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, James Collins, Logan Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, James White, Trey Flowers, and Shaq Mason among others. Each of those players were highly successful and contributed greatly to the team’s success, often as cornerstones for many years.
Over this same period the team also acquired multiple good players through free agency and trades. Junior Seau, Roman Phifer, Rob Ninkovich, Darrelle Revis, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Jabaal Sheard, Corey Dillon, Wes Welker, and Randy Moss all played major roles.
By contrast the Patriots have only managed to draft Joe Thuney, Kyle Duggar, Michael Onewenu, Rhamondre Stevenson, and possibly Christian Gonzalez as equivalent talents since 2015. Their only similar free agent successes have been Stephon Gilmore and Matthew Judon.
Particularly egregious is the dearth of talent from the first three rounds of the draft over this time frame. Malcolm Brown, Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom, Cyrus Jones, Jacoby Brissett, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers, Antonio Garcia, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Duke Dawson, N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich, Damien Harris, Yodny Cajuste, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene, Mac Jones, Christian Barmore, Ronnie Perkins, Cole Strange, Tyquan Thornton, Marcus Jones, Keion White, and Marte Mapu. How many of those players are quality contributors and still with the team?
The free agents haven’t fared much better, especially the very expensive 2021 group that was supposed to infuse the roster with talent. Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith, and Kendrick Bourne cost the Patriots a combined $125 million and were supposed to make up for all the missed draft picks. Looking over the lists above it is clear the Patriots have struggled mightily to draft talent at the offensive skill positions even during their most successful years, and their massive spending spree in 2021 failed to plug that hole, specifically at receiver, the way they did years before with Welker and Moss.
The year after year failings to acquire new talent finally caught up to them this year and this is the result. Most notable is the total lack of good receivers and blockers, not incidentally the team’s two biggest weaknesses right now.
We noted before that Belichick has always struggled to find quality receivers, but for a long time the team was adept at finding and developing good offensive linemen. For most of the Brady years the team fielded a top-notch offensive line. That strength has turned into a critical weakness over the last 4-5 years as the pool of homegrown talent has dried up.
The total lack at those two positions has contributed to the failure of the team’s most high profile bust, quarterback Mac Jones.
It’s safe to say Jones is not a franchise QB, however you want to define that. His limitations were clear at the time he was drafted, particularly his lack of mobility and arm strength, two critical components in today’s game. That said, he seems to be taking the brunt of the blame for the team’s failures and that strikes me as totally unfair, although typical for many fans and the media. They can only ever focus on the quarterback and assign all success and failure to the single player. Recall how the media tried to bury Brady every time the team didn’t win the Superbowl.
Mac is one part of the failure but far from the only one. He enjoyed a moderately successful rookie season when the team still had average talent around him on offense. He is capable of at least that. What he’s not good enough to do is carry an entire offense bereft of talent. Even Patrick Mahomes would look like a shell of himself if he was forced to play with XFL talent the way Mac Jones is.
The failure to acquire replacement talent then recently gives rise to another question: why was a team that was so successful at bringing in good players for the better part of 20 years suddenly unable to replicate that success?
The answer to that question is twofold. First, the organization has been poached of front office and coaching brainpower over the years due to their massive success, and Belichick failed to adequately replace it. But more importantly it’s likely plain bad luck.
What do I mean by luck?
Free agency is a great supplement to building a successful team, but it is not the core of the process due to economics. Good NFL players rarely come cheaply in free agency because it’s known that they are good. The market sets a price and that price will typically be inflated because of the shortage of quality talent.
Occasionally a smart coach, like Belichick, is able to find underrated players that provide excess value for his team usually due to some issue with character or scheme fit, but this is rather rare. What usually happens is bad teams have more money because they have less good players to pay and they overspend during free agency in an attempt to quickly fix their issues. The players they are bringing in, however, are typically not the absolute best since no team wants to let truly elite players walk away. They tend to be solid contributors on a rookie deal that will now cost their current team too much money to retain on an extended contract.
The good teams let these marginal talents walk away to be overpaid by the bad teams and just replace that player with cheaper talent acquired through the draft because it allows you to keep good players on your team for a fraction of what they are worth for at least 4 years. That is how you stack a team up with a surplus of good players.
This is the core of what has gone wrong for the Patriots. They failed to draft good players at a decent rate and then felt compelled to overspend in free agency in a desperate attempt to plug the holes.
So where does the luck part come in?
Well, no matter what some people try to say, the draft is fundamentally not a science, nor is it an art. It’s somewhere in between, a mixture of objective data, an eye for context and small details, and pure luck. For all the brainpower, computing power, and advances in technology devoted to finding and selecting the best players, the draft hasn’t really gotten any more efficient than it ever was.
It’s true that a higher percentage of the best players in the league are selected in the 1st round than anywhere else, but on the whole, around 25-30% of the league is made up of players that were totally undrafted out of college and that figure hasn’t changed significantly over the years.
There is certainly skill involved in picking players, but it seems impossible to tell the difference between the highly skilled and the unskilled. There simply aren’t enough total picks and no way to assign credit to study who might actually be good at it.
What you find then is that most teams seem to hit on good players in mostly a random fashion. Occasionally though a particular team might, for all intents and purposes, gets lucky, and hits on several good players all in a single draft or over a period of years.
The Patriots, for example, hit homeruns on Tom Brady, Matt Light, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins between 2000 and 2005. Those 7 picks alone were a huge part of the team’s success during the early part of the decade, but after that the hits became less frequent and smaller when they did hit.
Another example that comes to mind is the Seahawks absurd draft classes between 2010 and 2012. Russell Okung, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, KJ Wright, Richard Sherman, Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, and Russell Wilson were all selected over that three year period. Those 8 players were the foundation of the team’s success over the next decade, a decade that saw Seattle win a Superbowl and be among the best, most consistent teams in the league, and just like the Patriots, their success in the draft has been scattershot at best since that time.
It seems then that there is no path to sustained excellence in the draft. At the very least no formula has been discovered yet. This is what I mean by “luck.” The only known strategy to counteract the randomness of the draft is simply to acquire as many total selections as possible and pray that the law of averages works out in your favor. The Patriots have usually followed this strategy. It worked out for them occasionally, but recently it has not.
There is one other possible explanation for the lack of success though, one that sounds good as a narrative but likely doesn’t hold much water in the real world, and that is that the team has lost several bright coaches and front office types over the years due to their continued success on the field. Scott Pioli, Thomas Dimitroff, Bob Quinn, Jon Robinson, Jason Licht, Nick Caserio, Dave Ziegler, Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, etc.
The theory is that Belichick finally was unable to adequately replace all the lost talent over the years, and now the team is paying the price for it. I suspect it’s the other way around. All his previous coaches and executives got credit for the team’s success because they happened to have great players, and now that they no longer have good players there’s no success for the staff to take credit for. If the team was still good then Belichick’s staff would still be in high demand.
My evidence is that the team did in fact overcome the loss of each and every one of those individual people each time they left, and usually each of the ones that left failed to find sustained success outside of New England to the point that it became a running joke.
So it seems that it was pure dumb luck that caused the downfall of the Patriots, and it was mostly luck that launched it when they happened to stumble upon 7 great players in a five year span including the greatest quarterback to ever play.
To be sure, Belichick is a fantastic coach, one of the best ever to do it. He consistently seems to get the most out of his players, especially on defense, and has shown a knack for exploiting every advantage possible and staying fiscally responsible, not overpaying marginally talented players.
But at the end of the day it is the skill of the players on the field that plays the largest factor in who wins and who loses, and there seems to be no magical recipe to manufacture success in that area. Coaches and front office executives pour untold amounts of time, energy, and money into the problem, but nobody yet has cracked the code.
Therefore, the only conclusion we can draw is that luck plays the largest part in who achieves the greatest successes. Fortune brought together Belichick, Brady, and a great surrounding cast over a number of years, and together they all made up the whole that became the Patriots dynasty.
Now though all the old greats are gone including Tom Brady. They have not been replaced. The team is devoid of talent, and even Brady himself likely would not have been able to carry this roster to the playoffs. The only thing that remains is Belichick, and at season’s end even he will no longer be a Patriot or so it seems.
Where does the team go from here?
I don’t think Belichick is done coaching. Some team is going to hope he can work some magic to get them turned around. My best guess would be the Commanders. New owner Josh Harris previously oversaw a multi-year rebuild of the Philadelphia 76’ers basketball team known widely as “The Process” due to their repeated and blatant tanking to stockpile cash and draft picks. That takes a vision and patience to withstand the media criticism, and Harris seems like the type that would value the experience, wisdom, and discipline that Belichick would bring to the team.
It’s not so easy to predict what direction the Patriots might go. This is uncharted territory for them in some ways. Yes, Robert Kraft has experience in hiring a successful coach, but at the time he hired Belichick the team had never enjoyed the type of sustained success they have experienced the past 20 years. There are some big shoes to fill now and whoever takes over in 2024 will forever be compared, almost assuredly unfavorably, to Belichick.
I suspect that Kraft will likely lean on his past with Belichick by hiring a relatively young coach but not one of the splashy 30-somethings, someone in their 40’s, someone with experience as a head coach even if they had a losing record, a strong background as a coordinator. I also think he’ll follow some recent trends around the league by favoring an offensive coach this time. Matt Nagy, Eric Bieniemy, and Nathaniel Hackett are the first names that come to mind as possible fits, maybe Ken Dorsey.
How will any of them fare? Who knows. I’m not crazy about any of those names, but then I likely would have bet against Belichick based on his previous work as well. What we’ve found here is that any success is likely to be conditional on stumbling onto several good players in the draft over a short period of time anyways. It likely doesn’t matter too much who the coach is if the Patriots can repeat the kind of luck that launched their dynasty in the first place.
More than likely though the organization will now be faced with years of average or poor luck like most everyone else. If that’s the case we could very well see a dark period for the Patriots akin to what the Rams faced shortly after their fantastic run from 1999-2003. It would be 14 years before their next winning season in Sean McVay’s first year as head coach.
Could we see a similar path for the Patriots? We very well might. Or maybe Kraft stumbles into more good fortune. There’s no way to know until it happens and maybe not even then. Could anyone have predicted 20 years of dominance after New England’s first Superbowl in February 2002?
All we know for sure is that this is the end of an era, an era we might never see repeated again.