The New England Patriots are in unfamiliar territory this offseason as they attempt to set realistic expectations for their team’s fortunes in 2020.
For the vast majority of the past 20 years, the expectation around the New England area was “Super Bowl or bust” for the Patriots. That’s what happens when you have the greatest head coach and quarterback combo in the history of the league at your disposal.
Add in consistently strong special teams play, excellent coaching, some terrific defensive personnel over the years, and the occasional generational player on offense (Rob Gronkowski and Randy Moss), and it’s easy to see why the Pats have been so good for so long.
When you win three Super Bowls in four seasons to set the stage for a modern dynasty, the bar immediately gets set sky-high from that point forward. Even though it took a full decade to elapse between New England’s third title and their fourth, the Pats were right there on the doorstep of the Super Bowl almost every season in between.
And then of course, they went and won another three titles in the span of five years, effectively bookending their historic level of success and dominance with another dynasty.
But now Tom Brady is gone. Bill Belichick remains, as does the bulk of last season’s roster.
The problem for the Patriots in 2020, though, is that last year’s roster really couldn’t get the job done in the stretch run.
Yes, this team was electric and overpowering for the first half of the season as New England raced out to an undefeated 8-0 record. But that same roster stumbled throughout the second half of the season, going just 4-4 and losing to three AFC playoff teams in the Texans, Chiefs, and Ravens, as well as suffering a critical home loss to a 4-11 Dolphins squad in Week 17.
That final defeat kicked the Pats down a seed and forced them to play on Wild Card weekend for the first time in a decade, where they promptly lost to the Titans at home. Brady’s final pass as a Patriot was a pick-six delivered to the house by former New England cornerback Logan Ryan … just to add further insult to injury.
Many have speculated — including this writer — that perhaps now is the time to begin the rebuild. The Pats stood idly by as one of the best free agent quarterback classes in recent memory got scooped up by all the other teams in the league, and they seemingly told Brady not to let the door hit him on the way out, either.
So, what’s the plan?
Apparently, Belichick and the New England brain trust are pretty excited about the possibility of second-year man Jarrett Stidham. Stidham looked phenomenal during the preseason and throughout most of OTAs and training camp last year, though he also looked woefully lost during limited regular season action.
Is it possible that the Patriots are looking simply to reload like they always do this time of year rather than go all-in on a full rebuild?
ESPN’s Mike Reiss recently suggested that outside of Brady’s departure, all of the other team losses in free agency are kind of business as usual for the Pats. That’s not to say that it doesn’t hurt to lose guys like Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, and Phillip Dorsett, but Reiss is right — the Pats seem to lose more than their fair share of top players every year during free agency.
Does New England have enough remaining pieces on its roster to stay competitive then? The defense certainly does. Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower … the bedrock of the same D that guided the Pats to an 8-0 record returns for another run in 2020.
The coaching staff also should look the same for the Patriots. If Belichick thinks it’s possible to replicate New England’s success from 2019 in terms of defense, special teams, and coaching, he’s obviously not insane for thinking so. Plus, he’s Belichick after all.
The real question is the Patriots offense. Coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to find a way to get the very best of a suboptimal roster of talent at the skill positions — most notably at wide receiver and tight end — while simultaneously figuring out just what the Pats have in Stidham.
If they can be more successful somehow on offense in 2020 than they were in 2019 — which as of now doesn’t look likely — then the Patriots are wise to hold off on the rebuild … and could potentially find themselves right back in the thick of the AFC playoff mix and the running for the Super Bowl.
If, however, the offense takes a step back or even really just stays consistent with what we saw from this team last year, albeit with a different guy under center, then it will be hard for New England to stay competitive in an AFC that’s riddled with talented teams like the Chiefs, Ravens, Titans, and Bills.