The New England Patriots underwent one of the most extreme one-year transformations in NFL history between the spring of 2019 and the spring of 2020.
It’s hard to believe all that’s transpired over the course of a little more than a year.
Not so very long ago, the New England Patriots were Super Bowl champions. They had defied the odds all year, turning in a relatively modest season by their own impossibly high standards (11-5) that culminated in a dramatic AFC Championship upset road win over Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and then a Super Bowl LIII victory over Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams.
The end result was Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, and all the other usual suspects passing around the Lombardi Trophy in February 2019. It was the sixth Super Bowl title in franchise history, tying the Pats with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the most all-time.
At that point, it was fair to say that New England players, coaches, and fans were all on cloud nine.
The high point for most of these people had come just two years earlier with the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, a thrilling victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI that put an exclamation mark on a season Brady missed the first quarter of to serve his suspension for Deflategate.
Little did anyone know that the Patriots would go on another magical run to the top of the NFL’s Mount Olympus, especially the season after their heartbreaking defeat in the epic shootout of Super Bowl LII at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles.
All this glory and elation lasted for at least a solid month or so as the end of winter gave way to the beginning of spring and a new offseason.
Who could have predicted at that time that so much was about to change … and for the worse?
It started with Rob Gronkowski’s surprise retirement announcement in March. He’d suffered a painful quad injury against the Rams during the Super Bowl and decided that enough was enough, posting on Instagram that he was walking away from football “forever.”
While the loss of Gronk was certainly a tough pill to swallow, we didn’t know back then just how much the tight end position would suffer in New England as a result. Spoiler alert: It suffered a ton in 2019.
Rumors swirled that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were at a bit of an impasse regarding Brady’s future. He was a Super Bowl champion quarterback for the sixth time, but he was also a lame duck quarterback in 2019, playing out the final year of his contract because of a “void year” in 2020.
Those rumors only grew louder as Belichick took Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Sensing that the team needed more offensive firepower, New England added to Brady’s arsenal just as the regular season began by signing the recently-released Antonio Brown. For one glorious game against the Miami Dolphins, the Brady-to-Brown connection was on full display.
Then news broke of Brown’s sexual assault allegations and suddenly the evidence of misconduct began to snowball for the talented but troubled receiver. No strangers to controversy themselves historically, the Patriots did the smart thing and cut ties with AB before things could get worse.
A similar story happened with another talented receiver this past year in Josh Gordon. Suspended at the end of the 2018 regular season right before the Patriots’ magical playoff run, Gordon was a pleasant surprise reinstatement from his indefinite suspension right as the 2019 regular season began.
Unfortunately, like Brown, the feel-good story wouldn’t last. First it was injuries that took their toll on Gordon, then he was released altogether from the team’s IR.
The Seattle Seahawks picked him up but barely got anything out of him before he was indefinitely suspended again (for the fifth time in his pro career), leading many to wonder if the Pats knew another suspension was imminent when they placed him on injured reserve.
It certainly wasn’t all gloom-and-doom last year. New England started off hot with an 8-0 record … before stumbling to a 4-4 finish.
The low points during the regular season? All four losses obviously: three of which came to the other AFC division winners (Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs), and the last one coming inexplicably in Week 17 to the Dolphins at home when the Patriots had everything in the world to play for.
The defeat dropped New England from the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye to the No. 3 seed, meaning they’d be playing on Wild Card Weekend for the first time in a decade.
They hosted the No. 6 seed Tennessee Titans — a team littered with former Patriots (Dion Lewis, Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, etc.) and coached by former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel — and lost to them … in Foxborough … with Ryan Tannehill as the opposing QB.
The Patriots then watched their AFC rival, the Chiefs, play in Super Bowl LIV against the San Francisco 49ers — who, of course, had former Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo as their starting quarterback. The Chiefs won the championship.
A year after he was a world champion himself, Brady stunningly became a free agent. The greatest quarterback of all time was allowed to leave for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
And just to add salt to the wound, Gronkowski — who started off this whole downward trajectory with his retirement about a year ago — announced he’d be coming back to join Brady with the Bucs after negotiating a trade away from the Patriots.
So here we are. It’s been a whirlwind of events that took us from Spring 2019 to Spring 2020. How quickly your team’s fortunes can change in the NFL, even if you’re New England.
At least the Patriots still have Bill Belichick at the helm. Hopefully, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, New England can reverse what has been a dramatic fall from grace this past year — one that has skeptics and outside observers already labelling it as the demise of the Patriots dynasty.