Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Has Bill Belichick the GM cost Bill Belichick the coach his job? Patriots owner faced with fascinating dilemma

Early-season struggles are nothing new in New England. Throughout Bill Belichick’s tenure, the team has endured plenty of what were thought to be catastrophic defeats in September and early October that spelled the end of the dynastic run of the franchise. Calling the first month “an extension of the preseason” had been a mantra that was pointed to in the past when talking about New England’s approach and sometimes sluggish starts to the year. 

While those starts were more often than not overcome with a deep playoff run and even a Lombardi Trophy sprinkled in, these are different times we’re living. This version of the Patriots is a much different team than those from the past. 

Through five weeks, New England finds itself at the bottom of the barrel in the NFL. The club is 1-4, currently in line to have a top-five pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, and each week seems to be worse than the last. After being destroyed on a national stage against the Cowboys in Week 4, the Patriots returned home Sunday and were handed a 34-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Saints. The Dallas loss was the largest of Belichick’s career, and it was met with the second largest Sunday. New Orleans also gave the Patriots its largest home shutout loss in franchise history. They’ve been outscored 72-3 in the last two games and have suffered back-to-back 30-point losses for the first time since 1970. 

It’s the very definition of rock bottom.

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How did New England get here? What led to such a dramatic fall from grace? 

While you can point to several things — the departure of Tom Brady in 2020, the curious decision to hand the offense over to Matt Patricia and Joe Judge in 2022, etc. — there’s a very simple explanation to why the Patriots find themselves where they’re at: They lack talent. High-end talent. That’s on Bill Belichick, who has been the team’s de facto general manager throughout his tenure. 

This is where, to steal a reference from Bill Parcells, allowing the coach to shop for the groceries goes haywire, or at least it has in this case with the Patriots. Bill Belichick the GM has made life extremely difficult for Bill Belichick the coach, and the former might end up costing the latter his job. 

No matter what avenues the Patriots have gone down in recent years, they’ve tripped over themselves trying to bring in high-end talent. At the NFL Draft, the Patriots have been unable to identify foundational pieces, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Tyquan Thornton, a second-rounder in 2022, has yet to make a major impact due to injury, and, of course, the team’s first-round pick in 2019, N’Keal Harry, is considered arguably the biggest bust of Belichick’s tenure. 

Not only are the Patriots simply missing talent, but there also seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the scouting process. The team took Thornton over the likes of Pittsburgh’s George Pickens, who just went off for 130 yards receiving Sunday. In 2019, Harry was infamously picked over A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel. Even in 2018, when they scouted the Georgia backfield, decided to take Sony Michel over his teammate, Nick Chubb

And that’s bled into free agency as well. As it relates to the 2023 Patriots, the way Belichick and the front office approached the offense line — specifically the tackle positions — was borderline NFL malpractice. The team bet on 34-year-old right tackle Riley Reiff, who was just activated off injured reserve after going down with injury this summer. They also gave a raise to left tackle Trent Brown, who has allowed seven pressures and two sacks already this season. 

Instead of aggressively pursuing and extending yourself for younger and higher-upside talent, either via free agency or the NFL Draft, the Patriots went into the bargain bin with the offensive line and have been getting bargain-bin results. 

That poor blend of trying to find a bargain and the inability to scout skill positions was on display this offseason. Instead of extending Jakobi Meyers, a rare homegrown talent with a proven track record in the system, they let him walk and ink a three-year, $33 million contract ($21 million guaranteed) with the Raiders. New England then turned around and signed JuJu Smith-Schuster to a three-year, $25.5 million contract ($16 million guaranteed). Whether it was hoping that Smith-Schuster could be a talent upgrade over Meyers or whether or not they thought they could get the same production at a cheaper rate, the Patriots have swung and missed. 

Even when DeAndre Hopkins — who had 140 receiving yards in Week 5 — was available this summer and interested in joining New England, the team would not go the extra mile and contend with the two-year, $26 million contract ($10.9 million guaranteed) offer that he agreed to with the Titans

These are just a few of the examples that have now turned into a mountain of trouble for Belichick and put Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a fascinating situation. If the season continues on its current trajectory — and there’s no reason to expect it won’t — the Patriots will likely be looking at an offseason where they’ll have a top-five draft pick and possibly be on the hunt for a new franchise quarterback, all while having the second-highest amount of salary cap space in the league. 

While it seems crazy to ask given his prior accomplishments and importance to the franchise, should Kraft trust Belichick the GM to take that ammunition and bring the Patriots back to relevancy? Judging by recent performance, it’d be hard to proceed forward with much confidence.

And under the scenario where he doesn’t, how does Kraft proceed? Does he try to strip the GM responsibilities from Belichick and implement a new person to truly have the final say in player personnel? Would Belichick even accept what would essentially be a demotion? Or would that type of maneuver trigger the end of his tenure with the team he’s helped lead to six Super Bowls with Belichick electing to step down as head coach after this season? 

It’s a remarkable dilemma Kraft finds himself in that will effectively be the epilogue about his franchise’s historic dynasty. For the betterment of the franchise’s prospects going forward, possibility moving on from Bill Belichick the GM could be the road he’s forced to go down even if that means losing Bill Belichick the coach. 

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