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The Patriots Enter the Unknown After a Lost Season

Has the NFL’s modern dynasty reached its floor? Or can the Patriots fall even farther?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Sunday, in a 22-12 loss to the Dolphins, the Patriots were officially eliminated from playoff contention. In and of itself, this is an event: New England has not missed the playoffs since 2008, and it’s been even longer, since 2000, that they played a regular-season game with no chance of making the postseason.

The 2020 Patriots have deviated so far from the norm, at least as far as the past two decades are concerned, that it’s hard to determine where their rebuild should begin. Cam Newton won the starting quarterback job after signing with the team in July and coming in to replace Tom Brady, but it would still be inaccurate to call this season a wholesale reset. There was plenty about this Patriots team that resembled Bill Belichick teams of past years, from the coaching staff to the veteran players on discount contracts to the savvy special teams play. New England was built to make the playoffs this season, but Brady’s absence exposed the inadequacy of parts of the roster in fulfilling that ambition, especially in an improving AFC East. There will be changes in 2021: New England has money and draft picks to spend, but will lose a slew of free agents and may need to find a new quarterback once again. The Patriots are staring up at the Bills and the Dolphins in the divisional standings for the first time in a long time, which begs the question if this is as low as they’ll have to go before starting a new climb.

If there is a wholesale rebuild in New England, it is still to come. Six Patriots who played at least 65 percent of the offensive or defensive snaps this season (left guard Joe Thuney, cornerback Jason McCourty, center David Andrews, defensive end John Simon, wide receiver Damiere Byrd, and Newton), plus six more who played at least 30 percent (running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, defensive tackles Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler, left guard Jermaine Eluemunor, and defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr.), are set to hit unrestricted free agency in March.

New England is currently projected to have more than $60 million in cap space next season, plus six picks in the first four rounds of the draft, so they can allocate resources to finding replacements for those players. If the draft was held tomorrow, the Patriots would pick no. 15, their highest selection since picking linebacker Jerod Mayo, now on the defensive coaching staff, with the no. 10 pick in 2008. Promising young players like offensive linemen Michael Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn, wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, cornerback J.C. Jackson, linebackers Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich, safety Kyle Dugger, and punter Jake Bailey are pieces to build around.

It should go without saying that to get back to routinely winning 10-plus games a season, New England has to hit on those picks and make good decisions on the free-agent market. Before the Patriots even get there, though, they’ll have to figure out their most pressing needs and which underperforming players are worth keeping around. The 2020 Patriots would never tank, and they kept their floor surprisingly high. What they sacrificed was some understanding of their identity.

That starts at quarterback. Newton was a good signing—he cost the Patriots only $1.75 million in base salary, though he’ll likely earn some incentives on top of that—and a good teammate, one who gave everybody nicknames, goofed with Belichick and dressed according to his characteristic Smokey Bear–meets-Liberace fashion style.

Newton, whose deal expires after the season, said Monday that he is not ready to retire.

“I still have a lot of football left, and I still want to play football. I have the urge to be better,” Newton said on WEEI’s Greg Hill Show. “After putting out this film? Come on, now. I can’t go out like this. I definitely can’t go out like this.”

If he’s willing to take another team-friendly deal, it’s possible he could stick around in New England and continue to be a life raft at quarterback if the Patriots need one. It’s difficult, however, to see Newton significantly improving the Patriots if he remains their starter.

Newton scored 11 rushing touchdowns this season, but he currently ranks 25th in passing yards, 31st in passing yards per game, 17th in yards per attempt, 36th in passing touchdowns (he has five, the same number as Jalen Hurts), 30th in passer rating, and 31st in quarterback rating. On Sunday, Newton failed to throw a touchdown pass in a game for the eighth time this season. His statistical peers this year have been Nick Mullens, Nick Foles, Alex Smith, and Daniel Jones.

He also has not changed the Patriots offense as dramatically as expected. For all he has added as a runner, Newton has operated as a fairly traditional pocket passer once he does drop back to throw. The Patriots offense again relied heavily on a solid running game, as they have for the better part of three seasons. They continued to use 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end, two receivers) frequently and 11 personnel (three receivers) relatively sparingly—New England has been in the top two teams in use of 21 personnel, and below average in their use of 11 personnel, since 2018. The Patriots offense did not look dramatically different this season and rarely looked particularly innovative. How they will change on that side of the ball in 2021 will depend on the decision Belichick makes at quarterback. On Monday, Belichick would not say whether Newton or backup Jarrett Stidham would start next week against the Bills, but intimated it was at least possible that Stidham could get a shot.

“We can evaluate what the opportunities are,” Belichick said. “We’re still gonna prepare and try to play as well as we can on Monday night. But we’ll see how that all shakes out. It could be a possibility in certain situations.”

Stidham remains something of an unknown quantity. He threw four passes in 2019 and has thrown 33, completing 54.5 percent of them for 212 yards, two touchdowns, and three interceptions, this season. The preseason, which would have been a good opportunity for Stidham to show some ability, was canceled due to COVID-19. The limited opportunities Stidham has gotten, though, have not gone well: At the start of training camp, when he had a chance to make it a competition with Newton, Stidham threw seven picks in three days of practice and then missed several more days of team drills because of a lower body injury. His best moment to date was probably his touchdown throw to receiver N’Keal Harry—another young offensive player the Patriots will need to make a choice about—against the Chiefs in October. His most recognizable trait as a Patriot is Belichick’s reluctance to give him meaningful playing time.

Like with Stidham and Harry, it’s not clear what the Patriots have at tight end. They invested two third-round draft picks this year in the position, double-dipping on Dalton Keene from Virginia Tech and Devin Asiasi from UCLA, which was a significant use of resources at a position they’d neglected since they drafted Rob Gronkowski in 2010. So far this season, though, Keene and Asiasi have barely been involved in the passing game: Keene has two catches for 10 yards on three targets with a fumble, while Asiasi hasn’t caught a single pass on two targets all year. They’ve both been hampered by injuries and the difficulty of being a rookie player in 2020 but, by the time the offseason rolls around, the Patriots need to know if they should be looking for a player like Hunter Henry in free agency or a top prospect like Florida’s Kyle Pitts in the draft.

Just as they’re not used to losing, the Patriots aren’t used to overhauls. They are a model of stability, with largely the same brain trust in place for 20 years. The last significant coaching firing in New England came after the 2015 season, when the Patriots let offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo go shortly after the Broncos hit Brady 20 times in an AFC championship game loss. Such renovation is rarely necessary and when it is, the replacements know the system—Belichick replaced DeGuglielmo by convincing legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to unretire.

Most of the brain drain on Belichick’s staff—Brian Daboll, Chad O’Shea, Brendan Daly, Brian Flores, Joe Judge, Matt Patricia, Josh Boyer, and Bret Bielema—has happened because those coaches got other opportunities. Belichick has tapped a pipeline of familiar faces to fill open positions; former players like Mayo and Troy Brown have joined the staff in recent years. Both of Belichick’s sons are on his staff. The Patriots coaching staff will always be one of its greatest advantages as long as Belichick is in charge—it’s hard to imagine the current roster winning even six games without superlative coaching. But it’s also worth wondering if there are outside voices or fresh perspectives that might help address some of the issues on the roster that personnel moves alone won’t fix.

One interesting and potentially fresh perspective brought in this year to help the Patriots offense is Jedd Fisch, who was an assistant offensive coordinator with the Rams before joining the New England staff. Under Sean McVay, Fisch helped run an offense inspired by the Gary Kubiak–Mike Shanahan coaching tree: It has been used by the Rams, the 49ers, and the Browns to help quarterbacks who are, um, not generational pocket passers get easier reads to make more successful throws.

Fisch’s experience might be instructive in how the Patriots would work with a younger quarterback should they be in position to draft a quarterback like Alabama’s Mac Jones or, if they’re lucky, North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. If they get it right—“it” being finding a quarterback—they’ll have a solid chance of closing the gap with the improving teams in the AFC East. The Bills are playoff-bound with Josh Allen, who they got with the no. 6 overall pick two years ago. The Dolphins are on the upswing after going 5-11 last season, trading away players like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Laremy Tunsil, and using the no. 5 overall pick on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The Patriots have a stable foundation in place and resources to spend, so they may not need a top-10 pick or multiple losing seasons to get where they want to go. But they need to spend these next two weeks and the offseason determining what kind of team they want to be.

There is one piece of good news for the Patriots from Week 15. When the Dolphins game ended, it seemed likely that New England could find itself looking around the division at two young, promising quarterbacks on playoff-caliber teams with Trevor Lawrence on the way. By the evening, though, the Jets … well, you know. At least some things never change.