By Stephen Juza
November 11th, 2023
Bill Belichick’s tenure with the New England Patriots has been nothing short of legendary. His unmatched success in the NFL includes six Super Bowl titles, making him one of the greatest coaches in the league's history. However, recent developments have raised concerns about his future with the franchise. Entering Week 10, he has a 49% chance of being fired after the season according to our model, leading many to speculate about the end of an era.
In this article, we will delve into the recent history of Bill Belichick and the Patriots, and the reasons why he is on the precipice of being fired.
It’s a cop out to simply suggest “it’s because he no longer has Tom Brady”. It’s true that his record without Brady as a starter pales in comparison to his record with Brady. But early on, Belichick saw something special in the 6th round draft pick, keeping four quarterbacks on the roster in Brady's rookie season when a typical team only carried three. This was even more surprising because the Patriots had signed starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to the largest contract in NFL history before Brady’s second season. While his future GM moves have made his life as a coach more difficult, one of his first decisions certainly reshaped NFL history in his favor.
While Brady may have been a constant player on the Patriots unprecedented run of success, credit goes to Belichick to always change the team’s scheme to match where their talent lies, or spotting emerging trends before the rest of the NFL. Shifting from dominating defenses early in his tenure, to an offensive strategy that highlighted speedy or shifty wide receivers, to one that focused on two tight end sets, and back to defense, all while maintaining a level of success that was previously thought impossible in the era of free agency. However, Brady was always the glue that held the offensive side of the ball together, no matter which players suited up on Sunday.
Inflection Point: August 6th, 2020:
That all came crashing down in 2020. Brady left the team in free agency in March, 2020, but arguably the bigger hit came on August 6th, 2020. That was the day that players had to opt out of the 2020 season due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Patriots had eight players opt out, by far the most of any team. These opt outs included several starters, such as defensive players Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower.
While Brady created a leadership void on offense, the team had all offseason to mitigate this loss. Losing two starters on defense on the eve of training camp proved to be too much. It’s quite possible that the Patriots had so many opt outs due to their prior success; an NFL career is very short, and already reaching the Super Bowl pinnacle may have made it easy to sit out. In a way, Belichick’s success helped bring about his downfall.
While losing multiple starters was bad enough, two vital pieces of his coaching staff also departed that offseason: offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia and director of football research Ernie Adams. While Scarnecchia was vital at forming the offensive line for almost two decades, Adams was responsible for scouring any possible area for a mathematical advantage. He managed this by working with statistics professors to help hone the team’s game plan for when to go for it on fourth down, when to go for two points, and many other ideas. The Patriots were early adopters of some of these strategies, and without Adams, the rest of the league was able to catch up.
Coaching Staff Limitations:
Belichick has always shown a reluctance to hire position coaches and above from outside his coaching tree, almost always opting to promote from within. Additionally, he has shown great loyalty to former assistants, offering them a spot on the staff after they are fired from their own head coaching opportunities. However, this has led to a deficient coaching staff that is atypical from the modern NFL team.
Over his Patriots tenure, he has often opted to choose a coach with no position experience over an unfamiliar coach for a position (or coordinator) coaching role. As his long-time coaches retired, inexperience crept into his staff. Scarnecchia, who coached from 2000-2013 and again from 2016-2020, was replaced by two coaches (Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo) who had never coached the position before. Running backs coach Ivan Fears (2002-2021) retired and was replaced by Vinnie Sunseri, who had a single year of running back experience assistant Fears before being handed the reins. Wide receiver coach Chad O'Shea offered stability at the position from 2009-2018, but in 2019 was replaced by former special teams coach, Joe Judge.
That was also not the only time that Judge had coached a position he had no prior experience with. Last season, after being fired as head coach from the Giants, Belichick offered him the quarterbacks coach position for second-year quarterback Mac Jones. Meanwhile, Judge couldn’t even rely on an experienced offensive coordinator, because the team didn’t have one, and play calling had gone to former defensive coordinator-turned-offensive line coach (and recently fired Lions head coach) Matt Patricia.
The NFL Is Entertainment:
The NFL is first and foremost an entertainment product, and Belichick has committed a cardinal sin of having a bad team that is also a very boring team. They sit last in the league, with a quarterback who has given little hope for the future, with a bottom-tier offense and defense.
They are on pace to score their fewest points per game (15.0) since 1993, while the defense is on pace to allow more points per game (25.3) in a season since 1990. A complete breakdown on both sides of the ball, and the buck stops at Belichick. Whether it’s a coaching problem, or a player problem, his complete control of football operations in New England means he has only himself to blame.
It’s also not too late for him to turn around the season. Coming up next, they face three straight opponents without a winning record, with a bye week in there. But no coach is immune to being fired. If Tom Landry can be fired in Dallas, if Andy Reid in Philadelphia, and Mike Shanahan in Denver, are we about to see how much leeway six Super Bowls grant a coach?
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