For years now, New England Patriot fans joked that the season didn’t start until the AFC championship game. It was a taunt built out of hubris but also truth — they appeared in 13 of them during the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era, including eight consecutive at one point.
Division titles were expected and hardly celebrated. The team culture famously called for a hat to be handed out. Playoff appearances, and at least one home victory, was a birthright.
So what do you do if suddenly you’re 2-4 and have lost three consecutive games and looked increasingly terrible in each one? What do you do if you have massive questions at quarterback and nearly every other offensive position, and you can’t lean on a defense that lost five important cogs to COVID opt-outs?
You look at the trade deadline in a way you haven’t in a very long time.
There are 10 weeks to right the ship, and for most NFL franchises you might not pull the plug. Maybe Cam Newton will get back to his early-season form. Maybe the wide receivers will improve and the offensive line will gel. Maybe you can still catch 5-2 Buffalo and win another AFC East.
Maybe. And those are big maybes. Very big.
Even then, what is that worth in New England, which has a completely different standard of success than everyone else in the league?
The Patriots are light years away from the class of the NFL — notably Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC. Even if they could somehow scratch their way into the playoffs, it would likely be a second consecutive one-and-done.
This roster isn’t built to contend. Tom Brady said as much when he bolted to Tampa Bay, where he now runs a Super Bowl challenger.
The trade deadline is Nov. 3, Election Day, and Bill Belichick will have to elect what he wants to do with this team. Gutting it, winding up in the top 10 of the draft, trading parts for more picks, and hoping you can come back in 2021 with something new looks increasingly like the proper move.
Belichick has always been a master at walking away from veteran players, even beloved Patriots, a year early rather than a year late.
Is it time to walk away from this current construct now, rather than season’s end?
“Just doing what’s best for the team,” he often says.
So what about putting an “open for business” sign up on the talent that he has?
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, he’s worth at least a first-round draft pick and maybe significantly more.
Offensive lineman Joe Thuney is a versatile, quality player who New England probably wasn’t going to re-sign anyway. He can fetch something decent.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman doesn’t have much left in the tank, but a clutch, proven slot receiver sure could be attractive to a contender.
Rex Burkhead would be a bruising addition to a running game, perhaps in exchange for a late-round pick.
The quarterbacks aren’t good, but either Newton or backup Brian Hoyer might be intriguing for a team that is lacking depth or pop. Including even Dallas, which is 2-5 but rarely exhibits patience and is in the still winnable NFC East.
For years New England bought at the trade deadline, Belichick looking for ways to improve the team on the fly.
Some have been huge pick-ups — Aqib Talib in 2012, Kyle Van Noy in 2016. Others haven’t — just a year ago the Patriots dealt a second-rounder to Atlanta for wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. He caught just one touchdown pass.
All those deals though sapped the depth of the New England draft. Belichick has masterfully lived off mid-round steals, but this roster needs high-end talent. Loading up on the best picks imaginable, or hoarding selections to help them move up next spring, could be the right move.
Mostly, New England needs a quarterback for the future.
Newton hasn’t looked good the past few weeks. Second-year man Jarrett Stidham is still young, but hasn’t shown anything that suggests he’s going to be great. If Belichick truly believed he was the future, would Newton be returning as the starter this week?
Patriots fans are spoiled, so being some middling team, possibly contending for a title, isn’t going to satisfy them. They are also realists. They’ll take their lumps for an emboldened future.
Belichick has always been great at exploiting market inefficiencies and the weaknesses of other franchises. It’s time for a clear eye on his roster and what’s best not just over the next 10 weeks, but the next five years.
New England isn’t going to reach the AFC title game this postseason. It isn’t going to get close.
So why bother?
Give the Patriots multiple first-round picks in a quarterback-rich draft and they may be back sooner than expected.
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