Photo via Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
The dynasty is over.
The New England Patriots lost legendary quarterback Tom Brady in free agency as he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in March. This signaled the end of the Brady/Belichick dynasty that won six Super Bowl championships, made nine Super Bowl appearances and won 17 AFC East titles. The Patriots signed 2015 MVP QB Cam Newton to a one-year contract this past June, hoping he can provide a new dimension to their offense while leading the franchise to brighter days once again.
As I predicted in my season preview, this was not the case. With a league-leading eight opt-outs due to fears of COVID-19 and a lack of playmaking on offense, the team struggled to produce consistency on both sides of the ball, finishing 7-9 in 2020. This is their first losing season since 2000, the year before Brady took over as the starting QB for Drew Bledsoe. Also, it was the first time the Patriots missed the playoffs and failed to win the AFC East since 2008, the season where Brady tore his ACL in Week 1, missing the rest of the year.
The Patriots started off 2-1 with wins over the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders while losing to the Seattle Seahawks by one yard. Newton then tested positive for COVID-19, forcing him to miss the Patriots’ 26-10 loss at Kansas City in Week 4. He returned after the bye week, throwing for 157 yards and two picks in a tough 18-12 loss at home to the Denver Broncos. They lost to the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills after that, dropping their record to 2-5. However, the Patriots started slugging out ugly victories, winning four of their next five games to push their record to 6-6, a stretch which included a 23-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Any hopes of a postseason berth vanished at SoFi Stadium in Week 14, losing to the Los Angeles Rams 24-3. They finished 7-9 after a Week 17 win over the New York Jets 28-14.
Newton was only given a one-year deal back in June and for good reason. He came off serious foot and shoulder injuries, leaving his level of production in doubt. This season, he played like a QB past his prime with 10 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes in 15 starts, ranking 34th in the NFL. For perspective, Dallas Cowboys’ QB Dak Prescott threw nine touchdown passes in the five games he played before his season-ending ankle injury. Newton through for 2,657 yards, ranking 24th in the NFL. He threw for over 300 yards only twice while throwing for under 100 yards four times. He was wildly inaccurate at times, often frustrating the rhythm of the offense. However, he did bring that aforementioned new element to the offense, rushing for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns. It especially came in handy during situations where the team needed to burn clock and short-yardage situations. While Newton provided some vintage MVP moments, he looked like a QB whose best years were behind him.
In Newton’s defense, the weapons he got to work with were lackluster compared to many other teams in the NFL. Julian Edelman played in only six games and caught only 39 passes for 315 yards. He also looked past his prime, making it a question mark if he will return to the team next season despite remaining under contract for the 2021 season. Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd became the go-to targets for Newton. Meyers started the season slow with only one catch through the first six weeks. However, he gained 722 receiving yards over the final 11 games, leading the team in receiving yards for the 2020 season. However, he finished without a touchdown reception on 59 catches. Byrd finished with 604 yards on 47 receptions and one touchdown. Also, the Patriots’ tight end corp scored one touchdown in 2020 and their top tight end, Ryan Izzo, gained 199 yards on 13 receptions, ranking 45th among all NFL TE’s. With Newton’s struggles combined with the lack of playmakers, the Patriots finished 30th in passing offense.
Oftentimes in 2020, the running game carried the offense, finishing as the fourth-best rushing offense in the NFL. Besides Newton, Sony Michel stepped up in his limited action, gaining 449 yards and one rushing touchdown in the eight games where he touched the ball. The leading rusher, however, was second-year running back Damien Harris. He gained 691 yards and two touchdowns in his 10 games played, gaining over 100 yards three times in the process. He filled in for Michel, who was out due to a quad injury, nicely, possibly indicating a future 1-2 punch at that position with Michel and Harris. Their two versatile RBs, Rex Burkhead and James White contributed through the ground and the air with nearly 500 yards from scrimmage each and a combined nine touchdowns. However, both are set to be free agents, so it is unlikely both will return with the emergence of Harris.
After losing key pieces in edge rusher Kyle Van Noy and linebacker Jamie Collins in free agency, matters were worsened as middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. Many younger players had to step up, and were simply unable to consistently. The Patriots struggled to get penetration into opponents’ backfields, finishing as the 26th-ranked rushing defense and was tied with the Detroit Lions for 27th in sacks. Chase Winovich and Adam Bulter led the team in sacks with 5.5 and four respectively. This put a lot of pressure on the secondary to keep teams off the scoreboard.
The secondary performed admirably despite All-Pro cornerback and 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, missing five games. The Patriots finished as the eighth-ranked passing defense. Jason and Devin McCourty stepped up nicely, but the story of the defense was third-year cornerback J.C. Jackson. While he had trouble covering speedy deep-threat wide receivers this season, Jackson was an interception magnet, finishing with nine picks in 2020, which is second only behind Dolphins’ cornerback Xavien Howard, who had 10. His emergence was key for the defense, allowing them to possibly boost their draft capital and trade Gilmore while still having capable corners to replace him who are already on the team.
The special teams unit was consistent all season long, even giving the team a spark in close games. Punter Jake Bailey finished fourth in the NFL in yards per punt and kicker Nick Folk made 26 of 28 field goals, achieving a career-high 92.9% field goal percentage. The biggest spark came from punt returner Gunner Olszewski, who finished the season as the NFL leader in punt return yards with 346 along with a touchdown. His contributions on special teams were valuable, often setting up the Patriots with good field position as he led the NFL with 17.3 yards a punt return.
The Patriots enter the offseason with approximately $58 million in cap room, the 15th-overall pick in the NFL Draft and uncertainty about the long-term prospects at QB. My recommendation is to focus on bolstering their offensive and defensive line to provide a solid foundation for the incoming and developing youth. During the draft, the Patriots need to acquire their QB of the future in the first round (Zach Wilson or Mac Jones) and get playmakers to help out the young QB. The lack of weapons will doom any QB they draft, so adding legit wide receivers is top priority. While they typically struggle to draft wide receivers, this is a loaded WR class, allowing them to have plenty options when choosing the right players for their system.
It is time to rebuild and focus on youth. It will be a rough few years ahead as the Bills will dominate the division in the near future. However, if the Patriots can draft well and find a new franchise QB, they can rise to excellence once again.