Bill Belichick's Masterful Offseason Is Paying off Huge for Surging Patriots

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystNovember 19, 2021

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches play against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

After watching the New England Patriots dominate the NFL for two decades, more than a few fans outside the greater Boston metropolitan area quietly smiled when the 2020 Pats went 7-9 and missed the postseason.

Others smirked as the question of who was more responsible for all that success was settled for some when Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a blowout win in Super Bowl LV.

As it turns out, any dirt being thrown on Bill Belichick was all kinds of premature. Where some NFL teams are seemingly in a constant state of rebuilding (looking at you, Detroit), the Patriots took all of one year to get right back in the mix in the AFC. The Pats attacked free agency with a vengeance, had a phenomenal draft that included Brady's heir under center, and after taking care of an overmatched Atlanta Falcons team on Thursday night, the Patriots are 7-4, winners of five straight and right on the heels of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

The Patriots are surging. The Patriots are back. And Belichick is having one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career.

Thursday's 25-0 win over the Falcons was a flashback of sorts, in that there was an air of inevitability around the proceedings before the game ever began. The Venn diagram of people who gave the Falcons a chance in this game and the people who thought Tom and Jerry was a good movie is a circle. After blowing the doors off the Cleveland Browns last week at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots were expected to cruise.

And while it was at times a Thursday-esque effort, the Patriots met that expectation. And then some.

For the third time in as many weeks, the New England defense was absolutely dominant. The Patriots allowed just 165 total yards and held a third straight opponent to fewer than 10 points. Per the Fox telecast, it marked the first time the Falcons were shut out at home since 1988.

The centerpiece of Belichick's $160 million (in guarantees) free-agency spending spree in 2021 has been the MVP of New England's sixth-ranked defense.

(Yes, Dave Ziegler is the team's de facto general manager. But the Patriots don't order napkins for the equipment staff's break room without an OK from Darth Hoodie.)

The Patriots handed edge-rusher Matthew Judon a four-year, $54.5 million contract in free agency to anchor a pass rush that logged the sixth-fewest sacks in the NFL last year. After logging a sack of Matt Ryan on Thursday night, Judon isn't just the top dog for a defense that entered Week 11 inside the top 10 in sacks.

He's well on his way to having the best sack season by an edge-rusher of any player in the Belichick era.

Zack Cox @ZackCoxNESN

Most sacks in a season during the Bill Belichick era: T-1: Chandler Jones, 12.5 (2015) T-1: Mike Vrabel, 12.5 ('07) 3: Chandler Jones, 11.5 ('13) 4: Matthew Judon, 10.5 and counting ('21)

Judon may be the biggest free-agent get for the Patriots in 2021, but he's hardly the only one who has made an impact.

Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne came into the Atlanta game second on the Patriots in catches and leading the team with 520 receiving yards. Tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith had combined for over 50 receptions and 500-plus receiving yards. Nelson Agholor scored the game's only offensive touchdown Thursday and has provided the Pats with a vertical threat. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy is back after a year in Miami and had two sacks and a pick-six against Atlanta. Cornerback Jalen Mills has been a capable veteran presence in the secondary. The list goes on and on.

During an offseason in which the salary cap came down and many teams were reluctant to spend big money, the Patriots were easily the most aggressive franchise in the NFL.

Those moves have paid off massively.

Of course, even after all those signings, the Patriots still had one glaring void to fill. The quarterback position.

Yeah, it's handled, too.

You can say that Alabama's Mac Jones was a gift to the Patriots at No. 15 overall. And you would be 100 percent correct. But there were 14 opportunities to take Jones before Belichick and the Patriots pulled the trigger. Jones was the fifth quarterback selected.

Remember, there was a tremendous amount written and said about the possibility that the San Francisco 49ers mortgaged their future to draft Jones—and many pundits believed that would be a mistake.

To be fair, half a season isn't close to enough time to accurately assess the quarterback class of 2021. Trevor Lawrence could still have a fantastic professional career. So could Trey Lance.

But Jones hasn't just been the best rookie quarterback in 2021 by a country mile. Coming into Week 11, he was top-15 in passing yards and top-five in completion percentage (69.0) among every quarterback in the league. Guess what? His completion percentage improved after Thursday night's rout. Jones completed 22 of 26 pass attempts (84.6 percent), and his progression week to week is hard to ignore.

Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Jones has been an outstanding fit in Josh McDaniels' offense. His accuracy and decision-making have been superb. And you can tell that the rest of the New England offense has accepted him as a leader.

He's also not the only rookie making a sizable impact. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore leads all rookies in total pressures. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson notched the first 100-yard game of his career against Cleveland.

Bringing in all those new pieces is only part of the equation. A coach also has to fit those pieces together, and that may be the most impressive thing Belichick has done this season. When Brady left last year, there was speculation that his relationship with Belichick had soured. There have been players who were publicly critical of the "Patriot Way" and how Belichick treats his players.

If there are any issues between Belichick and his players now, they certainly aren't showing. As a matter of fact, Judon said earlier this week that both new faces and old have bonded as a family.

"I don't think there's a selfish person in that locker room," Judon said, per Chris Mason of Mass Live. "If there is, they haven't exposed themselves yet. So, I think everybody in there is a family and wanting to win."

We're about to find out exactly how good these new-look Patriots actually are. When the Pats take the field next, it will be at Gillette against the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Tennessee Titans. Then, it's off to Western New York for the first of two meetings in three weeks with the division-leading Bills.

Winning both of those games and stretching the winning streak to seven is a tall ask. But the Titans have struggled to generate offense of late after losing All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, and the Bills lost to the Jaguars in Week 9.

It's not impossible. Not by a long shot.

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, the Patriots appear well on their way to getting back into the postseason. Winning the division isn't out of the question. And in a season where there isn't a dominant front-runner in either conference, the words "Super Bowl" and "Patriots" can be said in the same sentence with a straight face the way the team is playing.

Not many of even the most diehard Patriots fans would have predicted that a few months ago. But it seems we all forgot something.

Bill Belichick is really, really good at his job.


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