Despite all of the unpredictable and, at times, improbable things that happened during the 2020 NFL regular season -- no games lost to COVID-19, Alex Smith leading the Washington Football Team to a division title, to name a couple -- the New England Patriots finishing 7-9 and missing the postseason feels uniquely odd in a football world conditioned by two decades of domination.
Yes, New England was without Tom Brady, who relocated to Tampa in free agency. But the Patriots still had Bill Belichick, the architect of a multi-iteration dynasty who proved time and again that his teams are just better prepared than yours. Until this season.
Suffering a four-game losing streak in the first half of the season and a three-game skid in December, the Pats missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008. They finished in the bottom half of the division for the first time since 2000, Belichick's first season with the franchise. The offense ranked 27th in total yards and scoring, both lows in the Belichick era. Meanwhile, the defense managed just 24 sacks, a number the 2019 Patriots reached in their first five games.
So, what happened?
Belichick has been significantly more open about team-building over this past year, endorsing the notion that the Patriots had stretched themselves to the limit in the latter stages of the Brady era. Consequently, as this line of thinking goes, the chickens just came home to roost in 2020. This is a sentiment the coach reiterated in Monday's season-ending video press conference.
"Honestly, I don't know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years," Belichick said. "I'm talking about the '14 to '18 period. Well, I'll throw last year in there, too -- and last year. So for the last six years, really, and so there's a residual to that."
Fair enough, but that narrative is conveniently simplistic. Yes, there have been times when the Patriots have plunged into free agency, signing big-money deals with the likes of Stephon Gilmore and Darrelle Revis (albeit for one year), trading for a Michael Bennett (an experiment that lasted less than a year) or Brandin Cooks (one year). But they did all this as the centerpiece of the roster, Brady, had an extremely manageable cap hit until the very end. From 2011 to '18, that number never exceeded 11.8 percent of the cap. There are other examples of New England's aggressiveness -- and you can't argue with the results, even if some of those moves never panned out.
But now the Patriots enter an offseason with more questions than answers, especially at the most important position on the field, quarterback. In a year where it's never been easier to score points, New England needed to do almost everything perfectly in order to hit paydirt. No team had fewer touchdown passes: 12 total, eight from starting QB Cam Newton. The Pats also threw more interceptions (14) than TD strikes, something that only the Denver Broncos duplicated. And yet, Belichick and his coaching staff lauded Newton at every turn, even as evidence mounted that he could not elevate his game or the underwhelming receiving crew around him.
"We can always look back and second-guess things that were or weren't done, but I'd say really the most important thing for us is to look at future decisions and try to make the best ones that we can," Belichick said on Monday.
But even that process is cloudy, according to the coach, because 2020 is bleeding into 2021 with regards to the virus and how it's impacting future planning.
"There are really a lot of unknowns, a lot of question marks at this time, where normally I would say I've been able to plan out a schedule that's pretty accurate that we can stick to through the course of the spring," he said. "At this point, a lot of those questions have yet to be answered, so we can't definitely provide direction as to what we'll do, how we'll do it or what our opportunities will be."
But make no mistake about it: With 25 players set to be free agents in March -- including Newton, captain David Andrews, Joe Thuney (the Pats' best offensive lineman), Lawrence Guy (their best defensive lineman) and one of the finest pass-catching running backs the organization has ever had in James White -- Belichick and his staff are on the clock, needing to avoid the missteps of the past season to make sure this playoff-less campaign doesn't repeat itself in 2021.