Patriots season preview: Why 2023 is more about quality control than wins

Patriots season preview: Why 2023 is more about quality control than wins originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

This is a preview. But we’re not going overboard.

We tend to skip ahead to the end of the book, looking way down the road, catastrophizing about what a flat, unsatisfying season will mean for the team’s direction for the rest of the decade. Will Bill Belichick be here? Will Mac Jones be here? How many games they gotta win?

Other times – less often, to be sure – we spitball what a “good” season looks like. Over .500? Playoffs? Playoff wins? Final Four (a stage the Patriots basically had a pass into every season for 20-odd years)?

The reality is, 2023 is less about win totals and destinations and more about simple quality control.

Where are they in their post-Brady rebuild? Are they on the cusp of figuring it out for the second time since Tom Brady left, as they did in ’21? Or did the 2022 disaster leave lasting damage?

Can the whole be greater than the sum of their mostly ok, kinda good parts? Are they going to look like the Patriots again?

Clean. Smart. Tough. Never beating themselves. Belichick big-braining opposing offenses. Stealing yards on special teams. Torturing defenses with pace or precision or both. Finishing games with one penalty for 5 yards while the other guys end up with eight for 85.

Oh, you have a mobile QB? We have an app for that. You like to blitz? Sorry. We have an app for that. You can’t avoid lining up in the neutral zone? Sorry. You don’t get to go to the Super Bowl. We do.

I’ve never seen a less Belichickian team than the 2022 edition. It started in the preseason when they had 24 total penalties in the first two games. And it kept on chugging into the regular season.

In the opening loss against Miami the Dolphins were up 17-0 by halftime. How? Carl Davis lined up in the neutral zone on a fourth-and-1 from the 50, extending a field goal drive. Mac Jones got strip-sacked by an untouched rusher for a scoop-and-score. Jaylen Waddle scored with 24 seconds left in the half on a fourth-and-7 slant when Kyle Dugger took a bad angle.

And so it went. The final three minutes against the Raiders, a span that would have gotten lesser coaches fired on Monday morning. The first half against the Bengals on Christmas Eve. And the season finale when they allowed two TWO kickoff return touchdowns.

During a stretch where they went 5-3, they had 65 negative offensive plays and 53 penalties. That’s 118 negative plays. And that didn’t include incompletions or runs for no gain or 1 yard.

Offensively, they were the worst team in the league in the red zone and weren’t much better on third down. They were in the bottom third of the league in situational defense as well. And they only saw four playoff teams (Miami, Buffalo, Minnesota, Cincy).

I still don’t know how they got to 8-9. More perplexing, you can actually find plays that could have gotten them to 11-6 without much scouring – Rhamondre Stevenson’s fumble against the Bengals, the late-game Raiders idiocy, one first down against the Packers in OT to get them in field goal range.

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But you know it, I know it, the players know it, the owner knows it and the head coach knows it – that team was mind-numbingly dumb. That wasn’t an inspiring and hopeful 8-9.

One of the main storylines this offseason is the warmth of Belichick’s seat. How many games does he have to win? Will he get to author his own exit?

While Robert Kraft saber-rattled about playoff wins and the NFL being a bottom-line business, there’s no way he wants to deal with the messy, painful, process of moving on from Belichick before the coach wants to go. If that ever happened, it would dominate a week’s worth of news cycles and transcend sports.

Kraft already tempered expectations based on the competitiveness of the AFC East and difficulty of the Patriots schedule.

My sense is that Belichick’s future is less about wins and more about direction. He has to earn some trust back.

They don’t have to win like they did from 2001 to 2019. But they do have to be like they used to be. A team nobody wants to play. Plucky. Smart. Not the doormat the league’s better teams now clean their shoes off on with alarming regularity.

The past three seasons, the Patriots are 3-13 against teams that went to the playoffs. Last year’s lone win came against the Dolphins, quarterbacked by Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson. Their two wins in ’21 came against the beat up Titans and in the wind game at Buffalo. Nobody’s afraid of playing Bill Belichick’s Patriots anymore.

They desperately want to get back to being feared.

I asked Ja’Whaun Bentley last Thursday; to describe the Patriots brand of football.

“Tough, smart and effective,” he said in a clipped tone.

I asked Matt Slater at the start of camp what the team’s identity is. He was more expansive.

“I do think we are still forging it a bit,” he said. “Obviously we’ve gone through some seismic change and that’s no mystery to anyone. A big part of the reason that we had continuity and stability, that changed in the last few years.

“I think we have to reach within ourselves and figure out what are the core principles we’re gonna adhere to no matter who’s on the team,” Slater continued. “No matter what the situation, no matter what our record is, no matter what the circumstances may be. I like to think that hard work, commitment, selflessness all still exist within our organization. We’re just doing it with different guys. Sometimes that takes time.”

I don’t think that time’s up. But I think it’s running out.

“We’ll see who we are,” Slater said. “I know coach will tell you he has a vision for how this football team operates and it’s the same vision he’s had the past 20-plus years and hopefully we get to that. And hopefully it’s sooner than later.”

It kinda has to be. Because if the Patriots aren’t the Patriots in 2023 in terms of smarts, toughness and effectiveness? Then we may be closing the book on the Patriots as we’ve known them.

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