FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — The New England Patriots entered the 2020 season staring at an uncertain future.
They ended it the same way.
In their first season following Tom Brady’s departure in free agency to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Patriots regressed not just on offense, but across the board.
New England (7-9) finished out of the top spot in the AFC East for the first time in 11 seasons and with a losing record for the first time since Bill Belichick’s inaugural season in 2000.
The decision made by key players to opt out of the season because of concerns about COVID-19 certainly contributed, but the dramatic drop-off after losing Brady underscored the air of invincibility that surrounded a franchise that had been among the AFC's elite for two decades.
Whether this was a speed bump, or the start of a wholesale rebuild is still to be determined as Belichick and his staff attempt to address many of the same issues they faced a year ago.
In some ways the holes they had on their roster were the result of how aggressive they were over the previous several years, Belichick said.
“Honestly, I don’t know how we could be any more aggressive than we were for the last five years — I’m talking about the ’14 to '18 period. I’ll throw last year in there, too," he said. "There’s a residual to that.”
A lot of the spotlight this offseason will again be on the quarterback position.
In what will likely be his lone season in New England, Cam Newton struggled as Brady’s successor.
He ended the season on a high note against the woeful New York Jets. But after throwing for just eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first season in offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system, at age 31 it’s improbable the Patriots would offer him the kind of contract he’ll seek after he played under a one-year, $1.75 million deal in 2020.
Still, Newton called this season “a blessing” and said he achieved his goal of ending the season healthy following the shoulder and foot surgeries that contributed to him being released by the Carolina Panthers.
“I think that was one of the most frustrating things for me, was that I was healthy but still not getting the results that I was yearning for,” Newton said.
“Through it all, my shoulder held up, foot held up, mental held up. I had nicks and bruises, but who doesn’t have any nicks and bruises in the NFL? Nothing lingering enough to stop me. I’m going to take that as a blessing and do it in the offseason.”
Belichick said he doesn’t have a timeframe on when he’ll decide on what direction he'll take at quarterback.
“We’ll just look at everything in the offseason,” he said. “We’ll take a full evaluation of all the things that we do and have done and look forward and I’m sure, as we do every year, we’ll want to modify some things.”
One direction the Patriots could turn to at quarterback is Jarrett Stidham, who served as Newton’s backup and prior to his signing was on track to be the starter.
However in two seasons he’s yet to make a start and has appeared in just eight games, going 24 for 48 for 270 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions — mostly in mop-up time.
At times he’s shown flashes of being able to move the offense down the field. And entering his third season he has a salary cap-friendly deal that could factor into Belichick’s decision-making.
Belichick could have several jobs to fill on his staff as well.
The Panthers have asked to interview director of player personnel Nick Caserio and others are expected to do so as well. In addition, McDaniels has previously stated a desire to be a head coach again and he will likely interview for jobs.
Losing either of them will certainly influence how Belichick builds his 2021 roster.
Along with Newton, center David Andrews, left tackle Joe Thuney, running backs James White and Rex Burkhead, cornerback Jason McCourty, and defensive linemen Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler are all unrestricted free agents.
Cornerback J.C. Jackson, who the led team with nine interceptions, also is a restricted free agent.
Thuney played under a $14.78 million franchise tag in 2020 and expected to garner interest on the open market.
New England enters the offseason with about $20 million in cap space, so keeping everyone won’t be possible.
HANGING IT UP?
Special teams captain Matt Slater is not only the longest-tenured player on the New England’s roster, he also has been one of the team’s emotional leaders during his 13 seasons.
He is entering the final year of his current two-year deal and at 35 years old the two-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowl selection may choose to retire.
“I think now I’m at a point in my career where I don’t know how much football I’ve got left. … Now, obviously, I’m on the back nine,” he said. “I’m gonna take some time. ... I think I’m just gonna be praying about it and see how that goes going forward.”