Sports | August 27, 2020 5:57 am

What Constitutes “Success” for Bill Belichick’s Brady-Less Patriots in 2020?

For the first time in nearly two decades, Bill Belichick will have a new starting quarterback

Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots during training camp.
Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots during training camp.

Over the next six weeks, we’ll be preparing for the kickoff of the 2020 NFL season on September 10 by attempting to answer the most important question facing all 32 of the league’s franchises in order of their 2019 finish, from worst to first. Today’s team: the Patriots.

No. 11: New England Patriots
2019 Record: 12-4

Points For: 420 – Points Against: 225
Projected 2020 Over/Under Win Total: 9

The numbers facing Bill Belichick to start the 2020 season do not look great: eight player opt-outs (most in the NFL), seven games against 2019 playoff teams (including both Super Bowl participants from last season) and zero Tom Bradys on the roster. Setting aside the fact that Belichick will be relying on a new starting quarterback for the first time in nearly two decades, those first two numbers should make an already-difficult job that much tougher.

The Patriots, who lost four of their last six games after a 10-1 start and were bounced from the playoffs over Wild Card weekend by the Tennessee Titans, lost a number of key defensive pieces, like edge pass-rusher Kyle Van Noy (Miami), linebacker Jamie Collins (Detroit), defensive tackle Danny Shelton (Detroit) and safety Duron Harmon (Detroit) during the offseason, and have also seen longtime starters like linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opt out of 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns.

New England should still have a strong defense despite the losses, as their greatest strength — a secondary anchored by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore — remains largely intact. Still, the unit will have to contend with a number of top-tier offenses this season, including the Chiefs, Ravens, 49ers, Texans and Rams.

New England allowed a league-best 14.1 points last season, but due to the losses on defense and playing what projects to be the NFL’s hardest schedule, that number is almost certainly going to rise. To compensate, a New England offense that struggled badly down the stretch last season is going to have to find a way to replenish the 26.1 points they averaged last year with Brady under center.

If there’s a football coach in the world who can figure out how to make that happen, it’s Belichick, but there are some more numbers that are not in his favor.

A losing coach during his five years in Cleveland and the year-plus in New England before Brady was forced into action through an injury to Drew Bledsoe, Belichick is just 54-63 (0.46 winning percentage) in regular-season games without his now-departed starting quarterback.

And while Belichick has had success in New England without Brady — a Matt Cassel-quarterbacked team posted an 11-5 record in 2008, and the Patriots went 3-1 without their longtime QB when he was suspended in 2016 — the Hoodie’s overall record without his 43-year-old superstar suggests he will struggle to find the win column this year.

The addition of former MVP Cam Newton, who is expected to be the starter over second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, may help soften the blow of losing Brady, but the former Carolina QB missed all but two games last year due to a foot injury that could always resurface. (He’s also lost his last eight NFL starts, for those counting.) The upside of Newton is undeniable and almost definitely gives Belichick and the Pats the best shot to win, but there is risk in play as well.

With Newton at quarterback and a pass-catching corps comprised of Edelman, veteran Mohamed Sanu, 2019 first-round pick. N’Keal Harry, and rookie third-round tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, the Patriots will likely turn to a run-heavy attack using former-first rounder Sony Michel, veteran Rex Burkhead, second-year back Damien Harris and former bellcow Lamar Miller to pound the rock.

There’s precedent to suggest this system could work: in their 13-3 win over the Rams at Super Bowl LIII, the Patriots controlled the game by running the ball, grinding down the clock and relying on their defense to gut out a historically low-scoring championship. It seems likely Belichick will opt to use that same approach, or a slight variant of it, to win games in 2020.

For the sake of Belichick’s legacy as a coach, he’d better hope it works and the team can add to their streak of 11 consecutive division titles (matched in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL by only the 1995-2005 Atlanta Braves).

If it doesn’t, no one is going to remember how tough New England’s schedule is or how many players the Patriots lost due to the pandemic. All they’ll remember is that when Belichick was forced into coaching without Brady, his record reverted back to what it was before he lucked into drafting the greatest sixth-round pick in the history of any sport.

And he’ll have no one to thank, or blame, but himself.