By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One of Bill Belichick’s hallmarks as Patriots head coach has been his team’s ability to (most of the time) get better and better as the season goes along. They have also started slowly in a number of seasons, most recently in the team’s 2-2 start in 2014 that had people sounding alarms and benching Tom Brady before the Patriots ultimately went on a run to a Super Bowl championship.
It’s typical for Belichick’s Patriots to spend the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season evaluating and figuring out what they have and what the team can do best before building to a nearly unstoppable crescendo. Last season’s weak second half, in which the Patriots went 3-5 in their final eight games (including playoffs), was more of an outlier than the norm.
The Patriots will need to have their typically strong second half more in this season than they have ever before in the Brady/Belichick era, considering the unusually large amount of uncertainty compared to seasons past.
Although Belichick wouldn’t acknowledge how different the start of the 2016 season is for his team, he did comment on the challenges that the Patriots (and every other NFL team) face as they spend the beginning of the season molding the best possible team, rather than opening the season fully formed.
“I don’t think you really know your team until the middle of October,” Belichick said in his Tuesday press conference, “especially now, with limited training camp. It’s different than what it was when I was with the Giants; 50 preseason practices and, you know, you had a lot better idea, but it is what it is.
“Every team’s got the same opportunity. I think you’ll see a lot of movement, a lot of adjustments in the first third of the season like we’ve seen historically here in the last few years.”
You wouldn’t necessarily expect Belichick to address the uncertainty surrounding quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who will make his first career start Sunday night in a road game against the Arizona Cardinals, who boast one of the league’s best defenses. Garoppolo alone has a lot of challenges ahead of him, as does the coaching staff as they spend the first four weeks figuring out what they have in No. 10 – but there’s not just uncertainty at the quarterback position.
The Patriots’ 53-man roster features 17 new faces, whether rookies or offseason acquisitions. The front-seven of the defense, in particular, has some work to do as far as figuring out what the Patriots are capable of with newcomers like Chris Long, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, and Anthony Johnson, in addition to rookies like Vincent Valentine and Elandon Roberts. Even the secondary has their work cut out for them figuring out the cornerback depth behind Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, with Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, and Jonathan Jones battling it out along the depth chart.
Belichick knows how different this team looks and how much they still need to do to field the best team possible over the beginning of the season, especially in comparison to previous seasons with Tom Brady’s presence providing stability.
“We have a number of new players like we always do, like every team has,” said Belichick. “So there’s a building process and a learning process there for all of us. … We have to try to figure out how this team can best perform relative to how we did another time or with another group of players.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do on the coaching end, we’ve got a lot of work to do on the playing end, but that’s the way it usually is at the start of the season. I don’t think it’s anything unusual. That’s just the challenge we face now.”
The Patriots face the same general challenges this season that they always do at the beginning, but with their Hall-of-Fame quarterback away from the team and nearly half the roster being new faces, there’s even more uncertainty than usual. But if anyone can figure out how to weather that early-season storm and eventually build his team up to the best performance possible, it’s Belichick.
BONUS BELICHICK: He was asked again about the Colin Kaepernick controversy and whether he’s addressed it with the Patriots as far as avoiding distractions. As is tradition, he gave a typically curt, surly Belichickian response.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. His opinions do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.