By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Different.
Different, different, different.
Different different different different different different different different different.
You can’t talk about the upcoming NFL season or specifically the New England Patriots without first stating the obvious: Things are different. Very different.
For one, there’s the whole pandemic situation, which makes the entire 2020 season feel as though it’s standing on precarious ground. No preseason, weird training camp, pretty much no fans, a bunch of soft tissue injuries (probably), a lack of game shape, a lack of crisp on-field operations, and so much more is sure to make this season … different.
And in New England, there is that whole matter of Tom Brady leaving town after a cool 20 years under center in Foxboro. Life moves on, but Brady playing for another NFL team will remain a strange reality for quite some time.
But really, Tom Brady has nothing to do with the success or failure of the 2020 Patriots. And for the first time in about a dozen years, we’re all not going to feel like we have a great handle of what to expect out of the Patriots on a week-to-week basis.
They could go 11-5. They could go 5-11. Everything in between remains a possibility. A blowout win one week could easily lead into a lopsided loss a week later. All of those television ads that you’ve heard smashing you over the head with the “in these unprecedented times” line? Well, it applies to the local football team as well. It ought to be strange.
In that sense, it should be a whole lot of fun to watch this one play out. Thanks to that little signing of Cam Newton just before July, the Bill Belichick-led Patriots are sure to be as compelling as they’ve ever been.
It’ll just be a little bit … different.
As you know, for the first time since 2001*, QB1 will not be TB12 for Week 1.
*Yes, we’re all going to pretend that the 2016 suspension never happened, because it’s a joke. Moving on.
As you also know, this time around it will be Cam Newton under center for the Patriots — and that seems to be a pretty good thing.
Not only is Cam looking healthy and sounding as though he’s fully bought in to the way the Patriots do business, but second-year QB Jarrett Stidham does not appear to have taken any great strides forward in his own career. So entering the year with a bona fide NFL MVP at quarterback certainly gives the Patriots a whole lot more promise — and frankly, a whole lot more juice — than the alternative of starting either Stidham or Brian Hoyer.
Realistically, there should be some bumps for the new QB, especially early on. Running plays on the practice field is all well and good, but running those same plays in a real game against an aggressive defense is a whole other story.
On the positive side, though, Newton may be in the best physical shape he’s ever been in. And he hasn’t felt this level of motivation since his one year at Auburn … when he led the Tigers to an undefeated season and a national championship.
Provided he can maintain his health, he should absolutely be a difference-maker for what’s certain to be a new-look offense under Josh McDaniels.
Speaking of the OC …
Two years ago, the Patriots’ offense just wasn’t working the way that Brady and McDaniels envisioned it. But a late-season realization allowed the offense to change its identity on the fly, and the Patriots bulldozed their way to a Super Bowl title, thanks in large part to an unstoppable ground game.
Last year, with two tight ends and a left tackle and a starting center getting replaced as well as an injury to the fullback, that running game couldn’t quite get going. And an underwhelming receiving corps led to a frustrating season for everyone involved. This time around, there was no creative late-season epiphany that allowed the offense to reach a championship level.
Now with a new quarterback who possesses an entirely new skill-set and has no preexisting relationships with the receiving corps, McDaniels should be free to let his offensive creativity blossom.
What that looks like, exactly, we won’t know for sure until we see it. But for an offense that seemed to be stuck in the mud for the majority of last season, a major revamping should help in creating a more efficient, more potent offense in 2020.
The Continuity Factor
While there’s plenty of reason for optimism with Cam and Josh, there’s still the undeniable reality that they have not run any live snaps against a live defense in a game setting. Figuring that out on the fly will be … not so easy.
Really, the teams with the most offensive continuity figure to be at a supreme advantage this year, especially early in the season.
Think about an offense like Kansas City’s or Baltimore’s or San Francisco’s or New Orleans’, where the key parts are intact and the systems can kind of reboot on their own. Going up against defenses that aren’t quite at their best just yet in terms of the speed of the game and conditioning and a whole host of other areas should give a massive advantage to those teams.
The Patriots are not one of those teams. As such, for as much as you can buy into Newton and the running back depth and whatever you’d like with the receiving corps, we all should expect some hiccups and some ugly-looking three-and-outs through the first month or so of the season. It would only be natural.
Downgrade On Defense
Last year, the Patriots had the best defense in the NFL. It got them absolutely nothing.
OK, that’s an overstatement. It got them some big regular-season wins, like two victories over Buffalo, and a tighter-than-it-seemed Thursday contest over the Giants, and a rock fight in Philly, and a wet mess vs. Dallas. The defense won some games, hence the 12-4 record.
At the same time, Baltimore had no problem buzzing right through the Patriots’ defense. Nor did Kansas City, nor did Houston. Nor did … Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins. And nor did Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans.
So despite having the best defense, the Patriots still were vulnerable on defense.
Now, that defense is set to be undeniably worse than it was a year ago.
You’ve surely heard the list a million times by now: Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton — all gone. The reason you’ve heard it so many times is because that is a lot of talent, size, skill, experience and attitude now subtracted from the Patriots’ defense. Van Noy was on the field for 80.75 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last year, third-most on the team. He was a do-it-all defender, a role which took him a couple of years to carve out and one that can’t be easily replicated. Collins is an athlete among athletes, capable of making plays that few living men can make. Hightower is a rock. Chung is an intimidator. They’re all gone.
While you can feel positive vibes about rookie linebackers Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings, and while you might hold out hope that Belichick went classic Belichick with his Kyle Dugger pick, and while you may even feel warm and fuzzy about the ascent of Ja’Whaun Bentley to team captain … there is no denying that the defense will be sliding back to the middle of the pack this year. The defensive back group — led by Stephon Gilmore, plus a couple of McCourtys, and J.C. Jackson — is still elite. But if the front seven can’t do its job, even an elite defensive backfield will struggle to do its job. (It’s a team sport. You might have heard that before.)
Don’t be surprised when opponents in 2020 score with a whole lot more ease than they did a year ago. As a result, games just might get full-on wacky in the fourth quarter.
Sounds Of Silence
In a normal world, trips to Seattle and Kansas City in the opening four weeks would be an absolute nightmare for any team. In the COVID world, things will be a lot quieter.
The “12s,” as they obnoxiously call themselves while patting each other on the back for being “12s,” will not be in attendance in Seattle. And the seats at Arrowhead will be more empty than full. With that reality, the Patriots dodged a couple of the loudest buildings on earth in their first four weeks.
Now, against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs … it might not really matter. But it does help. (Chiefs fans seemed loud on TV in the Thursday night opener, but it still doesn’t compare to a full house.) And certainly, that Week 2 trip to the Pacific Northwest on Sunday Night Football looks a whole lot more manageable for a Patriots offense that will still very much be figuring itself out on national TV. Avoiding the deafening roar in Seattle will be a huge boost for the Patriots early on.
Hold Your Judgments
Look, given … everything, we know that things could go sideways for the Patriots this year. It’s entirely possible.
Just don’t go writing them off in the first six weeks of the season. That would be unwise.
The Patriots under Belichick often use September as an extended preseason, knowing that a 2-2 start is enough of a base to build from in the months that follow. They were 1-2 in 2018 and ended up winning a Super Bowl. They were 2-2 a year before and made the Super Bowl, which they would have won if Malcolm Butler had played. And they were 2-2 in 2014; we know how that season ended.
Conversely, some years they start out great, and it turns out to mean nothing. They went 10-0 to start 2015, ultimately losing in Denver in January. They went 8-0 to start last year, and they didn’t even win a playoff game.
The point is … it’s always unwise to make any grand declarations about the Patriots after four or five weeks, but it’s especially unwise to do that this year. Everything’s weird, and as coaches and executives navigate the new world of NFL football in COVID times, don’t be surprised if by the end of the year, Belichick proves to be the best at capitalizing on all of the wrinkles and twists of the system in 2020. That may develop slowly — with IR moves, practice squad situations, and so much more — but it feels like a certainty that no team is in better position to take advantage than the one in New England.
–Offensive line talk doesn’t put butts in the seats, no. But the Marcus Cannon opt-out is a doozy. If the Patriots don’t get basic protection and run blocking from that spot, it could be a long, painful year.
–THIS writer’s OFFICIAL 2020 Patriots prediction? 9-7. Who cares?
–Maybe 10-6 though.
–Hard to say but they could get to 11 wins if they steal a game or two.
–But 8-8 is not off the table.
–What a wild time to be an NFL rookie. They’ve been knocked around a bit on the practice field, sure, but they’ve never experienced anything like an NFL game. Now they get to make that debut, most of them doing so in empty NFL stadiums, with millions of fans watching and critiquing their every move. Wild times indeed.
–The inevitable pass from Julian Edelman to Cam Newton will be ab-so-freaking-lutely electric. (Newton hasn’t caught a pass since his rookie year in 2011, and he hasn’t been targeted since his second year. Josh McDaniels will see to it for that to assuredly change. Perhaps as soon as Week 1.)