By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — From the Pop Warner level to the pros, football coaches around the country have always and will always preach that nothing is more important than ball security. And during Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach of the Patriots, the football team in New England has managed to hold that ideal in even higher regard than the rest.
That’s why it is particularly startling that the Patriots through seven weeks of the season rank as one the most careless teams with the football.
Perhaps the average American might chalk that up to being just the latest oddity in the 2020 calendar year, but to Bill Belichick and Co., it’s a significant problem.
“Well, it has to be corrected going forward for us to have any success,” Belichick said Monday on a video call with reporters, one day after his team lost 33-6 at home to the 49ers. “There’s nothing more important than that. We’ve put a tremendous amount of emphasis on it. Just gotta do a better job, a better job of coaching and have to do a better job taking care of the ball.”
Sunday’s game saw Cam Newton throw three interceptions, with Jarrett Stidham chucking one more for good measure. Those misplays brought the Patriots’ team interception total to 11, which is the most in the NFL.
Overall, the Patriots have turned the ball over 14 times, tied for the second-most giveaways in the NFL. As bad as that number is through six games played, Belichick said it could be even worse.
“And there have been some examples where the ball’s been out but we’ve been able to get it back,” Belichick said. “So those really fall into that same category where we didn’t actually lose the ball but we could have.”
For some perspective on the Patriots’ 14 turnovers in six games, consider that last year’s team turned the ball over just 15 times all year, third-fewest in the league. In fact, over the past 10 years, the team finished the season with fewer than 14 or fewer turnovers five different times. This year’s team hasn’t even made it to the halfway point of the season.
PATRIOTS GIVEAWAYS, BY SEASON
2020 (6 games): 14
Obviously, even though Belichick didn’t say it, a change at quarterback has been the most glaring issue this year. Tom Brady spoke often about how Belichick regularly drilled into his players’ heads that the team that wins the turnover battle ends up winning the game more than 75 percent of the time. And surely, having a Hall of Fame quarterback launch 5,770 passes while throwing just 1.4 percent of them for interceptions over the course of a decade is a solid way to ensure that your team doesn’t often cough up the football more often than the opponent.
The Patriots have not had that luxury this year, Newton throwing seven interceptions on 131 attempts — good for a 5.3 percent interception rate. Newton’s career interception rate is much more manageable at 2.8 percent, so his current mark is likely more indicative of a quarterback in a rut instead of a quarterback playing to his potential.
Newton said the turnovers are now officially in his head.
“It’s kind of that theory that when you think about something too much, then that’s when it really happens the most. And from day one of me being here, the key to win have always been protecting the football. And here I am, I have yet — or we, as an offense — have yet to play a turnover-free game. That is the key to win,” Newton said Monday on his weekly WEEI radio interview. “And when it happens, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Like, I know I’m not supposed to be throwing interceptions left and right, I know fumbles are not supposed to be falling, but it keeps happening. And that’s one of those things where it’s like, the law of attraction. You’re saying, ‘Man, I cannot turn the ball over here.’ And then boop — three plays later, it happens. And it’s kind of a weird thing. It’s almost comedic to even think about, because it’s like, bro, I’m not planning out just going out there and [throwing] interceptions left and right. That’s not what it is. I don’t know what funk, spell or omen that’s in Boogie’s household right now, but I have to light off some chakras, some sage or something.”
It’s an honest answer, but it’s something that Newton will have to solve quickly if he hopes to make the most of what could be his last chance at a long-term NFL contract.
In the short term, the turnovers are killing the Patriots, who sit at 2-4 and now face an absolute must-win situation in Buffalo this coming Sunday. Belichick won’t be looking for a reduction of turnovers, though. He’ll be looking for a complete eradication.
“I think the issues have been multiple, and different things have contributed to those turnovers on various plays,” Belichick said. “So, we have addressed all those and we’ll continue to address them, but we need to start changing the number of times that opponents are able to touch the ball. We need to cut that to zero.”