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Gaffney: It's Time for the Patriots to Start Thinking About Life After Bill Belichick and Mac Jones

Uninspired, Unbelievable, and Unacceptable would be good words to use to describe the Patriots' outing in Dallas. Even with the injuries at cornerback and on the offensive front, spotting the Cowboys 15 points on offense with two inexcusable turnovers was your game, in essence. The three points the Patriots scored on their opening drive were the only ones they put up all day.

This loss, however, feels like every key problem the Patriots have had over the last three seasons culminating at once. They've lost to 15 playoff teams (assuming the Dolphins, Eagles, and Cowboys all make it this year) since the beginning of 2021, to just three victories. They continuously have to play from behind, and they cannot overcome it, and offensive turnovers continue to haunt them.

To that end, I think it's time to come to terms with two things. 1) Bill Belichick could very well be coaching his final 13 games in New England if things continue like this. He's < .500 in the post-Brady era, and despite coming away with 2021 and 2023, has failed to surround this team with the adequate pass-catching talent on the outside to truly compete in the NFL, and his Matt Patricia experiment would have justifiably gotten any other coach in the league fired.

2) Mac Jones might not be 'the guy'. It's hard to put every individual problem on offense at his feet, but there have been more than a few games in the last three seasons where he's been dreadful. Outside of this Sunday, the Raiders, Bears, and both Jets games last year, plus the second Bills game in his rookie year. But yesterday was perhaps the worst of all of them. Outside of the three turnovers, which we're all categorically on him, he checked out before Belichick put him on the bench for Bailey Zappe. That's the sign that things are definitely going well (heavy sarcasm if you couldn't tell).

Now entering a stretch where the Patriots play the Saints, Bills, Dolphins, Commanders, and Colts before the bye, likely playing each game without Christian Gonzalez and Matt Judon for those games, and then some, things are probably about to get much worse before they get better. It might be time to start having those tough conversations now.

Hanging Up the Headset and Hoodie?

It may not be this year, but it feels like we're definitely in Bill Belichick's end game as an NFL head coach. Robert Kraft and the team made it abundantly clear this offseason that Jerod Mayo will be Belichick's successor, and it's a matter of when instead of if. He's also made it clear, subtly, that he wanted to get back to winning playoff games after 2021, and for factors both in and out of Bill's control, that clearly isn't happening in 2023.

As for what was in his control this offseason, he was nowhere near aggressive enough to improve this offensive line and find quality wide receivers consistently enough. Calvin Anderson was a more than fine move as a depth piece, but I wasn't a big fan of bringing in Riley Rieff, who's yet to take a regular-season snap with the team. They were reportedly in on Andre Dillard but got outbid on him by the Tennessee Titans. The most amount of money he's ever dished out to a wide receiver externally was to Nelson Agholor at $12,000,000 per, and while the jury is still out on Tyqaun Thornton, two brutal preseason injuries in a row have hampered his availability early into his career. Then, when you factor in the Juju Smith-Schuster plug-in for Jakobi Meyers, which looks awful four weeks in, the philosophy on getting offensive-skill guys in the building needs to evolve.

It's also worth mentioning that New England's issues are either on offense or injury-related on defense. You can't hold Belichick accountable for the horrific luck with health at cornerback or Matt Judon's freak bicep injury. At full health, this was legitimately one of the best defenses in football. With that said, Belichick deserves a ton of blame for what has happened to this offense since the beginning of 2022. He's had final say over everything for 15 years, and it might be time that ends whether he likes it or not.

Back to the Drawing Board

We're 35 regular season games into the career of Mac Jones, and I'm now prepared to say, especially after Sunday, that he is not 'the guy'. Has he been put in the greatest spot ever? Obviously not, and a good chunk of that is on Belichick. But there's enough of a sample size to show he can't play from behind, can't hang in shootouts, and cannot consistently win against high-level competition. Before this year, he's 3-12 against playoff teams, has only ever thrown 12 passes when either leading or tied with less than four minutes left in a game (82 throws when losing under the same parameters), has never won a game (0-13) when the opposition scores 25 points, and 3-17 when a team scores over 20. Again, not all of this is on him. Belichick gave him no shot in 2022, but Mac isn't blameless himself.

Especially given the level of talent at quarterback in the 2024 draft with guys like Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, Michael Penix Jr., Quinn Ewers, and potentially Shedeur Sanders, you could practically start counting down the starts left at this point. Dallas marked a massive opportunity for Jones to break a lot of narratives, and he had arguably the worst start of his career. The three turnovers Jones had were inexcusable, and specifically, that pick-six going back across the field should have gotten him immediately benched. He was lucky to get away with it once and deservingly got burned going back for it a second time. Beyond infuriating.

All of Jones' teammates and coaches are saying, and have repeatedly in the past said the right things about him, but at some point, this has to end. The lack of wins against legitimate competition has to become a trend instead of a fluke sooner or later, and these brutal turnovers will continue to hurt them. Keep in mind that the worst of their schedule has yet to come. They haven't even played Buffalo yet. The annual Miami loss isn't too far out. New Orleans, Washington, Indianapolis, and both New York games left aren't exactly freebies anymore. Not to mention that there's still Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers a bit further down the line. Do you see this team, as constructed, and with the injuries they have, winning any more than three of those games with Mac Jones as the starter? To me, that answer is no. It sucks, but that's just the reality of it at this point. It's probably in everyone's best interests to move on after this year unless things dramatically improve, and I just don't see that happening.

What Would I Do To Change Things

In the quickest way to go over this, here's how I would approach this offseason if things go the way I think they are the rest of this season. I'm giving Belichick the option to either relinquish defacto GM duties or walk away. The Patriots already have the proper people in place to replace him (Jerod Mayo and Matt Groh/Eliot Wolf) in the event he walks, but I don't think many would be too enraged at the idea of Belichick staying on as head coach, just not with roster control anymore. Then, the plan should be to move on from Mac Jones after this season. It's in everyone's best interest to move on at the rate things are going.

Regardless of how Belichick decides to go about things, the plan should be this (keep in mind that the Patriots are slated to have a league-high amount of cap space, and are most likely going to end up with a top 10 draft pick, potentially top 5):

1) Draft a Quarterback in Round 1 of the 2024 NFL Draft by any means necessary (If the opportunity presents itself to get Caleb Williams via trade or otherwise, do it).

2) Sign one of the top four wide receivers in free agency (Calvin Ridley, Mike Evans, Michael Pittman, or Tee Higgins, ranked in that order, assuming all four hit the open market) to create a wideout core of whoever that is, plus Kendrick Bourne, Pop Douglass, etc.

3) Sign at least two of the three key 2020 draft class members to long-term extensions (Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Michael Onwenu, ranked in order of importance).

4) Solidify a long-term plan at both tackle spots and left guard (there's not much on the open market for tackles, but there are options).

5) Bring in a veteran quarterback to serve as a true backup option and serve in a mentorship role (Tyrod Taylor, Jacoby Brissett, and Teddy Bridgewater all make logical sense).

The fact that the defense is in the spot it's in is enough to feel good about the direction of this franchise moving forward. The 100% have the pieces on that side of the ball figured out. The bottom line, however, is this: This offense has been unacceptable over the last 20 regular season games, and the philosophy that goes into decisions on that side of the ball must drastically change.

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