The glory days are always glory days for a few reasons.
Joy. Fulfillment. Peak human experience and connection.
I’ll throw another one in there: they’re simple.
There’s no doubt about the best days or games or seasons. Gray area doesn’t belong in glory, as the Patriots know. For 20 years, they won a Super Bowl or they failed. That was it. That was the bar, the standard set by the greatest head coach and quarterback of all time.
Since Tom Brady left, the Patriots have been swimming in a gray area. A 7-9 campaign in 2020 both reflected lackluster roster talent and a confluence of circumstances outside the team’s control that dragged the season into the sewer: COVID-19, cap hell, injuries and changing league rules around the pandemic.
The Patriots’ terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2022 season packed a lot of gray area, too. Was it Mac Jones’ fault the team struggled? Bill Belichick’s? Joe Judge and Matt Patricia’s? The only universal agreement about that season, both internally and among fans and media, was it could never happen again.
Patricia left. Judge was reassigned. Belichick hired Bill O’Brien and has since gotten out of his way when it comes to coordinating the offense and coaching the quarterbacks. And Jones is embracing a prove-it season for his young career.
So what will success look like? Improvement is an obvious starting point, going from last year’s mark of 8-9 to 9-8 or 10-7 or perhaps even better. The Pats can’t simply regress again. From his owner suite, Robert Kraft will be watching with a critical eye, prepared to make more changes.
“We’re about winning and doing whatever we can to win. That’s what our focus is now,” Kraft said last March at the annual owners meetings. “It’s very important to me that we make the playoffs. That’s what I hope happens next year.”
So is reaching the postseason the goal then? Already we know 14 of 32 teams clinch a playoff berth, and at least one of those 32 — Arizona — is actively punting on this season. That leaves the Patriots with essentially a 50-50 shot to reach their goal — except, when you factor in their schedule.
According to oddsmakers, the Pats will face the NFL’s toughest schedule by opponents’ over-under win totals for this season. Is finishing in the neighborhood of .500 against that type of murderer’s row — including a December stretch versus Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Justin Herbert — really a failure?
Maybe, maybe not. Injuries, as they always do, will factor. But if Jones goes down, or another pillar of the Patriots’ roster, is that excuse enough to let the team enter the offseason without more clarity? Or a real ultimatum from Kraft?
But let’s say they overcome the odds and make the playoffs. They snag a Wild Card spot, beating out at least one of the Bills, Dolphins or Jets, who are all expected to finish ahead of them in the division.
If they get blown to smithereens again, like they did in a Wild Card game at Buffalo to cap their 2021 campaign, how will you feel? Will Jones deserve to have his fifth-year option picked up? Should Belichick make more changes? And if he’s reluctant, should Kraft force him to spend more, shuffle his staff or roster?
By then, the Patriots’ last five years will have included two empty playoff trips and zero postseason wins. How does a region whose identity is so embedded with its championship sports teams reckon with that? And that’s one of their better case-scenarios.
The Patriots, at the very least, are self-aware. Refusing to go all in on new weaponry and a reinforced offensive line around Jones, even while he plays out his team-friendly rookie contract, most likely reflects a lack of belief in him. And what has he done to deserve that all-in treatment?
Jones followed one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback in NFL history with a four-month, 17-game dud. Perhaps it was Belichick’s fault. Or both of theirs. The team doesn’t know. Again, it’s a gray area.
In an attempt to clarify his expectations, Kraft acknowledged the gray back in March. He spoke to the fact the Patriots have been wandering the NFL wilderness with other mediocre franchises, a place winning teams can only survive for so long.
“But in the end, this is a business. You either execute and win or you don’t. That’s where we’re at,” he said. “I think we’re in a transition phase.”
Here’s hoping next year, if not this season, they can find a way out.
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