The New England Patriots aren’t very good. You don’t have to take my word for it—just listen to head coach Bill Belichick. “We didn’t perform well enough in any area,” he said after his team’s 33–6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers and former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday. “Offense, defense, special teams, running, passing, defending the run, defending the pass, ball security, tackling, blocking. None of it was good enough. Maybe I left something out.” Yes, you forgot “being entertaining,” Bill. Next time you get shellacked, please make it a little more amusing.
The Patriots have lost three games in a row and are now 2–4. This is a confusing and destabilizing development. There are legions of fully grown adults who have never seen a bad Patriots team. New England has made the playoffs and won its division in all but two seasons since 2001. This year marks the first time since 2002 that New England has had a losing record in October. Should the Patriots lose to the AFC East–leading Buffalo Bills this coming Sunday, the division may well be out of reach three full weeks before Thanksgiving. The AFC East–leading Buffalo Bills. The AFC East–leading Buffalo Bills! The AFC East–leading Buffalo Bills!!?!?!?!!
Football fans have long wondered—fantasized, even—about what it would look like for the New England dynasty to collapse. A Patriots “failure” usually comes in the form of a narrow postseason loss that motivates the squad to win the next year’s Super Bowl. In a league where seasons last only 16 games and playoff spots are limited, the Patriots have hogged far more than their fair share of success. And so their demise should elicit glee and schadenfreude—the bully getting de-pantsed in front of the entire school. But seeing the 49ers brush the Pats aside like they were a more dour edition of the Jets was more akin to watching that bully struggle to read a passage aloud in class. It wasn’t funny at all.
Sunday’s game was over by halftime, when the Niners jogged to the Gillette Stadium locker room with a 23–3 lead. Patriots quarterback Cam Newton was benched in the second half after passing for just 98 yards and throwing three interceptions. His first giveaway was particularly rough, and it’s worth watching the replay with the volume up because you can hear someone—I have no clue who—moan, “Ooh.” It’s the sound of meek resignation, like a guy watching poorly secured cargo tumble from the back of a pickup.
The quarterback position is at the crux of our national dilemma regarding the Patriots’ unfunny losing streak. Now, if Tom Brady had been on the sideline looking glum in his oversized coat, that would have been the kind of thing worth gathering the family round the television to watch. Brady, you might recall, has won six Super Bowls. His unimpeachable success makes it fun to laugh at him. Remember when he threw a pick-six against the Titans at the end of last year’s wild-card game? That was funny, just like it’s funny when a car splashes a puddle onto a guy wearing a tuxedo.
Yes, Newton does wear a lot of fancy clothes. But New England’s Brady replacement has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons and was thrown onto the scrap heap by his former team. He deserves no credit or blame for the Patriots’ past success, nor can his struggles be looked at as some kind of deserved comeuppance. Newton playing poorly isn’t funny. It just means he’s going to get more blame than he deserves.
Brady, meanwhile, seems to have fully recovered from his recent divorce. As the Patriots were flying the white flag against the Niners on Sunday afternoon, their old quarterback was enjoying his best game of the year. He threw for 369 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions in a 45–20 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. It was impressive, sure, but, again, I didn’t laugh a single time.
To be fair, the circumstances surrounding this season have left little room for humor. Before it began, eight New England players opted out due to concerns about the coronavirus, including key defensive starters Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower. Newton and four teammates have tested positive for COVID-19 since last month, and the team has been forced to cancel practices and postpone a game. Patriots haters may have wished ill upon the team, but not like this. They should be losing in a packed home stadium full of healthy, sad fans.
Now that Brady is wearing a creamsicle uniform and owner Robert Kraft is in repose after successfully massaging the Florida court system, Belichick is left to be the enduring public face of this waning dynasty. One might assume it would be perversely fun to watch the infamous sourpuss face reporters after a 27-point loss (his worst-ever home defeat in New England) to a quarterback he traded away, but one would be mistaken. Belichick is more candid in defeat than in victory, and he was eager to take responsibility after the game. Dare I say that he was pretty likable in his press conference? (Graded on a sliding scale, naturally.)
The Patriots are below average, and he knows it. He also knows that a lot of people have been waiting a very long time for this moment, and there’s no way Belichick would ever give us the pleasure of seeing him be taken by surprise. His team is either going to keep losing, sadly and boringly, or he’s going to do what he’s always done and find a way to win. It’s going to be rough to watch either way.