Shocking Return of a Super Bowl Hero

The New England Patriots reunited with a old friend on Wednesday. The Super Bowl XLIX hero who was benched a few years later in Super Bowl LII has returned to wear the flying Elvis logo. CB Malcolm Butler signed a 2-year deal to come back to the Patriots after being released from the retired list by Arizona last month. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all with Bill Belichick, he pulls an extremely surprising heal-turn. The relationship had clearly soured leading up to Super Bowl LII, which was ultimately his last game in a Patriots uniform (the first stint) despite his pivotal role on the defense. All the personal aside, the Patriots are in desperate need for defensive back depth after losing top CB J.C. Jackson and Butler is certainly a guy who can step right in and contribute.

When the news came out that they brought Butler in for a visit a few days ago, I was shocked and figured it was just them kicking the tires on as many players as possible. To have the visit result in a 2-year up to $9 million contract is jaw-dropping. What must the conversations have been like when they were negotiating or asking him to sign in New England? Was Bill involved in the conversation and if so, did they talk about the benching in Super Bowl LII? I have so many questions about how this all went down and what the future will bring for this rekindled relationship.

Butler was responsible for one of the greatest plays in Patriots postseason history and will forever be remembered for that moment. Down 4 pts with 26 seconds remaining and the ball on the 1-yard line, rather than handing it off to their powerful RB Marshawn Lynch, QB Russell Wilson dropped back and threw a slant pass in the direction of WR Tyler Lockett. Butler read the play and stepped in front to intercept the pass and seal the Super Bowl victory. The Patriots win probability before the play was 12%, but it felt even lower watching it in real time. That one beautiful play forever cemented his name in Patriots lore.

In his 4 seasons with the Patriots, Butler amassed 8 INTs, 47 passes deflected, 4 forced fumbles and 172 solo tackles. He made one Pro Bowl and won 2 Super Bowl rings. The Patriots may have had a third ring if he wasn’t benched in Super Bowl LII and the defense allowed 41 points to Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles. CB Eric Rowe took his place in the game and allowed 137 yards on 6/7 against him. It’s to this day one of the more puzzling decisions I’ve seen Bill Belichick make. A player who can contribute and help you win a championship is essentially a healthy scratch for the Super Bowl. Obviously whatever the real reason for the benching is ancient history.

This could be a sneaky good move for the Patriots. Butler is not J.C. Jackson and the defensive back group is definitely not as good as last year, but Butler is a low-risk, high reward signing. After three seasons with the Tennessee Titans, Butler signed with the Arizona Cardinals. He ended up leaving the team for personal reasons at the end of camp and decided to sit out 2021. Butler could be fresher and more motivated to prove himself at 32 years old. The Patriots clearly like what they saw when he visited this week, which makes me think he’s still got the skills. He’s a veteran who knows what it’s like to win in New England and knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run. He knows the play book and despite being gone for 5 seasons, should be able to fall right back into the routine. It’s certainly possible this doesn’t work, but I have a sneaky feeling it will be a great reunion.

Now that the big free agents are gone, it may be time for some more bargain signings and perhaps a trade or two to get this Patriots roster back to playoff ready. Did somebody say wide receiver?

Jimmy Garoppolo’s Future in Question

This season has been a rocky one for San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. It began with the 49ers drafting QB Trey Lance with the #3 pick in the 2021 draft, all but spelling the end of the Garoppolo era in San Francisco after 5 seasons. With his massive contract ending this offseason, I would be shocked if the 49ers decide to retain the former Patriots backup, leaving him to search around for his next gig in the NFL. While his career numbers are decent and he’s had a few great moments, Jimmy G hasn’t been able to stay on the field for a full season, starting just 45 of the 87 games since joining the 49ers in 2017. At 30 years old, what does the future hold for Jimmy G?

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the career of Jimmy G, it’s 2019. He played in 16 games (of 19 total including playoffs) and took the 49ers to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, they lost to the Kansas City Chiefs, but made bay area fans believe that the future was bright. The 49ers were up 20-10 going into the 4th quarter, but Patrick Mahomes dropped 21 unanswered points (that’s never happened before, right?) and the Chiefs took home the trophy. Jimmy G went 20 for 31 for 219 yards, but threw 1 TD and 2 INTs which didn’t help his cause. In the previous game (AFC Championship), a win against the Green Bay Packers, Garoppolo didn’t have a big impact throwing just 8 times (completing 6) for 77 yards with no TDs or INTs. He was helped by a few INTs by his defense and a solid run game.

Overall, while his career numbers are pretty decent, Jimmy G hasn’t proven he can make the big throw in the big moment consistently when his team needs him the most. Garoppolo is 33-14 in 63 regular season and playoff games as an NFL QB (both starting and off the bench) with a 67.7 completion percentage and 11,852 yards (including 2-0 with the Patriots in his 2 starts in 2016). He has 71 TDs and 38 INTs in his career with an 8.4 yards per throw average which are all solid, if not great, numbers. When looking at his ability in big games, it’s not as pretty of a picture. He is 4-2 in the playoffs in 6 starts, but has thrown 4 TDs and 6 INTs and has a completion percentage of just 60.6% and a quarterback rating over 24.5 points lower than his overall career numbers. I know the competition is stiffer in the playoffs, but a precipitous drop in performance certainly won’t be looked at highly by potential suitors.

With such an influx of young talent at the QB position, where does that leave a very good regular season QB at the age of 30? This past season, just 10 QBs aged 30+ started 10+ games for their respective franchises. Of those 10, 1 has already retired (Ben Roethlisberger) and it’s likely that 1 or maybe even 2 more join him (Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, maybe Matt Ryan). While 30 is not old, if given another starting opportunity Jimmy G will be one of the oldest QBs in the NFL, which is crazy to think about. The emergence of QBs coming out of college ready to compete within a few seasons on much more economical deals has made GMs think twice before investing $25+ million in a free agent, like the 49ers did with Jimmy G in 2018. GMs will be looking to strike it rich with guys like Joe Burrow in Cincinnati and Josh Allen in Buffalo who are both 25 and have more than proved their immense value this postseason.

The overall picture isn’t amazing for Jimmy G, but there are a few interesting landing spots for his talent. The Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints, Washington Football Team, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Pittsburgh Steelers seem like the most likely spots for Garoppolo if he’s going to find another starting gig. The Bucs is an unlikely scenario, but as a Pats fan, a fun one to think about if/when Brady retires. They drafted University of Florida QB Kyle Trask this year, but if he’s not ready, they may want a veteran for a year to fill the gap. The Saints made sense with Sean Payton at the helm and a potential need for a QB, but with his retirement, I’m not sure what the future system will look like. The Broncos and the Football Team (still odd to type) have picks in the top 11 of the draft and both will likely be looking for their next guy. They both seem to have cap space to bring in Jimmy G to provide a veteran presence to guide the future young QB and maybe keep the team competitive in the short-term.

An interesting spot for me is the Steelers. They are without a viable starting QB and don’t have a high draft pick to grab one (#20), so they might need a stop-gap for a few years to get and develop their next guy. If so, Jimmy G could be a really enticing option as a veteran who can step in and win some games post-Big Ben. The team is solid overall and with a healthy Jimmy G could make a playoff run in year 1 without a major drop-off. Garoppolo loves a run-heavy, short-to-mid passing game scheme and the Steelers could fit that bill with the talented young RB Najee Harris and a solid receiving core with WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR Diontae Johnson, and the Massachusetts native TE Pat Freiermuth.

At this point in his career, I think Jimmy G is still an NFL starting QB. He’s not likely to get a big and/or long deal, but will be an intriguing option for the next year or two for teams looking to be competitive while thinking through longer-term options. I don’t think I’m the only one in New England that hopes Garoppolo can find a starting job and stay on the field in 2022.

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, AKA The 🐐, Has Retired (Officially)

After a rocky retirement leak and some fast backpedaling, the news most everyone expected was made official: Tom Brady has retired. After 22 seasons in the NFL, the greatest QB of all time has decided to hang up his cleats and spend more time with his family. The 7-time super bowl champion is unmatched in damn-near every NFL stat category and after a brief 2-season fling with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be forever remembered as a New England Patriot (even if they are not mentioned in his retirement message). At 44-years old, Brady certainly didn’t look to be declining in skill this past season which makes his retirement even more respectable. He’s walking away from the game he loves while still playing at the highest level at an unthinkable age. Whether you loved him or hated him, there is no QB in the history of football that compares in terms of accomplishment.

An underdog in the NFL from day 1, Brady played with a massive chip on his shoulder and a competitive drive that pushed him to be the best every single day. The long talked about 6th round, 199th overall selection, Brady always gave his team a chance to win and almost single-handedly carried many of those teams to championship victories. Brady won 3 MVPs and finished in the top 3 in MVP voting 5 other times. His durability was a thing of beauty, missing a total of 19 games since becoming a starter and not missing a single game in 18 his 20 full seasons (I’m leaving out 2001 because he didn’t become starter until week 2). Of the 19 missed games, 4 were due to suspension and 15 due to his week 1 ACL and MCL tear at the hands of S Bernard Pollard on a sack attempt. It could be the TB12 diet and exercise routines he developed or just incredible genetics, but his sustained endurance and longevity is another unmatched quality in his career.

One of Brady’s most outrageous skills was his clutch gene. His ability to lead a big 4th quarter or OT drive for a tie or win is unmatched and is something we’ll likely never see again. According to Pro Football Reference, Brady has 42 4th quarter comebacks in his career and 54 game-winning-drives, just 1 behind Peyton Manning in both categories. As a fan (either for or against), you knew that if you gave him any time left with a chance to drive down field and tie or win, it was almost automatic and the game was far from over. There was always an intangible feeling that as soon as Brady touched the ball with a chance to make something big happen, it was going to happen.

The plethora of notable moments in Brady’s career are too plentiful to list. For the older casual NFL fan, he’ll always be known for the tuck-rule snow game that changed how the NFL adjudicated fumble vs forward pass during the 2001 AFC Championship game and more recently, for the insane 28-3 comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI in 2017 with 31 unanswered points in the 3rd quarter, 4th quarter, and OT. For younger fans and Buccaneers fans, he’ll be remembered for leaving New England and getting his 7th ring in the Florida sun and returning the Lombardi Trophy to the Buccaneers after an 18 span without a title.

From a Pats fan, thank you Tom (even if the feeling isn’t mutual)! While it’s the end of the Tom Brady era on the football field, I have a feeling we’ll still be hearing a lot from the former QB with the TB12 brand and his new clothing brand. He’s not going away quietly.

The Looming Josh McDaniels Departure

The will they/won’t they saga of the Las Vegas Raiders GM and coaching search has been a wild ride. In 24 hours it went from Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels and Patriots Director of Player Personnel Dave Ziegler as potential candidates headed to Vegas as head coach and GM, to them both being out of consideration and neither in the running, back to both of them being favored as a pair to take the head coach and GM jobs. The Raiders are known for having no idea what they are doing when it comes to hiring and there is no greater example of that than when they asked for an interview with GM candidate Dave Ziegler prior to even firing their current GM Mike Mayock. Mark Davis really knows how to run a franchise… Putting Vegas aside, if Josh McDaniels were to depart New England, for real this time, what impact would it have on the Patriots franchise?

The first question becomes who replaces McDaniels as offensive coordinator. While there isn’t a clear and obvious internal choice, the Patriots could consider promoting wide receivers/kick returners coach and Patriots legend Troy Brown to that role. He’s quite inexperienced in the coaching world, which is certainly a disadvantage, but not completely out of the blue for Belichick, especially if he trusts and respects Brown as a coach. It’s possible that Belichick could begin by taking over the play-calling reigns with Brown as an offensive assistant and eventually hand over the play-calling duties to him over time. It’s near impossible to say what Brown’s style as a play-caller would be other than continuing the Patriots current system, so if he were to be hired, there would be a lot of interested eyes watching his every move. While I wouldn’t say this is a strong possibility, I think it’s worth watching.

While the internal candidates aren’t obvious, there is a blatantly obvious external name on the table when replacing McDaniels. Bill Belichick could dip into his well, as he loves to do, and bring back Bill O’Brien, who was an assistant on the staff from 2007-2011 (offensive coordinator in 2011). He’s locally connected (grew up in Massachusetts, went to Brown University in RI) and has spent time both as a head coach in the NFL and college as well as an offensive coordinator in college since his departure from the Patriots. After being fired as the Houston Texans head coach in 2020 after 6ish seasons, he took over as the offensive coordinator under Belichick’s favorite college coach, Nick Saban. O’Brien just happens to be learning the Alabama offense and QB Mac Jones just happens to have had success in that same Alabama offense just a little over a year ago. To say the path seems clear and obvious is an understatement.

If O’Brien replaces McDaniels, what does that mean for the offense in general? There were certainly times last season that it felt like the play-calling wasn’t as effective as it had been in the past. A piece of that is the introduction of a rookie QB into a complicated offense and the need to simplify, at least in the first half of the season. Another piece of that equation was McDaniels trying to learn where Mac Jones was most comfortable and help ease him into the league without wrecking his confidence. McDaniels spent most of his career calling plays for a QB that he knew inside and out and that made him look great consistently. When that comfort was stripped away, some cracks emerged, but that frankly would happen to most any offensive coordinator/rookie QB combo across the league. Looking at O’Brien’s history as offensive coordinator, his style could help Jones and the Patriots move forward.

O’Brien’s lone season as the offensive coordinator with the Patriots in 2011 was one of, if not the most prolific seasons of Tom Brady‘s career. Removing this past season because of 1 extra game, 2011 was Brady’s highest yards thrown (5,235) and he was tied for the most passes completed (401) in a season. O’Brien was deemed an innovative and creative offensive mind, which helped propel him to the head coaching job at Penn State the next season. This past season, O’Brien led Alabama QB Bryce Young and the offense to a strong season, culminating in a loss in the College Championship game. The offense was the 6th most prolific in points per game, 4th in passing TDs per game, and 7th in total passing yards per game. It’s a bit hard to really judge given the dominant system he walked into, but O’Brien has some very recent experience in a high-level, pro-style system that happens to transition into the current Patriots system easily.

Ultimately, if O’Brien is the new offensive coordinator I don’t see a ton of change overall. I think O’Brien will perhaps be a bit more aggressive than McDaniels, but he’ll also have a 2nd year QB with more experience than this past season. For Jones’ sake, O’Brien would likely keep much of the same offense and just ramp up some of the pre-play motion and hopefully continue to push the creative boundaries of play-calling. O’Brien had a lot of success in 2011 with short-mid range passing game, utilizing the slot receivers and TEs in creative ways. That fits nicely with Jones’ play-style and skillset and doesn’t deviate much from the current design.

After many threats of an exit for McDaniels (seemingly every year), this year might be a good time for both parties to move on. McDaniels hasn’t exactly wowed the past few years and it’s about time he actually takes another head coaching job if he doesn’t see Belichick’s retirement on the horizon. One theory around why he took, then turned down the Colts job in 2018 was because there was some unwritten agreement that he was the heir-apparent when Belichick finally retires. Whether that’s true or not, any decision to walk away from the Patriots at this point makes me think that McDaniels believes Bill is hanging on for at least a few more years and his future path within the organization isn’t clear.

While nothing is locked in yet, this could finally be the year that Josh McDaniels finally leaves the Patriots franchise after his 2nd stint in New England and 6 super bowl championships. On the other hand, you never know what decision the Raiders will make. There is still a strong possibility that we are right back here next season having the same conversation about a potential McDaniels departure. Let the offseason hiring carousel continue to spin.

Top 5 Offseason Decisions for the Patriots

With the 2022 offseason in full swing for the New England Patriots after their abrupt playoff exit, it’s time to take a look at the plethora of big decisions the team will be facing before the start of next season. The Pats have a whopping 20 free agents to handle this offseason including some big defensive pieces and veteran leaders, including 4 of their 5 captains from 2021. It could be a significant turning point for the franchise depending on the direction Bill Belichick takes the team. The opening day roster could look quite a bit different next season. Let’s look at some of the biggest free agents on the Pats.

1. J.C. Jackson, CB

After moving on from one of the best corner backs in football, Stephon Gilmore, Bill Belichick handed the #1 reigns to J.C. Jackson and seemingly committed to him going forward. As a whole, he had a great season and did a really nice job shutting down the opposing team’s top receiver on a weekly basis. He played in all 17 games and made his first Pro Bowl thanks to 8 interceptions and a career-high 23 passes deflected. There were some moments of struggle down the stretch, but a lot of that can be attributed to the awful depth at corner behind Jackson and the complete lack of a pass-rush in the last month of the season giving opposing QBs tons of time to read the defense and throw. If Belichick decides not to pay Jackson, he’ll have a hard time bringing in another #1 corner at a reasonable price and the Pats secondary could be in for another rough year.

Prediction: Jackson takes a small hometown discount (keyword is small), but gets paid handsomely and appropriately to stay in New England for the next few years as the #1 corner. It will solidify the top spot in the secondary and then allow Belichick to fill-in behind him.

2. Devin McCourty, S

The 27th pick in the 1st round of the 2010 draft has proven to be a critical mainstay with the Pats. Devin McCourty started as a corner after being drafted out of Rutgers, but was moved to safety a few seasons into his NFL career and it was a great decision. McCourty has anchored the Pats secondary for the last decade and at 34, this is a big decision for both him and the Patriots. One possible outcome on the table is that McCourty decides to retire and doesn’t give the Pats a chance to make a decision. If he decides to keep playing, Belichick will likely not want to give someone of his age a large contract. It might come down to how much McCourty wants to stick around in New England and how much he’s willing to budge on salary to make that happen.

Prediction: McCourty is beloved in New England and with a young child at home, I imagine he won’t want to uproot his family for a year or two elsewhere unless he has no choice. As long as the Patriots offer him a fair deal, he decides to keep playing and comes back on a team friendly 1-year deal and then retires following the season.

3. Matthew Slater, WR

Slater may be one of the most underrated players on the Pats roster. As a team captain and primary special teams player, Belichick loves Slater and his ability to impact special teams on a consistent basis. His ability to stay on the field (he hasn’t missed a game for the Patriots in 4 years) and lead the special teams efforts make him an important person to re-sign. His intangibles are his greatest asset, as he is often praised by the coaches for his leadership and recognized for his contributions to the community off the field. While Slater is another potential retirement candidate as he will turn 37 in September, his workload primarily on special teams may allow him to play deeper into his 30s than someone on the field for more snaps.

Prediction: I’m a bit more torn on this one, but think Slater will follow in McCourty’s footsteps and sign a 1-year deal to finish his career a Patriot. Like McCourty, I think this upcoming season could be his last in the NFL.

4. Trent Brown, T

One of the largest people in the league, Brown’s 6’8″ 380lb frame helps him protect the QB from the tackle spot when he’s on the field. In his 2nd stint with the Patriots in 2021, just 7 snaps into his season he hurt his calf and didn’t return until week 10. When healthy, Brown is a great tackle and is a strong QB protector and at 28, is still pretty young, but he hasn’t played a full schedule of games since 2018 (his previous Patriots season). Last year with the Las Vegas Raiders, Brown only appeared in 5 games after an IV was incorrectly placed and caused air to enter his bloodstream and nearly caused cardiac arrest. While it was a freak accident, it does add to his reputation of not being able to stay on the field. As players get older, they tend to have more injuries pop-up as well, so there is some concern for Brown long-term when he’s already struggling to stay healthy in his 20s.

Prediction: As good as Brown is, his inability to play a full season consistently will prevent the Pats from giving him starting tackle money, while another team who is worse off on the offensive line may. My guess is that Brown will sign a surprisingly large contract with another team (like he did when he went to Las Vegas) and the Patriots will either draft a depth offensive lineman or pick one up in free agency.

5. Dont’a Hightower, LB

Super Bowl hero Dont’a Hightower returned this year after opting out in 2020 due to COVID. For his standards, Hightower had a relatively quiet season this past year and didn’t seem to have nearly the same impact he’s had in the past, both in stats and with the eye test. As a point of comparison, he had just 1.5 sacks this year as opposed to 6 in 2019 and had fewer tackles overall compared to 2019. The sack dip makes sense with the addition of DE Matthew Judon’s pass-rush ability (at least until the final month of the season) and the lack of secondary depth forced Hightower into some different positions in coverage, but it just felt like Hightower had less of an overall impact in 2021. Hightower is still a leader of the linebacker core and that’s critically important, but you have to wonder whether this year was a small blip or a sign that things are beginning to decline a touch.

Prediction: The Pats move on from Hightower despite his history and leadership because they believe he is beginning to decline at soon-to-be 32 years old. Another team desperate for leadership on defense will snap him up and he’ll have one or maybe two more strong seasons in the NFL.

Honorable Mention: James White, RB

There couldn’t be a worse time for White to have a season-ending hip subluxation injury than in week 3 of a contract year. White is an important leader in the running back room and has been a strong pass catcher out of the backfield for the Patriots for years. He’s been a critical piece in multiple super bowls and definitely has earned the respect of fans and coaches. It’s a tough spot for White and the Pats given the injury, but Bill Belichick and the entire Patriots roster love and respect White and his leadership (sense a trend with this crop of free agents?).

Prediction: White comes back on a cheap deal to prove he’s healthy again and be a veteran leader for the young RB core. He’s only 29 and in a rotational backfield like New England, he’ll play a small but important role on 3rd down. He’ll also be able to step in when Damien Harris and/or Rhamondre Stevenson get injured, because both have a tendency to miss time with nagging injuries in their young careers.


Overall, this free agency class is filled with known veterans and secondary leaders. There are some exceptionally difficult decisions to be made, especially with 4 of their 5 captains from 2021 being free agents. Depending on the direction the franchise feels they are going, they could either continue to go all-in on this group of leaders for another year or two, or Belichick could decide that now is the time to move on and allow the next crop of leaders to step up. Despite last year’s free agent spending spree, this offseason might be even more interesting than last for the Pats.

Is Josh Allen an Elite QB?

On Saturday night, led by an amazing performance from QB Josh Allen, the Buffalo Bills embarrassed the New England Patriots in their AFC Wild Card matchup. While the Patriots were clearly outmatched in the contest in all aspects of the game, Allen was the star of the show for the Bills and once again beat the Pats with his arm, legs, and decision-making. In his 4th year in the league, Allen has now had 2 consecutive really strong campaigns with 4,400+ yards and 35+ TDs to go along with a career high 763 yards rushing this season, with a staggering 6.3 yards per carry average. Allen has led the Bills to AFC East dominance with 2 consecutive division titles and now has delivered 3 playoff victories and counting for Bills Mafia. Allen certainly seems to be beloved in Buffalo and the future is bright for the Bills fanbase.

A big question for me is whether Allen has maximized his talent yet or will continue to get even better. He is certainly surrounded by some really nice receiving weapons, including WRs Stephon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, and TE Dawson Knox. The depth of fast and talented pass catchers make a QB’s life a lot easier because they can create space and open passing lanes. As a defense, you have to respect each receiving option because Allen has done a solid job of spreading the ball around. When you add in a solid run-game, it makes the defense open up even more for Allen. The biggest growth I’ve seen from Allen the last few seasons has been his decision-making. Overall, he’s been slightly more careful with the ball this season and is making less egregious mistakes while using his legs more when no receiving options are open. He did have more interceptions this year than last (5 more), but he also had 74 more passing attempts and an extra game on the schedule. He doesn’t lack confidence that definitely edges into the cocky-territory, which sometime hurts him, but also allows him to shake off mistakes and keep going.

For me, the most dangerous part of Allen’s game and the piece that improved the most this year is his rushing ability. He’s not a typical QB when scrambling, he is a big and strong runner who is tough to take down and has some burst speed and elusiveness defenders don’t see in QBs very often. While his primary weapon is his arm, his ability to rip off a 10-15 yard run when all his receiving options are covered will keep drives alive and makes the offense significantly harder to defend (just as the Pats defense). This season, he averaged just under 45 yards per game on the ground, 18.6 yards more per game than 2020 when he made the pro bowl. His average per rush jumped over 2 yards compared to 2020 and was the best of his career by a large margin (6.3 yards per carry). His rushing numbers put him in the top 3 for QBs in total yards on the ground and rushing TDs, which is impressive for a pass-first QB. Down the stretch this year, he converted countless 3rd and 4th downs with his legs, both designed runs and improvised scrambles that helped to keep drives moving.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other QBs that have the skillset of Allen and I believe he is still getting better and will improve over the next year or two. He passes the eye test and his numbers support that he is an elite QB right now and has the potential to get even better. The other teams in the AFC East are going to have to compete with the talented QB 2x a year for the foreseeable future and that’s a scary thought. The Buffalo Bills AFC East dynasty is in full swing, but how long will it last?

Patriots Embarrassed in Buffalo

For the first time in a long time, the Patriots looked absolutely over matched in Saturday night’s AFC Wild Card loss to the Buffalo Bills. There wasn’t a single person, position group, or coach that looked good against the Bills in the worst playoff loss of the Bill Belichick era as the head coach and one of the worst losses for the franchise. The loss was a really sour note at the end of a surprisingly enjoyable season for the Patriots who were led by a rookie franchise QB.

After a 1-year rebuild, the Pats returned to the playoffs again thanks to a 7-game win streak in the middle of the season. They surprised a lot of people and turned some heads during the win-streak and made many fans believe a deep playoff run was possible. Unfortunately, the team lost all momentum the last several games of the season and forgot how to play disciplined, smart football, a Belichick staple. Mistakes became the story of losses to Buffalo and Miami and as the Patriots played their way out of the AFC East title and into a wild card game on the road. Limping into the playoffs is rarely a recipe for success and boy was that true this year.

My biggest issues down the stretch with this team were discipline and play-calling (along with about a dozen other things). The most baffling to me is the complete lack of discipline. From penalties to missed assignments, the mistakes were plentiful down the stretch and exaggerated in the playoff loss on Saturday night. Most of the mistakes were mental errors such as too many men on the field and false start penalties and lapses in coverage that are mind-boggling. I don’t understand what happened to this team in the final portion of the season to completely forget how to play within themselves and within their position. Despite discipline ultimately resting on the players shoulders, it’s a terrible reflection on the coaching staff and their inability to prepare their players. All of it was very un-Belichick like and makes me wonder what’s happening behind the scenes.

My other main issue that was amplified on Saturday is play-calling. Josh McDaniels seems lost in what to call and when to call it the latter part of the season. On Saturday night, the first drive had a few rushes, but featured the passing game from Mac. He had one wide-open pass dropped by Brandon Bolden and the drive ended with an incredible interception by Micah Hyde, but overall looked like he could exploit the defense a bit. The following drive, McDaniels called 3 straight rushes by Damien Harris and the Patriots had to punt without even trying to look at the short or medium passing game. Later in the game, there were a number of odd calls that just didn’t fit the situation, including a fake spike at the end of the half that resulted in a terrible sack. Also, what happened to the hurry up offense that Mac looked so strong in earlier in the season? It disappeared.

The list of other issues is long, but I’ll save that for the long offseason. Based on what I saw down the stretch, I’m not sure all the Patriots positional coaches deserve to keep their jobs for the 2022-2023 season. Change is needed, whether it’s directed by the Patriots or because they lose someone to a head coaching offer elsewhere.

Saturday night was rough and will take time to get over. Take a day off and get right back to work for next season.

What is Wrong with Bill Belichick’s Coaching Tree?

Bill Belichick has been in the NFL in one capacity or another since 1975 and has been a head coach for more than 25 of those seasons. Over that time, he’s been a mentor to hundreds of coordinators and assistant coaches, many of whom have moved on to be head coaches of their own. You would expect some members of the Belichick coaching tree to be successful head coaches in time, but as a group, they have overwhelmingly been underwhelming.

In the last few days, the two remaining active head coaches in the NFL from the Bill Belichick coaching tree were fired (Brian Flores – Miami, Joe Judge – Giants). As of this moment, that means that there are no longer any Belichick disciples leading NFL teams, which is hard to imagine given his career. While I fully expect Brian Flores will get a head coaching job this offseason and linebackers coach Jerod Mayo has been getting some attention as a candidate, it’s still a bit surprising how mediocre the group of former Belichick coordinators have been as head coaches.

Over the years, 19 members of a Belichick coaching staff have become head coaches in the NFL or college. While the NFL tenures have have been short and uninspiring, there are a few college coaching careers that are noteworthy. The most obvious and clearly the strongest to date is Nick Saban at Alabama. While he lost in the National Championship game to Georgia this week, he is the gold standard of sustained success in college, basically the Bill Belichick of the NCAA. Three other coaches in the tree lasted more than 4 years at a college: Pat Hill (Fresno State 1997-2011), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa 1999-present), and Al Groh (Virginia 2001-2009).

Looking to expand the Belichick tree slightly, there are two former players who are head coaches, both currently in the NFL: Mike Vrabel (Titans) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals). Vrabel is in the running for Coach of the Year and has brought the Titans to the top seed in the AFC this season while Kingsbury led the Cardinals to an 11-6 record and a #5 seed in the NFC, following a strong career at the helm of Texas Tech. While Vrabel played 8 seasons in New England and clearly learned from Belichick, Kingsbury never saw the field in his one season with the Patriots thanks to an arm injury (although he did get a super bowl ring). Both coaches have proven that they know how to coach in the NFL and likely will last longer than basically all members of the “official” tree.


While I don’t have an answer for what is going on with the Belichick coaching tree failures, I have a few thoughts.

  1. Bill Belichick has a very specific system and style that work for him because of his past successes. He handles the media and dissemination of information unlike any other coach. Most members of the tree either try to copy the persona (to some degree) and fail miserably because it’s not replicable (::cough:: Matt Patricia ::Cough::) or they try to make it clear they are NOT like Bill and struggle to build completely different culture of winning when all they have known is the Patriot way.
  2. Because Belichick and the Patriots have won a lot, coordinators get opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise. When a team wins the super bowl, the coordinators immediately become hot coaching candidates whether they deserve it or not and it’s impossible to place credit effectively on the head coach vs coordinators. I’m sure several of the coordinators who got opportunities to be head coaches in the tree were not yet ready to lead a franchise and thus didn’t succeed. Unfortunately, most people without a lot of experience don’t get multiple chances to be an NFL head coach.
  3. There is no question who is in charge in Foxborough. Belichick steers the ship and no doubt has control over the weekly game plan and decisions around personnel groupings. While I don’t know for sure because I’m not in the meetings, I’m guessing his coordinators don’t have as much leeway to be creative and make independent decisions within the system and it takes awhile for Belichick to trust their decision making. As a head coach, you need to be able to be creative with the game plan and adapt on the fly, something that is learned through experience.

Whatever the reason(s), the Bill Belichick coaching tree has continually not lived up the hype and this week’s firings put an exclamation point on it. If I’m a GM, I’m taking a pause before jumping on a former Belichick coordinator as my next hire just because he is a former Belichick coordinator. Although, I may be more willing to take a chance on a former player under Belichick.

Third Time’s a Charm – Patriots vs Bills Playoff Edition

As playoff scenarios began to play out during the inaugural week 18 in the NFL, it was clear to everyone that the Bills and Patriots would meet for the third time this season in the playoffs. Even as the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers game crept into OT and the Pats vs Bengals scenario was still alive, it just felt like the Raiders had to win so the Bills and Patriots could play once more this season. The matchup is everything the NFL could want in a #3 vs #6 matchup on wild card weekend and they put the rivalry game in primetime on Saturday for all to witness.

The previous two matchups this season between the Bills and Patriots have been, well, interesting. The first was the “wind-game” where the Patriots went into Buffalo and ran all over the Bills. Mac Jones had exactly 3 pass attempts and the Patriots managed a 14-10 victory on the road thanks to 41 rushes. Damien Harris had 11 yards rushing on just 10 carries and a TD, while Rhamondre Stevenson rushed 24 times for 78 yards. Mac completed 2 of his 3 passes to Jonnu Smith and Brandon Bolden and the Pats relied on a strong defensive presence to grab the road victory. The game was far from pretty, but a W is a W and led to some sour grapes from Bills coach Sean McDermott who said after the game, “Let’s not give more credit than we need to give Bill Belichick in this one.”

The rematch two weeks ago was a completely different game (not just because there wasn’t a ton of wind). The Bills came into the game looking to punch the Pats in the mouth with their aggressiveness and it worked beautifully. From aggressive play-calling to big plays when they needed them the most, the Bills took it to the Pats. The Bills converted 3 of 4 4th downs and trusted Josh Allen to make the right decisions and in this instance, he did with his arm and legs. The Bills got a massive game from virtually unknown WR Isaiah McKenzie while the Pats mostly shut down WR Stephon Diggs in the first half. To the Patriots credit, they fought back and didn’t give up, but were completely flustered on a picked-up unnecessary roughness penalty in the last minute of the first half that led to other penalties and likely took points off the board.

Prediction

Round three should be another thrilling chapter in the AFC East rivalry. Based on past success, I expect the Bills to come out on fire Saturday night with aggression as their mantra. It worked in their second match-up vs the Patriots and really put the Pats players back on their heals. I would be surprised if McDermont doesn’t try to score quickly and take chances on 3rd and 4th down throughout the game. On December 27th, WR Isaiah McKenzie caught the Pats off-guard while the secondary did a nice job on Diggs and TE Dawson Knox and I expect something similar will occur on Saturday, but with the other receiver options, mainly Emmanuel Sanders and/or Gabriel Davis. The Pats secondary depth is of definite concern right now and the Bills are smart enough to unleash Josh Allen to attack on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th levels. I also expect a fair amount of passes (mostly screen-type routes) to RB Devin Singletary to get the playmaker the ball in space and keep the defense off balance. If the Bills can exploit the Pats secondary, it could be a long night for the Pats.

On the other side, the Pats have some work to do this week to prepare in all three aspects of the game. The #1 issue they have had over the past month is mistakes. Between bad penalties, turnovers, and mistakes in coverage, the Pats have been uncharacteristically the sloppier team. In almost all of their losses this season, the Pats have been in contention with a chance to comeback or win, but there is usually at least one mistake you can point to after the game that prevented the W. The ability of the Pats offense to move the ball downfield with balance is key to keeping the Bills defense at bay. If the Pats get down early, it makes them more predictable and easier to play against. A balanced run/pass attack will allow Mac to make more comfortable reads with space and allow the offensive line to hopefully hold up a bit better. On the defensive side of the ball, they need to get pressure on Josh Allen and contain him. If they can get pressure on Allen, he will make mistakes eventually, but the inherent risk is that you flush him from the pocket and he takes off for a 20-yard run. When playing well, the Bills offensive weapons are near impossible to cover, but when Allen feels the pressure and is forced into quick decisions, he has a tendency to make mistakes.

When all is said and done, I think the Patriots squeak out a really intense, close game 27-24. In general, I think it’s a pick’em game that could go either way. The team with the most mistakes losses and has all offseason to wonder what-if. I think the Bills options on offense are so strong and deep for the weak Pats secondary to handle, but Allen will make one too many mistakes or McDermott take one too many chances on 4th down and allow Mac Jones to drive down field and win on a late K Nick Folk field goal. I don’t feel even a little confident in the prediction, but in a toss-up game I’m picking the Pats every time.

Is Wilkerson the Patriots Secret Weapon?

After watching Patriots WR Kristian Wilkerson make some really nice grabs in the pre-season, it seemed that he might be in line to get some regular season playing time. The weeks passed as Wilkerson sat on the Patriots practice squad and didn’t get the call-up, even as WR N’Keal Harry struggled. Week 9 against the Panthers Wilkerson was activated, but didn’t see any action and then the same thing happened again last week against the Buffalo Bills. Finally, in week 17, we got to see Kristian not only get on the field, but show why he could be a key piece moving forward for the Pats.

Despite not playing much together in an NFL game in several months, the chemistry between Mac Jones and Wilkerson was evident against the Jaguars. Mac looked his way on 27% of this pass attempts (8), tied for the most targets in the game with WR Jakobi Meyers and was able to connect with him on 4 passes, including 2 TDs. He almost hit him for a big TD in the 2nd half, but the defender on Wilkerson hit his helmet breaking his concentration and the ball fell through his hands. For a receiver to get very few reps with the first team offense and then come out and have the performance he had against the Jaguars is impressive and makes you wonder what he could do with more time on the first team.

I understand it’s the Jaguars and they, well, aren’t good, but Wilkerson showed an ability to pull in some big catches and get some separation when needed. When you compare his performance with that of Sunday’s healthy-scratch WR N’Keal Harry, Wilkerson looked much more dangerous and able to make the crucial play. I’d much rather have Wilkerson on the field in almost any scenario. To Harry’s credit, his blocking has been his biggest asset this season, but when you need to gain yards and rely on a receiver to catch the ball, Harry has failed time and time again. If the Pats get a healthy WR Nelson Agholor back, the addition of Wilkerson actually make them a pretty deep group. With Meyers, Agholor, Bourne, and Wilkerson, they can move the ball around in lots of different ways and have different guys step up depending on coverage in the playoffs. When you add in TE Hunter Henry and RB Brandon Bolden as pass catchers, it’s a much more solid group with Wilkerson in the mix (TE Jonnu Smith intentionally left out).

After witnessing the performance of Wilkerson this week, there is now no excuse to continue to ride the painful-to-watch Harry week-in and week-out. Wilkerson gives you another dynamic piece you can integrate into the offense more thoroughly as the playoffs approach, now that a playoff berth has been locked-up. He’ll most likely match-up against a 3rd or 4th cornerback, which gives him a really good chance to make a handful of catches per game and maybe even be the primary target at times. On top of it all, he already has a deeper chemistry with Jones than Harry, so you certainly aren’t losing anything on that end.

With the high likelihood the Pats will play in a Wild Card game, having an additional x-factor will be huge in getting into the Divisional round. Even better, there is very little professional tape on Wilkerson, so it’s hard to fully scout him and understand all of his strengths and weaknesses. Now is the time to unleash another classic Bill Belichick undrafted free agent find, Kristian Wilkerson.