There was a time no one questioned Bill Belichick when he was plotting his next curious move that almost always seemed to work.
No one understood how Belichick could stick with that kid Tom Brady in 2001 after Drew Bledsoe was healthy again.
And then the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
No one could understand why he would let Wes Welker go to Denver and Peyton Manning instead of staying in New England for Brady. Then Julian Edelman burst onto the scene.
Another head scratcher – why wouldn’t Belichick take a timeout with the Seattle Seahawks at the goal line’s shadow in the waning seconds of that heart-stopping Super Bowl? Then Malcolm Butler picked off Russell Wilson.
And no one understood why he’d trade Chandler Jones to Arizona, where the defensive end would collect 71.5 sacks over the next six seasons. Then Belichick used the salary cap savings to keep Dont’a Hightower and sign Stephon Gilmore.
Belichick Is A Man With A Plan
All those moves, every single one, worked out for the New England Patriots in one form or another. And they all helped make Belichick, who kept winning Super Bowls (plural), into an unimpeachable football savant.
But as the Patriots get ready to open their 2022 regular-season against the Miami Dolphins Sunday, (Belichick’s 24th season with the club as head coach and de facto general manager) things have changed for the unimpeachable coach.
Belichick, 70, is now surrounded by questions.
By analysis that feels like criticism before facts play out.
The Troubling Questions That Remain Unanswered
Why did Belichick move his team to South Florida this week ahead of the Dolphins game? Doesn’t he know no one acclimates to that humidity in five days?
Why did Belichick make Matt Patricia the team’s offensive play-caller this year? Patricia, the former Detroit head coach, is also coaching the offensive line. And doesn’t Belichick remember Patricia made his reputation as a defensive coordinator and has never done this new job before?
Why did Belichick turn the quarterbacks coach job over to Joe Judge? Judge has been the New York Giants head coach and the Patriots special teams coach and wide receivers coach, but never in his career has he been the QB coach.
Doesn’t Belichick know this?
What’s he doing?
Is he losing his touch?
These questions in past years would have been shrugged off because Belichick’s decisions, no matter how unorthodox or even quirky, usually worked.
Pats Owner Robert Kraft Has To Wonder
Except stuff hasn’t been working for Belichick for a few years now.
We came to realize that when Belichick told club owner Robert Kraft a few years ago that Brady was declining and that going with year-to-year contracts was the way to proceed and that eventually letting him go was the thing to do.
The Patriots let Brady walk after the 2019 season.
And Brady won the Super Bowl in 2020 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Belichick’s team, without Brady, was 7-9.
Last year, after the club spent more in free agency than anyone, Belichick got the Patriots back to relevance — but not to the heights the franchise has come to expect.
So when the Patriots lost three of their final four regular-season games and then the Buffalo Bills clobbered them by 30 points in the playoffs without punting even once, Kraft began to wonder aloud about the circumstances.
“I’m not happy,” Kraft told reporters at the NFL annual meeting last March, “that we haven’t won a playoff game in three years. I think about that a lot.”
The Tom Brady Factor Casts A Shadow
Critics would argue there’s nothing to think about. They make the point, which is hard to refute, that Belichick has simply lost it.
And “it” is defined as Brady, who has continued to be a premier player without his old coach, while his old coach has stumbled.
With Brady as his starter Belichick has a 249-75 record, for a Hall of Fame worthy 76.9 percent winning percentage.
Without Brady as his starter Belichick has a 66-71 record, for a good-enough-to-get-you-fired 48 percent winning percentage.
Belichick’s Had A Variety Of Recent Struggles
You must understand, this is not about Belichick’s poor drafting with the Patriots, a topic that has been on the radar in neon colors the last five or six years after Belichick looked at the University of Georgia backfield in 2018 and selected Sony Michel rather than Nick Chubb, and looked at the receiver class in 2019 and selected N’Keal Harry while passing on Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and Diontae Johnson.
This is concern about Belichick making sound team management decisions concerning players and assistants. This is about the defensive genius not being able to stop the best team in his own division even once in the postseason after playing them two previous times.
Additionally, this is about not having any postseason success since the 2018 season and being wrong on the NFL’s biggest personnel decision of the last few years involving a player who might be the game’s greatest player of all time.
Belichick begins this season four wins from passing George Halas as the second-winningest coach in NFL history. That speaks to his place in league history. But he also begins this season with serious questions about where he’s going with these Patriots. That’s based on some questionable choices he’s recently made.
And that may also speak to his eventual place in league history.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero