Bill Belichick is still in Foxborough. Cam Newton has just arrived.
That partnership is one of the most intriguing of the 2020 NFL season.
It also better be productive, ASAP.
Everything in New England got tougher on Tuesday as an onslaught of Patriots opted out of the 2020 coronavirus season, a number that now reaches six and includes critical contributors such as linebacker Donta Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon.
That comes on the heels of the offseason departures of defensive players Kyle Van Noy (Miami), Jamie Collins (Detroit), safety Duron Harmon (Detroit), tackle Danny Shelton (Detroit), linebacker Elandon Roberts (Miami) and the retirement of fullback James Develin.
Not to mention, Tom Brady is now playing for Tampa Bay, of course. And Rob Gronkowski, who didn’t play in 2019 but still could’ve been a Patriot, joined him.
What’s left in New England is a roster in flux. There is still talent, just not as much. There is still experience, just not as much. The defense, which was expected to be the rock that the team could build off of, bears little resemblance to what it was despite having Stephon Gilmore, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Hightower, Van Noy and Collins were essentially the team’s pass rush. Now?
If the uniforms didn’t say Patriots, many would write this team off and crown Buffalo the AFC East champion.
Yet there is Belichick, who may be facing his greatest challenge since taking over in 2000, but is probably oddly excited about trying to do more with less.
And now there is Newton, who bet on himself via a one-year, low-money contract that was designed to prove to the NFL that he, the league MVP of 2015, still had what it took to be a franchise quarterback.
The NFL has been waiting a long time for this reign of dominance to end in New England. It hasn’t happened. Belichick’s two decades have yielded six Super Bowls, nine AFC championships and an astounding 17 AFC East divisional crowns (including 11 consecutive). All of this despite roster turnover, rule alterations and generational changes in how the game is played.
Maybe the only thing that could end the Patriots Dynasty is a pandemic.
It still remains to be seen how many good players on other teams opt out of the season. The deadline for opting out isn’t until Aug. 3, although in reality a player could quit at any time. Maybe New England’s losses won’t look comparatively severe in a week. Or many more are to come.
The reasons are varied. Health concerns. Family concerns. Preexisting conditions. General uncertainty.
You can’t blame the players. It’s an individual decision. If you want to play, play. If not, step aside and someone will gladly take the job.
Still, every team in the league is on edge that star players don’t bail. In New England, some of them did, leaving a season that was a major on-the-fly retooling and making it look more like a complete overhaul.
New England went defense with its top three picks last April — safety Kyle Dugger of Lenoir-Rhyne (37th overall), and linebackers Josh Uche of Michigan (60th) and Anfernee Jennings of Alabama (87th). Then there were two tight ends taken, Devin Asiasi of UCLA at No. 91 and Dalton Keene of Virginia Tech at No. 101.
They’ll be counted on despite little to no preparation, just two weeks of a traditional training camp and no preseason games.
This is where Newton, who still needs to learn his teammates’ names and his way about the facility, comes in. He’s going to have to be a version of himself we haven’t seen in a few years. Healthy, for one. Accurate, for another. At one point, he was the most dominant force in football, his Superman celebrations just proving the point.
Of late, he has been hurt and humbled. There is no questioning his motivation now. He has a legacy to prove. He’ll do it without two running backs who are opting out as well: Brandon Bolden and Dan Vitale.
Belichick’s legacy is set. No matter what happens, he’s as great as any football coach ever. Yet winning without Brady has long been an obsession and one that he planned smartly to accomplish. If not for Brady’s unexpected longevity, the franchise was set to transition smoothly to Jimmy Garoppolo two or three years ago.
Brady stayed though. New England won another Super Bowl and kicked the can of a reboot down the road … and right into a global virus outbreak.
The pandemic is here. Whether panic follows remains to be seen.
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