On Saturday, December 26th, 2020, Quarterback Tom Brady secured a playoff appearance for his franchise. Brady connected with tight end Rob Gronkowski for a sensational touchdown pass and appears to be ready to lead his team on a playoff run, and possibly a Super Bowl appearance.
All of these narratives appear to be familiar in the National Football League’s landscape, with the exception of one key detail. The New England Patriots are not the team that Brady is guiding towards the promised land, that franchise is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the Bucs are ending a lengthy playoff doubt this year, the Patriots are breaking a lengthy playoff streak instead.
The Patriots were eliminated from playoff contention during their Week 15 loss to the Miami Dolphins, snapping the streak of playoff appearances that started in 2009. After a Week 16 blowout against the Buffalo Bills, the new champions of the AFC East, the Patriots clinched their first sub .500 season since 2000, head coach Bill Belichick’s first season at the helm.
Brady’s departure was definitely a blow for the team’s playoff chances, but the struggles can not be blamed entirely on this. The team also had the most opt-outs in the NFL with eight players choosing not to dress in 2020. This included tackle Marcus Cannon, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung, all stalwarts of the previous Patriot squads.
In addition to the opt-outs, the Patriots had an abysmal situation regarding their salary cap. The Patriots have $29,630,364 allocated towards the dead cap, or in simpler terms, players who are not representing the franchise but still counted against the cap.
These players include Brady, who was on the books for $13.5 million, wide receiver Antonio Brown, who only played one game for the Patriots in 2019 but still counted for $4.5 million against the cap and also kicked Stephen Gostowski and safety Duron Harmon, who both counted over a million against the cap. All of these players played for other franchises in the 2020 season.
For the players on the cap who did suit up for the Patriots, it was a mixed bag. The defense was solid throughout the season, with cornerback J.C. Jackson standing out as an impact player. On offense, the running game was tremendous, with second-year tailback Damien Harris emerging as a feature back and the team also received contributions from running backs James White and Sony Michel. On special teams, kicker Nick Folk was rock solid and punter Jake Bailey further proved himself as an elite punter.
The main problems with the team resided on the offensive side of the ball. Veteran wide receiver Julian Edelman failed to have the impact he has historically always had, and he missed much of the latter half of the season due to an injury. The team received limited contributions from the tight end position and wide receiver N’Keal Harry failed to improve much in his second season.
This leaves the compelling case regarding the quarterback position. The Patriots seemingly struck gold when they acquired former MVP Cam Newton via free agency to man the helm. Newton, who signed an incentive laden deal with little money falling against the salary cap, impressed in his early starts, and the AFC East looked like it still may belong to Foxboro.
Unfortunately, Newton contracted Covid-19 in week four, and his season went downhill. He continued to run the ball effectively, and as of the writing of the column, is tied for the Patriots lead for rushing touchdowns in a single season for a quarterback with Steve Grogan, but his passing left much to be desired.
He consistently underthrew receivers and his passing numbers took a nosedive in recent weeks. Backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham didn’t bring much to the table either in his limited passing attempts.
The details above paint a bleak picture of the season, and that does not do it justice. The team achieved excellent wins over opponents such as the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens, and Arizona Cardinals, all of whom are still in the playoff hunt going into the last week of the season. The team also came up just short against the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, and Kansas City Chiefs.
The Patriots suffered bad losses to the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans, which further hurt their chances at finishing above .500. If everything went right for the Patriots, they could be an 11-win team and still in the hunt for the playoffs.
Instead, they are a six to seven-win team who made it through an unprecedented year in football history. They will have some familiar faces back next year in addition to some new faces that will revitalize the Patriot Way. Until then, Patriots fans just need to appreciate the era that just preceded them, and hope that Brady brings home his seventh Lombardi trophy. That could be a return to something normal in a year marred with change.