Bill Belichick’s Bad Trades Could Torpedo Patriots’ Season
Bill Belichick’s cutthroat mentality is a big reason why the Patriots have been in Super Bowl contention for the last 15 years. His habit of discarding star players a year too early rather than a year too late keeps the roster fresh, forcing the team to evolve. But this season, the approach is backfiring. The shocking trades of Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins have left the defense without playmakers, leaving the Patriots with an achilles heel that could torpedo their seemingly inevitable championship run.
These holes were apparent Sunday night, when the Patriots fell to the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 in a primetime thriller. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 348 yards and three touchdown passes. He was rarely under pressure, and picked apart the Patriots’ defense with ease. New England didn’t force a single turnover, whereas Seattle took the ball away on two occasions. Julian Edelman’s fumble in the fourth quarter, which happened when safety Kam Chancellor literally ripped the ball out of his hands, set up the Seahawks’ game-winning score. It was a reminder of how aggressive defenses can put even mediocre offenses in a position to succeed.
— NFL (@NFL) November 14, 2016
Make no mistake: the Seahawks aren’t a good offensive team. They’re 21st in the league in points scored and have only put up more than 30 points on three occasions. Wilson, who’s been playing through a knee injury, hasn’t looked like himself at certain points this season—posting an 81.9 passer-rating through Weeks 6–8. But he was almost flawless Sunday night, mainly because he wasn’t faced with any consistent pressure.
When the Patriots traded Jones to the Arizona Cardinals last offseason for offensive guard Jonathan Cooper (released) and a draft pick (which turned into offensive lineman Joe Thuney and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell), it was viewed as the prototypical Belichick move. With Jones set to become a free agent at the end of the season, the Patriots opted to get value in return for him instead of risk losing him for nothing. A questionable incident with synthetic marijuana one week before a playoff game may have also hastened his departure.
But 10 weeks into the season, Jones’ absence is palpable. The Patriots are tied for 24th in sacks and don’t have a single impactful pass-rusher. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard was expected to fill that role, but he’s been invisible for the bulk of the year. On Sunday, he only played 16 snaps.
In order for Belichick’s philosophy to work, there must be players ready to step in for those who’ve been lost. But that’s not the case on the defensive line. Veteran Chris Long hasn’t been able to replace any of Jones’ production and his younger teammates haven’t been able to make much of an impact. Since there was no semblance of a pass-rush Sunday, Wilson was able to do things like scramble in the pocket for an interminable period of time before finding Doug Baldwin in the end zone for an improbable touchdown catch.
Jones was one of the Patriots’ best defensive players last season and has seven sacks with the Cardinals this year. His presence is missed on a weekly basis. It’s too early to make that kind of determination on Collins, but the Patriots did appear to be a linebacker short Sunday. In their first game without Collins, who was shipped to the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago for a conditional draft pick, the Patriots struggled in pass coverage. Rookie running back C.J. Prosise led the Seahawks with seven receptions and 87 yards, with his biggest play coming when he burned Collins’ replacement, sixth-round pick Elandon Roberts, for a 38-yard completion in the fourth quarter.
Shortly after Collins was traded, longtime Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi—who recently worked with the Patriots as an assistant to the coaching staff—delivered a full-blown football character assassination. He said Collins freelances on defenses and essentially called him overrated in a radio interview with WEEI. Though Collins made his first Pro Bowl last season, it’s apparent Belichick felt his loss would be additional by subtraction. With ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting Collins wants “Von Miller money” in free agency next year—a claim Collins disputes—it seems like his departure was inevitable, anyway.
But even though Collins struggled this season, he still was one of the most talented players on the defense. Now the linebacker corps is thin, with guys like Roberts and Shea McClellin being asked to play big roles.
When Belichick makes a bold move as a coach, he’s usually proven right. But his tactics as a general manager over the last six months have been puzzling. In a wide-open AFC, the Patriots should enjoy a clear ride to the Super Bowl. It would be a shame if their soft defense torpedoes them, and wastes one of the few precious years that Tom Brady has left.