Could the New England Patriots do the unthinkable and tank?

Hunter Felt
The Guardian

Radical times call for radical measures. Could the New England Patriots seriously be considering tanking? If you ask Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, it’s not only possible but likely. “I think what they’re going to do is like Miami did last year,” Cowherd said on his radio show recently. “Create a culture, or in New England’s case, maintain it. Not be very good at quarterback … playing to win, but losing. And knowing you’re going to lose.” Yes, it sounds ridiculous at first, but there’s the possibility that Cowherd could be right . Let’s break things down.

Who exactly will be the next Patriots quarterback?

Well, that’s the key question now, isn’t it? As you may have heard, Tom Brady left the organization after 20 years to sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Patriots have yet to pursue a clear cut replacement – such as Andy Dalton, Cam Newton or Jameis Winston – instead they signed Brian Hoyer, a career backup who has had two prior stints with the team. Hoyer will likely be competing with Jarrett Stidham unless the Pats pull off a surprise move. Stidham, by the way, has made four passes in his entire NFL career.

When was the last time that the Patriots held a quarterback competition?

This ownership has never really seen one. When Robert Kraft bought the team back in 1994 they had already found their quarterback in Drew Bledsoe. When Bledsoe was injured in 2001, Brady took over and never looked back. The only blip on the radar was in 2008 when Brady suffered a season-ending injury in the season opener and Matt Cassel came in to replace him. That was also, it should be noted, the last time that the Patriots missed the playoffs, and even then just barely as they put up a 11-5 record.

Is Brady the only significant departure?

Hardly. The Patriots had one of the best defenses in the league last season, but they have lost two key linebackers in the offseason. Jamie Collins signed a three-year deal with the Detroit Lions and Kyle Van Noy signed a four-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. And while he wasn’t on the level of Brady, the Patriots also parted ways with 14-year veteran placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, which left special teamer Matthew Slater as the longest-tenured Patriot.

Last year, the Patriots were good enough to go 12-4 in the regular season, mostly thanks to that tremendous defense. It ended up not mattering as they were upset by the Tennessee Titans during wildcard weekend. Now, the Patriots are without one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and their defense has taken a significant step back.

Yeah, but they still play in the AFC East right?

While it’s true that there have been few things more reliable in the NFL than the Patriots taking advantage of a weak division in order to sneak into the playoffs, that may no longer be the case. The Buffalo Bills certainly proved that they weren’t to be ignored last season by going 10-6 and earning one of the AFC’s wildcard spots. With Brady gone, they have every reason to believe that that they should be considered favorites. The New York Jets underachieved last season, but they were only a game below .500 and the Dolphins somehow managed to win five games despite the fact that they stripped the franchise down to spare parts. The division looks to be competitive from here on out, so if the Patriots were going to tank this would be the time to do it.

What would be in it for the Patriots?

Well, one of the few negative byproducts of the Patriots’ long-term success has been the fact that they have mostly been picking late in the first round of the NFL fraft. This would be their chance to potentially make a bold move for a star player. Cowherd points to Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence as being the type of player of the future who they would actively target, and one who almost certainly would be well off the draft board in 2021 unless the Patriots secure a high pick.

What makes you skeptical about the Patriots tanking?

Let’s start off with the fact that head coach Bill Belichick is about to turn 68 and is far closer to the end of his career than the beginning. It’s hard to imagine he wants to be part of a long-term rebuilding project if there was a way to avoid it.

Keep in mind that there’s ego involved here. Belichick would love to win without Brady. There’s a case to be made that his best year as a head coach was that 2008 season where he nearly made the postseason with Matt Cassel as his quarterback. While Cassel had more offensive weapons than Stidham will have this upcoming season, Belichick may be curious to see if he could have similar success.

And that’s before you take into account that tanking isn’r easy. Many players want to impress so they can secure a better contract or a trade to another team. Many thought the Dolphins were built to lose last year, and they ended up being competitive(ish).

So what are the Patriots going to do?

They may not even know yet. The Patriots have been quiet so far this offseason and that may be because they don’t know if they should make a move to get better or not. It doesn’t help that they aren’t in a great position salary cap-wise. They have $26m worth of dead money on the books, meaning they’re paying players who won’t actually suit up for them, with $13.5m of that going towards Brady.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Patriots will be sellers when the NFL season resumes. The most likely scenario could be that Belichick sits back and sees what he has with Stidham and the rest of his roster. Maybe Belichick will once again make stars of a few no-name players, or maybe the whole thing is a disaster and they actually end up semi-intentionally tanking anyway. It would be a bit surreal to see the Patriots tearing the whole thing down, but all empires crumble eventually, don’t they?

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