'On to Cincinnati?' Bill Belichick suddenly cares about the past

New England hasn’t won a playoff game since 2019 (albeit the Super Bowl). The Patriots went just 8-9 last season, their second losing campaign in three years. Based on offseason hype (and the premise that Aaron Rodgers will wind up with the New York Jets) they look like the fourth team out of four in the AFC East.

Given that backdrop, why, Bill Belichick was asked, should fans be optimistic heading into the 2023 season?

“The last 25 years,” Belichick said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.

That quarter century, 23 of it with Belichick as head coach and czar, includes six Super Bowl titles, nine total AFC championships and 18 playoff appearances. It’s the greatest stretch of excellence, if not domination, in modern NFL history.

It also has never felt so far away.

No coach has so earned the right to brush off questions about the future by pointing to the past. Belichick could oversee a decade of losing and the deal would still be worth it for New England fans. The Detroit Lions have won just a single playoff game since 1957. Belichick has delivered 30 to Foxborough all by himself.

So, yes, on some level it makes sense for the soon-to-be 71-year-old legend to believe he can shut down any questions and all concerns about anything and everything with a simple “trust me” flex.

Then again, Belichick built that Patriots dynasty with an unwavering, and often coldhearted, focus on the future. He may be one of the NFL’s greatest historians, but when it came to running his team nothing mattered but tomorrow.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks during the AFC head coaches availability at the NFL meetings, Monday, March 27, 2023, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

He mercilessly cut popular and proven veterans as they approached diminishing returns. He blasted even the most senior of assistant coaches. He routinely spoke of how this year’s team had nothing to do with last year’s team — even if the roster was different only on the margins.

Belichick celebrated success, but never leaned on it. One week begat the next, this season simply led into one after that. Win or lose, nothing mattered. He shrugged off September success as seemingly meaningless.

He and his team was perpetually “on to Cincinnati.”

And now … this?

New England is 25-26 (blowout playoff loss in Buffalo included) since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. New England had some salary cap and draft capital bills to pay, but Belichick tried to retool on the fly. Cam Newton came and went. Mac Jones was drafted, generated excitement and then settled. Big free-agent outlays aspired to increase the talent level, but the wins didn't follow.

Nothing has worked so far. Belichick’s skill may be why the team never truly bottomed out but strange staff decisions and games lost with un-Patriot like mistakes (remember Vegas) have left the fan base shaking its head. Meanwhile, the long-trampled AFC East found its footing. No one fears Foxborough any more.

So what inspires faith this year? Is it the hope Jones will have a real offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien? Is it the arrival of JuJu Smith-Schuster to provide a receiving threat? Is it hope for the defense to keep improving after allowing just 20.4 points a game last year, 11th in the league?

Is it the 11 picks in next month’s draft, including six in the top 135?

Basically Belichick isn’t saying. He isn’t saying anything at all. He certainly doesn’t feel the need to hype the team — not to sell tickets or create interest. He doesn’t feel he owes the fans any explanations, so he isn’t offering any.

A year ago, team owner Robert Kraft said, “More than anything, it bothers me that we haven’t been able to win a playoff game in the last three years.”

Well, it’s four years now, but what is he going to do about it? Kraft owns the team, but Belichick is for all practical purposes entrenched until Belichick himself decides to retire.

That leaves Patriots fans in a holding pattern. The competition looks better, yet they are trained to believe that BB will make magic happen. They are patient because they are still full of championship celebrations.

Maybe this — a couple 9-loss seasons — was the inevitable bottoming out. If so, Belichick has mitigated the lows, but has he set the Patriots to return to the highs?

No one knows. Look backward for signs of future hope, Belichick is saying. It’s a new philosophical message; the credibility of past triumphs now mattering.

Maybe he’s right. Or maybe he’s just earned the right to be wrong.