Kraft, Mac and Cheese: a new era for the Patriots
If you follow the National Football League, you are likely aware of the 20-year New England Patriots dynasty with quarterback Tom Brady at the helm. He led them to 17 American Football Conference East division titles, 13 AFC championship appearances with nine wins, and nine Super Bowl trips with six wins. Then began the 2019–20 NFL season.
A dominant defense led the way to an 8‒0 start, but something changed soon after. Anyone who has observed the Patriots for many years would notice that we often have “no-name” receivers that pull off impressive seasons only while in New England. No one knew these players before they joined the Patriots, and, despite their lack of recognition, head coach Bill Belichick and his staff were able to turn them into tenure targets. However, this year was different. The team had lost tight end Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski due to his retirement, long-time Patriot receiver Julian Edelman was battling various injuries, and the remaining receivers were having a lot of trouble getting open for Brady.
The Patriots went 4‒4 in the remaining games, including an embarrassing Week 17 loss to the 4‒11 Miami Dolphins, which sent us to the Wild Card game against the Tennessee Titans, despite the impressive start to the season. The Wild Card game turned out to be a total mess. Their 6’3”, 247-pound running back Derrick Henry (for those who do not follow football, those biometrics are unusual for running backs, even in the NFL) ate up our defense and rushed for 182 yards, scoring a touchdown in the upset. We got the ball back with nine seconds left in the game and down one point. Brady threw a short pass to tight end Ben Watson, but Watson didn’t make the catch and the ball popped up into the air, allowing a Titans defender to pull it in and return it for a pick six. On the following Titans kickoff, the Patriots made a last-ditch effort with a series of laterals trying to return it for a score, but they were obviously unsuccessful, bringing an end to a painful game for us Patriots fans.
To add even more pain to the mix, it turned out that the pick six was not only Brady’s last pass attempt of the game but also his last pass attempt as a New England Patriot. In March of 2020, the following offseason, Patriots fans woke up to Brady’s social media announcements that his “football journey [would] take place elsewhere.” A few weeks later, headlines read that he would be signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He even convinced Gronk to come out of retirement, and since the Patriots couldn’t afford Gronk’s contract, they were forced to trade him to the Bucs, reuniting him with Brady. While it was sad to see them go and the Brady-Patriots dynasty come to a close, the choice by both parties to move on made sense. Tensions between Brady and Belichick had been rising for years, and Brady was clearly unhappy on the team. Tom, Gronk, and the dominant Bucs team would go on to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl the next season.
Meanwhile, our hope turned to the Pats 2019 fourth-round draft pick, quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He had played in a few preseason games before the disastrous 2019–2020 season, and his performance in those allowed Patriots fans to have some minimal optimism about the upcoming season.
But, when July 2020 came around, we signed free agent quarterback Cam Newton; so never mind, “Super Cam” to the rescue! Sorry, Stidham. Cam’s declining play due to injuries had led the Carolina Panthers to release him following the 2019 season, but the Patriots decided to take a chance on the 2015 Most Valuable Player. Since it was so late in the season, Newton was willing to sign a short, cheap contract, which the Patriots needed with their limited salary cap space. What made the signing even better was that the team loved him; when captain voting came around, Cam won with ease, even though he’d only been a part of the team for just a few weeks.
The excitement spilled into the season as well. Cam led the team to a strong win over Miami in the season opener, which was followed by a nail-biter in Seattle with the Seahawks. With 1:49 left in the game, the Patriots took over, though down five points. Cam and the offense drove the ball down the field on what looked like it could be a game-winning drive, including a few clutch receptions from receivers Edelman and N’Keal Harry. In fact, they got it within a yard of the end zone and had a chance to run one last play before the end of the game. A failed attempt to punch it in with Cam failed, handing New England a loss, but it was still an exciting game and Newton looked a lot more like pre-shoulder-injury Cam. After a solid win over the Raiders, the next opponent was the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Chiefs, and it looked like we might have the momentum to beat even them despite the loss of Brady.
However, disaster struck: Cam, among others on the team, tested positive for COVID-19 the week before the game and the Patriots had to scramble. The chaos resulting from the outbreak included the game getting pushed back a day, but the Pats still needed someone else to play quarterback. They ended up playing backup Brian Hoyer, which turned out to be a pretty bad decision, but the Patriots didn’t have much choice. (That being said, just like many other Pats fans, I thought Stidham would start that game.) Terrible ball security, including terrible fumbles at the worst times from Hoyer, was just part of the reason we lost that game.
It didn’t get much better after that either. COVID-19 hit Cam hard, and it was easy to see how it affected him physically for the rest of the season. Ball security continued to be a problem. And, if that weren’t enough, the receivers couldn’t get enough separation to create a passing game, which was already hurting due to the lingering effects of Cam’s shoulder injury. In fact, the Patriots had the third-worst passing yardage at the end of the season; only the New York Jets and the Baltimore Ravens did worse in this regard. On top of all this, the Patriots’ schedule was ranked as the toughest in the league.
Nevertheless, some exciting wins, despite plenty of painful losses, allowed the Patriots to end the season with at least a 7‒9 record. However, it was the team’s first losing season and just their third time missing the playoffs since 2000, snapping their 11-year playoff streak. It was a tough season to be a Patriots fan, but all eyes turned to the Patriots with their 15th overall pick in the draft and large salary cap space as they headed into the offseason in dire need of a franchise QB.
Sure enough, the Patriots started off free agency with a bang, bringing tight end Jonnu Smith, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, and wide receiver Kendrick Bourne to New England on the first day. A few days later, they brought in another tight end named Hunter Henry. Smith and Henry, formerly of the Titans and Los Angeles Chargers, respectively, were especially big names in free agency and the Patriots signed both. These were just offensive signings; there were several big defensive signings as well, including defensive back Jalen Mills, linebacker Matthew Judon, and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who was previously on the Patriots but spent some time with the Dolphins. Several other signings (and re-signings) helped on both sides.
This past June saw Draft Night. At the 15th overall pick, the Patriots were smack dab in the middle of the first round, and the highest they had been in a long time. Belichick is known for trading out of the first round very often, but it seemed unlikely that would happen this year. With arguably one of the strongest QB classes in the last decade, people expected the Pats to trade up to get one of the five quarterbacks that were ultimately drafted in the first round.
Trevor Lawrence from Clemson University was a shoo-in for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 1st overall pick and Zach Wilson of Brigham Young University was nearly guaranteed to go to the Jets with the 2nd overall pick, but it was up in the air as to where Justin Fields, Trey Lance, and Mac Jones would end up. There were a lot of ups and downs in those first 15 picks, but Belichick stayed at 15 and picked… Mac Jones from the University of Alabama. At the time, Patriots fans were upset with this: why didn’t we trade up and get Justin Fields or Trey Lance? However, Mac’s playstyle looked a lot like that of a certain former New England Patriot (hint: he won six Super Bowls with the team). The remaining rounds saw many other Patriots picks like the defensive tackle Christian Baramore from the University of Alabama and running back Rhamondre Stevenson from the University of Oklahoma, but obviously, the highlight of the night was Jones.
Throughout the summer, Mac was the focus of almost all media regarding the team. Analysts continually praised his work in practice, and the team loved him as well. Cam, who had been re-signed on a one-year deal, nicknamed him “Mac and Cheese.” All the exciting news made fans wonder, will Mac get to start this season? If so, when? My guess was perhaps after the fourth or fifth week. As it turned out, it would be much earlier than anyone expected. Shortly after the preseason and before the regular season, the shocking news broke that Cam had been cut from the team. Mac would start in the season opener against the Dolphins, with Hoyer and Stidham making up the rest of the QB room.
So with such a dominant free agency, how are the Patriots looking so far this season? Well, it hasn’t been the perfect season; through eight weeks and heading into a game against the Cleveland Browns next week, the record sits at 5‒4. Tough, hard-fought, and tight losses to the Dallas Cowboys, the Dolphins, and the Buccaneers were unfortunate to see, but the team’s performance shows promise for the future. In fact, the game against the Buccaneers (i.e. Brady’s “homecoming” game, one of the most anticipated games of the year) was only a two-point loss, and the Patriots even had a chance to take the lead with a field goal in the last two minutes of the game. Wins against the Chargers and the Panthers the last couple of weeks have also been great displays of offense and defense.
Beyond that, Mac is looking like the best quarterback in the draft class so far, running back Damien Harris is a force to be reckoned with, and Jakobi Meyers is a clear WR1 for the team. Furthermore, both sides of the ball played really well against the Chargers in the latest win. However, there are also clear issues: the defense has been allowing a lot of passing yards, and the running backs have had difficulty holding onto the ball. Nevertheless, Mac’s performance shows real promise for his role as a franchise QB. As Pats fans, we’re not expecting a Super Bowl win this year. But with Mac and Cheese at the helm, there’s hope for rings to come.