From dynasty to disaster: Chronicling the fall of the Patriots’ empire

NFL

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — When the New England Patriots shocked the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 20, 2019 — prevailing 37-31 in overtime — it was fair to wonder if the winning would ever stop.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick found quarterback Tom Brady in the euphoric on-field celebration at Arrowhead Stadium and told him that he loved him. Brady looked at Belichick and responded: “What a great f—ing game!”

They went on to beat the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in Super Bowl LIII in what might be considered the end of an era.

Fast forward to Nov., 12, 2023.

At 2-7, the Patriots traveled 3,682 miles to Frankfurt, Germany, with the hopes of getting their season on track against the 4-5 Indianapolis Colts. Instead, they experienced the same type of setback that has defined this season.

Belichick benched starting quarterback Mac Jones after a head-scratching late fourth-quarter interception, then watched as backup Bailey Zappe fired an interception into tight coverage on a potential last-gasp comeback drive. The 10-6 loss was the lowest point of a season filled with low points.

Exasperated by yet another defeat, Belichick closed his eyes and put both hands on his forehead. His blue-and-white winter hat slid back — just like his Patriots team has since their last Super Bowl.

How has it all fallen apart for Belichick and the Patriots?

That’s complicated, because even when they were on top of the football world, winning a third Super Bowl over a five-year span on Feb. 3, 2019, fissures were developing beneath the surface that slowly weakened their championship foundation.

A slow erosion of high-end talent is at the root of the decline, combined with a rocky offensive coaching transition in 2022, and the near-impossible task of replacing an all-time great quarterback.

Here are the most significant developments and dates that, when pieced together, form a picture of the franchise’s fall:

2019: Coming off third championship in five seasons

March 24, 2019: Tight end Rob Gronkowski, one of the all-time greats at his position, retires. His 29-yard catch in the fourth quarter set up the only touchdown in the team’s win in Super Bowl LIII.

April 25, 2019: Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry is selected with the final pick of the first round (No. 32) of the NFL draft. The next day, the team trades up in the second round for Vanderbilt cornerback Joejuan Williams at No. 45. Neither player comes close to living up to his draft status; Harry plays in 33 games and totals 57 catches; Williams appears in 36 games with one start. These selections highlight a run of shaky drafting.

Aug. 4, 2019: Brady signs a contract extension that boosts his pay by $8 million, but the 2020 and 2021 seasons are void years and the Patriots can’t place the franchise tag on Brady after the 2019 season. The next day, Brady tells reporters: “It’s a unique situation I’m in — 20th year with the same team, I’m 42 years old, so pretty much uncharted territory for everybody. I’m secure for this year, I think.”

He would later tell radio personality Howard Stern he had a strong feeling the 2019 season would be his last in New England: “I would say I probably knew before the start of last season that it was my last year. I knew that our time was coming to an end.”

Sept. 7, 2019: Desperate to surround Brady with better talent, which Brady pushes for behind the scenes, the team signs volatile receiver Antonio Brown to a one-year deal, worth up to $15 million, which includes a $9 million signing bonus.

Sept. 20, 2019: After playing in one game and totaling four catches for 56 yards and one touchdown in a win over the Dolphins, Brown is released as he faces sexual misconduct allegations.

Oct. 22, 2019: The Patriots use a second-round pick to acquire veteran receiver Mohamed Sanu from the Falcons. In eight games, Sanu would total 27 catches for 217 yards and one touchdown.

Oct. 27, 2019: The Patriots beat the Browns 27-13 at home. In the ensuing days, Brady, frustrated with the level of talent on the team, tells NBC: “I have to be the most miserable 8-0 quarterback in the history of the league.”

Jan. 4, 2020: The Patriots lose to the Titans 20-13 in the wild-card round of the playoffs after finishing the regular season 12-4. Brady hints at his impending departure when he says: “Who knows what the future holds? So we’ll leave it at that.”

2020: Replacing Brady with Cam Newton

March 17, 2020: After two months of speculation, Brady announces he’s leaving, saying goodbye to Patriots fans on social media.

June 29, 2020: Having completed their offseason program with Jarrett Stidham as the top quarterback, the Patriots sign former Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton to a one-year, $1.5 million deal and make him the starter. Newton had missed all but two games the prior season with a foot injury, but his experience gives Belichick & Co. more comfort than riding with Stidham, who hadn’t convinced coaches in spring practice he should stay in the No. 1 role.

Sept. 20, 2020: In a thrilling “Sunday Night Football” game on the road against the Seahawks, Newton is tackled at the 1-yard line with no time remaining in a 35-30 loss. Newton goes 30-of-44 for 397 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and adds 47 rushing yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns. The performance sparks promise that the Newton experiment could work.

Oct. 5, 2020: Newton is among players who test positive for COVID-19, and the 2-1 Patriots game in Kansas City is moved from Sunday to Monday. They travel the day of the game and lose 26-10. Newton returns the following week, but his prior absence marks the start of a four-game losing streak.

Nov. 20, 2020: Speaking to SiriusXM NFL Radio, Belichick says 2020 was “kind of the year that we’ve taken to adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years. We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.” He later said on sports radio WEEI: “I mean, look, we paid Cam Newton a million dollars. It’s obvious that we didn’t have any money. It’s nobody’s fault. That’s what we did the last five years. We sold out and won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth, and played in an AFC Championship Game. This year we had less to work with. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact.”

Dec. 20, 2020: Losing 22-12 to the Dolphins, the Patriots are eliminated from playoff contention for the first time since 2008. They finish 7-9. Belichick has steadfastly stood by Newton as his starter throughout the season despite the team finishing 27th in points per game, 30th in passing yards and 30th in interceptions.

2021 offseason: Big spenders, drafting QB Mac Jones

Jan. 7, 2021: Director of player personnel Nick Caserio leaves the Patriots to become the Texans’ general manager. He is replaced by Patriots director of college scouting Matt Groh, who began his career in New England as a scouting assistant in 2011.

March 12, 2021: Newton, who went 242-of-368 for 2,657 yards passing with eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020, while also rushing for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns, returns on a one-year deal. He is projected to continue as the starting quarterback.

March 15, 2021: Flush with salary cap space, a record $163 million in guaranteed money is spent in an unprecedented unrestricted free agent shopping spree that includes outside linebacker Matthew Judon, tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith (no longer with the team) and defensive tackle Davon Godchaux — but doesn’t include re-signing franchise-tagged left guard Joe Thuney.

March 31, 2021: Owner Robert Kraft said of the spending, “The teams who draft well are the ones who will be consistently good; I don’t feel like we’ve done the greatest job the last few years, so this was our best opportunity.”

April 12, 2021: Receiver Julian Edelman, who ranks second in receptions in team history, retires. “By any measure of what constitutes an elite NFL career — wins, championships, production — Julian has it all,” Belichick said. “Considering his professional trajectory and longevity, the group is more select. It is historic.”

April 29, 2021: Alabama quarterback Mac Jones is selected No. 15 overall in the NFL draft.

Aug. 24, 2021: Newton is not with the team due to an NFL-mandated five-day reentry process for unvaccinated players, the result of a misunderstanding after Newton travels to a team-approved medical appointment.

Aug. 25, 2021: In Newton’s absence, Jones connected on 14 straight passes at one point as well as back-to-back touchdowns in joint practice with the New York Giants in Foxborough. With Jones under center, the passing offense appears closer to what it looked like with Brady, in terms of the quarterback setting the pass-protection assignments for offensive linemen and operating out of spread formations.

2021 regular season: Jones takes over, Pats lead AFC

Aug. 31, 2021: Newton is cut, making Jones the starter.

Oct. 3, 2021: Brady, after helping the Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV, returns to Gillette Stadium for the first time as a visitor. On a rainy night, Brady is cheered in the pregame and booed once the game begins. The Buccaneers win 19-17, but the rookie Jones shows a glimpse of his early promise by completing 19 straight passes during one stretch.

Dec. 6, 2021: In a contest played in 50 mph winds, the Patriots throw the ball three times and beat the Bills 14-10 in Orchard Park, New York, for their seventh straight win. They are 9-4 and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

Jan. 2, 2022: After back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bills, the Patriots record a 50-10 win over the Jaguars, and, with the Titans beating the Dolphins, New England clinches a playoff berth (No. 6 seed).

Jan. 15, 2022: The Patriots are blown out 47-17 by the Bills in the wild-card round of the playoffs. They finish 10-8 with Jones going 352-of-521 for 3,801 yards, 22 TDs and 12 INTs.

2022 offseason: Big coaching changes, ineffective draft

Jan. 31, 2022: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, who worked closest with Jones and was often seen sitting next to him on the bench during games, is hired as Raiders head coach.

April 18, 2022: The offseason program begins, and with no official announcement, Belichick assigns longtime defensive coach Matt Patricia to replace McDaniels, with longtime special teams coach Joe Judge as quarterbacks coach. Belichick tasks Patricia with creating a new offense, believing that simplifying things is the right approach after McDaniels’ offense — built around Brady through the 2010s — had become too complicated.

April 28, 2022: The Patriots trade down from No. 21 to No. 29 in the first round of the draft with the Chiefs, who select on-the-rise CB Trent McDuffie. New England takes unheralded Chattanooga guard Cole Strange, who has yet to meet the expectations of that draft slot. Strange ranks 57th out of 67 qualified guards in pass block win rate at 87.4% and eighth out of 11 second-year qualified guards.

April 29, 2022: In the second round, they trade up for Baylor receiver Tyquan Thornton. Groh, the director of player personnel, says: “You want to get faster? You better get fast guys, and I don’t know many guys out there that are faster than Tyquan.” Thornton has dealt with injuries while playing in 18 of 29 possible games, totaling 27 receptions for 281 yards with two TDs.

2022 regular season: Quarterback shuffle

Sept. 25, 2022: After significant offensive growing pains in training camp and the preseason, the Patriots start the regular season 1-2. Jones is off to a slow start and showing frustration at times. He suffers a high ankle sprain near the end of a Week 3 loss to the Ravens.

Oct. 2, 2022: Veteran quarterback Brian Hoyer starts their Week 4 road game against the Packers but leaves early with a concussion, giving way to rookie Bailey Zappe, whom the Patriots rally around. With a simplified game plan featuring play-action passes, Zappe finishes 10-of-15 for 99 yards and one TD in a 27-24 overtime loss. Afterward, an excited Judon says, “I just want to give a huge shoutout to Zappe.”

Oct. 9-16, 2022: Jones is still sidelined, so Zappe starts in a 29-0 home win over the Lions and a 38-15 road win over the Browns. Playing against two of the NFL’s lower-rated defenses, Zappe is 17-of-21 for 188 yards with one TD and one INT versus Detroit and 24-of-34 for 309 yards with two TDs and zero INTs versus Cleveland.

Oct. 24, 2022: In a “Monday Night Football” home game against the Bears, Jones returns in a starting role but doesn’t seem 100 percent. The Patriots fall behind 10-0 and Jones is pulled after the third series, which ends with him throwing an interception. Zappe quickly leads two touchdown drives for a brief 14-10 lead and the crowd starts chanting his name. The Bears roar back to win 33-14. Belichick’s handling of the QB spot — and the dynamic between him and Jones — become a top storyline. Jones returns as the starter the following week.

Jan. 8, 2023: With a chance to clinch a playoff berth in the season finale at the Bills, Jones goes 26-of-40 for 243 yards, with three TDs and three INTs as the Patriots lose 35-23. They finish 8-9. For the season, Jones is 288-of-442 for 2,997 yards, with 14 TDs and 11 INTs — well off the pace of his rookie season.

2023 offseason: Bill O’Brien returns, questionable roster moves

Jan. 9, 2023: The day after the team’s season ends with an 8-9 record, owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft send a letter to season-ticket holders saying, “We can assure you that no one in our organization is satisfied with the results from this past season. In the weeks ahead, we will be making critical evaluations of all elements of our football operation as we strive to improve and return to the playoffs next year.”

Jan. 12, 2023: In a news release, the club says, “The New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick have begun contract extension discussions with linebackers coach Jerod Mayo that would keep him with the team long-term. In addition, the team will begin interviewing for offensive coordinator candidates beginning next week.” That fuels speculation that Mayo, who played for the team from 2008 to 2014 and joined the coaching staff in 2019, could be Belichick’s eventual successor.

Jan. 26, 2023: Bill O’Brien is hired as offensive coordinator after spending two seasons at Alabama as its coordinator. O’Brien worked with the Patriots from 2007 to 2011 and was the offensive coordinator in 2011. Former Patriots offensive lineman Adrian Klemm (2000-04) is hired to complement him as offensive line coach. Patricia leaves the staff (Philadelphia eventually hires him as senior defensive assistant) and Judge returns to his special teams roots in New England as assistant head coach.

March 10, 2023: Safety Devin McCourty retires. His 205 career regular-season games rank fifth in franchise history and his 35 interceptions are third most in team history. Said Belichick: “It is a rare group of players who win games at a historic rate, exude team culture, lead, win awards, and win championships. And then there is Devin McCourty.”

March 14, 2023: Jakobi Meyers, who developed from undrafted free agent to leading receiver, signs with the Raiders in free agency despite a desire to stay in New England. The Patriots sign the Chiefs’ JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is coming off a knee injury, to take his place in a tradeoff that is questioned by longtime franchise standouts Tedy Bruschi, Edelman and McCourty. “He developed in your system and you let him go,” Bruschi said. “What that does to the locker room [and] players is, ‘This is a guy you’ve been asking all of us to [be like]; do your job, get better every single day’ — but he didn’t get rewarded properly.”

March 15, 2023: In need of bolstering their offensive line, the Patriots make 13-year veteran Riley Reiff (one year, $5 million) and fifth-year veteran Calvin Anderson (two years, $7 million) their top free agent signings. In part due to injuries and illness, they’ve appeared in a total of six games with two combined starts this season.

March 27, 2023: At the NFL’s annual owners meetings, Robert Kraft says, “I still believe in Bill. I’d like him to break Don Shula’s [all-time wins] record, but I’m not looking for any of our players to get great stats. We’re about winning. It’s very important to me that we make the playoffs. That’s what I hope happens next year.”

June 28, 2023: The Patriots sign receiver DeVante Parker, who was entering the last year of his contract, to an extension that includes $14 million guaranteed. He has 22 catches for 264 yards and zero touchdowns in nine games.

July 24, 2023: After hosting free agent receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Patriots lose out to the Titans, who sign Hopkins to a deal that could be worth up to $15 million in 2023.

2023 regular season: Jones flops, losses pile up

Oct. 1, 2023: Jones implodes with two turnovers returned for touchdowns and is pulled in the third quarter of a 38-3 loss to the Cowboys. Top defensive players Judon and September NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month Christian Gonzalez (2023 first-rounder) sustain serious injuries. The Patriots had been competitive in their first three games but fall to 1-3, with Belichick saying afterward: “We’re a lot better team than we showed.”

Oct. 8, 2023: Jones throws another pick-six in the first quarter of a 34-0 blowout loss to the Saints at home and is, once again, pulled in the third quarter — sparking questions about how firmly he has a hold on the starting job.

Nov. 12, 2023: In Frankfurt, Germany, Jones throws a late fourth-quarter interception against the Colts and is pulled from the game. Belichick gives Zappe a chance to lead a comeback drive with 1:52 remaining and the ball at their own 14-yard line. The drive ends with an interception thrown into heavy traffic as the Patriots lose 10-6.

Nov. 26, 2023: Coming off the bye week, Jones is pulled at halftime of a 10-7 loss to the Giants after throwing two interceptions and fumbling the ball, which teammate Strange recovered. “I understand why that happened. Bad quarterback play,” Jones said. “If the quarterback doesn’t play well, you got no chance.”

Dec. 3, 2023: The Patriots lose 6-0 at home to the Chargers and fall to 2-10, the most losses for the franchise since 2000, Belichick’s first season (5-10). They have totaled 13 points over their past three games — the fewest points scored during a three-game span since the 2009 Browns and the fewest by the Pats since 1992. They also become the first team since the 1938 Chicago Cardinals to limit their opponents to 10 points or fewer in three straight games and lose all three.

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