As New England Patriots fans wonder what the next chapter of the franchise's history will look like, Bill Belichick offered up one big reason for hope.
"The last 25 years," Belichick said on Monday at the AFC coaches breakfast from the Annual League Meeting in Phoenix.
It was a bold reminder from one of the league's all-time great coaches that Patriots fans really do have champagne problems that other franchises can't even imagine.
While it's true that New England's 25-26 record and one playoff appearance the past three seasons have lumped the Patriots with the middle of the NFL's pack since Tom Brady's departure, the franchise's fortunes since the 2001 season -- namely six Super Bowl titles -- are unmatched and Belichick's record unassailable.
But it's also fair, based on the recent downturn, to wonder if this is a team that will compete for another Super Bowl while Belichick is still coaching. The coach assured people that he expects a team that can compete.
"I think we've been pretty competitive every year that I've been here with the Patriots. That's our overall plan. I expect it to continue that way. I think the team's been managed pretty well for the last 20, however many years," Belichick said Monday. "So I think we'll continue managing it in the way we've been competitive over the last 20 years and I expect we'll continue to be competitive."
A huge question remains at quarterback. Mac Jones performed about as well as could have been expected as a rookie in 2021, making the Pro Bowl and leading the Patriots to the playoffs. The arrow appeared to be pointing up -- or at the very least sideways.
But then last season, everything seemed to fall apart for Jones and the offense. When Josh McDaniels took the Raiders' head-coaching job, Belichick replaced him with Matt Patricia as the de facto offensive coordinator. It didn't go well, as the Patriots' offense consistently struggled to move the ball and Jones briefly lost his job to rookie QB Bailey Zappe.
Even though Patricia was replaced by Bill O'Brien -- Jones' college coordinator at Alabama the year the Crimson Tide won the national title -- Belichick was asked whether there would be a competition this season between Jones and Zappe.
"Everybody will get a chance to play," Belichick said. "We'll play the best player."
So ... is it fair to call it a competition then?
"Everybody will get a chance to play," he said.
Make of that what you will. But for what it's worth, Patriots owner Robert Kraft has continued to support Jones publicly, all but blaming Jones' downturn as a function of the failed Patricia experiment.
"I'm a big fan of Mac," Kraft told the media on Monday. "I think he came to us as a rookie, he quarterbacked his rookie season and did a very fine job I thought. We made the playoffs, I think we experimented with some things last year that frankly didn't work when it came to him in my opinion. And I think we made changes that put him in a good position to excel.
"… For me, I think I see him as a very hard-working young man. He's in the stadium almost every day now in the offseason. Bringing in Bill O'Brien I think will work to his advantage. I'm very positive and hopeful about this upcoming year, and I'm personally a very big fan of Mac."
And for those Patriots fans harboring a pipe dream of Belichick pulling a trademark sleight of hand and stealing franchise-tagged QB Lamar Jackson from the rival Ravens, Kraft stoked the fires by suggesting that rapper Meek Mill texted him this week to say that Jackson wants to be a Patriot. Belichick, however, didn't offer any breadcrumbs on a potential pursuit of the Ravens QB.
"I'm not gonna talk about players on any other team," Belichick said. When he was told that Jackson was technically a free agent, Belichick didn't expound.
As for whether Patricia will return, Belichick was noncommittal, saying he's "not sure."
Belichick did say that the Patriots this offseason have "taken steps to improve the team." Most notably, they've added WR JuJu Smith-Schuster and TE Mike Gesicki, along with RB James Robinson. But they also watched two of their more dependable performers, WR Jakobi Meyers and RB Damien Harris, leave in free agency.
Belichick's reminder: The race isn't over yet.
"Long way to go. It's March. We play in September," he said. "Got a long way to go, a lot of work to do."