In NFL.com's Press Coverage series, columnists Judy Battista, Jeffri Chadiha, Michael Silver and Jim Trotter engage in a back-and-forth discussion on a timely topic, issue or theme. In this edition, Jeffri Chadiha opens up an exploration of Bill Belichick's options at quarterback as the Patriots embark on life without Tom Brady.
No coach in the NFL has dominated the news cycle this offseason like New England's Bill Belichick. His future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Tom Brady, left the franchise for Tampa Bay after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl victories. His former star tight end, Rob Gronkowski, is now a Buccaneer, as well, after un-retiring a couple of weeks ago and receiving a trade. The Patriots' kicker and all-time leading scorer, Stephen Gostkowski, also is looking for a new home after the team released him in March.
All those developments now pale in comparison to the mystery surrounding what Belichick is planning next for the quarterback position. One option is second-year quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a player the Patriots selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The other is Brian Hoyer, a journeyman quarterback who's now beginning his third stint in New England. There have been debates about the need for Belichick to consider other possibilities, but that seems unlikely today. Veterans like Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston already are off the market, while former Panthers star Cam Newtonisn't on New England's radar, per NFL Network's Mike Giardi.
Belichick finds himself in a place that he hasn't experienced in two decades: He currently has the worst quarterback situation of any team in the AFC East. The last time the Patriots were this hobbled at the position, the year was 2008, and Belichick was asking backup quarterback Matt Cassel to lead his team after Brady blew out his left knee in the season opener. The Pats finished that season 11-5. They also had an offense that included stellar receivers like Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
The supporting cast Belichick will put around his starting quarterback this coming season is nowhere close to that good. Brady only enjoyed one 300-yard passing game in his final eight games of 2019, and the lack of weapons clearly frustrated him. However, the question we'll tackle in Press Coverage this week doesn't focus entirely on Belichick's need to improve his offense. It's about who should be playing quarterback for him when this season eventually begins.
Jim Trotter: Jeff, that's an easy one. The short (and correct) answer is, Whoever Belichick wants to play quarterback. He clearly seems committed to Stidham, and I have no issue with that. I get all the sky-is-falling handwringing over going with a second-year pro who has attempted just four passes (three for completions, though one was to the other team). We're often more comfortable with the known than the unknown because it's easier to go out on that limb than it is to step onto the frail branch of uncertainty. It's why so many of us called for the Pats to sign Dalton (the ex-Bengal who is now with Dallas), Winston (the ex-Buc who is now with New Orleans), Cam (the ex-Panther who is still available) or any veteran who is able to move without a walker. But the reality is, every journey starts someplace. Just about every quarterback taken outside the first or second round was an unknown until he was known, including Brady. I'm not insinuating Stidham is the next Brady or any facsimile thereof. I'm simply saying you don't know what you have until he gets on the field. Stidham might not be the answer, but the question really isn't about him. It's about Belichick and whether we trust he can build a winner without Brady. I believe he can.
Judy Battista: They must be thinking wistfully of Jimmy Garoppolo -- the original heir apparent who was traded to San Francisco in 2017 and played for the Niners in Super Bowl LIV -- right now. I was all in on the Andy Dalton idea, mostly because I wanted to see Dalton with a really functional franchise. But I even had reservations about that, because the reality is, familiarity is going to be the most important trait in the NFL this season. That's why I think the Patriots should go with the firm of Stidham & Hoyer as their starter. I have no idea what Stidham has, and neither does anybody else, outside of the most important people: Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Our own Mike Giardi reports that the Patriotslike what they've seen, but of course, you never really know what a quarterback has until you see him lead a 2-minute drive with the game on the line.
That Belichick did not move aggressively in this incredible quarterback offseason to replace Brady with guys named Bridgewater, Newton, Dalton or even Winston suggests to me that he thinks he can win with Stidham. Stidham has a year of experience with the offense, and Hoyer is back in the building with offensive knowledge, too, so he's a good backstop if Stidham can't do it. That puts them miles ahead of any quarterback the Patriots could sign right now. With the likelihood that teams won't be able to gather and practice together before training camp, thanks to the social-distancing measures in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the wrong year to have to learn a new system. Are they going to light the league on fire like Tom Brady? Probably not. But Belichick is the master at morphing his team to emphasize its strengths. I expect him to figure out a way to at least be competitive with Stidham at the reins, give him a season to see if he is the long-term answer and then potentially go into the 2021 NFL Draft trying to get the next real successor to Brady.
Mike Silver: I agree with Jim. The issue isn't who we think the Patriots should start at QB; Belichick (with input from McDaniels) is the one whose opinion matters. He has earned that right, what with all the winning. And clearly, it's a right he very much wants to exercise, or he'd have made a much more legitimate effort to try to convince Brady to stay.
As much as we view Brady's exit as an attempt to prove that he can win without Belichick -- and while I think that's an oversimplification, I don't discount it as a motivating factor -- the equation still applies when you flip it around. Belichick, too, is tired of being told that the primary reason he has enjoyed so much head coaching success is that, other than during that one season with the Browns and the aforementioned Cassel campaign in '08, an all-time great quarterback has been there to cover up all weaknesses.
Was it mostly Brady, mostly Belichick or an equal portion of both? It's the most compelling question of the 2020 season, though it may turn out to be eminently unanswerable. Given Brady's age (42) and the challenges of this offseason, we may not truly get a sense of his ability to uplift the Bucs; that said, I wouldn't put anything past him.
The 2020 Patriots without Brady? Well, that's a fairer test. The Pats were short on offensive firepower in 2019, and they didn't seem to make too many dramatic upgrades -- if they don't end up signing Newton, they'll roll into the season with an untested project (Stidham) and a quintessential journeyman (Hoyer) as their quarterbacking depth chart. It's a move that screams, "We know better than you," and for all we know, they may be right.
Personally, I love it, and I hope it stays that way. If Belichick and McDaniels can attain success with Stidham, as they previously did (in much more limited capacities) with Cassel in '08 and Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett during Brady's suspension in the first month of the 2016 season, they'll deserve even more of our respect.
And if it's an unmitigated disaster, they'll deserve to hear all about how much harder it is to dominate a division and a conference without one of the greatest quarterbacks in history.
Battista: An unmitigated disaster would mean a shot at Clemson's Trevor Lawrence? We digress. I couldn't agree more -- life after Brady is one of the NFL's best storylines. I'm fascinated to see how the Patriots approach it. Last season, for the first time in years, the Patriots sometimes looked undermanned even with Brady. They won early in the season with defense and special teams, and then when they played a higher caliber of opponent -- like the Ravens, Texans and Chiefs -- the defense wasn't enough to carry them, and the offense wasn't good enough to elevate any further. No matter who the quarterback is, this is a wildly different team that has lost a lot of talent -- Kyle Van Noy is gone, and so are Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton. Whatever we may think of Stidham or Hoyer or somebody else, would Brady do much better with this roster?
Chadiha: Like Judy, I believe the most telling sign of how Belichick feels about his quarterback room is how he approached free agency. There were plenty of sensible options there, and his decision to go with Stidham and Hoyer means he's comfortable with those possibilities. I actually wonder if Stidham's athleticism can unlock a dimension in the Patriots' offense that Brady never could. Don't forget -- McDaniels was such a big believer in unconventional mobile quarterbacks that he used a first-round pick on Tim Tebow when McDaniels was coaching the Denver Broncos.
Hoyer can be a useful insurance policy because he knows the system, and he can be called upon to play without the benefit of acclimating himself in an offseason program. However, I still have questions about how Stidham will fare in an offense that lacked so many weapons. If Brady couldn't find a ton of success with that bunch, it's fair to wonder how Stidham could do better. As I noted at the top, there won't be a Randy Moss or a Gronkowski to throw to, which was a huge benefit for the quarterbacks who played when Brady wasn't available previously.
We all can see that Belichick is smart enough to find a way to win games with any quarterback. People also forget that he didn't just have the luxury of Brady over the last two decades, but he actually discovered the guy who turned into the G.O.A.T. I remember Belichick showing me the file he kept on Brady after Brady's rookie season, back when Brady was the team's fourth-string quarterback. Belichick read his notes aloud and said the major reason Brady even stuck around for a second season was his "intangibles."
In other words, Belichick has to sense something in Stidham that nobody else can see. As Jim said, that doesn't mean this is the new Tom Brady. It just means Stidham is the guy Belichick is most familiar with at this point.
Trotter: What a fascinating anecdote about Belichick reading his post-rookie notes on Brady. Like many others who are great at what they do, Belichick can be so compelling when he pulls back the curtains. That said, there is reason for pause. Yes, Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt, but that does not mean he ultimately will be proven right. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and I have to believe a part of Belichick relishes the challenge of proving the Pats' success was not about one player, Brady's greatness be damned. But scripture tells us, "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." And that is why the question is not so much about Stidham, but more about Belichick.
Silver: For some twisted reason -- in the wake of Jim's scripture reference -- I'm now picturing Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Winnfield reciting Ezekiel 25:17: "And you will know my name is the LORD ..."
Yeah, the more I think about it, this is Belichick's way of showing (some would say reminding) everyone that he knows more about what's good for his team than we do. I obviously don't dispute that, but it is a gamble. If Stidham faceplants and the Patriots stink, it's pretty clear who'll absorb the bulk of the criticism.
I'm sure Belichick isn't stressed about it. For one thing, he's probably pretty convinced that he's right. And if anyone's going to feel comfortable gambling on his reputation, it's a guy who can only be dinged a tiny bit. What's the worst thing that can happen -- people say one of the most successful coaches of all time miscalculated when trying to replace a legend, and that Brady had something to do with the Patriots' past two decades of excellence after all?
Chadiha: We can all agree that Belichick's reputation is safe regardless of how this all plays out (and that Mike and Jim aren't worshiping in the same places). I'm also with you guys on the idea that Belichick's ego may be playing a bigger role in this than we realize. After all, half of those Super Bowl wins came mainly as a result of coaching and preparation. The defensive game plan created to stop the St. Louis Rams' prolific offense. The tutoring of cornerback Malcolm Butler that helped put him in position for that game-clinching interception against Seattle. The defensive front he designed to neutralize Todd Gurley's running and frustrate Jared Goff in New England's last Super Bowl win. All that stuff was Belichick at his best.
What we all have to realize about the next quarterback for the New England Patriots is that Belichick is going to do the same thing he did for Brady -- he's going to play to his strengths. The Patriots won a championship two years ago by pounding the football late in a season when everyone else was throwing like crazy. They rode a dominant defense and great special teams for most of the 2019 campaign, until their offensive issues caught up with them. Whatever Stidham is -- and I see no reason not to think he'll be the guy right now -- he won't need to be a stud for this team to succeed.
Still, this is going to be a new world for New England. Belichick needs to find a quarterback to help him compete in an AFC where the youth movement includes dynamic stars (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson), others that are slowly finding their way (Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Sam Darnold and Drew Lock) and a handful on the horizon (Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert). The Patriots' head coach hasn't had to worry about having somebody under center who can keep up with talent like that in a long time. He bet on Brady to be his leader two decades ago. We'll see if this gamble pays off as well.