By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- A 7-9 record, a third-place finish in the division, and a winter spent watching the postseason on television made for a rather dreary start to Life Without Tom Brady in New England. So dreary, in fact, that some whispering and wondering began to grow louder and louder that perhaps --perhaps -- the Patriots' time as Super Bowl contenders had officially come to an end.
Whether or not such prognostications end up being true remains to be seen. What's clear after Monday's spending spree, though, is that Bill Belichick does not intend to fade away quietly.
As soon as the NFL's so-called "legal tampering window" opened at noon on Monday, Belichick got to work. Tight end Jonnu Smith was priority No. 1, with $31.25 million of guaranteed money heading the tight end's way. Next up was defensive lineman Davon Godchaux, a potential overpay at $9 million guaranteed to address a team weakness. Then it was big-money pass rusher Matthew Judon, with $32 million guaranteed in his first two years. Shortly thereafter, the Patriots inked defensive back Jalen Mills, guaranteeing him another $9 million. And after a few hours to rest and reload, the Patriots agreed to terms on a two-year deal with receiver Nelson Agholor, worth a reported $26 million.
It's unlikely that a person with Belichick's body of work was impacted by national or local criticisms. He probably wasn't given extra motivation to win after witnessing Tom Brady win ring No. 7 in Tampa, or the perceived verbal barbs offered up by his new coach, Bruce Arians.
More likely, Belichick physically could not stand enduring that excruciating 7-9 season a year ago, and thus, he set out to turn around his team's fortunes -- essentially overnight.
Historically, that's not been the best way for anyone to do business, and Belichick himself has been averse to controlling his team in that way. Outside of the occasional splurge on a Stephon Gilmore or Adalius Thomas, a more disciplined, long-term approach to roster building served Belichick and the Patriots quite well for almost 20 years.
But, with Belichick approaching his 69th birthday, with the Buffalo Bills firmly establishing themselves atop the AFC East, with the Dolphins no longer being a joke, and with that lasting stench of the 7-9 season lingering all winter, the spring of 2021 certainly counts as "desperate times" for the New England Patriots. Belichick is acting accordingly.
He's also backing up his own words. Surely you'll recall his comments to Charlie Weis last year, when he provided the reason (some would call it an excuse) for the Patriots being in such an unenviable position last year.
"Because of our cap situation in this particular year, this is kind of the year that we've taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we've had in accumulation of prior years," Belichick said at the end of October, when his team was 2-4 and in the midst of a losing streak. "We just haven't been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we've had in some other years."
Days later, Belichick pushed that commentary (again, some might call it excuse-making) a bit further.
"It's obvious that we didn't have any money," Belichick told WEEI. "It's nobody's fault. That's what we did the last five years. We sold out. We 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."
It was a fact. But it was also sorta-kinda an excuse. Certainly, no team can remain atop the NFL forever; the league's obsessive desire for parity prevents it from happening. But it still felt as though some better management in 2020 -- perhaps not paying Joe Thuney $14.781 million, or perhaps prioritizing the most important position in team sports, for example -- could have resulted in a more competitive team in 2020.
Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase, it was what it was. The Patriots were bad in 2020, and their season was essentially over before Thanksgiving, for the first time in 20 years.
From that point forward, Belichick wasn't overly forward or open or eager to discuss the overall state of his team. They played out the string, losing three straight games in December, as he vehemently stuck by Cam Newton during the QB's struggles. The season ended with a comfortable win over the hapless Jets in a forgettable Week 17 game.
And every day since then in New England has felt a little bit bleak from a football perspective.
Brady and the Bucs went on an improbable run to a Super Bowl title, prompting ceaseless bouts of "what if?" for football followers in the region. The promise of chaotic musical chairs at the quarterback position never quite panned out across the league, ultimately leading to the re-signing of Newton last week.
It felt like 2021 might be Groundhog Day for the Patriots.
But then Monday happened, and Belichick proved that his midseason words were backed by some real meaning. When things were going south, he assured everyone that if he could have spent last year, he would have spent. Now when finally given the chance to spend, he's done so in a way that he's never done before.
Again, that's not necessarily a guarantee of success. The big winner in March is rarely the last team standing in February. But at this particular moment, that's not the critical story line.
For now, Bill Belichick has spoken loudly and clearly that he has absolutely no intention of rolling through another miserable season as the NFL's picture of medioctiry. The Patriots will never quite reach that standard of perpetual excellence that carried them to six Super Bowl titles and three more appearances in a span of 17 years. Nobody will.
But 7-9, in Foxboro? That's clearly not acceptable. Belichick was able to grin and bear it -- barely -- and got through the year. Where he went from there was anybody's guess. But Monday's avalanche of additions speaks rather loudly to the notion that the legendary head coach does not have the desire or the patience to suffer through another season of pain.
Will it work? We're a long way from getting that answer. But in the NFL -- as in most competitive fields -- stagnation is death. These swings by Belichick may or may not ultimately connect, but at the very least, the Patriots are not standing still.
And Belichick -- for now, anyway -- has backed up his words in a significant, unmistakable way.
for more features.