Saturday, February 4 2023

By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist

Delighted Bill Belichick and Disgusted Bill Belichick look basically the same, as the New England Patriots head coach’s expressionless demeanor is as much a part of his mystique as all those wins and rings and intangible things.

On rare and special occasions — like winning a Super Bowl — Delighted Bill might occasionally offer a half-grin. As for Disgusted Bill, he just looks mightily unimpressed, exactly as he does the rest of the time.

The widely-held assumption is that Disgusted Bill is in the house right now after the Patriots’ offense continued to endure a start to training camp that hasn’t impressed nor delighted anyone. But who really knows?

“There’s good things and bad things on every play,” Belichick told reporters on Tuesday. “The (fans and media) are more results-oriented, but there are many ways to evaluate the success of a play. I’m not going to get into a play-by-play evaluation. That’s not really what camp is for.”

It’s kind of a shame that Belichick didn’t say this a week ago, as it would have provided valuable supporting material for the entire column I wrote about how training camp reactions were typically overblown, that seamless drives down the field aren’t camp’s primary purpose, that there is far more nuance than meets the eye and that flashy and splashy snippets from August don’t mean a lot.

Oh well, Belichick was never worried about making matters easy for journalists.

While some things never change, one thing that is different this time is the level of scrutiny and implied doubt surrounding the Patriots.

The optics on offense haven’t looked good. Run plays have gained no traction, routinely stopped at the line. Onlookers have lost count of the number of plays in which quarterback Mac Jones would have been pounded into the ground by a defender had this not, you know, been training camp. Jones has found himself under constant pressure.

How things pan out during Thursday’s opening preseason game against the New York Giants will fuel further discussion.

So much focus is on the offensive side of the ball because of change brought about by the departure of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who took the Las Vegas Raiders’ top job after a decade of marshaling the Patriots’ attack.

With no replacement named, Belichick is now more heavily involved in the offense, while assisted by a pair of former NFL head coaches who have returned to the New England fold, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

Even so, things have been getting a little chippy. Jones, in particular, has looked unhappy and frustrated. Linemen David Andrews and Christian Barmore got into a physical scrap and were kicked out of practice.

In the past, Belichick teams would always get the benefit of the doubt. Not so much now. Not coming off three straight years without a postseason win.

Belichick has had similar spells of disappointment before. One happened at the very beginning of his career, with the Cleveland Browns. Another came during an odd run for the Patriots between 2008-10, when Tom Brady suffered the worst injury of his career before 10-6 and 14-2 Pats teams crashed out in their opening playoff games.

The barren spell has never reached four years though, and we can safely presume Belichick doesn’t want to set a new personal record now.

When the New England dynasty broke up in 2020, there was some rather silly spit-balling as to whether it was Brady or Belichick who was chiefly responsible for the Patriots’ success. After Brady first left for Tampa Bay, the popular choice was Belichick. Now it is overwhelmingly Brady. It’s all nonsense. The real answer is obvious — it was both of them. 

To have success on that level, for that amount of time, took a combination of a G.O.A.T. quarterback and a genius head coach working in tandem, even if they weren’t the most natural match in terms of personality.

Now, it is the latest step in Belichick’s fresh challenge. Jones is not Brady, but the Patriots will soon want to decipher whether he is going to be their starter for years to come, or something less than that.

Earlier this week, after days of difficulty, the 23-year-old put together a much stronger and more convincing practice. 

“You called it the best practice of the year,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on “First Things First.” “If your kid has failed every test of the semester and then comes in with a D+, that’s the best test of the year. It doesn’t necessarily mean you should start fitting him for the valedictorian cap.”

Mac Jones owns struggles: ‘I’ll figure it out’

Despite the physical changes the New England quarterback has made, it appears Mac Jones has been struggling to perform to a high standard during Patriots’ training camp. Kevin Wildes and Nick Wright discuss whether Jones and the Patriots will take a step forward this season.

Jones showed some toughness and smarts in his rookie year, and the young man should be emboldened by the faith Belichick has shown in him to this point.

“I’m going to figure it out,” Jones said. “I always have. I always will.”

The Patriots are still adjusting to a new normal where they are not the standard the rest of the league judges itself by, not any longer. Belichick carries on, the identical faces of Delighted Bill and Disgusted Bill providing some comforting consistency.

But this time, with the extra pressure comes a nagging fear. Belichick will never be just another coach, but the Patriots aren’t far away from becoming just another team.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.

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