Bill Belichick starting to feel like lame-duck coach as Patriots fall to 2-10

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FOXBORO, Mass. — Bailey Zappe’s fourth-and-8 pass to Hunter Henry fell incomplete on the final play before the two-minute warning. No one booed. No one bemoaned the team’s struggles on that last drive. It all but sealed another loss for the New England Patriots, but the place was pretty quiet.

Owner Robert Kraft wore a blue coat over his black shirt and looked down from his suite above the 50-yard line as an already half-empty Gillette Stadium hollowed out even further.

There were still two minutes remaining, and the Patriots were down only 6 points. But everyone knew better than to expect a miracle from this team that is setting records for its futility.

The scene had to bring Kraft back to those miserable few years in the early 1990s when he was just a local businessman and a diehard fan trying to hatch a plan to keep his beloved team from moving. He was there on similarly cold and rainy afternoons when the Patriots went 1-15 in 1990 and 2-14 in 1992. But not since Kraft bought the team in 1994 have they been that bad again.

Until now.

The Patriots were shut out 6-0 on Sunday by the Los Angeles Chargers in front of an embarrassingly small crowd, the second time in six games this season they’ve been blanked at their own stadium. They surrendered 10 points or fewer for the third consecutive week — yet became the first NFL team since the Chicago Cardinals in 1938 to lose all three of those games. They’ve been held scoreless in nine of their last 12 quarters. They’ve scored only one touchdown in the last three games.

With the loss, the Pats are 2-10. The only saving grace is the team’s improved draft position — they would have the No. 2 pick next spring if the season ended today.

Their latest loss ended mercifully at 3:49 p.m. ET. A full hour later, coach Bill Belichick emerged to fulfill his mandated media obligations. He lowered the three microphones at the podium before him to make it more difficult to hear whatever explanations he had for his offense’s appalling performance. He swatted away questions with terse, meaningless responses about how he did what he thought was best. He elevated Malik Cunningham, the team’s exciting rookie quarterback/wide receiver then never played him because, as he said, he did what he thought was best. It was the same reason Zappe played, he said.

Bill Belichick Live Postgame Press Conference: https://t.co/IS5zbLuhmJ

— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 3, 2023

He seemed so miserable, stuck facing 23 questions over six minutes before wrapping up unannounced by walking off the podium, that one question seemed more prevalent than the rest.

Does Belichick still want to be here?

He’s done this job for this team for 24 years. He’s never had a season as bad as this one.

So is this still what he wants to do? To be back with the Patriots next season?

“I’m looking forward to this week,” Belichick said. “Getting ready for the Steelers.”

Of course, it’s no surprise that Belichick didn’t expound on his feelings or delve into his job security, the latter of which is becoming more and more of a question.

But the way the Patriots are playing and the way Belichick is acting, with just five games left this season, it’s feeling more and more like he’s becoming a lame-duck coach. He’s earned the right, given six Super Bowls and all the other success he’s brought to New England, to finish out the year without the indignity of a midseason firing. But everyone also knows that a tough conversation with Kraft looms once the season is over.

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At this point, what’s the justification for keeping Belichick? He built this roster that is getting outmatched every time it steps on the field. He runs this team that features an offense so bad that it never even reached the red zone Sunday.

Kraft upped the pressure on Belichick at the league meetings in March when he said it was “very important” that the Patriots reach the playoffs in the 2023 season. On Dec. 3, more than a full month before the season ends, the Patriots were officially eliminated from the playoffs. There would be serious scrutiny from the Krafts if Belichick went 7-10.

But this? This feels entirely different. It’s starting to feel inevitable that something will change. And the most obvious place to look is Belichick.

In a season full of lows, Sunday may have been rock bottom for Kraft. A few days earlier, ESPN and the NFL decided they didn’t want to air the Patriots’ Week 15 game against the high-flying, celebrity-adjacent Kansas City Chiefs, flexing their matchup at Gillette Stadium out of the “Monday Night Football” slot, the first such move in league history. Then Kraft showed up to his stadium Sunday for arguably the least meaningful Patriots home game (in front of fans) since Week 17 of 2000, and the attendance reflected the franchise’s new reality. Tickets on the secondary market dropped to $5 for the lower bowl before kickoff.

That’s not to blame the fans, of course. It was cold and rainy, and this team hasn’t exactly earned a devoted following.

These Patriots have reached a new level of bad. They were bad earlier this season, but often in a fun way. Games tended to come down to the final possession, but most went the other way. Then they were maddeningly bad, making costly turnovers and silly mistakes. But now they’re just boring bad.

The offense went three-and-out four times. It never reached the end zone. Zappe, who got his first start of the season in relief of former starter Mac Jones, didn’t throw any interceptions, going 13-of-25 passing for 141 yards. But the offense also didn’t hit on any exciting plays.

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And that’s the new level of bad the Patriots have reached. Apathy. The stadium is half empty. The team is tough to watch. Sunday’s game was the league’s lowest-scoring contest in five years.

That takes us back to that final Zappe pass, the one that fell incomplete before the two-minute warning. There was still football to be played. A previous version of this team might’ve hoped for a three-and-out to force a punt, then tried for a game-winning drive as time ticked down. The kind that used to be customary here.

But this time, it was different. After it fell incomplete, the guests in Kraft’s suite solemnly stood up to leave. The owner followed them out.

(Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)


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