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Bill Belichick’s magic is gone, and this is just sad

There is nothing special about “The Patriot Way” anymore.

New England Patriots v New York Giants Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

History has a tendency to romanticize the demise of legends. Take Harry Houdini: For years there were tall tales and legends about how the world’s greatest magician perished. Some said it happened on stage, as Houdini was finally unable to defy death in his Water Torture chamber. Others say he died in a flash, punched in the stomach by a fan who surprised him — taking Houdini at his word that blows to the abdomen wouldn’t hurt him.

The truth (as best we know), is much sadder — and has elements of both these stories. Houdini was reclining on a sofa backstage in Montreal, nursing a broken ankle he sustained the night prior during the Water Torture trick. Two men entered his dressing room, hearing about the magician’s punching challenge, and mercilessly beat him in the stomach until he begged them to stop.

Ultimately, this still wasn’t what killed Houdini. Instead he kept performing in agony, he waved off the advice of a doctor to stop his tour and have surgery, diagnosing him with acute appendicitis. The magician passed out on stage in Detroit two days later, had to be resuscitated, but kept on going. It was only after the curtain closed that he checked himself into hospital, and died a week later.

Harry Houdini died at 52 years old, not of a failed escape or a blow to the stomach, but from being too pig-headed, too proud, having too much hubris to admit he needed help until it was too late.

Bill Belichick’s career is going the same way. Not ending in a grand, myth-spawning event — but sadly bleeding out during each performance and refusing to admit that this has gone wrong.

“Magic” as we define it, is a funny thing. Innately we know magic doesn’t exist, but a magician conjures distrust in our senses with three beautifully simple tenants:

  1. Using wits to create an illusion they know will fool an audience
  2. Using skill to execute the illusion
  3. The showmanship to make it all seem ordinary

Belichick has done this for years. It’s the core tenet of “The Patriot Way.” For 20 years he built his team off imperfect football players who all possessed unicorn traits, but with an uncanny ability to slot these pieces together to accentuate their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

Nobody in the league was better at planning for a game, and taking his unlikely, unheralded group and turning them into the most fearsome team football has ever known.

And when it was all done he’d stand in front of the microphone, looking like a bleary-eyed dad, traipsing through a hardware store before his first cup of coffee, refusing to offer any emotion, either to take credit for his intelligence, or give any insight into how his brand of magic worked.

We can simultaneously appreciate Belichick’s brilliance, and admit that it’s now gone. Nothing last forever, and the two-prong assault of Belichick the GM and Belichick the coach which once converged to create brilliance, have now come together to create a disaster. Belichick can own being the greatest coach of all time, while also owning that right now he’s the coach of one of the worst teams in the NFL — and that’s directly his fault.

Sunday was the lowest point of the Belichick tenure. Much, much worse than 2007 when Tom Brady tore his achilles in the season opener. That was crushing, but losing to a hapless 3-8 Giants team led by Tommy Devito is absolutely pathetic — especially when you can’t even manage to score 10 points against a team that’s allowed an average of 25.9 this season (28th in the NFL).

Mac Jones was benched, which was absolutely fair, but also makes him the scapegoat for Belichick’s own mistake. It was Belichick the GM who was so desperately chasing a young clone of Tom Brady that he ignored Jones’ myriad issues and tried to will it into being by taking him with the No. 15 pick.

There’s a common theme to Belichick’s recent drafts: They’ve been terrible. The glory years of the Patriots routinely had the team finding gem after gem in mid rounds. Pro Football Reference’s “Approximate Value” (AV) assigns a rudimentary number to a player’s career to determine how great they’ve been. A mid-tier player will finish in the 20s, a one-time Pro Bowler anywhere from 30-45, and brilliant players will have a rating above 50.

From 2000-2017 the team found 25 players outside of the first round with a Pro Football Reference weighted AV value of 30+. On average over one player a year from their draft class would be a gem.

In the six years since the Patriots have found ZERO. The closest has been linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, taken in the 5th round of 2018 — and his career rating is a 28.

This is compounded with how many misses the team has made in early rounds too. Isaiah Wynn (2018), N’Keal Harry (2019), Mac Jones (2021), Cole Strange (2022) — four straight whiffs with 1st round picks. Now, to be fair, Christian Gonzalez looked incredible prior to being injured — but a single cornerback is the definition of too little, too late when it comes to this much terrible drafting, that’s been both unable to find impact players in the first round, and unable to discover talent later in the draft.

Letting go is difficult to do, but it’s Belichick’s inability to admit he’s not longer the draft guru he once was has put the Patriots into a deep hole. If he took ownership of the problem three years ago and asked Robert Kraft to bring in a young, talented GM with their own scouting department — then perhaps we’re not talking about New England losing to one of the worst teams in football.

If you look at the recent New England drafts they’ve almost been ironic facsimile of past brilliance. Too many trades back, unknown draft picks that feel almost weird for the sake of weird, throwing all conventional draft wisdom to the wind with ever-present belief that “Bill is always right.”

Well, he’s not anymore. Teams around the league are copying the trait-based drafting the Patriots started over a decade ago, and doing it much better than Bill Belichick is. A trick is only impressive when you haven’t seen it before, and now there’s nothing remarkable about what Belichick is doing.

The Patriots are in a 2-9 hole without a clear path forward. The team has two terrible quarterbacks in Mac Jones and Bailey Zappe, a mediocre receiving corps, an unspectacular defense and nothing that really pops out as elite.

During the team’s dominance it was all about the 53 players on the team modeling themselves after Belichick’s ruthless, take-no-prisoners approach to football. Now they’re still modeling themselves after Bill, but are playing like a tired old man who’s just ready for this to be over.

This isn’t how a legend is supposed to die. Belichick was supposed to go out with a ring, carried on the shoulders of titans. That isn’t going to happen. Instead he’s trudging along from city to city, like Houdini, and with no way to stop the internal bleeding that’s killing this team.

When it’s all said and done, Belichick has nobody to blame but himself.

Winner: Mike Tomlin

I think we can pump the brakes on this being a legendary Steelers offense now, because after all the Bengals were 20th in the NFL in points allowed (22.6) and gave up 386 yards of offense a game entering Sunday. That said, it’s undoubtably true that firing Matt Canada was the right idea, because I’m not sure he could have taken advantage of the bad Cincinnati defense like the Steelers did without him.

Kenny Pickett was definitely rejuvenated without Canada calling his plays. It’s not like Pickett was asked to do difficult things under center — but he still thrived.

Long-term that 4-for-8 accuracy on passes beyond 10 yards is a little dicey, but that can still be worked on. It’s about getting wins however possible, and the Steelers are doing it right now.

Loser: Frank Reich

Need to know how hot a coach’s seat can get?

Yes, it’s swearing owner season in Carolina — and rightfully so. The Panthers lost what might have been their only winnable game remaining on their schedule after failing to capitalize on numerous offensive opportunities.

This all comes after Reich took back play calling duties in an effort to steady the ship, and it’s been a disaster since then. Reich is so out of touch on offense he calls nonsensical plays, including a toss to Miles Sanders on 3rd-and-1 early in the game (which failed), and having a 4th-and-6 alert for Bryce Young being a screen pass.

Everything about this team is pathetic, and it begins with Reich.

Winner: Jalen Hurts

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better second half turnaround from a QB than what Hurts did on Sunday. The only first half highlight to note from the Eagles QB was a lone rushing touchdown off a tush push, and then he absolutely exploded in the second.

Hurts finished with just 200 passing yards, but critically three passing touchdowns and two rushing TDs. He took over the game and proved the Eagles still have it on offense, even if they’re not as dynamic as they were with Shane Steichen a year ago.

Winner: Kyren Williams

The Rams running back straight went off against the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon in seriously dramatic fashion. Barring something wild on Monday Night Football he’ll lead the league this week with 143 rushing yards on just 18 attempts.

Williams’ home run potential is the spark the Rams have been missing on the ground this year, and could set this team up to be a trap team in the playoffs if they can find a way in.

Loser: Justin Herbert and Keenan Allen

No, they’re absolutely not losers — I just feel bad that they’re stuck on this disastrous Chargers team. What a mess.