The New England Patriots’ 2020 season was a struggle — from numerous cornerstone players departing during the offseason, to the Coronavirus situation and its fallout, to the team itself just being unable to play consistent enough on a week-to-week basis. Add it all up, and sprinkle a dash of below-average talent at some important positions over the top, and you a 7-9 record and New England staying at home for the playoffs.
A sizable portion of the current generation of Patriots has never had an experience like that before. After all, the team entered the 2020 season coming off 11 straight division titles and playoff births, and having won three Super Bowls in the previous six years.
2020 was different, though. It was a challenge.
And yet, head coach Bill Belichick praised his team’s veteran leaders after its season finale against the New York Jets on Sunday. Belichick went into great detail to point out what leadership means and how important it was for a season as difficult as the one that ended with a 28-14 victory over New England’s division rivals.
“I appreciate all the players and the way the team performed,” said Belichick before talking specifically about his team’s starting quarterback. “Cam [Newton]’s given us a lot of leadership [all year], certainly’s gave it to us today — first run, getting the ball into the end zone. That was just part of the leadership that he’s given us all year, especially with [David] Andrews out, being a little short-handed there offensively.”
It remains to be seen what the future holds for Newton given that he is scheduled to enter unrestricted free agency in March, but he did end his 2020 campaign in style. The first-year Patriot had one of his best performances of the season, and finished with three new franchise records along the way.
When asked about the team captain later on during his postgame media conference call on Sunday, however, Belichick pointed out that the team’s leadership extended beyond just one player — despite Newton playing the most prominent position on the field.
“I could probably say that about 20 players on this team,” he noted when asked about the positive example he might be setting for younger players. “Devin McCourty, Jason McCourty, Lawrence Guy, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, James White, Matt Slater. Those guys, some have been here for over a decade, and they approach every meeting, every installation and every walkthrough, like they’re rookies, like they’re undrafted rookie players.
“Attentive and trying to get it right, and if something happens then they ask a coach a question as if after 13 years or 10 years or however many years it’s been — five years, doesn’t matter — they have as much of a thirst to get those situations right so that they’ll be prepared, so that when they come up in the game they do the right thing as a rookie would, as a first-year player would, who doesn’t know.”
With the exception of Joe Thuney, who has been as reliable a player as any since joining the team in 2016, all of the players Belichick mentioned served as team captains for the Patriots this season. However, the team’s head coach noted that pointing at one player or group would not do the overall leadership on New England’s roster any justice.
“We have so many players on our team that approach the game that way. I couldn’t just single out one person,” Belichick said. “We have obviously our captains, but there’s a whole different group other than our captains that have the same work ethic, same day-to-day consistency to excel. And part of excelling is improving. They want to do everything right, they want to be physically prepared, mentally be prepared, study, work with their teammates, so that the communication is done properly and efficiently on the field if we have to make a change or an adjustment, all those things.
“Honestly, it’s an inspiration to all of us, coaches as well. Any player who hasn’t been around that, who hasn’t experienced that or doesn’t have that kind of work habits — urge to get it right, commitment to winning, and what you have to do to win in this league — they can all learn from that. We can all learn from that.”
After losing long-time veteran leaders like Tom Brady, Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Duron Harmon, the Patriots fielded a comparatively inexperienced team in 2020. This, in turn, put more pressure on players such as the ones Belichick mentioned above to carry the club through a difficult season — one that featured a lot of disappointment, a Covid-19 outbreak, and a rookie class that had to enter the league without a regular offseason.
Despite all that, Belichick seemed impressed by the example the team’s leaders — captains or not — set throughout the year.
“That’s what real good professional NFL players do: they make that kind of commitment on a daily basis throughout the entire season,” he said. “They don’t take days off, they don’t miss opportunities to prepare and study, and be ready to step out on the field and do their very best. They don’t have those up-and-down-type of periods. Anybody that watches those players in their room or on their side of the ball, or just in general, those are great leadership examples.
“They don’t really have to say anything: leadership comes from doing your job and putting the team first when you do it. That’s what leadership’s really about. It’s not about always standing up and giving a team speech. Going in there and doing your job is leadership, and your commitment to doing it for the team is leadership. That’s how I measure it, and we have a lot of that. We have a lot of great leadership on this team.”
That foundation the Patriots built over the years will again be integral this year, and with the team heading into another offseason filled with plenty of uncertainty.