It was humorous to see Bill Belichick’s dog sitting in front of a computer during the NFL draft. It was also sort of a metaphor for the New England Patriots’ upcoming season, when Belichick will take on the underdog role for the first time in two decades.
While the Belichick-Tom Brady breakup means the end of the most successful coach-quarterback relationship in league history, it’s the beginning of a rebuilding project for Belichick.
Brady was the betting favorite in his last 74 regular-season starts for the Patriots, who were the Super Bowl favorites during the first half of last season. New England started 8-0 but went 4-4 in November and December, losing as a 17-point favorite against Miami in Week 17.
The Patriots’ second-half slide separated truth from public perception. As Brady’s play declined, the team’s other flaws were exposed, and New England was nothing special by the time the playoffs arrived. It’s unrealistic to expect the Patriots to be better in 2020 with a six-time Super Bowl champion replaced by Jarrett Stidham, who threw four passes in three games as a rookie.
New England’s season win total is posted at nine (Under -120) at the Westgate SuperBook. It long has been a fool’s errand to bet against Belichick, but this is not a year to bet on him.
“I’m not going to ever doubt Belichick,” said Ed Salmons, the Westgate’s top NFL oddsmaker. “My numbers came out to 8.7 for the Patriots, so I would only bet Under nine wins.”
Many bookmakers are also bettors, including Salmons, but for the record he said he’s not betting the Patriots’ win total. The consensus market number of nine wins is the proper adjustment for New England. I lean Under nine and would bet Under 9½ if that number shows up in the next four months.
After analyzing the schedule announced last week, a 9-7 record seems to be the ceiling for the Patriots, who drew road games against Seattle and Kansas City in the first month and a three-game December trip to face the Chargers, Rams and Dolphins. Any way you prefer to determine schedule strength — opponents’ win percentage from 2019 or opponents’ posted win totals for 2020 — New England’s schedule ranks among the NFL’s toughest.
Rebuilding starts with the quarterback. I do like Stidham and believe Belichick is making the right move by developing Stidham instead of signing another former Auburn quarterback, veteran free agent Cam Newton. But Stidham’s inexperience means he ranks as the worst of the four starting quarterbacks in the AFC North. Buffalo, Miami and the New York Jets finally have closed the gap on New England in the division.
Belichick still will put a good defense on the field, but he lost linebackers Jamie Collins to Detroit and Kyle Van Noy to Miami in free agency. Belichick’s first three draft picks were defensive players and his next two picks were tight ends, a clear sign he’s rebuilding with young players at a cheap price.
Spending big money on free agents is not Belichick’s style, yet he has no choice but to be frugal because the Patriots are in a salary-cap crunch in 2020 with more than $25 million in dead money on the books — the departures of Brady and Antonio Brown account for about $18 million. After the draft, Belichick had about $2 million in cap space. The projections for 2021 are much more optimistic for the Patriots, who will have about $94 million in cap room, giving Belichick the ability to make more impact roster additions.
The bottom line is it’s obvious Belichick’s rebuilding plan is targeting 2021 as the bounce-back year. All things considered, a break-even 8-8 in the first season of the post-Brady era would not be bad. If you are ever going to bet against Belichick, this is the year. This might be the last chance.
2 teams to fade: Schedule analysis is a popular way for bettors to arrive at win total conclusions, but it’s a dangerous and tricky proposition. The way the games seem to set up on paper is seldom how they play out.
Last summer the betting public loved the Browns, while several sharps were fading the Browns and Ravens. Cleveland finished 6-10, and Baltimore went 14-2.
I would not recommend fading either team this year. The Browns made a much-needed coaching change and have the talent for an immediate turnaround. The Ravens drew arguably the league’s easiest schedule, with no trips outside the Eastern time zone after Week 2, and could be favored in all 16 games.
The best way to play win totals is to take in the big picture — put an emphasis on grading the organization and its personnel moves along with the coach, quarterback, defense and schedule. So I’m looking to fade the Rams (8½, Under -110) and Texans (7½, Under + 100) this year.
Houston has an elite quarterback in Deshaun Watson, but coach Bill O’Brien doubles as the general manager, and he’s nowhere near Belichick’s league when it comes to shrewd personnel moves. O’Brien’s trade of star wideout DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for a second-round pick before the draft was his latest dubious deal.
Indianapolis (nine) and Tennessee (8½) have higher win totals than Houston in the AFC South. The Texans also drew a brutal scheduling card in the first three weeks — at Kansas City, Baltimore, at Pittsburgh — and will need a phenomenal season from Watson to reach eight wins.
“A team I actually hate is the Texans,” Salmons said. “If Watson gets injured, that team could be awful.”
The Rams’ fall from grace has been sudden, from Super Bowl losers to 9-7 last year to … last in the NFC West this year? General manager Les Snead handed quarterback Jared Goff a contract with $110 million guaranteed and has wrecked much of the roster and salary cap. Bad decisions at the top of the organization trickle down to the field.