Bill Belichick faces the real prospect of finishing in last place in the AFC East for the first time since 2000, his first year with the New England Patriots, if his team goes into MetLife Stadium Sunday and loses to the New York Jets. Most don’t remember Belichick’s five-year run with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 through 1995, and he never even finished in the cellar with that team.
There is a dearth of offensive talent in New England, and all of Belichick’s AFC East rivals have bypassed the Patriots. There would not even be a question about it if Aaron Rodgers had not suffered his Achilles injury in Week 1 for the Jets, but if Zach Wilson can play with some level of competence, New York will have an edge on the Patriots.
The Jets have at least two gamebreakers in running back Breece Hall and wideout Garrett Wilson, and those two could be joined by Dalvin Cook once the former Minnesota Vikings running back hits his stride. The Patriots have none of the above.
Mac Jones is in a make-or-break year, and while he may get along much better with Bill O’Brien as his offensive coordinator than he did with blowhard Matt Patricia, he is nothing more than barely competent.
The closest thing the Pats have to a gamebreaker is running back Rhamondre Stevenson, and that’s a major stretch. His running mate Ezekiel Elliott appears to have little left in the tank and it’s difficult to watch this former superstar stumble. Tight end Hunter Henry is the best of the receivers and fellow TE Mike Gesicki may be their second-best pass catcher.
No matter how well Belichick gets his defense to play, he simply has half a football team. The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are light years ahead of the Patriots, and the only reason Sunday’s game against Miami was close was the play of the defense and the special teams.
Most view Belichick as the best coach in the history of the game as a result of his six Super Bowl titles. But he is no longer a miracle worker because of his team’s simple offense. Make no mistake about it, Belichick is responsible for the team’s personnel and therefore the offense’s lack of competence. A last-place finish appears to be at hand, and he will need to evaluate his status.
Kevin O’Connell’s ‘love-you’ approach is not the answer
Kevin O’Connell had a dream first season with the Minnesota Vikings last year – at least as far as the regular season is concerned. O’Connell inherited a fractured and depressed locker room because former coach Mike Zimmer had run out of steam and the team had become a rudderless and unhappy ship.
O’Connell came in with a very high level of offensive competence and a winning personality. His warmth and level of care for his players breathed new life into the team. The Vikings won 13 games last season even though they gave up more points than they scored. Most notable was Minnesota’s 11-0 record in one-score games.
But the Vikings were just as poor defensively as they were in the previous seasons when they fell apart under Zimmer. A team that ranked 31st on defense really was not as good as its record, and O’Connell reacted quickly at season’s end by firing Ed Donatell and bringing in Brian Flores to run the defense.
New defensive approach
Flores has a brilliant defensive mind, and he has had an impact on Minnesota’s pass coverage. The Vikings rank No. 8 after two games, and that’s something, but their inability to stop the run is probably the biggest reason they are allowing just 170.0 yards per game through the air.
Flores is a strong addition, but he is not a miracle worker. Even the best defensive coordinators need talented players to win. Outside of pass rusher Danielle Hunter and his 4.0 sacks, the Vikings have very little defensive talent. This is why it’s going to be a struggle to get this team back to a respectable level.
O’Connell may fit the image of the nice-guy head coach, but is he really strong enough to navigate his team through these dangerous waters? His reaction to Justin Jefferson’s fumble through the end zone at the end of the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles was not good for an NFL head coach.
Soft and lenient
Instead, O’Connell took on the role of counselor, putting his arm around the shoulders of the best player on the team and telling him everything would be alright. Jefferson needed to be responsible for the ball, and that play basically cost the Vikings 10 points – the touchdown Minnesota would have scored and the three points the Eagles got on the final play of the first half.
The late Bud Grant would not have put his arm around all-time great Vikings receivers like Sammy White or Ahmad Rashad at such a miscue. It is the wrong message. Instead of demanding excellence from the best receiver in the NFL, O’Connell felt it was more important to provide reassurance.
That may make for better working conditions for an employee, but it’s not going to lead to more wins for the team.
O’Connell’s nice-guy approach worked well in his first year, but it may be a big part of his undoing in Year 2.
Carroll’s old-school leadership has Seahawks on track
NFL fans have seen the impact of the ‘no-contact’ approach that most teams use in the preseason to protect starting players from injury on the quality of play in the first two weeks of the season.
It has gone on this way for decades, but there was a time when NFL coaches used to push their players in training camp with the idea of getting them ready for the start of the season. Week 1 was not a feeling-out process as teams were ready to compete when the bell rang.
Pete Carroll remembers those days and is the closest thing to an old-school coach who pushes his team hard during training camp. The 72-year-old knows how to get his team ready at the start of the season. Forget about this year’s opener against the Los Angeles Rams. That was a misstep for Carroll, but not because his team was not in game shape. The Rams looked like a last-place team during the preseason and the Seahawks simply overlooked them.
Back to form vs. Detroit
The overtime win against the Detroit Lions in Week 2 demonstrated resiliency. The refusal to succumb to a favored team on the road was more like what the Seahawks fans expect from their team in the early going.
In the last 10 years prior to this season, the Seahawks have gone 26-14 during the first four games of the season. They have never been worse than 2-2 during that span.
The Seahawks also happen to have one of the best groups of skill-position players in the league. The running back combination of Kenneth Walker III and rookie Zach Charbonnet is solid, while the wide receiver trio of DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba may be as good as it gets by the middle of the season.
However, it’s the work that Carroll has done with quarterback Geno Smith that has allowed the Seahawks to remain a likely playoff participant. Smith was a retread before he got to Seattle, and it’s the work of Carroll, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron and QB coach Greg Olson that have helped the veteran become an effective NFL quarterback.
Carroll is the oldest coach in the league, and he combines old-school work ethic with high-level teaching ability to prepare his team and allow the Seahawks to remain a winner.
News & Notes
— The gruesome Nick Chubb injury Monday night brings back awful memories of a similar injury suffered by former Raiders running back Napoleon McCallum in a 1994 Monday Night Football game against the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker Ken Norton Jr. landed on McCallum’s plant leg, and the result was a ruptured artery, three torn ligaments and nerve damage to the knee. McCallum never played again and nearly lost his leg. …
While Chubb has been one of the top three running backs in the game, don’t expect the Browns to go after Colts holdout Jonathan Taylor to replace him. The Browns are among the leading analytics-driven team and don’t want to pay their running backs huge money. It doesn’t appear that Taylor will agree to a short-term deal, so it seems unlikely to happen, especially now that Kareem Hunt is back.
— No matter what happens to the Jets the rest of the season, it doesn’t seem possible to erase the image of head coach Robert Saleh’s glum look of devastation after the Rodgers injury from the collective memory. Saleh and the Jets had the highest aspirations before kickoff in Week 1, and the best they can do is salvage the season with a run at a Wild Card spot.
— It’s almost time for failure to be declared on the combination of Justin Fields and Matt Eberflus with the Chicago Bears. Fields may be a brilliant athlete and one of the best runners at the QB position the game has seen, but he is a poor decision maker who lacks accuracy on short- and medium-range throws. Eberflus appears to be in over his head, as nearly all Bears coaches have been since the end of the Lovie Smith era.
Steve Silverman has been covering the NFL for more than 35 years, and his writing has appeared in ESPN Magazine, Playboy, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Pro Football Weekly, and several other publications. He has written six NFL-related books, including “Who's Better, Who's Best in the NFL.” His writing has been recognized for multiple awards by the Pro Football Writers of America.