Opinion: Bill Belichick faces challenge of his career with Tom Brady gone and COVID-19 opt-outs thinning roster

Maybe Bill Belichick has you right where he wants you: Counting him out before the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols have barely had a chance to withstand the test of training camp.

Pretty absurd, huh?

I mean, Tom Brady opted out of the New England Patriots universe and bolted to Tampa. Gronk came out of retirement and went south, too. A few others from a defense that was so prolific early last season, most notably Kyle Van Noy, took the free agency money, too, and ran.

Now it’s a daily dose of defections via COVID-19 opt-outs. No team has been stung harder than the Patriots by the emergency clause included in the revised labor pact that allows players to sit out the 2020 season, no questions asked, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, receiver Marqise Lee became the seventh Patriots player to call on the pandemic clause. Before Lee, star linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opted out to leave two more holes in Belichick’s defense. The offensive line still needs a boost, but this year it won’t come from swing tackle Marcus Cannon or guard Najee Toran. Utility back/returner Brandon Bolden and new fullback Danny Vitale checked out as well. Next man up? At this rate, it’s next squadron.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been hit with multiple setbacks this offseason.

It’s just Belichick’s luck. The year his legendary quarterback departs, along comes a pandemic that wreaks all sorts of havoc on his roster — though he is not alone in that regard as 37 players league-wide as of Saturday, have taken COVID-19 opt-outs.

Of course, when Belichick held his first camp news conference on Friday, he did not seem to be in a panic mode. Then again, he never does. For all that is weird and unpredictable as the NFL attempts to execute its season amid a national crisis, he sounded much like the same ol’ pragmatic Belichick. Then again, the man who gave his dog, Nike, a cameo during the virtual draft in April, even sounded human and sensitive as he expressed respect and “100 percent” support for the decisions behind the opt-outs.

Obviously, this is not the time for some gruff “On to Cincinnati” statement. It’s still possible that more opt-outs are coming, given that players — many with wives, children and others dependent on them — have at least until Aug. 8 to declare if they’re in or out of the COVID-19 arrangement.

“I think everybody’s got to make their own decisions on that,” Belichick said. “They have to weigh their own situation. Each of us is unique and we all have different lives, situations, families, environments and so forth and so on. So, there’s no two situations that are the same. Everybody will have to make their own decision on that.

“My crystal ball is kind of cloudy right now, so I have no idea what will happen along those lines. I think everybody in the league, every team in the league, every player, every coach, everybody in the league is involved in that to some degree. So, we’ll just have to see how it turns out.”

Belichick has been the NFL’s most resourceful coach (a component of being the league’s best coach) for two decades running. Sure, the Patriots were hammered by the Titans on their own turf in the AFC wild-card round in January and decline has been in the forecast for a while, but generally no one has done a better job in adapting to circumstances in this millennium than Belichick. When Brady was finished for the season with a blown-out knee in Week 1 in 2008, Belichick commandeered Matt Cassel and won 11 games. Another season was kept on track despite a rash of cornerback injuries, with one of the key moves proving to be Belichick using receiver Troy Brown at corner. And, well, with Spygate and Deflategate on the record, too, the creative ways to win have sometimes been augmented by powerful conspiracy theories.

Now this: Prove that the winning can go on without Brady … while the roster is thinned by the pandemic. Not the best time for a rebuilding job.

Know this: Some NFL teams will handle this pandemic so much better than others from an organizational standpoint.

Would you rather bank on Adam Gase? No doubt, the Jets (who got a big COVID-19 blow on Saturday as C.J. Mosely opted out), the Bills (two playoff berths in three seasons under coach Sean McDermott) and the Dolphins (stocked with high-round picks from last year’s fire sale) have to be licking their chops after New England has claimed 17 of the past 19 AFC East division crowns. This is the chance, in a football sense, they’ve been waiting for. Brady’s finally gone and Belichick, drawing little if any sympathy from NFL peers, has one of the toughest coaching challenges of his life. If not the toughest.

Just don’t count Belichick out yet. Is this about reputation? Yeah, Patriots Mystique has often seemed like the Celtic Mystique during Red Auerbach’s heyday. Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt, given his stash of six Super Bowl rings.

But maybe the bottom is poised to fall out, with the rash of COVID-19 opt-outs a harbinger for trouble. Brady was a common thread tying together the rings and there was no mystique the night in Baltimore last November when Lamar Jackson shredded Belichick’s defense. And remember the Chiefs, with Patrick Mahomes and nearly every starter from a Super Bowl champ coming back. I’d suspect Belichick will find a way to keep the Patriots competitive. And maybe, too, Cam Newton will be the next big name to revive his career in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

No, merely being competitive isn’t the Patriots ultimate standard. But it’s as good of a standard as it needs to be at this point on the calendar. Belichick knows. Pandemic or not, this will be a long grind.

Follow columnist Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

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