The New England Patriots’ Preseason Track Record Under Bill Belichick

Bill Belichick's preseason track record is divided into two, very predictable, parts.

Bill Belichick’s preseason track record is divided into two, very predictable, parts.

How much can fans take out of the NFL preseason? I think most fans, even in our current media climate, where everything pertaining to the NFL is hyped to an absurd degree, have a pretty sane grasp on the reality that we shouldn’t read too much into the battles of August. But saying we shouldn’t read too much is different than saying there’s nothing one can take out of these games.

What can those of us who watch from the outside glean from games like last night’s, where the New England Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles 31-22? I’ll let some of the other football writers here at BST&N take us through the current roster. What I want to do here is look at the track record.

When you review the New England Patriots preseason record throughout the Bill Belichick era, you can divide them quite clearly into the pre-2004 era and the post-2004 era. Belichick’s first four years as a head coach (2000-03) were marked by a high degree of August success. The Pats went 14-3 in these years and twice they opened the preseason with a  shutout. Those two occasions happened to be Belichick’s first two years.

Then, in the 2004 preseason, everything changed. New England has not had a winning August since then. They’ve split out at 2-2 five times, finished 1-3 on three occasions and lost all four in 2008. Is there anything to be drawn from this dichotomy in Belichick’s reign?

I believe there clearly is. The factor that’s toughest to gauge in preseason, and why it’s easy to dismiss the results, is that we have no idea just how badly each team is trying to win. Is it a huge coincidence that the Pats racked more preseason wins at a time when Belichick was trying to rescue his reputation from the bad ending he went through as head coach in Cleveland in the mid-1990s? Or that this defensive guru saw his team put up shutouts to start his first two preseasons.

A new head coach trying to instill confidence in everyone—from the players, to the fan base to his employers—is the most basic intangible factor there is in preseason and when Belichick was new, the Pats made a point of making early statements. As the head coach won Super Bowls, gained the confidence of everyone around him, the wins in August started to decline.

Even if we look at the period from 2004 forward, the Patriots have still performed disproportionately well in preseason openers. They’ve gone 6-3 in that timeframe, and when you consider they’ve only won 13 preseason games total in that nine-year period, that’s another statistical coincidence that’s hard to ignore. Is Belichick looking to set an early tone, get a win, and then pull back and just evaluate personnel?

Tom Brady got a few more throws than normal last night, and past evidence suggests that's a good thing.

Tom Brady got a few more throws than normal last night, and past evidence suggests that’s a good thing.

During most of these preseason openers, Tom Brady has thrown five or fewer passes, a fact I’m sure surprises no one. If we’re looking for trends, we can note that two exceptions to this are 2010 and again last night. The difference isn’t radical—a few passes—but if one were to speculate, Brady’s gotten more snaps in years where the Pats came off a disappointing home playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

In the 2009 loss Brady played his only genuinely poor postseason game in his career. Last year, he took a lot of unfair heat. Is this another case of the head coach looking to get his quarterback off on a good note quickly? In both situations, Brady was sharp. The 2010 season was an MVP year for him. Hopefully that’s a good barometer for the season ahead.

Any attempt to glean too much from these games is risky, unless we have a clear idea of exactly what the coaching staff is looking at on a game-to-game basis and I can’t claim any inside information.What we can say is that there’s a clear track record, backed up by both the numbers and by common sense, that Belichick is unlikely to have a great desire to win these next three games.

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