The 2021 Patriots Season: Debriefing a Success
BY ERIC ZHAO '25
Uncertainty about the quarterback position. Roster decisions. Blowing out opponents by 40 points, only to lose the next week. The New England Patriots’ 2021 NFL season was a rollercoaster. Despite its disappointing ending, the season should be considered a success because the team outperformed the public’s expectations and managed to make the playoffs despite adversity. More importantly, they paved the way for future success.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Patriots have enjoyed incredible success, reserving the title of most dominant NFL team. However, after a record 17 AFC East division titles and six Super Bowl wins, the Patriots finished their 2020 season—their first without Quarterback Tom Brady—with a losing record, disappointing fans. New quarterback Cam Newton struggled with accurate passes. For the first time, Patriots fans felt what other fans had felt their entire lives: their football team was not good. The team needed an overhaul, but it was easier said than done. Spending a record $163 million, the team signed several high-level, impact players to fill holes in the team, but the biggest question remained: who would be the next quarterback? Succeeding the greatest QB of all time (Tom Brady) was no easy feat, and Cam Newton was not a long-term substitute. This question was answered in the NFL Draft, when the Patriots drafted a young QB out of Alabama: Mac Jones.
The Patriots opened their season with a 17-16 home loss to the Miami Dolphins and finished with an abysmal 2-4 record after the first 6 games, including 4 home losses. Observers doubted the team’s ability to win without Tom Brady; fans even constructed a billboard outside Gillette Stadium that read, “The OWL [Belichick] is no longer wise without his GOAT [Brady]!” The season looked bleak, and analysts across the country began discrediting the Patriots.
However, the Patriots ignored the noise and refocused their strategy: they ran the football, played with a physical and stout defense, and minimized mistakes. However, it would still be tough. Since 1990, only around 9% of teams that started 2-4 made the playoffs. As the team got into a rhythm and rallied around their rookie quarterback, they stacked a seven-game winning streak and clinched a playoff spot late in the season. The defense was elite, pressuring opposing quarterbacks and forcing errant throws. The offense, albeit not explosive, was methodical, consistent, and rarely turned the ball over. Pair those two, and the Patriots became a winning, notable team. The season would end abruptly after the Patriots lost four of their last five games, including a 47-17 loss to division rival Buffalo in the postseason.
Even so, QB Jones outplayed many’s expectations, throwing for 22 touchdowns and likely solidifying himself as the starter of the future as well as earning a Pro Bowl selection. While it can take years—or even decades—for teams to find their future franchise quarterback, the Patriots did so in 2 seasons, as Jones had one of the best seasons of a rookie QB ever. Key contributors emerged, such as Rhamondre Stevenson, who played a major role in the offense, Christian Barmore, who created pressure on opposing offenses, and other players like Matt Judon, J.C. Jackson, Hunter Henry and Kendrick Bourne. Kicker Nick Folk also provided reliability and stability. The Patriots were able to finish with 10 wins and clinch a playoff berth in the 1st year of their rebuild, which not many teams can do, and rebounded after an embarrassing first six weeks of the season. Overall, the team showed that they could still put together a successful season even after their time of dominance seemed to close.
Although the Patriots’ season finished poorly, they made the playoffs with a rookie QB and managed to fill key positions with many young players. Therefore, the 2021 season should be considered a success. Mac Jones was a promising QB, and will continue to develop as a player—and so will the team. The future is bright in Foxborough; it just might take a few seasons.