NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick walks on the field prior to the Dec. 20 game against the Miami Dolphins

As the man calling the shots in New England, Bill Belichick has never been faced with an offseason quite like this one.

To say there’s a lot at stake is underselling his mission.

While last year was significant, rebuilding a team without Tom Brady, there was a bit of a grace period afforded.

Expectations weren’t quite the same after losing the greatest quarterback of all time, and given Belichick’s unmatched record over the course of two decades, with six championships and nine Super Bowl appearances, he was understandably given some leeway.

Now?

After Brady won a Super Bowl with his new team, and the Patriots essentially fell on their collective faces at 7-9, that reservoir of goodwill has started to fade. Anti-Belichick sentiment has grown, perhaps a bit faster than expected.

That’s put a bit more urgency on finding a quarterback, after last season’s Cam Newton experiment failed, along with rebuilding on the whole.

At least, that’s the narrative from those on the outside looking in. Because it’s hard to know what Belichick is ever thinking or feeling. This scenario is no different.

But not having a viable quarterback plan post-Brady was mind-boggling, especially for the most prepared man in football.

Belichick helped push Brady out the door, and yet, still flew by the seat of his pants trying to replace him.

So now, with one of the biggest pots of money to spend in the NFL thanks to having nearly $63 million in cap space, all eyes are on Belichick to see how he’s going to fix the mess.

With free agency a little more than a week away, and the NFL draft on the horizon, will Belichick stay true to form and look for bargain basement deals, or will he throw caution to the wind and aggressively pursue top-end talent to get the Patriots back to contender status?

ESPN analyst Damien Woody, a former Patriot, suggested Belichick would rise from the ashes, because that’s who he is.

“I can’t see the Patriots going about the status quo, and doing what they’ve always done,” said Woody. “Just my opinion, but I think Bill will say, ‘I hear people whispering and talking. Maybe I need to let you know who I am. Like, I’m still the greatest coach in the history of this game. And I’m going to show you all that nothing’s changed.’

“But the only way to do that,” Woody added, “he’s gotta make some moves.”

There will be a lot of focus on how Belichick goes about making those moves, and how he utilizes the millions he has at his disposal.

Not spending, or rather, looking for the best deals at the lowest cost, was sensible and worked just fine with Brady covering up all the warts and doing more with less.

Does that philosophy cut it now with a lesser quarterback?

It didn’t with Newton.

“So many guys have taken pay cuts and all this other stuff because it was just a well-oiled machine. Well, guess what? The key spark plug in the machine went somewhere else, so the machine don’t operate the same anymore,” said Woody. “The quarterback gave you so much flexibility in terms of how you ran your business. But that guy’s not there anymore.

“And your organization isn’t as desirable for players to say they’re going to take less to play in New England for a chance at the Super Bowl. That’s out the window now. So they’re in a totally different playing field than they used to be.”

NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, a former Super Bowl-winning head coach, agreed with Woody’s take. The Patriots have lost some of their cachet. Because of that, Billick believes Belichick is going to have to adjust his usual way of doing business, considering he no longer has a quarterback who covered up many of their deficiencies.

“When they had Tom Brady, they could be selective in free agency and get some back-end veterans at the right price. But they have a lot more to do than just that,” said Billick. “This isn’t just a clean-up. They have a lot to do.”

And yet, Billick wasn’t sure how much, if at all, Belichick would change even with so many areas that need attention. There have been reports about the Patriots asserting themselves, and taking an aggressive approach.

At this point, seeing is believing.

“Clearly this team is in that transition period, where they just don’t have enough good players,” said Billick. “They’re still going to be judicious and look for bargains. I just don’t know if they have the latitude with a lack of talent, where they’ve been so brilliant at bringing in late-in-their-career players for specific roles, and get so much productivity out of that. ...

“They just need a lot of players, and they need 60-, 65-snap guys,” Billick went on. “You don’t do that with backend veterans.”

Adding to the offseason storyline is the fact the Patriots are no longer the team that’s being hunted in the division. They’ve assumed the role of chaser, finishing third in the AFC East, a division they had owned for two decades.

The defending champion Bills look like they’re in it for the long haul, while the Dolphins also put the Patriots in the rearview mirror.

As for the Jets, with a coaching change, a ton of money to spend, and the No. 2 pick, they might not continue to be pushovers for very long.

So the Patriots no longer have the comfort of a soft division to chalk up six wins right out of the gate. It’s going to be tougher sledding going forward.

“There’s pressure on New England,” said Woody. “They’re a third-place team in a division they’ve dominated for 20 years. They have to reassert themselves as a team, as an organization. They gotta make moves. With all of their cap space, they gotta be aggressive.”

At least one former Patriot doesn’t think Belichick will show the aggressiveness needed, and be able to make the turnaround as quickly as fans might hope.

Ted Johnson, appearing on The Zach Gelb Show on CBS Sports Radio this past week, doesn’t believe the Hoodie will be able to get the Patriots back into the playoffs anytime soon.

He went through the laundry list of weak areas, citing wide receiver, tight end and the defensive line as being among the worst position groups in the league. So a quick fix wouldn’t appear to be in the cards for the 68-year-old head coach.

“Right now, everybody’s in a wait-and-see. Can Bill turn this thing around? But there’s so many deficiencies,” said Johnson. “I think it’s going to be a long haul. I don’t know if Bill’s going to have what it takes, and have enough gas in the tank to completely turn this thing around.”

Johnson also doubted the Patriots’ ability to sign top free agents in just over a week’s time, when the window officially opens. Between the departures of Brady and Rob Gronkowski, and no quarterback in sight, who is going to want to land in New England?

“If I’m a player, I’m like, ‘Man, why did those players want to leave so bad over there?’ That would worry me,” said Johnson. “The roster is one of the worst Bill has ever constructed.”

“So those two factors would make me very worried,” he went on, “and the fact Bill has no plan so far, and we’re going into a year and a half post-Tom Brady without an answer at quarterback? I’d be very, very skeptical of signing with the Patriots.”

Beyond that, how much patience will Patriots owner Robert Kraft have if the team continues to be a postseason spectator for the foreseeable future?

Let’s just say Belichick has earned the benefit of the doubt, and a bit of time to turn it around and get back on the right track.

While the slack on the rope might be tightening, Kraft surely still has enough faith Belichick will make the Patriots great again.

Said Billick: “To think that if it doesn’t go well this year, the Krafts would fire Belichick? I just can’t see that. That’s hard to believe.”

Everyone is in agreement the cure for the Patriots begins at quarterback. If Belichick can’t solve that riddle, there won’t be a light at the end of the tunnel. It really comes down to that.

“If he doesn’t figure out the quarterback situation, nothing else matters,” said Billick. “So he’s got to get the quarterback situation straight. If he can get that locked down ... .”

Billick didn’t finish the thought.

But the sentiment was pretty easy to read: All bets are off.