National Football League
J.C. Jackson situation is a microcosm of Patriots' greatest problem
National Football League

J.C. Jackson situation is a microcosm of Patriots' greatest problem

Updated Nov. 9, 2023 5:30 p.m. ET

Earlier this season, J.C. Jackson seemed like the second coming of Jamie Collins' second coming for the New England Patriots. That is to say, Jackson's return seemed like it would be a smashing success. A no-brainer. An absolute win for the Patriots.

But it seems like Bill Belichick can't get wins on or off the field.

Jackson did not travel with the team to Germany for the game against the Colts, a source confirmed, saying Jackson missed curfew and has been "a flake." If the cornerback can't correct this course, his punishment might mark the beginning of the end of his return to New England. It might even be the end of his NFL career.

That's not at all how this normally goes for Belichick. But, then again, isn't that the story of the 2023 Patriots?


Belichick has a history of building stars, letting them walk in free agency (or trading them) and then bringing them back after that massive second contract flops. Belichick traded Collins to the Browns in the middle of the 2016 season. Cleveland paid the linebacker big money. But by 2019, Collins was back on the Patriots, where he put up 81 tackles, seven sacks and three interceptions. It was a widely lauded move by Belichick, who held a reputation as a personnel guru, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

In Jackson's case, the Chargers signed him to a massive free-agent contract in 2022. He played poorly, suffered an ACL injury, then played even more poorly. His attitude was so bad that Chargers general manager Tom Telesco stood in front of the team to apologize for the signing after sending Jackson back to New England in a trade in October.

It seemed like a chance for Belichick to improve his flagging reputation as a defensive personnel and coaching guru. Jackson could do what Collins did. Jackson could help the Patriots defense. There seemed to be no risks involved.

The Patriots took on practically zero financial liability. He's making just $1.5 million in 2023, which isn't far from the veteran minimum. And in terms of draft capital, New England moved down from the sixth round to the seventh in 2025. That's effectively the smallest amount of capital a team can trade.

What could go wrong? Right? When it happened, I called this a zero-risk deal. It seemed like Vintage Belichick.

But we're not looking at Vintage Belichick. This is someone we don't recognize. Belichick is no longer measuring up to the coach and general manager he was when Tom Brady was in the building. And while I think it's both revisionist and oversimplified to say Brady (not Belichick) made the Patriots Dynasty what it was, it's also very simple to assess that the Patriots are not what they were.

A big part of that is because Belichick is not what he was.

Where do the Patriots land this week?

In the same way that a good secondary marries its coverage to the pass rush on defense, Belichick has done something similar with his GM work and his coaching work. Belichick's personnel work complemented his coaching work. You could see how well it worked to have him identify players — both pro and college — who were uniquely suited to succeed in New England. And, again, Brady helped enormously. But the two men won six Super Bowls with the players Belichick put in place. Whether it was the draft, free agency or the trade market, Belichick seemed to be one step ahead of other NFL personnel executives.

Well, the trade market seems to be the final frontier of Belichick's failure. We've seen his front-office group struggle in the draft for the past five years. We've seen it struggle in the free agency market for the past few years, particularly the past three years. And now we're seeing the Patriots fail to pull off the Belichick Special: a reclamation project in the trade market.

That wouldn't be the end of the world with Jackson, because his contract makes him entirely expendable. If the Patriots wanted to cut him, it would normally be a case of c'est la vie.

But they haven't cut him. And I'm wondering if it's because Belchick can't afford to get another personnel decision wrong. He can't afford to look like he has made yet another mistake.

That's probably why he stretched the truth during a postgame press conference. Belichick was asked whether Jackson was benched. He said simply: "No." But that doesn't seem to be the case, given that he missed the opening two series as a product of missing his curfew at the team hotel the night before. This is Belichick's method: handling disciplinary methods internally.

But that begs the question: How well is he handling things internally?

Belichick works his team as hard — or harder — than any other coach. While he surprises players with his wit, sense of humor and emotional openness, Belichick is still Belichick, a man who rules over his team with total authority. He alsonsometimes rubs players the wrong way. (Just ask Adalius Thomas, Asante Samuel, Cassius Marsh.) And the players who have fun playing for Belichick are the ones who have fun winning. (Just ask Devin McCourty.)

Well, the Patriots aren't winning.

The environment in Foxborough can't be good.

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When the team is 2-7 and clearly one of the worst units in the NFL, there have to be questions bubbling up within the building about how Belichick let things get to this point. And if the players were already frustrated with Belichick, then maybe a move like not cutting Jackson will annoy players, because he's bringing a lack of accountability to a team that's been nothing but accountable, even while they suffer through blowout losses. The way Belichick is treating Jackson probably sends the wrong message.

But then there's also the level of disappointment. Jackson seemed like a clear answer to some of the pass defense's issues following the injuries to cornerback Christian Gonzalez and edge Matthew Judon. There's no chance Belichick brought in Jackson with any expectations within the team. Surely, Jackson's arrival was unceremonious. 

But players wouldn't be wrong to think of Collins, Patrick Chung, Ted Karras, Kyle Van Noy or even Deion Branch. They're all players who have made comebacks in their second stint with New England. They're all players who have helped the team make Super Bowl runs. And while the Patriots are a far cry from a Super Bowl run — and were when they acquired Jackson — he might have briefly brought a sense of hope. 

Any hope would have been misplaced. And with Belichick making mistake after mistake in the coaching and personnel department, it's clear that the Jackson trade is a microcosm of the Patriots' biggest issue.

Belichick's magic is gone. He doesn't have his fastball — or his slider or his changeup. 

He doesn't have it. 

And the time is coming fast for him and New England to part ways.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.


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