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

USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell breaks down various potential contingencies as the NFL tries to play during a pandemic.

USA TODAY

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.

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.

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