After two decades of unprecedented success for New England sports, 2020 was a harsh reality check.
Obviously, the hellscape that is 2020 brought with it far more pressing issues than the result of sporting events. But through the lens of the New England sports fan, it was a nightmarish year.
That said, there is reason for some optimism entering 2021.
Here are 20 random thoughts about New England sports in the year 2020.
1. There certainly have been better years. The Red Sox and Patriots missed the playoffs. The Bruins and Celtics fell short in their playoff runs. And Tom Brady, Zdeno Chara and Mookie Betts all have new addresses. Sheesh. Is this our penance for the last 20 years?
2. The New England Patriots’ dynasty officially ended this year. Four days into the new year, the Tennessee Titans came into Foxboro and ended New England’s hopes for a repeat Super Bowl win. Two months later, Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay. Nine months after that, the Patriots now find themselves in unfamiliar territory: completely irrelevant as the NFL season enters its final week.
3. Brady’s departure was the biggest non-COVID sports story of 2020 in New England. It’s still hard to comprehend the future Hall of Famer playing somewhere other than Foxboro. From a purely football standpoint, Brady’s exodus shined a light on the Patriots’ issues. Poor drafts and an unwillingness to spend on top free agents — especially on the offensive side of the ball — have finally come home to roost. Brady’s ongoing spat with Bill Belichick got all the headlines leading up to the divorce, but it’s safe to assume the quarterback also saw what was coming and decided to bail before things got real bad.
4. Speaking of bad, the Cam Newton experience has been an absolute failure. Brady left for the Bucs in mid-March. The Patriots signed Newton in July, on the cheap. That’s four months in which New England could have done something to address the most important position in sports, but the draft and free agency came and went without any real investment. Figuring out the quarterback situation literally is the most important task facing the Patriots — or perhaps any of the New England sports teams.
5. Now that Brady is gone and the dynasty has been declared dead, how long does Belichick want to hang around? He’s been pretty mum regarding his future, but he famously said he doesn’t want to coach into his 70s like Marv Levy. Well, Belichick turns 69 in April, and the organization is at a crossroads never before seen in his tenure. It’s worth wondering how much longer he’ll be running the show in Foxboro.
6. The other big 2020 departure was Mookie Betts, whom the Red Sox traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February. It would be great to get the real story on what led Boston to decide it had to deal the superstar. The Sox didn’t seem confident at all in their ability to re-sign him to a long-term deal, but Betts inked a 12-year, $365 million extension shortly after the trade. Then again, Betts indicated he was open to staying in Boston for the long term, but it doesn’t feel like that was ever really the case.
7. The Red Sox understandably got killed for the trade, and it didn’t help optics when Betts finished second in NL MVP voting and led the Dodgers to a World Series title. Boston will never win that deal in the eyes of the baseball public — especially if Betts turns out to be Willie Mays — but Alex Verdugo becoming a cornerstone would help take away some of the pain. Verdugo was Boston’s best player in 2020, and the club needs him to be elite for the rest of his stay with the Sox.
8. The year started with an unceremonious departure, but it ended with an encouraging (re)arrival. The decision to rehire Alex Cora was the right one, and Boston has to hope he can rebuild a winning culture in a heartbeat.
9. That’s because the 2020 season was a lost one for the Red Sox. There’s no other way to put it. There’s a lot of pressure to rebound in 2021 after the worst season (by winning percentage) since 1965.
10. For the Bruins, 2020 will almost certainly be a “what could have been” year. Boston was the best team in the NHL and was rolling — 16-4 over its last 20 games — when the league hit pause in March.
11. The Bruins never seemed to hit on all cylinders upon the restart. They never quite had their full complement of players, and that was before Tuukka Rask left the Toronto bubble to handle a personal matter back home. The eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning eliminating them in the second round felt like an inevitably by the time Tampa closed things out.
12. In some ways, we’re at the end of an era with the Bruins. Chara, the pillar of this team’s impressive decade-plus run, is gone, so that’s a pretty big deal. Torey Krug also is gone, and contracts are running up for players like David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. This team still has enough talent to be good, but it’s also clear there’s a bit of a transition occurring at the same time.
13. The Celtics missed a golden opportunity in the bubble. A path to the NBA Finals was right there in front of them, and not even Milwaukee stood in the way. Reaching the Finals would have been further validation the process was working, but by falling short against a supposedly lesser team like Miami makes you start to wonder what the ceiling really is here.
14. There’s a lot of pressure on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to be very, very good for the Celtics. All of the attractive draft picks in Danny Ainge’s arsenal are gone, and we all know how difficult it is to lure legitimate top-10 free agent talent to Boston. The hope now, then, is Tatum and (to a lesser extent) Brown become those sorts of players. If they can’t, the C’s will be stuck in neutral, which is the last place you want to be in the NBA.
15. Can you believe we’re already in Brad Stevens’ eighth season in Boston? He’s been a fine head coach, and there are few in his role who can consistently get a solid effort from their team on a nightly basis … in the regular season. It’s worth at least wondering when Stevens’ seat gets a little warmer, especially when you watch him get outcoached like he was in the Eastern Conference finals.
16. The year wasn’t completely devoid of success in Boston, though. How about the Boston Pride? The Pride absolutely dominated their season, going 23-1 and outscoring opponents by 77(!) goals. Unfortunately for the Pride, who qualified to play for the Isobel Cup, they never got a chance to win the second Cup in team history due to the COVID shutdown.
17. It also was another close-but-no-cigar run for the New England Revolution. After an OK regular season, the Revs went on a deep playoff run, eventually bowing out in the Eastern Conference finals to the Columbus Crew, who ultimately won the MLS Cup. Hiring Bruce Arena looks like a shrewd move, and it’s also amazing what happens when you spend some money.
18. Your heart absolutely breaks for the region’s high school and college athletes. Can you even imagine being a high school or college senior who had your spring season ripped away from you? Those are unforgettable moments with friends you’ll have remembered forever. Living in New England, it’s easy to forget about amateur sports, but those kids got it the worst this year. Hopefully that’s rectified sooner than later.
19. It was a miserable year in so many ways for so many people. It sounds silly, misguided and perhaps simple-minded to say, but the year could have been so much worse had we not gotten sports back. In a lot of ways, the pause on sports put things into needed perspective. But it also reminded us how sports are woven into our culture, and it’s something with which we identify. It didn’t look or sound the same, but at least it was there, and in a year that defined abnormality, it was nice to have a little bit of normal here and there.
20. That said, it flat-out sucks seeing Fenway, the Garden and Gillette empty for games. Here’s hoping we can all safely be back together enjoying the greatest sports city in the world in 2021.