It was a matter of minutes after the Patriots' defeat at the hands of the Ravens became official, and hours after their defeat became a virtual certainty, that Bill Belichick may have had his moment of greatest candor before the press corps this year.
Belichick, looking almost wild-eyed in the camera lights, had conducted the conference to that point with his usual acerbic reticence, offering hostile non-answers to each new phrasing of the same question doggedly flung in his direction by the reporters in attendance. Then, he was asked a question that finally seemed to give him pause.
The question was whether the defeat he'd just presided over as coach of the team shocked him.
"...No." Belichick finally said, heavily.
In truth, the only thing that was shocking about yesterday's game was the first four minutes--that it happened so quickly. It's also true that most people expected the Patriots, undefeated at Gillette Stadium this year and in the playoffs since 1978, to at least advance to the next round. And it was, I'll admit, especially disorienting to see Tom Brady struggle so mightily on a stage where he's done nothing but shine.
But does it shock me to see the Patriots offense struggle to find consistency and the defense victimized, particularly the secondary? Does it shock me to watch their runningbacks stuffed, their wide receivers bewildered, their defensive linemen blown off the ball? Does it shock me that this team folded under the playoff spotlight?
There were sea changes this offseason, including the departures of veteran players like Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour, the defections of Scott Pioli, Matt Cassel and Josh McDaniels, and with those departures, the turnover of a huge amount of staff within the organization. Back in June, I wrote:
I'm starting to wonder about The Hooded One in the wake of the sheer number of coaching defections the Patriots have seen this season. None seem to be a contentious Mangini-type situation, but it could just be that Belichick either learned from that situation and / or is better at keeping family feuds under wraps these days. Or it could be that Belichick is truly unperturbed by the staff turnover. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be.
A huge chunk of the Patriots' player scouting staff has left the team since the curtain fell last season, most significantly Scott Pioli, but also including, according to Mike Reiss, Jay Muraco (college scouting coordinator), Jim Nagy (area scout) and Marvin Allen (area scout), and just this Monday, area scout Adam Peters. Even more worryingly, they have also hired a high school head coach to replace one of the earlier defectors who says the job "wasn't even in my thought process".
It seemed worrisome, but I was prepared to Keep the Faith.
Then, as the season progressed, it was clear there was something wrong. I was prepared to move quickly past the week 2 loss to the Jets, reasoning that this team wasn't going to go undefeated or 14-2 every season. It was in the loss against Denver that I started to grow concerned.
It pains me to say it, but it's true: this week our Golden Boy gets the Golden Sombrero. If any one player's performance should be looked to as the reason for losing this game, it's Brady's. Yes, you can argue Gostkoswki, who missed what turned out to be a crucial field goal, but really, it was Brady who was most inconsistent today, and Brady who left the scoring to Gostkowski in that crucial spot rather than converting for a touchdown.
You have to wonder just what the problem is. He has now lost to Denver at home, away, against different opposing coaches, playing under different offensive coordinators, with high amounts of personnel turnover on both teams since he first began his career. It seems like a silly question, but could it be the altitude? Is it psychological--is that night of Champ Bailey horror still stuck in his head, too?
Just what is Brady's issue with the Broncos?
Or is it a Brady issue, particular to this season, that goes deeper than that? He looked to be showing some of his old magic in Week 1 against Buffalo, but in the other games this season he and the rest of the offense have frequently been frustrating to watch.
When is it time to worry?
Again, I reasoned, Belichick and Brady have lost to the Broncos more than any other team, especially on the road. It was easily forgotten for a while as the Patriots trounced the hapless Titans and Buccaneers. But even then, following the victory across the pond, came that nagging little germ of doubt, nourished by the inactivity of a bye week.
Here's the strange land of uncertainty in which Patriots fans find themselves, heading into the bye week at 5-2. How much of the last two weeks of dominance should truly be encouraging? And how much should be chalked up to facing consecutive 0-fer teams?
Prior to that, the Patriots beat the Bills (3-4), the Falcons (4-2) and Ravens (3-3). They've faced one team that's remained undefeated through Week 7 -- the Broncos, who had a bye this week. I think we know what happened then.
Then the Colts game happened. There are always a million factors in any game, but the one that got the most attention was a coaching decision to go for it on fourth and two deep in the Patriots' own territory. In the ensuing debate two conclusions emerged, one that Belichick and / or his offensive coaching staff were the problem, the other being that the defense was the problem and the play call was a response to that problem.
Either way, it wasn't good.
Still, it wasn't terrible. There were bright spots like Brady as he continued to gain strength through the season, even winning the Comeback Player of the Year award, and good games for individual players here and there like Leigh Bodden with his three interceptions against the Jets in their second meeting with the Patriots this season. They dominated at home, winning every game they played there.
And, of course, there was Wes Welker.
For some reason, though he set team records last year and the year before, though he now stands as only the eighth player in the history of the NFL to have back-to-back 100-reception seasons (per Sports of Boston, which has an excellent writeup of Welker's college and previous NFL accomplishments), Wes Welker has flown under the radar the way he sneaks in routes under safeties on the field. Randy Moss, the classic, willowy, fast-sprinting wideout, has set records of his own and garnered more of the attention, even among Patriots fans.I think this game against the Jets has changed that once and for all. During some talk-radio listening yesterday, I heard the Sports Hub hosting a discussion about whether listeners consider Welker or Moss the Patriots' No.1 receiver, or at least which was their personal favorite.
That was fun while it lasted, but then the Patriots headed to New Orleans, where we saw just how ugly they could look this season. And then came the Miami game, with that devastating hit to Brady's ribs and an even more devastating, sloppy loss.
It was after these two games that the problems began to seem not only glaring, but systemic.
That's the thing: it's not just one thing. Our defensive backs put in another weak effort today; but Tom Brady also threw an interception in the end zone.
Once again the offense failed to convert a fourth down that might've put the game away, but the Patriots' nonexistent pass rush didn't do much to even things up on the other side of the ball.
The offensive line failed in some spectacular and crucial ways today, including a bilateral snafu that saw Brady pounded so hard in the ribs by two onrushing defenders at the same time that he had to leave for a pad adjustment between series.
But the whole team seemed to have disappeared by the end of the game, to the point where my father was wondering aloud about the Patriots' team conditioning this year.
Then, a win, finally, against the Panthers, another weak opponent, at least as compared with the Saints and Colts. Even then, it was a mixed bag, sullied by the thundercloud over Randy Moss's head. Again, the problem did not seem to be a purely technical, X's and O's kind of problem. The problem was beginning to feel like an overall atmosphere around this team, an attitude, a culture that looked sickly compared to the brilliant, efficient Patriots of the early decade.
Moss would redeem himself the next week against Buffalo, and the Patriots would record their first road win since playing Tampa in London at mid-season. Then came another high point -- a convincing 35-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars and the clinching of the AFC East. Just one more road game in Houston before we'd see which team would stand up when called on in the playoffs. On the one hand, the optimism brought on by hats and T-shirts felt hollow. On the other hand, it was hard to look a gift horse in the mouth.
And that's when Wes Welker, the heart and soul of the offense, the sparkplug who rallied the Gillette Stadium crowd when they played the Panthers, went down with a devastating knee injury in Houston.
With that, I think fans sensed that the remaining spark of hope that made any talk of playoff ambitions rational had just gone out. Here again, it wasn't just about X's and O's -- Welker was a bright spot not just between the lines but on the sidelines and in the locker room. Welker was the guy who got everyone, fans and teammates alike, pumped up.
Like I said, I certainly didn't expect the Patriots to be steamrolled quite as badly as they were in that first quarter yesterday. But was I shocked?
In the wake of yesterday's game, the discussion has focused on those factors -- not so much the X's and O's but the overarching themes of the team this year and the organization itself. In a way, I think the Patriots dynasty has become the victim of a kind of pernicious dry rot from within, the kind that would leave a tree standing whole on the outside, but hollow. On the surface, Belichick still stalks the sidelines in his gray hoodie; Brady is still under center in silver and blue. But if you look around at the rest, you see a lot of young players, a lot of coaches whose names you rarely hear invoked except in anger on talk radio, and a noticeably absent Scott Pioli.
Tom Brady had a further assessment in his media appearances postgame, most notably his weekly appearance on WEEI this morning.
According to the Boston Globe:
Tom Brady acknowledged that, indeed, there was a leadership problem in the Patriots' locker room. And he was fine with the assessment that losing guys like Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour, Larry Izzo and Mike Vrabel was one heck of a contributing factor.
"We've all thought about that," Brady said. "Those are special players and special guys, and it's not the uniform that makes players play the Patriot Way."
Brady continued, saying, "Other guys have to step in and fill those shoes, and other guys here who were here with those guys have to take those lessons they learned from those guys and apply them. ... Obviously, the leadership on this team wasn't where it needed to be."
So where did that show up? Brady was pretty clear in his assessment. "The games, that's when it's easy," which implies the problem came in the team's preparation.
Another clue that may have been what he meant? Several very pointed mentions of practice and preparation in his postgame press conference last night.
There used to be a kind of religion about the way Patriots players operated. They'd drunk the Kool-Aid. They were on board with the organization, and it was clear from their results on the field that the organization had been assembled from perhaps a perfect storm of evaluative and coaching talent. That atmosphere was almost totally absent from the Patriots this year, never more so than yesterday between 1 and 4 pm.
So maybe the zeitgeist has passed us by. Maybe the salad days really are over. I suspect it's something a little less dramatic -- and therefore maybe less satisfying in a way -- than that. I think we are witnessing an empire in decline, but it's not gone yet. Even with all their problems, the Patriots won 10 games this year and made the playoffs. All we can realistically ask is that they be competitive, and for all their bumps along the way, they were, at least until the very end.