The team of the decade has finally gotten in its own way. Since the beginning of the Bill Belichick era in New England the Patriots have been the model front office when it came to acquiring and drafting talent. As the decade progressed we heard all about how the Patriots had become the franchise from which all others should be measured, with the Belichick coaching tree stretching through the NFL and college football elite. Quietly the Patriots continued to hemorrhage talented coaches and players and have recently missed out with key picks in the NFL draft. Each time New England made a questionable draft move or lost another coach the general consensus was always that as long as they have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, they are going to be just fine. For the most part this has held true, but now New England has reached a point where they are left searching for answers after blowing 3 games this season in which they’ve had at least a 10 point lead. New England started this decade on pace to become the most successful franchise in a 10 year span; now they sit at 7-5 in a mediocre division with unfamiliar faces looking to lead them back to where they expect to be.
New Englanders have been spoiled to the point where expectations went from hoping to win a playoff game in the Pete Carroll era to a Superbowl or bust mentality behind a football genius and an all world quarterback who always could be counted on to win a close game. This year that same duo has been at the forefront of two key losses: Belichick’s now infamous 4th and 2 decision in Indianapolis, and Brady throwing a careless game ending interception with about a minute to go in Miami on Sunday. So what happened? Has the shine worn off of these two pillars of NFL success? Is this the beginning of the slide into mediocrity as we head towards the second half of Brady’s career? While no one can question the resume of these two, the Patriots have suffered key losses on both the sidelines and on the field.
The Patriots won 3 Superbowls in 4 seasons and continued to reload in the early part of this decade. Here is a rundown of their draft selections starting with the 2001 draft: Richard Seymour, Matt Light (2001), Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, David Givens (2002), Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, Dan Koppen (2003), Vince Wilfork, Ben Watson (2004), Logan Mankins, Ellis Hobbs, Nick Kaczur (2005). All of the aforementioned players played a significant role in the Patriots success, and almost their entire offensive line that has been so stout in protecting Brady through the years was built this way. However, since that 2005 draft where they selected Mankins and Kaczur to join the offensive line, the only key contributors from the last 4 drafts are: Laurence Maroney, Stephen Gostkowski (2006), Brandon Merriweather (2007) and Jerod Mayo (2008). New England went from drafting 14 starters over a 5 year span to start the decade to 3 starters and kicker in the last 4 seasons. In fairness the Patriots swapped two 2007 picks for Randy Moss and Wes Welker who promptly helped turns the Patriots into the greatest offensive team in history (at the time) but that doesn’t excuse missing on the majority of the picks they had at their disposal. As Belichick and Scott Pioli (former New England Vice President of player personnel) continued to knock each and every draft out of the park, fans just started assuming every move made was something ahead of the curve; no matter how hard these teams tried the Pats would continue to pull fast ones and reload for more titles.
Scott Pioli left for Kansas City after last season and curiously Bill Belichick continued to trade down in the following draft until they were out of the 1st round and selected Patrick Chung early in the second round. The Patriots’ philsophy of assessing a value to a certain player and not bending or breaking on that number worked wonders, but an easy way for that to blow up in your face is to wrongly assess those players. Belichick thought Asante Samuel wasn’t worth a big contract and Ellis Hobbs could be traded away for a draft pick and now we’ve seen Peyton Manning and Drew Brees make a mockery of the Patriots secondary on two separate occasions this year. New England’s hooded genius also thought that with Richard Seymour’s contract coming up that the Pats wouldn’t resign him so why not get value for him while the getting’s good. After swapping Seymour for a Raiders 1st round pick in 2011 the Patriots have the worst pass rush of the Belichick era, allowing any above average quarterback to sit back and pick apart the aforementioned secondary every Sunday. Frankly the players who have tried to fill the void left by veterans Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour just aren’t very good right now.
It hasn’t just been the loss of key players on defense or missed draft opportunities that have stung the Patriots either. The constant turn around of coaches has caught up with New England as well. With great success comes employment opportunities for anyone who is part of it; the Patriots have seen Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennell, Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels all leave after being a part of New England’s dynastic run. The losses of Crennell and Mangini were easier to hide given that Bill Belichick is the best defensive guru in the game, however Weis and McDaniels are a different story. Much of the Patriots success has been predicated on game planning for the opponent each week regardless of what set of challenges the defense presents. If it’s a blitz happy opponent like Pittsburgh or Philadelphia the Patriots would screen and draw them to death to move the chains. If it’s more of a pass coverage defense the Patriots would find ways to pick the team apart or lull them to sleep then strike with the big play. Much of that credit goes to Weis and McDaniels. This season the Patriots do not have anyone who holds the offensive coordinator title and it has showed. Just last week when New Orleans soundly beat the Patriots it appeared that the gameplan was to go deep and if that wasn’t there check down. The run game was completely abandoned despite Maroney gaining big chunks of yards on the ground. Two seasons before that, the Patriots went against current New Orleans’ defensive coordinator (Greg Williams) when he was in Washington and hung 50 points on a similar scheme and talent…and calling the plays for that game? Denver’s Coach of the Year candidate, Josh McDaniels. With Tom Brady coming off a knee injury and not having the same trust in the play calling and game planning this season he’s looked good; for a guy who’s been in the discussion of one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play, good isn’t enough for his standards. It’s a season of transition on both sides of the ball and Brady has not been exempt from that.
For the last 10 years New England has learned not to question their genius Head Coach. No matter the task at hand the Patriots will do their job and come through. But ever since their Superbowl triumph against Philadelphia in Jacksonville early in 2005 we’ve seen the Patriots lose in the playoffs to an inferior Broncos team in 2006, blow a monster lead in the AFC Championship in 2007 to the Colts and come up short in trying to stop Eli Manning in a 2 minute drill in the 2008 Superbowl. In Bill We Trust has been the mantra of Patriots’ fans far and wide this entire decade but the team and coach who is accustomed to having all the answers is now faced with more and more questions. Time will tell if the most successful player and coach combination since Walsh and Montana have enough in the tank to get back to where expectations say they should be.