The Patriots won last week, right? I didn't dream that, did I?
The way everyone, yours truly included, has been acting all week, you'd think that Tommy B blew out his knee again and the Patriots were sitting at dead last in the AFC right now. The way the media has been acting, you'd think that we're at the point where it's time to start rooting for losses so Bill Belichick will have a high 2013 draft pick that he can trade for two second rounders that will be used on DBs that only last two seasons with the team. I think this is as despondent as I've ever seen Patriots Nation after a victory, and it's starting to become very obvious that Brady was right when he said that we have been spoiled by the manner in which they won in the past.
Maybe it's because of the expectations coming into this year. Maybe it's because we all heard the words "Josh McDaniels" and "deep threat" and had visions of some 2007/2011 mega-hybrid where our two tight ends and
Brandon Lloyd left the rest of the league in ruins on the way to another perfect regular season. Maybe it's because we used almost all of our draft picks on defense this year and were hoping for at least some modicum of improvement there. Whatever it is, wins simply aren't enough for us. How they win matters as well.
But now that I've had a few days to process the game, examine at what has been working for this team and what hasn't, and look at what's next for the Patriots over the coming weeks, I'm actually starting to feel a lot better. These next two weeks are going to be absolutely crucial for the team if they are going to generate any momentum and start playing how everyone knows that they can play.
All they need is to find their identity.
All the great Patriots teams of the past 10 or so years has had a solid, unflinching identity that the whole team bought into and every player on the squad personified. The Pats of the Super Bowl years were punishing on defense, efficient on offense, and knew that no one man was bigger than the team. The Patriots of 2006 were devastated by injury and thinned by free agency, and so every man took it upon himself to play multiple roles and perform well above his expectations. The Patriots of 2007 were a high-flying, record shattering aerial attack that took the entire NFL by storm to the point where the media was forced to accuse them of bullying other teams by running up the score. The Patriots of 2011 had two hulking, agile, nightmares for tight ends that opposing defenses simply couldn't cover and so many offensive formations that watching last week's game tape was all but useless. In fact, the only year in recent memory where the Patriots had no true identity was 2009, when the team went 10-6 while only winning one true road game and exited the playoffs early at the hands of an absolute shellacking by the Baltimore Ravens. The 2009 Patriots were good, but they weren't great, and they weren't a team.
But what about the 2012 Patriots? What is their identity?
Are they a run-first team? Are they a no-huddle, hurry-up, pass-based offense? Are they a spread formation team? Are they once again reinventing the tight end position? I honestly have no idea. And if I had to guess, I'd say that the Patriots don't, either.
And maybe that's not a bad thing.
The more I think about it, the more I'm warming to the notion that perhaps New England's offensive struggles so far this season have stemmed from the fact that this 2012 squad may be the most talented offense we have ever assembled. Tommy B is still Tommy B, and Welker is still Welker. Our tight ends, when healthy, are the best in the league. We have a fast, (usually) sure handed receiver with deep threat potential. We have a savvy veteran who may only catch one or two passes a game, but you know that they will be big ones. We also have a powerful stable of running backs, each with a highly unique skillset, that can grind out yards and run through defenders. This offense has never had so many pieces in place before, and that might be part of what we spoiled Pats fans have been calling "the problem."
Because that's the thing with pieces - you have to know where they go.
Ideally, this unit would be so efficient that they could assume a new identity each week depending on who their opponent is. Their running game, passing game, and no-huddle offense would all run like clockwork and they would be able to morph in and out of various packages like some futuristic gelatinous blob or the 1982 horror classic The Thing (not the remake. As far as I'm concerned, that movie was never even made). However, as of now, that's not the case, and as a result the offense has a tendency to look somewhat lost out there at times. I'd like to see the coaching staff realize that the team will be better off if they emphasize one style of offense, master it, and then implement all of the other wrinkles around it. Personally, I'd love for this team to be run-first with a heavy emphasis on the playaction to free up the tight ends over the middle and allow Lloyd to get deep. Sticking with the run will open up the passing game, make the no-huddle more effective, and keep the secondary off the field for as long as humanly possible. We don't need any trick plays, we don't need any screens on 3rd and 17, and we don't need any gimmicks. We just need powerful, fundamental football and an offense run by the greatest quarterback to ever play this game.
Am I being a little too simplistic right now? Probably. But I'm no coach, and so I can only call it like I see it. The bottom line is that the Patriots are in first place in the AFC East and are in prime position over the next few weeks to increase their grip on the division, get healthy, and make a serious playoff push. But if they are going to do any of that, the need to pick a personality and stick with it. I just hope they figure it out before it's too late.