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Chief Thoughts: Analyzing the Patriots’ week 10 loss to the Titans

A titanic loss.

NFL: New England Patriots at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

There are no good losses in November. At this point in the season, teams should be rolling into championship form. Any loss can have a reverberating impact on the postseason as byes are won and lost by a single game. This was a loss to a 4-4 team with an excellent defense and very bad offense. The fact that the Patriots were dominated by such a mediocre team is disheartening. The loss is embarrassing and a massive postseason blow.

But let’s be clear on what the loss is not. It is neither proof that the dynasty has ended nor that Brady has fallen off of a cliff. There is a lot of football left.

So let’s get started.

Tom Brady has regressed but the offense did him no favors

Last week I said what I thought was fairly obvious to anyone who watched football on a regular basis. Tom Brady has not been as good this year as he has been the last few years. That’s not about box score statistics. That is just watching the games and seeing him consistently miss on some throws that were mechanically routine the last few years. He was also struggling with some mental aspects he normally excels at. This seemed obvious to me but contrarians have advanced two main arguments to dispute this assertion.

The first and most annoying argument is the ridiculous straw man that anyone criticizing Brady is claiming that he has fallen off of a cliff. Since there is not good evidence Brady has fallen off a cliff the criticism of him must be wrong. I have seen this argument come up several times and it is complete garbage. This year, Brady has been an above average quarterback. As I mentioned in my article last week Brady was classically clutch against the historically great Chiefs offense. My claim and the claim of most critics is not saying that Brady is toast. You can throw that garbage argument into the trash where it belongs. The real argument is that Tom Brady has regressed from being one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks on a week to week basis to simply being a good quarterback.

Another argument is that the offensive pieces around Brady were inadequate. This argument has plenty of merit. The Patriots offensive line was abused. That’s what happens when you face off against a talented front seven missing your starting left tackle and best interior player. Your quarterback could be 25 years old but if he is sacked three times and hit six more times he is going to struggle. Brady’s weapons were adequate but limited. Brady has successfully masked his offensive line’s weakness and his own lack of mobility because he gets the ball out quickly. I get that it can be frustrating to see Tom Brady not get the ball out of his hands immediately but he can’t throw to nobody and there were times it looked like there simply were not players open. The Patriots also struggled to get the run game going. As I outlined last week the rushing attack has become a critical component to this offense and something that I think will be crucial to this team having any serious postseason success.

But this does not explain the full story. Brady did not make the throws that elite quarterbacks make when their team needs them. He missed on a couple of normal passes you need your quarterback to make even when he is getting pressured and Brady could not deliver. He has missed open receivers in excess of what elite quarterbacks miss. You could tell Brady was uncomfortable and was allowing the rush to affect his decision making even when the offensive line was holding up their end of the bargain.

Another issue was that the Titans had Brady confused. He made a couple of decisions I know he would want back. You can chalk part of that up to an excellent Titans game plan but you also need to hold Tom responsible. He is supposed to be the most cerebral quarterback in the game today and he looked outwitted by the Titans defensive scheme. Brady’s weapons might have struggled more than you would like but he still had plenty of competent receivers to throw to and they made plays Brady wasn’t able to capitalize on. It’s amusing to see people claim Rob Gronkowksi being out is the reason Brady is bad when Brady won a Super Bowl two years ago without him. He also won a regular season MVP last year. Incidentally last year was Gronk’s worst statistical season when playing healthy most of the year. You can blame Brady’s play on the roster all you want but it only represents part of the issue here. If you want to claim the roster bears the brunt of the responsibility for Brady’s regression be my guest. I think there is a legitimacy to that claim. But if you think Brady bears no culpability I can only shake my head.

My conclusion based on ten weeks worth of games is very simple. Brady is good but not elite this season. That is clearly regression because he was elite the last three and a half seasons. If you want to bury your head in the sand I can’t stop you but you will still look like a fool doing it. I still believe that if the offense can get to full strength Brady is playing well enough to carry the game to a championship. There is also every possibility that Brady heats up down the stretch.

This statement is not a projection. It is empirical observation. This is how he has performed ten weeks in. I don’t know how he will perform the rest of the season and into the postseason. He might be better. He might be worse. I have no clue. We will just have to cross our fingers and see.

The defense was bad but the offense and special teams did it no favors

In my opinion that sucked.

You know you are in for a bad night when your team’s best defensive player, who was legitimately on pace for a first team All-Pro nod, gets beaten bloody by a sophomore wide receiver who has not eclipsed 60 yards for four straight weeks. I remember a comment from a Buffalo Bills fan who claimed that Gilmore would flash potential one moment before looking like an unmitigated moron the next. Gilmore has clearly been much more consistent than that, but given the night and day performances we have seen from him the last year and half it seems like there may be some credibility to the claim. I’m not close to hitting the panic button. We’ve seen Gilmore recover strong from bad games. As long as he doesn’t collapse in the playoffs I don’t think anyone will care too much. Patrick Chung also had a bad game and failed to make some important tackles.

Hightower looked decent to me so I guess that’s nice.

The front seven was pathetic as a unit. They were absolutely mauled in the run game which is something they could absolutely not allow against a team that thrives on a powerful rushing attack. The two sacks on Marcus Mariota were misleading outliers. Mariota had a clean pocket for almost the entire game and with the secondary struggling that spelled disaster for the Patriots. If there is one thing that sticks in my craw the most it’s the lack of a run defense. This is a team built to stop the run. How on Earth can the Patriots still let themselves get abused in the one area they are supposed to be good at. It just drives me insane.

But the defense wasn’t entirely to blame. I could be wrong here and feel free to correct me if I am. The special teams units this year have been very average from what I see. They have made some nice plays but they have also consistently allowed plays too. I felt like the defense was given poor field position numerous times by poor special team showings. They also were forced to contend with an offense that couldn’t score points for over half the game. Unless you have an all time great defense you cannot expect your defense not to suffer when your offense is as anemic as the Patriots was today.

I don’t think the defense was as bad as it looked Sunday but it’s obviously not realistic to hope they can consistently perform as well as they did against Green Bay either.

New conclusions based on new data

I wrote a comprehensive column reviewing the Patriots roster and draft history over the last four years. As you will recall I was highly critical of the draft record and raised serious concerns about the roster heading into next year. This was a bad loss so I am going to keep with the theme and only address the negative developments. Next week I plan on highlighting a few of the positive elements in a shorter article that will hopefully build some enthusiasm coming out of the bye.

Special Teams

The Patriots special teams management is disappointing. Next year the Patriots will spend almost $9 million on dedicated special teamers without even including the punter and a kicker. That number could balloon high as $15 million if Stephen Gostkowski and Ryan Allen get re-signed, although Bill Belichick obviously has the flexibility to structure their contracts in a fashion that gives the team more leeway in 2019. That’s a fine enough number if you have the best special teams in the NFL but the schizophrenic nature of the Patriots’ special teams this year simply is not worth the price. You could easily make the argument that guys like Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner and Brandon King are being overpaid this year and all of their cap hits rise in 2019.

2018 Draft

Injuries have made evaluating the 2018 draft essentially impossible. Only one of the top three picks from the draft has played a snap in a regular season game. That player is Sony Michel and he has only played in six games and missed most of training camp. It’s possible this turns into an excellent draft but right now the Patriots are getting very little from a class that was the equivalent of a team picking 10th overall in the draft. I think the excuse that Belichick picks at the bottom of the draft is a legitimate argument. That argument does not hold weight with the 2018 class because New England had tons of capital to work with. This draft class knocking it out of the park is going to be essential for extension of the dynasty and the fact they have been the equivalent of a shoulder shrug so far is discouraging.

Top 10 Contracts Look Bad

Hightower had a very solid game against the Titans and if he plays like that through the rest of the season and into the playoffs he will be fine. As it stands, he is underperforming with his current contract ten weeks into the season. He is not alone. Devin McCourty has played better than Hightower but is a safety being paid $2.5 million more. He is also underperforming based on his contract. But it doesn’t stop there. Injuries have caused both Rob Gronkowski and Marcus Cannon to be significantly overpaid this season too. Dwayne Allen carries the team’s ninth highest cap hit and is clearly overpaid. Out of the top ten contracts on the team half of the players are not living up to their deals. But here is the real kicker: four of those top ten contracts are in the top six deals on the team — two are in the top three. Out of the top 10 the only star players are Brady and Gilmore. That’s it. And that’s bad. It won’t get better next year with all of the under performers seeing their cap hits rise and guys like Kyle Van Oy joining the ranks of the top 10.

Starting Safeties Are Not Safe

Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty have both played decent but neither has been excellent. Both players will be 32 next year. Chung’s contract is reasonable so the Patriots can probably get by with another year. They cannot afford to pay Devin McCourty his contract next year, however. He will need to be restructured, traded or cut. The safety market has bottomed out. The Patriots paying him $13.5 million next year simply is not going to work. I liked the Obi Melifonwu signing but it was penny pray situation. He’s not someone you would hang your security on though his excellent athletic upside means that if he can stay healthy and develop he could be a steal as an RFA in 2020. That still does not do a lot for the team next year.

Front 7 Mediocrity

Adrian Clayborn has been a good signing but would be a rotational pieces on most teams. Trey Flowers is good but would be the second edge rusher on numerous teams and would not even be able to crack the second best spot on a few others. He is also a free agent next year. Lawrence Guy is playing decent but there are a slew of defensive tackles I would put above him. Shelton has been a disappointment. The linebacker core continues to perform poorly as a unit. Ten weeks in, there does not appear to be a single position that does not need an upgrade. It’s a bad situation when the best player in a bad front seven is going to be a free agent and the highest paid player is underperforming. If Flowers gets re-signed, the Patriots are probably adequate at edge defender but would still need an upgrade at linebacker or defensive tackle. And let’s be honest. Even if Flowers is re-signed, New England could still use an upgrade at edge defender.

Losing might be the only way to win

You are not supposed to have success the way the Patriots do in the modern NFL. What they have accomplished is historically incredible. Look at the top teams in the NFL this year. The Chiefs and Rams both have excellent rookie quarterbacks and have not won a divisional game in over a decade. The Saints and Chargers both have older expensive quarterbacks but they have picked in the top half of the draft for years before surging now. The Steelers are the only franchise that is remotely comparable to the Patriots but they have been picking higher than the Patriots for years and have been historically dominated by the Patriots. The Patriots should be held to a Super Bowl or bust standard because that is the standard they set for themselves for almost a decade. Sustaining that in the parity era is just incredible but at some point that gravy train has to end. Or maybe they do keep it going? Who knows. But the team has not drafted well the last four years and picking higher in the draft may be the only antidote to that.

Closing Thoughts

All of this is a long way of saying this. There were three driving forces behind the Patriots’ historical run from 2010-2017. The team’s superior draft record between 2010-2013, elite quarterback play from 2014-2017 and the Patriots’ championship-caliber coaching staff. The 2010-2013 picks are all gone, old or expensive. Tom Brady is currently no longer playing like an elite quarterback. The championship coaching staff is still present but it’s realistic to wonder how long that core will stay intact.

There are two conditions by which I think this team can make a championship run. Tom Brady pulls a 2014 turnaround and plays his best football to close the season and into the playoffs. Any time you have an elite quarterback you have a shot at a title because there just aren’t that many elite quarterbacks in the NFL any given years. The second condition is that he plays as he has but the team gets exceptionally healthy. If the offensive line plays healthy, Sony Michel is healthy, Rex Burkhead comes back strong like Julian Edelman, and Gronk can return to his Hall of Fame form, than this offense can win a team a championship with a little luck. But if the Patriots enter the postseason with LaAdrian Waddle as a starting tackle and Sony Michel, Shaq Mason and Gronkowski hobbled, the Patriots are in trouble.

And you know what? That’s okay. Winning in football is effing hard. Look at the Eagles. A slew of bad injuries, the exodus of key coaches, bad cornerback depth, and they are now a 4-5 team in a division that is not even that good. The Patriots may not have fun but at least they don’t collapse. This team is still cruising toward a division win. And once you get to the one and done playoffs anything can happen. Just ask the Eagles.