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Chief Thoughts: Examining the positives and growing negatives facing the Patriots

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The Patriots are headed for tough times.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The year is over! Twilight of the dynasty! End of an era! These were the first sentences I considered writing Sunday night. All of them felt appropriate. But they also felt reactionary. Do I really want to write off the most successful dynasty in football history over losing a road game to a playoff team? This remains a 9-5 team that is bound for a division win. By predicting the Patriots demise this season am I being a prisoner of the moment? I think the answer is both yes and no.

Yes, it is foolish to write off a team as successful as the Patriots. Football is an ephemeral sport. There is a reason you play the game. There is a reason wild card teams have won championships and historically great teams collapse at the last moment. The Patriots have a ticket to the dance. They are healthy. They have beaten good teams this season. The Patriots are worth watching.

But it’s not reactionary to recognize that this team has serious issues. And unfortunately the time frame for figuring those issues out is dicey due to the age of the franchise quarterback. It’s incredible to be in a position to complain about a playoff berth. But don’t repeat the tired refrain of being a “spoiled fan” to this particular author. The championship standard is the standard the Patriots have set for themselves. It’s Super Bowl or bust. I don’t see fans as ungrateful.

I think New England fans have a deeper feel about what it takes to be a championship caliber team than most other franchises. Right now they are uneasy about what they see. And I think there are good reasons for that. In this article I want to examine both the positives and the increasingly growing negatives facing the Patriots franchise. Let’s get started.

Following the Trend Lines Not the Trends

This is one of my favorite quotes and an excellent antithesis to the sensationalized media atmosphere American citizens drown in every day.

The Patriots collapsing against Miami? That’s not a trend line. The Patriots have been finishing strong for almost two decades. That collapse was pathetic but it was the definition of a fluke. On the other hand a good example of a trend line would be the Patriots poor run defense. The Patriots were bad against the run last year and this year. That is a trend line.

The Patriots are about to have their worst season in almost a decade. Following the trend lines are a great way to deduce the core issues responsible for this. So what are the major trend lines?

Bad Drafting Hollowed Out the Team

There are three primary pipelines for talent acquisition in the draft. The first is free agency.

In theory, free agency is the most reliable way of attaining talent. It’s an opportunity to select players with excellent proven abilities who you can target specifically for your scheme. The problem with free agency is the cost. The cost is a twofold problem. The first issue is that the salary cap means you cannot afford too many quality free agents. The second issue is that if you make a mistake the prohibitive cost of free agency makes it difficult to fix or move on from that mistake. Bill Belichick has done a good job of managing the second issue. The only significant disparity between performance and pay among the Patriots expensive free agents occurred this year and those players can be cut for a reasonable amount of dead money next year. Dont’a Hightower is the only exception to this but his decent play and $10 million cap hit make this a low key misfire.

The second way is by trading. This involves giving away players/draft picks in exchange for other players/draft picks that will result in a net benefit for your team. The Patriots have also done a good job in terms of trades. The Patriots have always been decent traders. As I outlined two weeks ago the Patriots hit multiple home runs in trades this year.

Drafting is the final major mechanism for talent acquisition. Successful drafting is the best pipeline for talent acquisition. It provides you with hyper motivated, cheap, and enduring talent. Talented rookies are the holy grail of team building. The problem is the Patriots have been striking out for years. Between 2010-2013 the Patriots drafted eight Pro Bowlers. Of those eight, five would also have at least one season as a first or second team All Pro. This is what successful drafting looks like. Between 2014-2018 the Patriots have drafted zero Pro Bowlers. This is what bad drafting looks like.

I have been sympathetic to the Patriots draft record because their run of success has meant that they have been picking at the bottom of the draft for unprecedented periods of time. Unfortunately, this last draft has me skeptical of the excuse. Despite having the capital equivalent of a team picking top ten in the draft, the Patriots will end the 2018 season with minimal contributions from their rookie class.

To be fair, injuries have been significant. It’s possible that the Patriots draft turnaround starts with these players once they get healed up. But the early returns are not promising. It’s not as if Isaiah Wynn was turning heads in camp before he was put on IR. Duke Dawson extends a long line of second round defensive backs that have done absolutely nothing for the Patriots. The only significant standout is Sony Michel who has the unfortunate luck to play at the most replaceable position in the NFL. He was also the Patriots 31st pick. Yikes.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson was recently fired because he would only build his team through the draft. That strategy gave the Packers an extremely small margin for error and eventually did significant harm to the team. The Patriots have essentially done the same thing in reverse. They aren’t intentionally ignoring the draft the way Thompson ignored free agency, but repeated strike-outs have created the functional effect of them doing so. This team was bailed out by some excellent trades this year but these are band aids not solutions. The Patriots have one more year before they have to franchise, sign or move past Josh Gordon. Jason McCourty is old. Trent Brown is a free agent next year. These are not franchise sustaining moves for the long term. It’s unrealistic to think the Patriots will get as lucky with trades in 2019.

This team has been riding an incredible run of drafting from 2010-2013. But that time is over. Drafting the last five years has not simply been mediocre it has been bad, This team has got to start drafting more effectively or it can kiss any real chance at a Super Bowl goodbye. I know this might seem like beating a dead horse but it’s the most obvious and one of the most significant issues for the team.

The Front 7 Is Bad And Will Probably Get Worse

The Patriots are bad against the run and cannot rush the passer effectively. The lack of a pass rush has been evident for three years. The poor showing against the run has been going on for two. Trey Flowers is the best player in the front seven but he is not a Pro Bowl talent. Lawrence Guy is having a career year but he is not a Pro Bowl talent. Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are decent but not especially good. Elandon Roberts is mediocre to bad. Adam Butler is a passable pass rushing tackle but bad against the run. Adrian Clayborn and Deatrich Wise Jr. are only slightly above average pass rushers and have serious consistency issues with playing the run. Derek Rivers looks like a bust. Danny Shelton is a healthy scratch for two weeks running. Malcom Brown’s fifth year option was declined for a reason.

It’s unlikely this changes next year sans superior luck. In fact it will probably get worse.

The Colts have $120 million in cap space. Nearly every single major contract on their roster has little to zero dead money which means they could generate almost $50 million in additional cap room for only $5.5 million in dead cap. If the Colts want Flowers they get him and it isn’t close. The Jets have over $100 million in cap space. Both of these teams could desperately benefit from a player like Trey Flowers. I think the likelihood he remains in New England is minimal.

Lawrence Guy having a career year is nice but it means he probably regresses next year. We basically know who Van Noy, Roberts, and Clayborn are. Hightower is having the worst healthy season of his career. Strength used to be an asset of him and now it looks like a weakness. You have to hope part of that is injury related and he will play better next year. But there is no guarantee of that. Hopefully that improves and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to think it might.

It’s also possible Wise Jr. plays better but even in a best case scenario he is probably little more than a poor man’s Flowers. Rookie Ja’Whaun Bentley looked like he had some juice to him but as a lumbering fifth round pick coming off a major injury it’s unlikely his return does anything significant. Brown and Shelton will both be gone, though that’s hardly a significant loss. In short: a front seven that is bad at getting sacks and defending the run will probably get even worse next year. Yikes.

The Core of The Team is Old and Regressing

Julian Edelman. Rob Gronkowski. Patrick Chung. Tom Brady. Devin McCourty. Dont’a Hightower. Stephen Gostkowski. Marcus Cannon . These guys are the only remaining pillars of the Patriots’ championship teams and all of them are producing below their primes.

Edelman is arguably the only exception on that list but he is leading the league in drops and is 33 next year. Gronk had his worst healthy season since he was a rookie in 2017 and has followed that up with the worst healthy season of his career in 2018. He will be 30 next year. Chung has never climbed back to his 2015 high and continues to be an average cover strong safety. He’s 32 next year. Brady’s stats are basically the definition of average. He’s having his worst season in four years by a mile. McCourty continues to be an above average free safety but you can already see his athleticism declining and he has regressed for two consecutive seasons. He will be 32 next year. Hightower is having his worst season as a pro. He will be 29 next year. Gostkowski used to be a first team All Pro kicker but he has never reached that level since a shanked an extra point in the 2015 AFC title game. Cannon was superior in 2016 and worse but still good at the start of 2017. In 2018 he’s been decent but not even what he was in 2017, never mind 2016. He will be 31 next year.

This is not the worst core in the NFL but their prime is clearly behind them. This is a direct outgrowth of the failure to draft.

Young Talent Exists But Steals are Sparse

Shaq Mason is a good but not great guard the Patriots are paying to be a good but not great guard. James White is a good receiving back and being paid like one. Stephon Gilmore is a top cornerback and the highest paid player on the defense. David Andrews and Sony Michel are arguably the only young players on team friendly contracts but they play two of the least important positions in football and aren’t exactly steals. J.C. Jackson might be a steal and the fact that they put him one-on-one against JuJu Smith-Schuster says a ton about him. However, cornerback play in the NFL is extremely fickle: there have been a lot of big name corners over the last couple of years who have regressed after excellent seasons. It’s hard to play cornerback in the NFL. Trent Brown and Trey Flowers represent steals for the organization this year but they are both free agents next season. Josh Gordon is arguably the only steal the Patriots will have heading into 2019 but is a significant off-the-field risk. This situation is a direct outgrowth of the failure to draft. Sensing a theme?

The Patriots Are A Bad Road Team

The Patriots have a losing record on the road because they play really badly on the road most of the time. The Patriots will have to go on the road to win the AFC and the Super Bowl. Ergo it’s very unlikely they can win a championship. The Patriots could have been the number one seed in the AFC if they had dispatched two mediocre teams on the road and they lost to both of them. That says a lot about who the Patriots are this season.

Brady’s Mental Decline

Last year, Tom Brady was functionally immune to the blitz and to pressures. You either found a way to sack him with a four man rush or he was going to pick you apart. In the Super Bowl, for example, Brady was pressured on 44.3% of his drop backs and still passed for 505 yards, three touchdowns and zero picks. That is incredible. Unprecedented incredible. And that could not be further from the truth this season.

Brady has had issues with the blitz and is consistently faltering in the face of pressure. I don’t think Brady’s decision making has declined quite as much as people think but it has clearly regressed some. Forgetting the team was out of timeouts? Come on. Honestly, Brady’s skittishness reminds me a lot of Eli Manning. Not a comparison Brady would appreciate I am sure. It’s ironic. The argument has always been that Brady’s mental superiority would allow him to succeed where his physical gifts declined. Instead his physical gifts seem mostly the same compared to last year and his mental genius has collapsed. Bizarre.

Coaching Miscues

Defensively, I think the coaching has been pretty solid this year beyond a few significant miscues. The problem is the Patriots don’t have the defensive talent for a significant margin of error in coaching so those miscues have been damaging. Still, I would argue Bill Belichick and Brian Flores have the defense playing up to their level of talent. It’s a personnel issue not a coaching issue.

Offensively, it’s a bit of a different story. Yes, execution was a massive problem Sunday. The Patriots had tons of penalties and drops. But there were also plenty of questionable calls throughout the game like the unwillingness to abandon the short passing game after the Steelers took it away. The Patriots targeted Josh Gordon the lowest number of times in the Steelers game as they have at any point this season. That’s perplexing. Red zone efficiency has been an issue all year and it’s gotten to the point where I am getting flashbacks of Alex Smith during his tenure in Kansas City. Those aren’t the kind of football flashes you want.

I’m not that worried about the play calling over the long term. Josh McDaniels is a championship coordinator twice over. But those issues could easily be the difference between getting a bye or not this year.

Guts

There is a great quote from Bill Belichick where he talks about a loss to Kansas City in 2014. He says even though the Patriots got smashed he felt really good about the team. They had fire that he felt he could shape into a championship winning inferno. Does this team have that? I don’t know. I’m reminded of the Detroit Lions game where the offensive line seemed to just give up on run blocking against a bad front seven and Brady was chucking the ball deep into double coverage in a “screw it all” fashion. I don’t think I am really in a position to judge whether that fire exists but it sure doesn’t feel like it. That may end up being the most important trend line of the year.

The Competition

Last year the Patriots had to beat Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota to get to the Super Bowl. That’s not going to happen this time around: Andrew Luck, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, Philip Rivers, and Ben Roethlisberger are all varying levels of good quarterbacks and have varying levels of good teams growing around them. It’s not just about the team being worse it’s about the competition getting better.

The Positive Trends

The Patriots beat the Vikings, Bears, Texans and the Chiefs. That is arguably a more impressive slate of victories than the 2016 Patriots had going into the postseason. So we know they are at least capable of beating good teams. The team is also the only one in the NFL that is currently undefeated at home. The Patriots play the Jets and Bill at Gillette Stadium the next to weeks so it’s very probable they end the season with two wins. They will then face a wildcard team at home. That means there is a good shot the Patriots make it to the divisional round.

There is still talent on this team even if it is largely expensive and aging. Tom Brady has made some crappy decision but physically he looks more than capable of slinging the rock. The Patriots secondary has done a good job in coverage most of the season. When the Patriots defense faces offenses that run through their receivers, the Patriots defense has looked excellent. Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota all rely on their wide receivers to make plays and the Patriots held each one of those teams to less than 20 points. The Patriots secondary, particularly their cornerbacks, are good.

Brady may not be great anymore but he is still good and the skill players will almost certainly have better games than they did against the Steelers on Sunday. New England’s got a ticket to the dance. That counts for a lot in football. This team has the skill to win a championship. That is a lot better than most teams. I also think Brady has looked good physically. Yeah there were some inaccurate throws early on in the season. Guys wanted to attribute that to Brady lack of play makers but it really had nothing to do with them. He was just missing throws. But as the season wore on Brady’s accuracy has improved and it was never really that low to begin with.

I definitely think it is okay for the Patriots to consider drafting another quarterback. I was steadfast against picking one high last year because Brady was playing at an elite level but now that he’s shown signs of decline I don’t think it is unreasonable. That being said I also don’t see any evidence of Brady not being able to play at least decent in 2019. As a huge Brady fan that is exciting as heck.

Learning from the Trend Lines

I wrote back in August that 2018 was the last best year for the Patriots to win a Super Bowl. I was wrong. The last best year was clearly 2017 and the Patriots defense blew it. This team has yet to demonstrate any of the consistent excellence displayed by last year’s team and that team was far from perfect. Is it impossible for this team to turn its story around? I don’t think so.

But man, there are some serious issues. The front seven needs a near total overhaul before this defense can be anything but average. The Patriots safeties are are not exactly spry but they are decent to good. The safety position has less value than others and the market for safeties has largely bottomed out because of that. The Patriots look set at corner. I think the front seven has some okay rotational pieces but after Trey Flowers leaves it will be three good players away from being a strong unit and that is a tremendous amount to ask in a single year. More than being good I think we would have to be satisfied with not being bad next year. The Patriots could easily march into 2019 without a single impact player in the front seven. That is scary. No matter how good the secondary is, it won’t matter if the front seven can’t rush the passer or stop the run.

Another big issue is the decline of the offense. This team was carried to the Super Bowl by its offensive stars. Brandin Cooks, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, James White and Dion Lewis were all potent weapons that were maximized to perfection by Brady. Gronk and Brady have noticeably regressed. Amendola, Lewis and Cooks are gone. Only James White remains unphased by time but as a receiving back his influence is limited. Edelman’s return from injury has obviously helped but at his age one openly wonders for how long he can keep it going.

The road to the Super Bowl is going to get harder because the conference is getting stronger. The division ostensibly bottomed out this year and will be better next year. This team’s talent is at its lowest point in five years. The Patriots are strapped for cash sans some meaningful cuts. This club needs time to draft contributors that will replenish the talent on the team and free up the necessary cap to bring new talent in. I am skeptical about how they get that done in time for it to be relevant to Tom Brady’s career.

The Patriots dynasty has been defined by two men: Brady and Belichick. As long as you have these guys the worst you are looking for are the playoffs. For me, the question is not will the Patriots be decent next year. As long as Tom Brady doesn’t fall off a cliff and Belichick doesn’t leave to coach Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay they will be decent. The question is whether or not the team is primed for a probable championship run. And I just don’t see it. But hey, that is why people play the game.

Any given Sunday.