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The Patriots’ tanking question has answered itself

No need to put extra effort into losing, the Patriots really are playing this poorly all by themselves.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

One of the many blessings the great game of football has given us is the jargon. You know all the best ones.

“If you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one.”

“There’s three things that can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad.”

“Football is a wonderful way to get rid of your aggressions without going to jail.”

“Football is easy if you’re crazy as hell.”

We could go on sitting in a circle and saying all of them and have the best time.

Today’s truism comes to us courtesy of a distinguished and/or infamous New England Patriots alumnus, depending on your memory and/or point of view: you are what your record says you are.

And at the rate the 2023 Patriots have been going, odds are good that by this point you’ve had a conversation with a fan of another team that went something like “Y’all have what, three or four wins, right?”, to which you respond “We have this many” while doing your best Alanis Morissette and giving a peace sign.

Because it’s the Patriots, as anyone who’s followed the team for more than five minutes knows, the tendency to smash the PANIC button can be a little, let’s say, premature at times. For example, don’t let anybody retcon the 2018 regular season into Patriots Business As Usual. New England started the season 1-2 with back-to-back thrashings at the hands of the Sacksonville Jacksonville Jaguars and the Matt Patricia Detroit Lions (!!!), and right when things were almost looking up, the Pats narrowly avoided getting skunked (while still getting thoroughly embarrassed) at the hands of the Tennessee Titans before finishing the season 11-5.

Then, of course, they went on a playoff heater for the ages, but still. Anyone who tells you they felt good about that team going into the divisional round probably still talks about college like it was always heaven on earth, and not the times you had to stretch a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter till payday.

So, back on the subject of panicking: when this year’s Pats started the season with a pair of Ls that we probably expected at the hands of Philadelphia and Miami, then squeaked out a win against the New York Jets before getting sandblasted at the hands of the DDallas Cowboys (extremely good team!) and the New Orleans Saints (....not so much?), the T-word conversation was inevitable.

By the end of finding a way to lose to the Las Vegas Raiders, the question was less “Should they?” and more “....why WOULDN’T they tank?”

First off, a quick note about tanking in the NFL; players don’t tank. NFL alums like Geoff Schwartz have explicitly confirmed as much — nobody who puts in all the blood, sweat, and tears it takes to even make an NFL roster is going to willingly put a season’s worth of bad tape out there that could literally cost them tens of millions of dollars the next time they hit free agency. What professional athlete is going to torpedo their own career just so a GM that might cut them the minute the offseason starts can get a slightly better draft pick?

Neither will coaches. There’s only 32 head coaching gigs in the NFL, and at least a third of them don’t look like they’re going to be up for grabs any time soon. Even though some coaches end up being one-and-done sacrificial lambs for rebuilding teams, they’re not going to be rolling out there on Sundays like, “No worries boys, we can lose today. Just play Cover 2 or something. We’re supposed to lose anyway.”

So, the only tanking that’s left as an option, then, is the front-office variety. The most well-known examples are probably the Sashi Brown, um, Browns, who either traded, released, or let every player on the Cleveland roster that was replacement-level or better walk in free agency (which culminated in a borderline-impressive 1-27 record before getting fired).

Perhaps more notably, the Indianapolis Colts famously decided, “Who needs a competent backup quarterback, REALLY?” in 2011 after Peyton Manning’s neck surgery, and “Suck For Luck” became not as much of a strategy as something the Colts were involuntarily doing every weekend, because it’s all they could do.

Which brings us to this year’s trade deadline, which saw the Patriots sitting at 2-6 and finding increasingly creative ways to lose every weekend. The question of, “Is it time to tear this thing down to the studs, take whatever we can get for any player that we can actually get anything in return for, embrace the suck and hope for a top-3 draft slot?” was not only fair, but mandatory. Calling the very real possibility of burning it all down, salting the earth, and starting from scratch an elephant in the room is probably offensive to elephants.

And of course, they didn’t.

Bill Belichick the GM didn’t deal away any of Bill Belichick the Coach’s players, whether it was pending free agents like Josh Uche and Kyle Dugger, or veterans that maybe a contender could be interested in like Hunter Henry or Lawrence Guy. Was that the right decision? To not take even a few extra Day 3 draft picks when you know there’s not a snowball’s chance the Patriots are even making the playoffs this year anyway?

That’s up to you, and whether you think keeping the current roster as-is was right, wrong, or somewhere in the middle, one thing is clear:

It didn’t matter.

The team hasn’t won a game since. The only thing that would probably be a little different if they had gone all-in on the tank and blown up the roster at the deadline would be the point differential.

The Patriots can frequently measure the time between scoring touchdowns in games, not quarters or minutes. The defense falls into the “bless your heart” category, trying their hardest despite injury after injury and performing about as admirably as a unit missing three or more of their best players on any given Sunday can possibly be expected to play. As of a couple weeks ago, New England’s special teams ranked 29th in DVOA, which is a nice way of saying that even when you factor in the quality of opponents they’ve played (or lack thereof), it’s still only a matter of when they’ll F something up, not if.

Put those three phases of the game together, and it’s never enough. It wasn’t enough against a Washington football team that did their own trade deadline fire sale and has a quarterback who seems utterly convinced that he secretly has Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton (he does not).

Not against a Colts team that should be sleepwalking through a lost season with journeyman and mustache god Gardner Minshew. And in perhaps the most damning indictment of all, the Patriots had their full bye week to game-plan for another one of the worst teams in football, the New York Giants.

It didn’t matter. With two full weeks to prepare, strategize, and maybe get a little healthier, Bill Belichick’s Patriots still managed only seven points all game long, and despite the defense doing their job, the team still put themselves in a situation where they were praying that a last-second field goal could send it to overtime. And of course, it didn’t.

On one hand, yes, that’s on rookie kicker Chad Ryland. But I think it needs to be underscored just how pathetic it is when you have two weeks to prep for an objectively terrible opponent, and still played poorly enough for 50-whatever minutes that a field goal to go to overtime is your only hope.

This team is legitimately that bad, and not that the ends justify the means, but it’s looking more and more like Belichick knows this year’s Pats are going to be one of his all-time bad squads, and decided that it wasn’t worth trading players that still are playing decent ball and he may well want to keep around, like Michael Onwenu and Kyle Dugger, just to rack up some extra sixth and seventh-rounders.

To that point, for as good and talented as the trio of Michael Onwenu, Kyle Dugger, and Josh Uche are, none of them really play the positions that can really swing an entire game in your favor. Yes, Josh Uche in theory could wreck a game rushing the passer, but he’s varied wildly this year between “sack specialist” and “minor annoyance for the opposing offensive line,” so, that possibility of him taking over games appears to be long gone.

Intentionally or otherwise, New England has found themselves in the most unenviable of positions. The team is consistently less than the sum of their parts, and no amount of, “We need to get back to the fundamentals” and, “We need to eliminate the mental mistakes” from Bill Belichick and Bill O’Brien is going to make any of this better any time soon.

They’re sloppy, undisciplined, frequently look like they’re not really sure where they’re supposed to be on the field at any given time, and occasionally look like what we all feared in 2022; by the time an opponent gets 14 points on you, might as well pack it up.

There’s tanking, and then there’s being a bad football team that’s incapable, physically, mentally, or otherwise, of transcending your badness. The results, in this case, are the same either way.