[Editor’s note: this column is for hard-core NFL or Patriots rooters only.]
The question is: where did it all go wrong?
The answer, in a nutshell: The world has caught up with head coach Bill Belichick and there’s something about his genius system that doesn’t work any more. It’s not so much outdated as ingrown. As with a royal family that intermarries, hemophilia (if not arteriosclerosis) sets in.
Belichick raises his coaches up in The System, starting them as gofers, so there’s never fresh blood. Instead of a real defensive genius like Romeo Crennel as a coordinator, we’ve got poor Matt Patricia, who everyone pretends is the coordinator when we know he’s not. And we’ve got recycled Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator because he knows The System.
The System is what’s killing them right now. It’s no coincidence that they haven’t won a Super Bowl since they had as coordinators Crennel and Charlie Weis, two guys with the weight (literally) to think independently and stand up to Belichick now and then.
(For a good chuckle, go halfway down to “You in Reverse” in this Bill Barnwell piece to see what we’d be saying about Tom Brady if his playoff history was in reverse order, starting now and heading back to the Weis/Crennel years.)
The System is also why when things aren’t going well in a game, the Patriots have zero flexibility. Nobody knows how to adjust or overcome. That’s why they just keep running the same plays no matter what, which everyone knows are coming. That’s not a great prescription for making the first down on 4th-and-3.
Other signs of this same problem are those questions we’ve all asked about the Patriots for years now:
- Why can’t they find at least one decent cornerback?
- Why can’t they find at least one decent speed-burner at receiver?
- Why can they never mount a decent pass rush?
Even when they drafted a great cornerback in Devin McCourty, who had a splendid rookie year at corner, in his second year he suddenly can’t cover anyone. How is that possible? Yeah, he looks good since being moved to safety, but how could a Pro Bowl rookie cornerback suddenly be such a flop as a sophomore? That’s a red flag of some kind right there.
Or how did Patrick Chung, at one time a very good safety, suddenly turn bad? He played two snaps against the Ravens! There’s something weird there. He’s the hard-hitting safety you need, but he “fell out of favor” with the coaching staff?
For that matter, Shane Vereen was spectactular when they were forced to play him in the first playoff game with Houston, but in the Ravens game he plays only 17 snaps? Can’t anyone say “Let’s go off the charts and line him up at wide receiver again?”
In all those cases, it’s possible that players failed The System. But isn’t it possible that The System failed them?
The System may just be too darn rigid or complicated. It’s not just that “dumb” players can’t play in it — there’s really only about eight guys in the world who CAN play in it. Brady, the great Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Wes Welker… those guys get it. Everyone else is at sea. That’s why the Patriots constantly waste 2nd- and 3rd-round draft choices, those great athletes who should be able to contribute but can’t conform to The System.
I think the constant emphasis on finding guys who can handle The System leads to overachieving castoffs (like Rob Ninkovich) who can beat lesser competition but can’t dominate great athletes. That leads to a good regular-season record, but it kills you in the playoffs.
It also leads to Belichick’s orders that nobody may say anything meaningful at any moment in any press conference, ever, because it might give the opposition some slight insight into the Patriots’ thinking. Forget how boring this makes it for fans — what does that say about the team’s confidence? Not much. There’s a lot of room between Rex Ryan-style bluster and the Kim Jong-il style secrecy practiced by the current Patriots regime.
Whatever The System once was, however steady it is, it no longer works in big games. Bill Belichick and the Patriots are no longer ahead of the pack. In fact, without having the genius of Tom Brady back there at quarterback, Bill Belichick might well have flopped and been fired a year or two ago.
Oh, maybe having Rob Gronkowski at tight end would have made all the difference in this game and nothing’s really wrong. But this postseason loss wasn’t the exception — it was the rule. Here’s hoping the message gets through and The System finally gets changed.
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