Mom: Can you let me know when it's 5:15?
Me: Sure. (Glancing at my watch.) It's 5:23.
Mom: What? I said 5:15.
Me: It's 5:23 now, right now.
Mom: I thought you said it was 5 o'clock?
Me: It was 5 o'clock the last time I checked.
Mom: Well when was the last time you checked?
Me: Apparently about 23 minutes ago.
Her: So what ever happened to that girl?
Me: Oh, we broke up.
Her: I'm sorry...
Me: No no, it's okay, it was mutual.
Me: Yeah, we both agreed that she didn't want to see me anymore.
So here I sit in disbelief at a second straight loss by the Patriots. It's actually not the losses that I find shocking, but in the manner in which they lost. This isn't the Patriots team that once made me believe they could win every game. This isn't the team that proved me wrong by winning the Super Bowl after Bledsoe went out with an injury in 2001. This isn't even the close to the team that was the best I'd ever seen not so long ago. I'm not talking about the 16-0 team from two years ago, I'm talking about the team that won two straight Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004. Yes, the Patriots are a very different team than they used to be. What happened?
At the beginning of the Belichick era, the Patriots were firing on all cylinders in the draft and free agency. From 2000 to 2004, the Patriots acquired either through draft, trade, or free agency, a total of 31 key players that helped them win three Super Bowls in four years. These players ended up starting or becoming important backups in the rotation and range from Tom Brady on offense to Vince Wilfork on defense. A truly impressive run.
When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they had a very simple formula. The offense was basic. Prior to 2004, the Patriots had little to no run game so Brady was forced to use the "dink and dunk" strategy of short passes to supplement the offense. There were very few big plays in this offense because there weren't any legitimate deep threats. The big plays that did occur often were the result of luck more than anything else. Patriot receivers had good hands and were mostly interchangeable, so defenses had trouble figuring out who to double-team. This was the era when Brady was said to have only one favorite receiver: whoever's open. He spread the ball around as well as anyone, often completing passes to eight or more players in the course of a game. When Corey Dillon was added in 2003 and introduced a legitimate run game, the Patriots became that much more devastating an offense.
The defense was also quite simple. The tag was "bend but don't break." Defensive players were smart, really smart, and everyone knew not only what they should be doing but what everyone else should be doing. Belichick made his name as a defensive genius during these years mostly due to the intelligence of the players who carried out his schemes. With on-field coaches such as Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison, it was difficult to catch the defense in a misread or blown assignment. Younger players such as Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel benefited from being on the field with the more experienced players, who helped to cover up many of the mistakes of the inexperienced players.
This system worked great as long as the team had the personnel on both sides of the field to carry it out. Clearly, the league was having trouble figuring out how to stop the Patriots as they rolled to an NFL record 21-straight regular season wins. Then a shift started. The Patriots couldn't keep the team together. In 2005, they lost number three receiver David Patten, followed by losing both starting receivers Deion Branch and David Givens as well as running back Corey Dillon in 2006. That left Tom Brady with completely new starting skill players for the 2006 season. Still, the Patriots made it to the AFC Championship game that year and had the lead with four minutes left in the game before finally succumbing to the eventual champions, the Indianapolis Colts.
After that, everything changed. The team realized that Brady deserved better than a patchwork offense and in 2007 traded for receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss. With the ascension of Josh McDaniels to the offensive coordinator position, the Patriots changed from a "dink and dunk" passing offense to a big play offense, scoring the most points in NFL history, while Brady set the record for most TD passes and Moss for the most TD receptions. The team finished 16-0 and was finally stopped in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants. The way that game, and the rest of the playoffs, were played have frustrated me now for a while.
The reason that the Patriots got beat in the Super Bowl was because of their reliance on the big play. Instead of going for five- and six-yard plays, they constantly went for 20-yard plays. If a team is able to stop the big play, then you're sunk, and that's what the Giants were able to do successfully. No place was this ever more evident than with the Patriots' final drive in that game, which saw Brady more or less focus in on Randy Moss with each snap. The team that won the Super Bowl in 2001 went 53 yards in 9 plays and 1:30 to win the game. The team that lost in 2007 has 29 seconds and three timeouts to go 40 yards for a legitimate chance at a field goal and they ended up gaining zero yards. Two of the four downs were long tosses to Moss that fell incomplete.
Big play teams can't win over the long-term, and history has proven this over and over again. It's too easy for talented teams to take away the big play. Just ask the Colts. In 2003 and 2004, they were the big-play team and came storming to Foxboro to play the Patriots in the Playoffs only to be sent home packing both times. Why? The Patriots took away the big play and made them try to get small yardage to win the game...and they couldn't. Ironically, just a couple years later the Colts had morphed into a more-balanced team with the addition of Joseph Addai and his powerful running. The Colts offense became more effective and they won the championship.
Last year, when Brady was hurt, the Patriots offense was more balanced. Brady's fill-in, Matt Cassell, could not throw the long ball anywhere near as well, and so the offense needed to adapt. And it did. Last year's offense, while not explosive, was solid and played within the team's strengths. This year's offense, with Brady back at the helm, is once again too reliant on the big play to win games. That was never more evident than today, in the Patriots' loss to Miami where all three touchdowns were the result of big plays.
Most of Brady's interceptions have come on throws to Moss that, were it any other receiver, undoubtedly would not have been thrown. There seems to be too much emphasis on getting the ball to Moss, all the while Welker cannot be stopped. If the Patriots had any real running game, the combination would be devastating...but they don't. Laurence Maroney has never emerged as a valid number one running back and the veterans behind him have mostly been injured all year.
When you add in the incredible changes on defense this year, the Patriots are in shambles. The league has mostly figured out how to take away the big plays and they're left reeling. If the defense could hold its own, the team would have a legitimate shot at a playoff run. However, the patchwork defense is made up mostly of young, inexperienced players who repeatedly make mistakes and get beat by more experienced wide receivers. The losses of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison in the past year have left zero on-field coaches on the defense, and the confusion is obvious.
The Patriots are still leading the division by one game, but who knows if they can hold onto that slim lead over the younger, hungrier, and more creative Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. At this point, I'd be fine if the Patriots missed the playoffs because I don't see any way that this team can complete with any of the other current AFC division leaders. After this season, I think the Patriots suits need to take a good, long look at the steady decline over the past couple of seasons and figure out how to right the ship. Brady possibly have five more good years left, and how much of that time is going to be spent with an ineffective offensive strategy and lousy defense?
The window of opportunity isn't starting to close yet, but it will soon, and there isn't going to be another Tom Brady in New England for a very, very long time.