Adam Kaufman

The Mourning After: Face Facts, the Patriots Just Aren’t Very Good

On the smallest of scales, Monday night’s devastating 41-14 blowout in Kansas City was maybe nothing more than, as quarterback Tom Brady put it, “a disappointing night” against a Chiefs team that now officially has the loudest home crowd in the history of the game.

But we don’t operate on small scales, do we?

For the first time since perhaps a 9-7 finish in 2002 that was sandwiched between two Super Bowl victories and, if not then, certainly a 5-11 campaign in Bill Belichick’s debut season in New England, the powerhouse Patriots just aren’t very good.

Not even the biggest “homer” could have watched the first quarter of this controversial, confounding NFL season and wake up this morning saying otherwise. From the coach to the bottom of the bench, it’s indefensible.

The Pats suffered their worst loss since a 31-0 shutout in Buffalo to open the 2003 season. Big deal. That was the first game of a new season.

What we watched on Monday evening was a now-2-2 team that appears mighty fortunate to hold such standing. This is a track record after wins over two miserable clubs; one which was without its star player and the other that just fired its coach after an 0-4 start.

Offensively, Brady’s bunch has averaged 20 points a game and struggled to move the ball with any routine effectiveness all season. Several are to blame, starting with Belichick the GM for failing to give his signal-caller the appropriate weapons; the QB for a stubborn unwillingness to utilize them; Belichick the coach for poorly executed game plans; offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels for an inability to adjust on the fly – or from the start; an offensive line for lacking even the slightest amount of grit and, seemingly, skill to project its top performer; and, if we’re piling on, Danny Amendola for having the nerve to put that jersey on while more talented players waste away in the press box.

I’m almost kidding about that last one.

In a microcosm of the bigger picture, Belichick elected to make receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins inactive for the game at Arrowhead, instead opting for five running backs on his game-day roster. The Patriots proceeded to open the contest without a first-down on three pass attempts, rushed the ball just seven times in the opening half, and ran only 16 times on the night. When they did, third-down pass-catching back Shane Vereen and not premier option Stevan Ridley inexplicably saw the bulk of the load with eight carries for 26 yards to Ridley’s five for 28.

Operating with only three active wide receivers, Brady was dreadful, maybe the worst we’ve ever seen the aging future Hall of Famer. The veteran completed 14-of-23 passes for 159 yards and a score and turned the ball over three times (two interceptions, one lost fumble) before being replaced by Jimmy Garoppolo. Prior to the move, the offensive drive chart featured five punts, a fumble, a pick, a TD, and then another interception. The rookie shined in the only action of his young NFL career, going 6-for-7 for 70 yards and a touchdown pass to emerging target Brandon LaFell (six receptions, 119 yards), but there will not be any QB controversy here. Nor should there be, sports talk radio callers. I’m begging you.

Still, Brady looked below-average yet again, peering around as if he was hoping to find a now-available-for-hire Charlie Weis in the stands.

Whether it was the Kansas City front, frustration, panic, pressure, stubbornness, a lack of faith in those around him, or the feeling (or reality) he had to force his choices, decision-making was once again an issue for Brady. Look no further than his throwing to Rob Gronkowski in double-coverage when he had James Develin wide open for miles, or heaving a bullet at Julian Edelman when a short-run might have garnered the first-down. There were simply no answers, but benching a still top-tier quarterback for an unproven freshman isn’t presently one of them.

As for Brady’s so-called protection, former head coach and current ESPN commentator Jon Gruden acknowledged Belichick appeared to be coaching the offensive line like it was a preseason game, only in Week 4. Beleaguered by a super-soft Nate Solder and a band of mismatched and overmatched pieces, the indecision over the what, who, and where has been as puzzling as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. We’re almost left thinking not even Dante Scarnecchia could solve this mess.

Unlike the Pats’ long-time offensive line coach, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is still around – and he has an awful lot of explaining to do.

For weeks, we’ve been hearing how good New England’s defense is after allowing 16.3 points per game through three outings, good for sixth in the NFL. A reminder; the Pats faced the underwhelming Dolphins, the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings, and the hapless Raiders.

Once the overhyped "D" was tested by a real offense, it crumbled as that points-per-contest average ballooned to 22.5. Fifteen NFL teams have allowed fewer total points this season. Will Brandon Browner really make the difference on Sunday?

After two weeks of slowing no-name running backs, the Patriots permitted the Chiefs to run for 207 yards to their 75. Knile Davis led the way with 107 yards (of his 119 total), while featured back Jamaal Charles reached the end zone three times as part of a 108-yard game (92 yards on the ground). The Pats’ line was left embarrassed, while some fans were desperately clamoring for Tommy Kelly, who requested his release in camp because he apparently was tired of being financially underappreciated.

It wasn’t just the ground game; the Chiefs totaled 443 yards – including 303 in the first-half, the highest number ever surrendered by a Belichick-led squad – as they effortlessly extended drives with big play after big play. Between Chandler Jones, Jerod Mayo, Darrelle Revis, and their mates, the Patriots weren’t nearly aggressive enough as they lost countless one-on-one battles.

Alex Smith had no reservations about targeting Revis one week after Raiders QB Derek Carr felt the same, begging the question: Is Revis truly one of the best corners in the game at this stage, or do we simply want so badly for him to live up to out-of-date expectations? Maybe I’m on an island of my own in considering such blasphemy. Perhaps this, too, is the coach’s fault for the way his star player is being utilized.

Anyone will tell you; there are three areas that matter most in football: Ball security, third-down efficiency, and what happens in the red area.

Well, the Patriots are tied for seventh in the NFL with a plus-three turnover differential (8 takeaways, 5 turnovers) after a night that featured three giveaways. They rank 27th in offensive third-down success at 36.2 percent (2-for-9 on Monday) and 14th on the defensive side at 46.9 percent (5-of-12, most recently). In the red zone, the club has scored just 54.5 percent (19th) of the time and given up touchdowns on 46.6 percent (7th) of its chances. Giving up four Chiefs scores in six opportunities didn’t help.

Add all that up, and the Pats are an average team, and other clubs around the league know it. The once blinding aura of the Belichick-Brady tandem no longer causes opponents to squint. The pedestal that’s been elevated by 11 trips to the playoffs in 12 years since Brady became the starter (I’m excluding 2008 for obvious reasons) is wobbly. A fourth of the season in the books and New England is stuck in a three-way tie for first in the AFC East, with the last-place Jets a game back at 1-3.

“There’s nobody that’s going to dig us out of the hole,” a desperate-for-answers Brady said after Monday’s loss. “We kind of created it for ourselves. We’re going to have to look each other in the eye, see what kind of commitment we’re willing to make for each other, and then try to do a lot better.”

The Patriots will get better, largely because their division is terrible. One starting quarterback (EJ Manuel) has been benched, one should be (Gino Smith), and one might be (Ryan Tannehill). In all likelihood, the Pats wouldn’t have to capture double-digit wins for a 12th straight year to host a playoff game. But, if what we’ve seen doesn’t drastically improve quickly, the fun will surely end there.

Sadly, the road will get harder before it gets easier. Now facing a short week of prep, New England will host undefeated Cincinnati next weekend with the Bengals sitting at 3-0, well-rested following a bye week, and reliable on both sides of the ball after beating the Ravens, Falcons, and Titans by an average score of 27-11.

Maybe fans outside the stadium this weekend should just sit that one out.

With five trips to the Super Bowl, along with several other deep playoff runs, we’ve had the privilege of watching Patriots teams that featured many different identities; clubs dominant on both sides of the ball, and others heavily reliant on either offense or defense, but none lacking in both areas. Until now.

“It’s the whole team,” Belichick said on Monday when asked what needs to improve. “We’ve all got to do a better job. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to play better, everything’s got to be better.”

The same generic phrases we’ve heard for years, even after tantalizing triumphs. Now, though, it rings true more than ever, and the cavalry isn’t on the way. The Patriots are already about as healthy as they’ll ever be.

Unfortunately, if only for a season, this is the Pats’ new reality; a preseason Super Bowl favorite destined for an early, potentially lifeless postseason exit.

Is this what it’s been like for other teams all these years?

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman and email me here.

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