In the wake of Tom Brady's injury, the consensus was that it would take a team effort for the New England Patriots to achieve their loftier goals this season.
JOIN THE CLUB: Patriots center Dan Koppen can't bear to watch the fourth-quarter carnage. From left: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Koppen, Billy Yates. (Jim Davis / Boston Globe)
All those optimistic answers we thought we had with the encouraging Week 2 win over the New York Jets? Forget 'em. After the Patriots' humiliating 38-13 loss to the previously hapless and hopeless Miami Dolphins, we have no answers about this particular football team, just more puzzling questions, questions that only the long season can answer.
For now, it's apparent our expectations and confidence will have to be tempered on a weekly basis. We simply don't know what we have here anymore. The Patriots, so consistent, so dependable, so damn good in the Brady/Belichick Era, are officially an enigma.
Consider what has happened so far this season: On their day of devastation, they somehow squeaked by a Kansas City Chiefs team that has a '76 Bucs vibe, then a week later roughed up an overhyped New York Jets squad led by an All-Pro narcissist who is apparently spending more time filming Wrangler commercials than he is learning the playbook.
And now this, merely the most embarrassing, unexpected loss in the short history of Gillette Stadium. The main question that will linger through the bye week: What in the name of Rod Rust happened out there? The Patriots got their Flying Elvis helmets handed to them by a team that finished 15 games behind them in the standings last season. Their first regular-season loss in 22 games came to a team that had won just once in its last 22 games. Perhaps worst of all, they proved world-class loudmouth Joey Porter prescient. Ugh.
I actually hope that they did take the Dolphins lightly, as was the common postgame refrain among the talking heads, because the alternative is terrifying: Maybe this team's talent level -- and its determination -- isn't close to what we believed it to be.
The culprits in this particular loss were countless, and you bet we're naming names.
Each week, the announcers tout the greatness of the Patriots' defensive line. Really? Seems like a myth to me. Richard Seymour has been coasting on his reputation for two seasons now, and while Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are usually steady against the run, neither is much of a playmaker.
Randy Moss is supposed to be easing the burden on the fledgling quarterback. Instead, he's got a case of ‘‘alligator arms'' over the middle and is flashing worrisome indications that he could go into Oakland Shutdown Mode if Matt Cassel doesn't start getting him the ball down the field.
Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison still make their share of tackles, but these days, they too often come several yards down the field, usually with a desperate swipe at an accelerating tailback's ankles.
When it comes to taking poor angles on a tackle, Brendan Meriweather looks increasingly like a graduate of the Tebucky Jones School of Geometry.
Deltha O'Neal tackles (or semi-attempts to tackle) like he's Willie Clay in disguise.
Jerod Mayo shouldn't send his jacket measurements to Canton just yet.
Nick Kaczur couldn't block a pharmacist.
And the beatdown goes on.
This is not to suggest the coaches are blameless. Bill Belichick, who has made his reputation in part based on an uncanny ability to make in-game adjustments, never found anything resembling a solution for the Dolphins' clever Big 12-style offense. And you know he never thought he'd be so thoroughly outwitted by Miami's coaching staff. David Halberstam never wrote a book about Dan Henning.
Dom Capers of the New England Patriots coached suspiciously like Dom Capers of the Houston Texans.
Dean Pees coached like a guy named Dean Pees.
Josh McDaniels is several dozen trips to the end zone away from proving he wasn't clinging to Brady's coattails during the record-setting '07 season.
As for the kid QB, the old adage comes to mind to his performance Sunday: In victory, a quarterback gets too much credit, and in defeat he gets too much blame. Yes, his 19-of-31, 131-yard, 1-TD 1-INT performance was actually uglier than the numbers suggest. Too many passes were tipped. He was too eager to scramble. He telegraphed his screen passes. One minute he looked poised, and the next minute he was tap-dancing in the pocket like Tony Eason. In other words, he played exactly like the inexperienced, overwhelmed quarterback that he is. He does make you miss the little things about Brady. And the big things.
Cassel should forget about trying to fill Brady's shoes; instead, he should aim to play like his Miami opposite. Chad Pennington, who seems to be grasping his new team's offense far faster than his successor is in New York, was nearly perfect against the Patriots, with just three incompletions in 20 attempts. It was a vintage killing-'em-softly performance by Pennington, albeit one that left Patriots fans with an alarming question: If a guy who can't throw the ball 20 yards without a tropical storm at his back is doing this -- namely, eating them alive over the middle at will -- what's going to happen when they face Peyton Manning or Jay Cutler?
Again, lots of questions, and so few answers. We'll just have to take it Sunday to Sunday until all truths about this team are revealed.
It's funny, we've been told that the unsettled state of this team makes things more ‘‘interesting,'' that desperately optimistic buzzword you heard after Brady was felled 7 minutes and 37 seconds into the new season.
Mark me down as skeptical of that theory.
My Sundays were much more interesting when the superstar quarterback covered for everyone else's flaws, and the Patriots finished a sunny afternoon on the right side of the blowout.
So far, there's not much satisfaction in rooting for an enigma.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.