If, on Sunday night, LeGarrette Blount had scored on his fourth-quarter, second-down, vault attempt instead of being stopped inches short of the goal line, would we be speaking now about charged and weighty issues like deficient defensive leadership?
Blount scores, the Patriots win in overtime and we’re all talking, “Nice win, Patriots gotta clean up that defense before someone makes them pay…”
Instead, New England loses and reasons for the team’s defensive permissiveness – well-explored throughout the season – are no longer just about Xs and Os and who’s good at doing what, but about whether the defense has the leadership mettle necessary to right itself.
And that’s not a bad thing.
The team’s defensive personnel and personality has drastically changed over the past 18 months. Vince Wilfork – their unquestioned defensive line leader – went to Houston. Jerod Mayo – a captain since his second season – retired. The two most loudest voices were gone.
Then business and chemistry intervened. The team lost Akiem Hicks in free agency, decided it had had enough of Dominique Easley, traded Chandler Jones and shipped out Jamie Collins. Meanwhile, left behind are a bunch of players with contracts that expire in four months and the attendant uncertainty that comes with that reality.
I explored the potential for discord, questioning and “WHY ARE WE ALL HERE?!?!?!” right after the Collins trade was made.
Then, it was more of a keep-an-eye-out-for-this piece. Now, after the Patriots’ worst defensive performance of the season came after their bye when they had extra time to prepare and looked lost at times? It seems like a concrete thing.
It’s not a defense that’s gone rotten. It’s a defense that’s lost its identity. On paper, being versatile and changeable week-to-week looks like a great plan. In reality, if the players being asked to master myriad roles and responsibilities can’t get a finger on what they are all about it’s going to sap confidence.
“Do Your Job.”
“What’s My Job Today?”
Former Patriots exec Mike Lombardi opined on his “Make Me Smarter” football podcast (aside: How do you come up with that for a podcast name? Was “I’m So F****** Smart” too long?) has again poked his head up with an opinion as to what ails the Patriots.
Full disclosure. I don’t talk to Mike and as I’ve said on our “Dumbest Guy in the Room” podcast, I don’t have anything against him personally but he’s always struck me as a bit of an opportunist.
That said, his view is generally similar to mine. So, I share this quote as more validation of a viewpoint than actual news.
"They lack confidence and they lack leadership," Lombardi said, "and that, I think, is the area that is most important that I think fans don't see. What fans don't always understand about winning is -- Marcus Aurelius has this great quote about, 'The secret to all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.' (aside: that’s why it’s called “Make You Smarter”). Now, it's not obvious to the fans that Seattle has incredible mental toughness . . . They're mentally tough. You can't see that. The Patriots, you can't see their lack of leadership. It really hurts them.
“Losing Jerod Mayo has hurt them because Mayo was their leader,” Lombardi continued “Even though Mayo wasn't a great player the last three years, he was hurt quite a bit, but his leadership has really affected the Patriots. His lack of leadership now is there. And there's no one there, whether it would have been Jamie Collins, who was aloof and a loner, or [Dont’a] Hightower, there's no one there to lead in the front seven. Devin McCourty's a great leader, but the back-end guys can't lead. The front seven guys have to lead. I think that's what they're missing. They're missing that tremendously."
Not sure I’m buying the “guys can’t lead from the back” notion since the Patriots and the NFL have had plenty of back-end defenders whose voices have been followed – Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, Earl Thomas, Bob Sanders and so on. But I do agree that Hightower is still growing into the off-field, set-the-tone aspects of leadership that Mayo, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and others were comfortable with.
On Wednesday, McCourty was asked about leadership.
“Play better,” he said. “We can hoot and holler and yell and scream, but the leaders have to play better. It starts with us. If we play better, usually the whole defense plays better, so Slate [Matthew Slater] is right. Leadership comes in different forms and at times you have to do different things to lead, but the best way to lead is to go out there and play good football and lead the team and give them an example to follow.
“All the veteran players and the leaders on this defense have to go play better, and I think that’s what we think as a team in all phases,” he added. “Bill [Belichick] says it all the time. If you’re a leader on the team, it starts with you. If you go out there and play well, the team will follow.”
Slater was asked the same question.
“I’m confident in the men that we have in this locker room,” he stated. “There is some great leadership there. Everyone leads differently though and that’s something that I certainly understand and I think guys understand that. Yeah, obviously we all have to hold each other accountable to do our jobs at a high level. We play for one another. Ultimately everyone can do a better job when you look back at the tape after a loss and everybody can say, ‘if I had done that,’ or, ‘if they had done that,’ but we’re one or two plays from coming out with a different story.”
That they are. And that they didn’t have those one or two plays and a loss resulted isn’t the end of the season. It actually brings into sharper focus areas that may be issues. Fixable ones. Is leadership or, perhaps more accurately, faith, trust and buy-in a fixable area? We’ll see.