Consider the guard changed.
For how long? Certainly won’t be for two decades. But after a nationally-televised, prime-time evisceration by the Bills on Monday night dropped the Patriots to 6-9 in Year 1 A.B. (After Brady), the truth is inescapable. The gap between the best team in the AFC East and the Patriots yawns wide.
Even if this year is about paying the piper after the team "sold out" while nudging Tom Brady out the door; even if the oodles of cap space the team has for 2021 and the loftier NFL Draft position they’ll have make this loss the low point, the path back to prominence is choked with obstacles.
Before getting to the meat of it, a quick fact-check is in order. The Patriots played Monday without Rex Burkhead and Damien Harris in the backfield. They didn’t have left tackle Isaiah Wynn or wide receiver Julian Edelman They didn’t have their best defensive lineman, Lawrence Guy, nor inside linebacker, Ja’Whaun Bentley, nor cornerback, Stephon Gilmore. The opt outs have been a 2020 fact of life and don’t warrant listing for the 58th time but they remain worth noting.
With that out of the way, the best way to describe the 2020 Patriots is this: They are a well-coached, poorly-constructed football team.
They don’t have an answer at quarterback on the roster. Aside from his 209-yard “outburst” against Miami last week, Cam Newton threw for 309 total yards against the Chargers, Rams, Cardinals and Bills. Brady threw for 348 in the first half on Saturday against the Lions.
The clamoring for Jarrett Stidham may be a little more muffled after his 4 for 11, 44-yard performance in which he actually threw away a screen pass that should have been ruled a fumble. Stidham was described as having “inconsistent reactions to pressure” by draft expert Dane Brugler in the 2019 offseason. Throwing a screen backwards while trying to kill the play would be an example of that. He’s 22 for 44 for 256 with two touchdowns, three picks and four sacks this year.
You can see why, even though his throwing ability is miles beyond what Newton’s capable of anymore, the team is scared of what he might do.
The tight ends they drafted this season – Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene – have two catches between them (both by Keene for a total of 10 yards). N’Keal Harry had one catch for three yards Monday yet we’re still sweeping up the confetti from his 30-yard catch three weeks ago against the Rams in another prime-time blowout.
The Patriots have one touchdown in their past three games. Newton’s got one touchdown pass since Thanksgiving. Is it the quarterbacks? The receivers? The tight ends? Is it the chicken or the egg? Or is it the whole barnyard?
Newton’s said on a couple of occasions that the answers to the Patriots' offensive problems are in the locker room. They aren’t. And they weren’t when Brady was here either, which is what he was trying to say for a couple of years until he said, “Enough of this…” after the 4-5 close to the 2019 season.
Even if he did a poor job masking his frustration, he did a great job masking the deficiencies. Such a great job that the notion Brady was the problem and not the low-budget, slow-footed receivers he was surrounded by took root. So much for that.
Their once-brilliant, ever-changing, bells-and-whistles offense is now primitive in its simplicity. They don't have the personnel to do anything but attempt to bludgeon. When that doesn't work? Well, just get the ball to 2020 team MVP, Jake Bailey and hope he flips field position in an extreme way.
You can only scheme it up for so long. And that goes for both sides of the ball. The Patriots have allowed 566 rushing yards in their past three games and their secondary got lit up Monday night by Josh Allen, who went 27 for 36 for 320 with four touchdowns (three to Stefon Diggs).
The Patriots don’t have a single player in their front seven who causes more than minimal concern for an opposing offense. Can they fool some of the quarterbacks some of the time? Sure. Three of the four wins they’ve had since the end of September are courtesy of Bill Belichick’s big beautiful brain making Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert and Kyler Murray short-circuit.
In the other win, they were lucky to survive Joe Flacco and avoid giving the Jets their first win of the year.
Belichick’s weekly dollops of “Gotta coach better, gotta play better…” postgame insight are what they are. But the absolute, unavoidable, non-negotiable truth which the Rams, Dolphins and Bills have hammered home is that the New England Patriots need better players than the ones they’ve got.
That’s what needs to be better. And until it is, the Patriots are going to remain in this unfamiliar and uncomfortable spot: Looking up in the standings at teams like the Buffalo Bills.