It’s not just that the Patriots lost four of their last five games this year. Or three of their last four in 2020. Or four of their last six in 2019.
The way they lost those games and the pattern each season followed suggests the students (players) aren’t ready for the end of the year tests. And that would go back on the teachers (coaches).
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It’s not heresy to question someone who’s arguably the greatest coach in the history of American professional sports. Bill Belichick himself invites it after games when he says the team was “outcoached” or needs to “coach better.”
So, taking Belichick at his word, what’s he mean? And why aren’t all Belichick’s Jimmys and Joes carrying out his Xs and Os?
What’s lacking that leads to 17 false start penalties, nine delay of games and six encroachment/neutral zone infraction penalties? (The Patriots ranked 11th, 30th, 28th and ninth in each category, respectively.)
Receivers winding up next to each other at the end of routes? Flat starts beginning games or coming out of halftime?
Take a look at the rap sheet on that.
The Dolphins scored touchdowns opening both halves in Weeks 1 and 18. The Patriots also threw a pick-6 on their first drive in Week 18 to dig a 14-0 hole.
The Texans scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first four possessions.
The Chargers scored touchdowns on two of their first three drives. The Browns scored a touchdown on their first drive. Against the Saints, Mac Jones was intercepted coming out of halftime. Against Tampa, the Patriots fumbled coming out of halftime.
In the playoff game, the Bills scored touchdowns at the start of each half (and on every other drive). The Patriots were picked off starting each half.
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The Colts jumped to a 17-0 lead over the Patriots during a first-half meltdown. Then the Patriots opened the second half with an interception. The Bills scored a touchdown on their first drive back on December 26. And they never punted the rest of the game.
The Cowboys didn’t do much with their drives at the outset or after halftime. But they did put up 567 yards of offense and 445 passing yards. The passing yards were a record against Belichick-coached teams.
Who’s in charge over there? That’s an obvious question to ask, especially about the Patriots defense after their prime divisional rival scored 83 points on 14 possessions in a 20-day span. Without punting once.
It’s always acknowledged that the defense is “overseen” by Bill Belichick but who hatches the game plan?
Who makes the tweaks and coaches the techniques and runs the meetings? We see Steven Belichick on the headset during games and Bill specifically credited Steven with slowing down Tom Brady and the Bucs with his defensive playcalling back in October.
Jerod Mayo has a leading role on the defense as well which sources have indicated to me is more significant than Steven’s in directing the defense. Meanwhile, former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia returned to Foxboro this offseason and has his hands in the defensive soup as well, including on game day.
"When there’s that much ambiguity, how can there be accountability?" a league source said to me.
It’s not unusual that there’s no “defensive coordinator” for the Patriots. For years Belichick has been slow to bestow coordinator titles on assistants in part to insulate them from specific criticism if things go poorly as they ascend. It also serves as a way to demonstrate that the Patriots are a collaboration. Who gets the credit doesn’t matter so titles don’t matter whether in personnel, coaching or coordinating.
Of course, since all roads lead back to Bill, Belichick will always get the credit or the blame when things go well – as they usually have – or when they go poorly. Belichick’s doled out specific credit through the years to Scott Pioli, Nick Caserio and Josh McDaniels. But on defense, it’s always harder to pin down.
Does this collaboration help the players to know who’s in charge? Does it streamline how quickly the team can make adjustments? And what, precisely, is Matt Patricia adding?
Patricia’s last acts as Patriots defensive coordinator were nearly getting beaten by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in the 2017 AFCCG then getting creased by the Eagles and Nick Foles in the Super Bowl.
In three years with the Lions, Detroit went from 26th to 27th to 32nd in passing yards allowed per play. They couldn’t rush. They couldn’t cover. They didn’t win.
As he returned, Ernie Adams -- Belichick’s longtime behind-the-curtain, seek-no-credit, never-on-the-make game whisperer -- was retiring. The year before, the Patriots said goodbye to one of the greatest offensive line coaches in NFL history. The departures of Joe Judge and Brian Flores both led to some turnover among those coaches.
Tom Brady -- the consummate on-field and off-field leader by word and example -- plays for Tampa now and Julian Edelman retired. Longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears is closing in on retirement.
The youth and experience level of the coaches stepping in simply doesn’t come close to replacing what’s going out. That’s not even debatable.
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On the offense, running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri, TE/FB coach Nick Caley, OL coach Carmen Bricillo, WR coach Mick Lombardi and QB coach Bo Hardegree had 11 total seasons at their posts with the Patriots. And five of those seasons are from Caley.
On defense, the Patriots had five main coaches: Demarcus Covington, Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick, Brian Belichick and Mike Pellegrino. Pellegrino has been cornerbacks coach for three years. He was a coaching assistant for a couple of years prior to that while also playing professional lacrosse. Special teams coordinator Cam Achord is in his second year as special teams coordinator. Special teams had some issues this year after being very good in 2020.
The Patriots coach staff is -- for the most part -- young as hell, brought up almost entirely through the Patriots system and arrived in Foxboro because of someone they know. Having connections shouldn’t be a disqualifier. But when almost everyone on staff has connections leading to their entry-level job and only hangs out in the Patriots tree, there’s a chance to get hive mind.
Belichick isn’t averse to change. He’s evolved plenty over the years. Last offseason, when Caserio left to become GM in Houston, Belichick reconfigured his personnel staff. More input was sought, Dave Ziegler, Elliot Wolf and Matt Groh were given larger roles and there was a more collaborative personnel process. The Patriots did well in the draft and free agency.
But the team -- and the coaching staff -- is still paying on the field for personnel missteps. For example, of the seven players taken in the first four rounds of the 2019 draft -- N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich, Damien Harris, Yodny Cajuste, Hjalte Froholdt and Jarrett Stidham -- Harris is the only one who's objectively “good.”
It will be interesting to see what tweaks are made to the coaching staff this offseason. Will they have more defined roles on defense? Will they bring in some veteran coaches with un-Patriotic approaches to bring some diversity of opinion?
The bottom line is, the Patriots failed their final exam last Saturday in spectacular fashion. They barely showed up to class the past five weeks.
All this reminds me of one of those motivational quotes Tom Brady appropriated from Tony Robbins who appropriated it from Henry Ford:
"If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got."