On October 27, 2019, the Patriots were 8-0. They’d just smashed the Browns and Baker Mayfield, 27-13.
That win followed burials of ghost-seeing Sam Darnold and the Jets, Daniel Jones and the Giants, Colt McCoy and Football Team, Josh Allen/Matt Barkley and the Bills, Luke Falk and the Jets and you get the point.
Even with Tom Brady’s postgame distress about offensive potency growing more evident every week, 8-0 was 8-0. The Boogeymen were having a time. And then the fun stopped.
In the 358 days since, the Patriots are 6-8. That includes this year’s 2-3 start.
Who are the Patriots? What trajectory are they on? Are they plucky victims of circumstance, skipping the rebuild and revving up for another playoff run? Or are they as meh as that 6-8 record over the past year says?
Glass half-full version?
They are 2-3, but all three losses came with huge caveats. There was a lot to like about the team in those defeats.
At Seattle, they were barely beaten by the best quarterback in the league after having to fly to the great Northwest. It was only Cam Newton’s second game, he threw for 397, all the wideouts had career days and they still had a shot to win at the end. Whaddya want?
At Kansas City, they had to fly in and out on the same day and they did so without Newton because he tested positive for COVID-19. Despite that, they confounded the league’s other best quarterback and – if it wasn’t for those meddling backup quarterbacks who had no time to prepare – they might have gotten away with a win. No shame!
And Sunday against Denver? They barely practiced for two weeks. Their offensive line was COMPLETELY, 100 PERCENT RECONFIGURED once right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor went down in the first half. Their interior defensive line was diminished. The team could hardly be expected to be 100 percent mentally engaged after all it had gone through. They also had three turnovers yet they were STILL in it right to the end.
Glass half-empty version?
They are 2-3 and closer inspection reveals that those losses to Seattle and Kansas City – which are used as display pieces – were smoke-and-mirrors performances where the coaching staff big-brained the opposition.
They were gifted a seven-point lead at the start of the Seattle game on Devin McCourty’s pick-six. And the impressive 397 passing yards? Everyone does that to the Seahawks, who’ve given up almost 1,900 passing yards in five games. And while it’s true that the Patriots were on the doortstep at the end, teams are 9-for-11 scoring touchdowns against the Seahawks defense this season when they’re in goal-to-go situations. The Patriots are the only team that hasn’t cashed in when they’re down close against Seattle all year.
At Kansas City, those backup quarterbacks that harpooned the team’s chances? Those were the Patriots’ post-Brady solutions to the position until they decided, “What about Cam?” The Chiefs aren’t exactly playing like a wagon right now, having lost to the Raiders and needing OT to beat the Chargers. Their most lopsided win of the year was over the Patriots.
Denver? Newton definitely suffered from a lack of protection on some throws. But the interminable browsing downfield when he was actually afforded time came from what? Indecision? Or there being no place to go with the ball? Meanwhile, hats off to the defense keeping Denver out of the end zone but Drew Lock, Phillip Lindsay and Tim Patrick aren’t exactly Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin.
So which version is closer to the truth? I don’t know yet.
The offensive line thing from Sunday, you can’t just pooh-pooh that. The Patriots got 41 yards on 15 carries from their running backs. That’s not them.
The tight end and wide receiver situation? That most definitely is them. And it was last year. And it was for a lot of 2018, too. Damiere Byrd, N’Keal Harry and Julian Edelman are their top three wideouts. They were targeted 11 times and caught five for 46 yards. Byrd – the lesser light among the three – had three for 38. Edelman, who’s noticeably banged up, had the other two catches. Harry didn’t get the ball.
Since his enthusiasm-generating, eight-catch, 72-yard performance against the Seahawks, Harry’s got five catches in the 154 snaps he’s played since. He’s got 30 catches in 12 career games. (Full disclosure: I wanted the Patriots to take Parris Campbell. Indy took him at 59 and he’s got 24 career catches).
In April, the Patriots knew they couldn’t pretend to not need tight ends anymore so they drafted two in the third round, Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
On Sunday, a gentleman on the Broncos named Albert Okwuegbunam – drafted 118th overall – caught the first two passes of his NFL career for 45 useful yards. That’s two more catches than Keene and Asiasi have combined. At least Albert O. can say he’s been blocked out by Noah Fant. The only guy ahead of Asiasi and Keene is Ryan Izzo, bless his heart.
The Patriots’ 2020 fortunes ride on three things. Health. Coaching gray matter. Cam Newton’s legs. And only one of those three doesn’t stand a chance of suddenly being extracted from the equation.
So what’s the trajectory? Pretty much a flat line.