LOS ANGELES – The Patriots' late-season collapse is still mystifying. If it was just a matter of the Patriots facing stiffer competition after cuffing around a stretch of overmatched or understaffed opponents to get to 9-4, that would be one thing.
But it was the way they faceplanted during their 1-4 close. It wasn’t just a phase when they returned from their bye week on a Saturday night and got promptly undressed by the Colts in the first half of that game.
The issues in those 30 minutes – dead ball penalties, burned timeouts, turnovers, poor tackling, you remember it all – suddenly infected a team that had been the most consistent, balanced and on-point team in the AFC as they rose to the top seed.
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They lost their way and nobody took point and led them back to the path. Team sources have indicated to me that this rebuilt team just didn’t know how to deal with prosperity. That “2-4” mentality Kyle Van Noy referenced repeatedly during the team’s seven-game winning streak went away. They didn’t play like a team with no margin for error. The urgency and focus seemed to seep away.
The question heading into 2022 is simple: Do they learn from it or will they do it again? Patriots linebackers coach Jerod Mayo said earlier this week that whoever emerges as the team’s leaders will be the ones who determine that.
“When you look at our locker room there’s a generational shift happening,” said Mayo. “The same generational shift that happened when (Dont’a) Hightower was coming in with me or when I was coming in with (Tedy Bruschi).
“These are different guys that we’re dealing with and these guys are still learning how to be professionals. Even young guys who came to us from other teams, we gotta make sure these guys are in the right frame of mind. That doesn’t mean giving a rah-rah speech. What I mean is they’re solid on the game plan. They’re solid on the tools that we want to use on the field and that they’re out there playing fast.”
Mayo said a share of the blame has to go to the coaches for failing to get players ready.
“We just didn’t go out there and perform the way we needed to do and it’s the coach’s job to get those guys ready to play,” he said. “Whether it’s Xs and Os or just the energy to be able to go out there and play a football game at a high level.”
The way Mayo defines it, being ready to play doesn’t mean headbutting the goalposts or getting 15 guys in a circle and jumping up and down.
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“Playing fast right at the start, that’s what I mean when I say ‘get guys ready,’ ” Mayo explained. “I’m not talking about pump-up speeches or anything like that. You need to have these guys out there playing fast and not be paralyzed by analysis because we watched so much film. Go out there, use your athleticism and play ball.”
The Patriots have good young players on both sides of the ball capable of ascending to leadership roles. And many – Damien Harris, Jakobi Meyers, Kyle Dugger to name a few – are already beginning to. But the choppiness of the past two years and the Patriots’ low attendance numbers at OTAs last offseason probably haven’t helped the younger Patriots get the full-on cultural immersion that Mayo did in 2008 or Hightower did when he got here in 2012. That’s when the team’s identity forms, said Mayo.
“I always believe that that kind of leadership starts in the offseason,” he said. “It starts in the weight room. It starts in the offseason program, phase one, phase two, phase three. I honestly don’t know (who the leaders will be). But my grandfather told me the cream eventually rises to the top. Whoever those leaders are, hopefully they’re your better players and they can bring everyone else along with them.”