It’s been 20 years since we’ve seen the Patriots play an irrelevant regular-season game.
Now, with all roads to the 2020 postseason officially closed, they’re punching the clock and playing spoiler for the first time since they went 5-11 season back in 2000.
Think about that. Twenty years. 320 regular-season games. Every one of them meaning something in the NFL’s big picture, even those Week 17 games when playoff seed was sewn up.
During that span there were 18 playoff appearances, 41 playoff games, 18 AFC East titles, nine Super Bowl trips and six Super Bowl titles.
And what did it take to end the run? What were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse for the Patriots dynasty? Tom Brady’s departure, a pandemic, opt outs and bad drafts. Your answers may vary.
With “The Path” now gone (sweet Jesus, let that phrase be stricken from our collective memory; I can’t recall any two words we bludgeoned into submission more completely than those), it’s time to move on to considering the Patriots’ Road to Recovery.
We’ll beat the snot out of that over the next few months (years?) too. But as it relates to what we saw Sunday against the Dolphins, it’s time more people get a firm grasp on what the Patriots really are at the tail end of 2020.
Despite having 10 days to get ready for Miami after their 24-3 loss against the Rams, they failed to score a touchdown for the second game in a row. They gave up 250 rushing yards. Against the Rams it was 186. Six times this year, opponents have averaged more than 5 yards per carry.
Miami was without three of their top skill position players -- Davante Parker. Mike Gesicki and Jakeem Grant. They had a rookie quarterback. They had to run the ball. The Patriots knew they had to run the ball. They ran it anyway.
The Dolphins had seven penalties, including one that wiped out a successful fake punt. Tua Tagovailoa threw a pick on the goal line. The Dolphins had a scoop-and-score touchdown wiped out in the first half and failed to cash in points after recovering a Jakobi Meyers fumble near midfield in the third quarter.
The Patriots lost by 10. It could have been much, much worse.
Earlier this week, I wrote the Dolphins currently are where the Patriots want to be. More than a few people scoffed at that notion. And now? Even if Tua isn’t a Pro Bowler-in-waiting, they have their high-upside quarterback. They have outstanding players they drafted -- Gesicki, Parker, Xavien Howard -- on both sides of the ball and they’ve filled out their roster with free agents they’ve brought in (Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, Emmanuel Ogbah).
Since October 31, 2017, the Patriots have been without a post-Brady quarterback plan. They’ve paid for it this year. And they’ve paid in large part because myriad draft miscues have left a subpar roster. Talent-wise, the Patriots of 2020 aren’t really close to the Dolphins. And with so many older players on the New England roster perhaps moving on, when the gap begins closing is anyone’s guess.
Chew on this: the Jets -- a team the Patriots barely beat earlier this year -- knocked off the Rams on Sunday. The Rams just finished pummeling New England (as we discussed earlier). Are the Patriots closer to the Dolphins or the Jets? I mean ...
It’s time to give up the ghost. For the rest of 2020, wins and losses don’t truly matter as much as development. The sting of training camp and preseason reps missed by players like Jarrett Stidham, Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene etc., can be compensated for now.
In these last two games, Bill Belichick needs to engage in a full-on audit of what he’s got so the $60M in cap space and the top-15 draft pick doesn’t burn a hole in his pocket. Stop with the avoidance.
Nobody needs more reps from Cam Newton, who at this point is basically a taller version of Mike Tolbert playing quarterback. He’s gumming up the offensive works. Such as they are.
The Patriots need to figure out just how screwed they are at wide receiver and quarterback. They need to hope like hell that -- despite COVID -- the scouting staff has been able to get as much intel as they can on this harder-than-ever crop of draftable players.
Who they are -- not who they’d have been if they had more cap space or if guys didn’t opt out or they had more time to practice -- is what matters.
Belichick said earlier this year he’s not about to "apologize" for the team’s draft record. He explained away the raw roster saying the Patriots “sold out” the past few years. A couple of times, Belichick’s spun it to make it seem the team left no stone unturned in looking for ways to make life easy for Brady. That debatable stance is, Belichick seems to infer, is why the team is digging out now.
Reality? Brady camouflaged how steep the Patriots talent decline really was. The 2018 team lost in the regular season to the Lions, Jaguars, Titans, Dolphins and Steelers. None of them made the playoffs. The Patriots won that Super Bowl thanks to health, smarts, coaching, Brady and a great running game.
The 2019 team beat the hell out of horrific teams for the first eight games. When the competition improved, they went 4-5 down the stretch, capping the year by losing at home to Miami and the Titans.
Dating back to last season, they’ve now gone 10-13 in their past 23 games. And it might get worse.
They might not even yet be on the Road to Recovery so A) don’t start asking "are we there yet?" and B) we should all get our brains around the likelihood they may never get "there" again under Bill Belichick.
If they hit on the quarterback, cash in through free agency, snap their drafting cold streak, staff wideout and tight end at an NFL level, find a front-seven defender that worries any defensive coordinator and adequately replace Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty, then they’ll be cooking with gas.
Quite a checklist, isn’t it? But, look on the bright side. Jake Bailey is an awesome punter.