There’s always been one thing the Patriots can count on when things get bleak. When the odds are long and people who’ve been waiting to dance on their graves start stretching out their hammies, there’s been a constant.
Tom Brady shows up.
But this time, that’s the bad news.
After Sunday’s alarmingly bad loss to the Saints, the Patriots are 1-2. They’ve lost both of their home games. Their acclaimed offensive line is on its way to landing Young Mac Jones in traction by Thanksgiving. Their vaunted rushing attack was led Sunday by Young Mac, who had six carries for 28 yards.
Their restocked front-seven is getting gashed on a weekly basis. They start slowly. They close poorly. They blow coverages. They commit silly penalties.
One of their newly-acquired tight ends -- Jonnu Smith -- dropped three passes on Sunday, the last one volleyed into the arms of a defender who turned it into seven points just after halftime. Their other newly-acquired tight end -- Hunter Henry -- went sprinting upfield before the snap on a fourth-and-1 just before halftime.
Their priciest free agent wide receiver -- Nelson Agholor -- has five catches for 38 yards the past two games and is playing at about Philip Dorsett-level. Their All-Pro punter Jake Bailey had a blocked punt, a touchback and sent his second kickoff out of bounds in the first three games.
James White was injured Sunday and may be gone a while. Their best defensive player, Stephon Gilmore, will continue to toil on IR through Week 6. Bad quad.
We knew this would take some time -- 11 of the Patriots 22 starters on Sunday are in their first or second season as starters with the team -- but the most alarming thing about this 1-2 is the quality-control level of the product. It’s low.
It was bad enough with Brady coming in off a Super Bowl win having thrown 60 touchdowns since moving on to Tampa last year. That alone highlighted that maybe Bill Belichick underestimated how good Brady still was and would be. That Brady’s desire to finish his career in New England shouldn’t have been so easily shrugged off.
But now the Brady miscalculation -- which seemed poised to be offset by the team’s offseason reload -- is only half the story. The Patriots didn’t just get it wrong in moving on from the best player in NFL history, they aren’t sending a lot of signals that they’re getting it right without him.
The Saints came in Sunday playing their third straight road game to open the season. They had Jameis Winston under center. Winston was a step up from the first two quarterbacks the Patriots faced this year, but New Orleans had a shallow wide-receiver corps and one truly scary offensive player, Alvin Kamara.
That’s the kind of offense the Patriots usually shut down. But they couldn’t slow down Kamara. And -- when the game was in the balance -- they couldn’t shut down the Saints gadget quarterback Taysom Hill. Winston was an efficient enough 13 for 21 for 128 and two touchdowns. The first touchdown he threw was a walk-in to Kamara when the Patriots blew a red-zone coverage on a third-and-7. The other touchdown he threw came when Winston was falling to the ground. Lucky throw, lucky catch? Maybe. But the Patriots were flagged for defensive holding on the play anyway so even if they picked him off it wouldn’t have counted.
Meanwhile, the offensive issues are all coming back to protection. For three straight weeks, teams sent heat at Jones and for three straight weeks it’s gotten home far too often. The presumption that the Patriots' offensive line would be a strength was buoyed by best-case scenario projections. Isaiah Wynn only played 18 of his first 48 games in the league but he was skilled when he was out there at left tackle. He hasn’t been very good. Trent Brown, who washed out with the Raiders after two years, has missed two straight games. He only played 16 of 32 the past two years. The depth behind him hasn’t held up.
The loss of Joe Thuney perhaps was too easily dismissed. Meanwhile, the departure two years ago of Dante Scarnecchia, especially with so many new linemen in the fold, is showing up. Last year, the team had co-coaches on the offensive line -- Carmine Bricillo and Cole Popovich. Popovich is no longer with the team reportedly due to COVID vaccination issues. He’s been replaced by assistant offensive line coach Billy Yates. Whether it’s the players or the coaches, through three games the overall performance has been far less than expected.
Bottom line, the Patriots are not playing like the Patriots.
“We kind of live off of what the Patriots have done in the past with the fast starts and all of that, but for this team, we've got to go do those things and we've got to stop talking about it and getting it done,” said Devin McCourty. “Obviously we'll have a huge test Sunday coming in, we'll have Tampa coming in here who'll be ready to go. ... we are going to be playing a good team. Those guys are coming here as defending champs, so all those things we talked about -- you want to have a test and see if you can get it done. We'll definitely get that Sunday night."
The pomp-and-circumstance of Brady’s return, McCourty said, isn’t something the Patriots can even afford to engage in.
"We're not good enough to get lost ahead of us, so we better focus in on what we need to do and watch them from an X’s and O’s standpoint," he said.
The eyes of the football world will be on Foxboro all week long. You can expect Brady will high-road it as much as he possibly can this week. He wasn’t at all happy with the "vindication" conversation from last week. But his Bucs just lost for the first time since last November and hell hath no fury like Tom Brady coming off a loss.
He’ll have the dual motivation of getting Tampa back on track while demonstrating that not only does he still have it, but that the Patriots made a grave error in not making sure they still have him.
Maybe Bill Belichick felt the Patriots could win with just about anyone at quarterback. Tom Brady has one last game at Gillette. He’s going to fact-check that belief.