It’s not just that the Patriots have 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 followed each season suggests that the students (players) are not ready for the end of year tests. And that would come down to the teachers (coaches).
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It’s not heresy to interview someone who is arguably the greatest coach in American professional sports history. Bill Belichick himself invites him after games when he says the team has been “overwhelmed” or needs to “coach better”.
So, taking Belichick at his word, what does he mean? And why don’t Belichick’s Jimmys and Joes do all his X’s and Os’?
What’s missing that leads to 17 false start penalties, nine game delays and six encroachment/neutral zone penalties? (The Patriots ranked 11th, 30th, 28th and 9th respectively in each category.)
Receivers who curl up next to each other at the end of the course? Flat start to start games or come out of halftime?
Take a look at the roadmap on this.
The Dolphins scored touchdowns opening both halves in Weeks 1 and 18. The Patriots also threw a 6 pick in their first practice of Week 18 to dig a 14-0 hole.
The Texans scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their first four possessions.
The Chargers have scored touchdowns on two of their first three practices. The Browns scored a touchdown on their first practice. Against the Saints, Mac Jones was intercepted at the end of halftime. Against Tampa, the Patriots fumbled out of halftime.
In the playoff game, the Bills scored touchdowns at the start of every half (and every other drive). The Patriots were selected every half.
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The Colts took a 17-0 lead over the Patriots in a first-half slump. Then the Patriots opened the second half with an interception. The Bills scored a touchdown on their first practice on Dec. 26. And they never scored the rest of the game.
The Cowboys didn’t do much with their practices at the start or after halftime. But they racked up 567 rushing yards and 445 passing yards. Passing yards were a record against teams coached by Belichick.
Who is responsible there? It’s an obvious question to ask, especially when it comes to the Patriots’ defense after their top division rival scored 83 points on 14 possessions in 20 days. Without throwing once.
It’s still recognized that the defense is “supervised” by Bill Belichick, but who’s drawing up the game plan?
Who makes the adjustments, coaches the techniques and leads the meetings? We see Steven Belichick on the helmet during games and Bill specifically credited Steven for slowing down Tom Brady and the Bucs with his defensive recall in October.
Jerod Mayo also has a leading role in defense, which sources say is more important than Steven’s in the direction of defense. Meanwhile, former defensive coordinator Matt Patricia returned to Foxboro this offseason and has his hand in the defensive soup as well, including on game day.
“When there is so much ambiguity, how can there be accountability?” a league source told me.
It’s not uncommon for there to be no “defensive coordinator” for the Patriots. For years, Belichick has been slow to award assistants coordinator titles, in part to protect them from specific criticism if things go wrong 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 coordination.
Of course, since all roads lead to Bill, Belichick will always get credit or blame when things go right – as they usually have – or when they go wrong. Belichick has given specific credit over the years to Scott Pioli, Nick Caserio and Josh McDaniels. But in defense, it is always more difficult to pin down.
Does this collaboration help players know who is in charge? Does this streamline how quickly the team can make adjustments? And what exactly does Matt Patricia add?
Patricia’s final acts as defensive coordinator for the Patriots came close to getting beaten by Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in the 2017 AFCCG, then getting folded by the Eagles and Nick Foles in the Super Bowl.
In three years with the Lions, Detroit changed from 26 to 27 to 32 in passing yards allowed per game. They couldn’t rush. They couldn’t cover. They didn’t win.
Upon his return, Ernie Adams – Belichick’s longtime whisperer behind the curtain, no credit seeking, never on the spot – was retiring. The previous year, the Patriots had said goodbye to one of the greatest offensive line coaches in NFL history. The departures of Joe Judge and Brian Flores have both caused some turnover among these coaches.
Tom Brady – the accomplished leader on and off the court by word and example – now plays for Tampa and Julian Edelman has retired. Longtime running backs coach Ivan Fears is nearing retirement.
The youth and level of experience of the coaches who come in are simply far from replacing what comes out. It’s not even debatable.
On offense, running backs coach Vinnie Sunseri, TE/FB coach Nick Caley, OL coach Carmen Bricillo, WR coach Mick Lombardi and QB coach Bo Hardegree totaled 11 seasons at their positions with the Patriots. And five of those seasons are by Caley.
On defense, the Patriots had five head coaches: Demarcus Covington, Jerod Mayo, Steve Belichick, Brian Belichick and Mike Pellegrino. Pellegrino has been coaching cornerbacks for three years. Before that, he was an assistant coach for a few years while playing professional lacrosse. Special Teams Coordinator Cam Achord is in his second year as Special Teams Coordinator. Special teams have had some issues this year after being very good in 2020.
The Patriots coaching staff is — for the most part — young as hell, grew up almost entirely within the Patriots system, and came to Foxboro because of someone they know. Having relationships shouldn’t be a disqualifier. But when nearly every staff member has connections leading up to their entry-level jobs and only hangs out in the Patriots tree, there’s a chance for a hive mind.
Belichick is not averse to change. It has evolved a lot over the years. Last offseason, when Caserio left to become general manager in Houston, Belichick reconfigured his staff. More feedback was solicited, Dave Ziegler, Elliot Wolf and Matt Groh were given bigger roles, and there was a more collaborative staffing process. The Patriots did well in the draft and free agency.
But the team – and the coaching staff – are still paying on the pitch for staff missteps. For example, of the seven players selected in the first four rounds of the 2019 draft – N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich, Damien Harris, Yodny Cadjus, Hjalte Froholdt and Jarrett Stidham – Harris is the only one who is objectively “good .”
It will be interesting to see what adjustments will be made to the coaching staff this offseason. Will they have more defined defense roles? Will they bring in veteran coaches with unpatriotic approaches to bring some diversity of opinion?
In the end, the Patriots failed their final exam last Saturday in spectacular fashion. They have barely shown up to class for the past five weeks.
This all reminds me of one of those motivational quotes that 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 gotten.”