It’s Time for the Patriots to Panic

It’s officially time for the New England Patriots to panic. With their devastating loss to the division rival Buffalo Bills last Sunday, the Patriots have now lost four straight games and currently sit at 2-5. To put those numbers in perspective, the last time the team lost four straight games was 2002 and the team has not started a season 2-5 since 2000. For the past two decades, the Patriots have been the class of the National Football League with nine Super Bowl appearances and six championships. However, the start of the new decade has brought about a different story for the Patriots.

Losing arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time in Tom Brady, who is currently second in the league in touchdowns with the explosive Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is a huge blow to this team. Former league MVP Cam Newton looked almost like his old self early on this season, but has struggled mightily in recent weeks and was benched against the San Francisco 49ers in Week seven. And though his play has been inconsistent, he is not entirely to blame.  The offense lacks any true talent or depth at wide receiver, tight end or in the backfield.  

Julian Edelman is aging and has not yet developed chemistry with Newton like the route-running rapport he had with Brady for so many years.  New England’s 2019 first-round selection, wide receiver N’Keal Harry, has continued to disappoint on the outside, and free-agent acquisition Damiere Byrd, while a nice surprise at his value, is the worst number one wide receiver in football. At tight end, the Patriots have never found a suitable replacement for former franchise icon Rob Gronkowski. Former seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo leads the team in snaps this season and was the only active tight end against Buffalo. The lack of receiving weapons for Newton has led to the Patriots having one of the worst passing offenses in the league, which in turn has made it much more difficult for Newton and the team’s plethora of running backs to run the football effectively. Teams rarely worry about getting beat vertically by the Patriots, resulting in the Patriots seeing the highest percentage of single-high safety looks in the league.

On defense, the Patriots’ normally elite unit has been severely affected by both free agency and opt-outs before the season due to COVID-19. In free agency, the team lost key starters from last year’s team including linebackers Kyle van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and defensive tackle Danny Shelton. Additionally, the team had a league-high eight opt-outs before this season, with two of the most notable ones coming on the defensive side of the ball. Linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung have become mainstays in the Patriots defense over the years, with each being a contributing member to the team’s last three championships. And while the defense this year has not been nearly as atrocious as the offense, they have not looked the part of a traditional Bill Belichick coached defense. 

While the lack of roster talent is certainly part of the reason for the Patriots’ lack of success this season, it is also important to assign blame to the man who is in charge of assembling and coaching the roster. Yes, I am talking about Bill Belichick, the guy who has won six Super Bowls and who many consider one of, if not the greatest, coach of all time. However, the seemingly infallible Belichick has made a series of personnel decisions over the last few seasons that have greatly hamstrung the team’s ability to compete at a high level.

In last year’s draft, for example, the team tried to solve their wide receiver problem by selecting N’Keal Harry at the end of the first round. However, Harry has failed to live up to his first-round billing so far and the team passed on a number of better options including DK Metcalf, Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin and AJ Brown. This came the year after the team selected running back Sony Michel in the first round who has largely been a disappointment and has struggled with injuries. Even in trades, the normally shrewd Belichick has missed the mark as of late. In another attempt to fix the teams receiving corps last season, the team traded a second-round pick for Mohamed Sanu. Unfortunately for Sanu and the team, though, he never quite developed a rapport with Brady and the team chose not to re-sign him after last year.

One of the reasons the Patriots have been able to sustain their high level of success for two decades is that they could always fill their roster out with veterans on mid-level salaries who were smart, coachable and could execute their roles in key situations. However, this type of roster building only works if a team has enough talent to be in a position to win football games and this year’s Patriots, especially on the offensive side of the ball, do not have that talent.

Additionally, Belichick recently made an un-Belichick-like comment when he cited the salary cap as a reason for the team’s lack of depth. This is kind of the year that we’ve taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we’ve had in accumulation of prior years,” Belichick said.  “We just haven’t been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we’ve had in some other years.” And while Belichick is not entirely wrong, as the team currently has 26 million dollars in dead cap space for past deals with Brady, Antonio Brown and Stephen Gostowski, it is uncharacteristic for him to make excuses of any kind.

This season was always going to be tough for the Patriots to find a way to win games. However, very few expected the team to look as bad as they currently do. Unless the team undergoes a major change over the second half of the season, they could very well lose the division and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008. For the first time in a long time, the Patriots and their fans are justified in panicking.