The Last Night of the Patriots Dynasty by George Cain
Who would have known that when Plaxico Burress blew by a hapless and injured Ellis Hobbs for the go ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII we were seeing the last night of the Patriot dynasty. It had been a perfect season, a record breaking one. A season at times overshadowed by the controversy of Spy-gate continuing all the way up to the kickoff of the Super Bowl when a Boston Herald report that morning reported an accusation of a corroborating witness that the Patriots had actually cheated.
Since the Spy-gate story broke following their week 1 destruction of the Jets the Patriots had been playing like angry tigers. Similar to a category 5 tornado they destroyed practically everyone in their path until week 12. Then you began to see a sea change. The pressure of Spy-gate and a perfect season seemed to be catching up to the Patriots. They had narrow victories over Philadelphia, Baltimore and the Giants. They were lit up on defense by AJ Feeley, Kyle Boller and Eli Manning. Manning’s game would be a harbinger of things to come.
In the 1st round of the playoffs the Patriots defeated an upstart Jaguars team primarily on the strength of their unstoppable offense. David Garrard, a middle tier Quarterback at best, matched Brady score for score for much of the game, but in the end the Patriots were too much. This would most likely set up a re-match with the Colts the next weekend. The Colts have been the Patriots arch enemy of the last decade. This would be another Manning/Brady duel and the Colts were perhaps the only team who could defeat the Patriots since they had come so close earlier in the year losing at home 24-20. However, it would not be in the cards as the next day Patriot fans watched Billy Volek come off the bench and with Darren Sproles filling in for Ladamian Tomlinson, the Charges knocked off the Colts and gave the much maligned Norv Turner, his first ever quality playoff win.
The Patriots-Chargers game would be a dogfight, the Patriots never unable to break loose of the banged up Chargers. In the end, the Patriots won, but not before the Chargers had banged up MVP Tom Brady enough to put him in a walking boot for much of the next 10 days. When Brady emerged from that boot he was not the same Quarterback, we are unsure if it was that injury or the devastating pass rush the Giants through at them in the Super Bowl. But for some reason the Patriots did not get it done. They scored only 14 points, the defense couldn’t get off the field, Bill Belichick made some surprising calls like not attempting a 49 yard field goal on 4th and long, resisting to challenge what looked like an apparent fumble recovery by Pierre Woods and not adjusting to the Giants four man pass rush.
Oh the Patriots players themselves had a lot to say in this defeat. Pierre Woods somehow, managing to let a fumble recovery deep inside Giants territory get stripped away from him while on the ground, Randy Moss was a no-show, the O-line as well, and on the final drive, Asante Samuel and Brandon Merriweather dropped potential game clinching interceptions, Adalius Thomas and Jarvis Green allowed Manning to throw a Hail Mary pass to David Tyree that Rodney Harrison was unable to knock down.
As you reflect back on that game and on that season it’s amazing to realize how many elements of that game are now plaguing the Patriots in 2009 and have led to what looks like the end of the dynasty. Players are not making plays, there is bad coaching, there are questionable decisions, and there is a franchise Quarterback out of sorts. We saw this in the Sunday night 4th and 2 game and more of it against a Saints team on Sunday.
So the question is how did this happen? Why is it happening? And who is responsible? Is it the coach, the GM, the GM/Coach, the coordinators, the owners or the players? The answer is…..All of the above.
There are a lot of theories as to when the decline began but like a recession it’s a slow downward trend. But let’s start with the Patriots after the 2005 season. They had just lost a tough game to the Denver Broncos. It was Brady’s first playoff loss and the end of any third championship in a row hopes. The Patriots got into an acrimonious contract dispute with Brady’s favorite target and hero of their 2nd Super Bowl, Deion Branch. They traded Branch who was holding out, to Seattle for a 1st round pick. The problem was that Brady’s other top wide out, David Givens, had left for Tennessee in free agency. That left a very old Troy Brown and journeyman receiver Reche Caldwell, known for the dropsies, as Brady’s primary receivers.
Next was the 2006 draft, a draft that would live in infamy. But hey, after 5 good ones they were bound for a clunker. They drafted Laurence Maroney who while not horrible has never lived up to his 1st round status. Meanwhile, running backs like Joseph Addai, Maurice Jones-Drew and DeAngelo Williams, all taken after Maroney, have flourished in the NFL. They traded up to take Chad Jackson who turned out to be another University of Florida wide out bust, with a bad attitude and inability to take his talents and adapt them to the NFL game. Ironically, the team the Patriots traded draft positions with, the Green Bay Packers, selected Greg Jennings who has turned into a Pro Bowl Wide out and Aaron Rodgers favorite target. The rest of the draft featured four players – Dave Thomas, Ryan O’Callohan, Le Kevin Smith and Stephen Gostkowski who would make the team. But three years later only Gostowski is has played any significant role, O’Callahan and Thomas cut and Smith traded.
In early 2007 the Patriots had just lost a heart breaker to the Colts in which they led by 21 points early on. Some local figures blame that loss on Deion Branch being allowed to escape to Seattle over a salary dispute. Others blame, a defense that ran out of gas. Whatever the reason for the loss, for the first time in 5 years, the Patriots failed to hold a 4th quarter lead with the stakes at the highest.
As any great champion the Patriots reacted swiftly. Realizing that Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Troy Brown were not enough components for a Hall of Fame Quarterback they made moves. First day of free agency they signed the guy on top of all the NFL experts free agent boards, Adalius Thomas. Thomas, was a versatile line backer who had been a key contributor on the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense. He was a Belichick type of player, a guy who could play inside and outside, rush the passer, defend the pass, and cover a safety. The Patriots had set the market. Then they took advantage of a foolish Miami regime and signed Wes Welker to an offer sheet. For some unknown reason Miami decided not to match an instead exchange Welker for a 2nd round pick. They signed free agent speedster wide out Donte Stallworth to give Brady a deep threat and held onto Jabar Gaffney as a possession receiver. But then despite reports to the contrary, they grabbed the big fish and STOLE Randy Moss, already on his way to the Hall of Fame, for a 4th round pick from the pathetic Oakland Raiders. Moss reputation had hit the skids, but the Patriots believed they could do with Moss what they did with Corey Dillon and they knew it was a high reward/low risk move. It was the type of move that Red Auerbach was famous for, similar to getting Dennis Johnson for Rick Robey. The Patriots seemed to be set for 2009 with a powerhouse offense and a defense that was good enough to win, with Thomas being added to group that already included Ty Warren, Vince Wilfolk, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel.
The Patriots gave away two draft picks in 2007, well worth it for two franchise receivers but it would be another draft that would impact the end of the dynasty.
In the 2007 draft, the Patriots were drafting low. Some reports had them taking Miami Linebacker Jon Beason, who seemed like a good fit and depth for a strong but aging linebacking corp. However, Belichick once again passed on taking a linebacker in the first round. They instead took safety Brandon Meriweather, a solid player at Miami, known mostly though for his foot stomping of a Central Florida player during an onfield brawl between the two teams. The Patriots did not pick again till the 4th round, they selected Miami defensive lineman Kareem Brown. He was a bust, as were all the picks the Patriots made after the Merriweather pick, not one ever making a significant contribution. The Patriots did make a trade with San Francisco that would give them the 49’ers 1st round pick in the 2008 draft, another shrewd move by Belichick and Pioli. But, some of that genius would be overshadowed by the Patriots forfeiting their own 1st round pick in 2008 for the foolish and blatant taping of sideline signals in what will forever be know as Spy-gate. Looking back at the draft people have given it mixed reviews, they used two picks to pick up two All-Pros, got a future high #1 pick, but they could not couple those moves with an impactful player anywhere else, and that is a symptom of the shortened life cycle of the dynasty. Incidentally, Jon Beason has become a pro bowl linebacker while Brandon Merriweather continues to be trick or treat on a weekly basis.
After the heartbreak of the 2007 season fans in New England were split on the 2008 season. Some were eager for the Patriots to get right back at it, while others were still stinging from the memories of that February night.
The Patriots front office did not approach the 2008 offseason like they did following the heartbreak of 2006. They let Asante Samuel go in free agency, not even bidding for his services. This move was of no surprise to most since the Patriots had agreed not to franchise Samuel after the season if he reported to training camp on time. This move at the time seemed controversial, but the Patriots had a high batting average when it came to letting go of great players and replacing them with contributors. The list was long - Damien Woody, Lawyer Milloy, Joe Andruzzi, Ty Law, Ted Washington, Deion Branch, David Givens, and Antwain Smith. But, in all those cases the Patriots had a backup plan, sometimes that plan took a year as was the case of Branch and Givens but they had some plan. It appeared quite quickly Belichick didn’t have a short-term plan. Maybe this time he had no plan. Samuel, was replaced by a myriad of players starting with veterans cast offs like Fernando Bryant and Deltha O’Neill to rookies like 2nd round pick Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite. None were effective. Wheatley was injured when he began to show promise and Wilhite while not bad was clearly not the next Asante Samuel.
But replacing Asante Samuel wasn’t the only problem. The Patriots did not bring in another big money free agent on defense. They let Donte Stallworth leave in free agency, after not picking up his option, and decided instead to rebuild through the draft. This is a strategy that served them well 2001-2005. But for what looks like the 3rd straight year, the Belichick/Pioli tandem failed to bring in more than one impactful player.
Following a poor finish by the 49’ers, the Patriots ended up with the #7 pick. They wisely traded down and selected Tennessee linebacker Jerrod Mayo. There were rumors that they wanted Ohio St. linebacker Vernon Gholston, the Jets took him 6th and he has been a gigantic bust in New York. Mayo was defensive rookie of the year. He was a shining star on a terrible defense. In the 2nd round the Patriots drafted CB Terrence Wheatley, as I said before he showed promise before injuring himself against the Colts. He has become nothing more than a part time player on the 2009 Patriots and spent most of the season in street clothes despite good health and a struggling secondary. In the 3rd Round the Patriots selected Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable, a nice interception in an exhibition game was all he ever showed. He’s been on the injured list two years in row. The Patriots took Jonathan Wilhite in the 4th round, too early to call him a bust. He’s started most games for the Patriots in 2009, but looks more like a nickel back than even a 2nd corner at this point and has a knack for being right with the receiver when he catches a touchdown. It calls into question his field vision and instincts at this point in his career. Kevin O’Connell was taken as a backup to Tom Brady. He never showed a mastery of the system and was beaten out by an undrafted Quarterback Bryan Hoyer. O’Connell was taken one spot in front of Mario Winnigham, a solid wide out on the Giants and someone who would have fit in nicely as a 3rd wide out for the 2009 Patriots.
It’s tough to take task with teams drafting beyond the 4th round, its pretty much hit or miss, but Matt Slater (5th round), and Bo Ruud (6th round, now cut) were misses. Slater has shown some special teams promise covering kicks but not as the returner he was in college and the Patriots hoped he would be. The Patriots did sign Gary Guyton as an undrafted free agent. Guyton has been a solid contributor but not the player that Tedy Bruschi or Mike Vrabel were.
In the end, 2008 was kind of a write off/intriguing year. Tom Brady went down early in the 1st game, tearing both his ACL and MCL. Matt Cassell who had never been a starter at the collegiate or professional level replaced him. Cassell struggled early but was solid all season. The Patriots used their still potent offense and took advantage of a weak schedule. They ended up 11-5 but so did Miami playing even a weaker schedule than the Patriots. The Patriots lost 4 games to playoff teams and despite their record were never a threat to go the distance. Their pass defense was abysmal as was their red zone defense the two leading factors in their inability to make the playoffs.
The 2009 year began with the Pittsburgh Steelers capturing their 2nd title of the decade and threatening the Patriots for moniker of team of the decade. The Patriots were installed in March 2009 as the early Vegas favorite to win the Super XLIV. The hope was that Belichick with extra time to prepare for the 2009 season would be able to fix the mistakes he made in 2008. Throw in Tom Brady back from his injury and they would once again be unstoppable.
However, things did not go as smoothly as hoped. Brady suffered a staph infection in his surgically repaired knee and although it caused him to miss no real time, it delayed his rehab by a couple of months. Josh McDaniels the Patriots brilliant offensive coordinator departed to the Denver Broncos, where he is showing promise as a good young coach. Scott Pioli, Belichick’s friend, and front office player personnel director, finally decided to take his show on the road and went to Kansas City to become the figure head of the franchise.
In the free agency market the Patriots looked to improve weak spots. They signed Tight End Chris Baker, traded for Tight End Alex Smith. They signed veteran Corner back Leigh Bodden from Detroit. Bodden had played well in the Patriot defensive system under Romeo Crennel before leaving for Detroit. They then signed fossils Shawn Springs, Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor for depth or impact. We’ll never really know. They signed Brandon McGowan as a 3rd Safety, perhaps their best offseason move. They also signed Tully Banta-Cain a former reserve player and traded for Derrick Burgess a former All-Pro with Philadelphia and Oakland. Banta-Cain has been a pleasant surprise, Burgess I’ll discuss later.
Baker has been ok as a blocker, Smith was cut, wasting the draft pick. Bodden has been a solid starter but Springs, Galloway and Taylor have lived up to their age or billing. Springs has been an inactive most of they year, Galloway was unable to replicate Stallworth’s role as a 3rd receiver and was cut and Taylor got hurt for the umpteenth time of his career. That’s just what the Patriots added.
In the offseason, Jabar Gaffney followed Josh McDaniels to Denver after the Patriots didn’t offer him any real money to stay. Mike Vrabel was thrown into the Matt Cassel trade, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi retired. Then the Patriots shocked the world by trading All-Pro Richard Seymour days before the season for the Oakland Raiders #1 pick in 2011. The Patriots had an opportunity to get the Raiders 2010 pick according to Oakland but chose 2011 a year where a rookie salary cap may be in place. It seemed the Patriots sacrificed talent in what could be a very deep 2010 draft for savings in what is a deep recession. It was a shrewd financial move but not one that is going to raise a banner any quicker. Prior to the Seymour trade the Patriots had traded for Derrick Burgess. It looked like Burgess might be able to replace Vrabel as the pass rusher on this defense. He has been seldom heard from this season and for some reason has been used in coverage instead of just rushing the passer which is what he does best.
The 2009 draft was interesting; once again the Patriots kept trading out of the 1st round to get that great 2nd round value. The NFL draft was very deep in 2009, rich in linebackers and pass rushers. The Patriots took none. They passed on linebackers James Laurinaitis, Clay Mathews Jr, and Rey Maulaluga to take Safety Patrick Chung and Defensive tackle Ron Brace. Chung has shown flashes but Brace has not seen the field, being beat out on the depth chart by 6th rounder Myron Pryor. Incidentally, Laurinaitis is probably going to be defensive rookie of the year. The Patriots also could have drafted Percy Harvin in the 1st round by trading up a spot or two. Maybe Florida wide outs had spooked them out. Maybe, Laurenaitis reminded them of Andy Katzenmoyer an Ohio State All-American linebacker and Patriot 1st round bust, but the reality is he looks a lot more like Chris Spielman than Katzenmoyer. The Patriots 3rd and 4th 2nd round picks were solid. Darius Butler is a great athlete and has started some at corner. But, he has not shown the shut down capabilities that Vontae Davis has shown in Miami, Davis was there at 23 when the Patriots traded out of the 1st round. No argument on Sebastian Vollmer, the huge tackle from Houston, if he can stay healthy he might be the backbone of the offensive line for the next 5-7 years. Tyrone McKenzie a linebacker taken in the 3rd round blew out his knee and missed the season. Brandon Tate also taken in the 3rd round missed half the season recovering from a torn ACL in college and after two games blew out his other knee. It seemed like a stretch to take him in the 3rd round, now it looks worse.
So here we are, December 2009. The Patriots after a 6-2 start looked like they were back in 2007 form after building a 17 point 4th quarter lead against the unbeaten Colts. The defense although not great and without a pass rush, has been bend but not break. Tom Brady after a slow start has rounded into form. And then a funny thing happened, the Patriots fell apart and blew the biggest 4th quarter lead in Belichick’s tenure in New England. The defense was not trusted to stop Peyton Manning after giving up two touchdown drives totaling 3 and half minutes. The Patriots rebounded against the Jets but then were completely embarrassed by undefeated New Orleans and threw away another game to the Dolphins after Tom Brady got picked off in the end zone on a pathetic pass, and it all became clear. This dynasty is over. The Patriots are not going to win the Super Bowl for the 6th year in a row. Tough to have a dynasty when you don’t win championships, they are making the playoffs consistently but given there division that is not something to be incredibly proud of. So where does the fault directly lie? Well I have alluded to the mistakes throughout this article but to sum them up:
1) The Patriots don’t have a championship defense. It looked like the Patriots had some sort of plan in training camp. Bring in veteran corners (Springs, Bodden) to hold the fort until the young corners (Butler, Wheatley, Wilhite) were ready to take over. Hope Merriweather becomes a poor man’s Ed Reed and replace Vrabel and Bruschi with upstart Jerrod Mayo, speedy Gary Guyton and vet pass rusher Derrick Burgess. And don’t forget Adalius Thomas would be back healthy after injuring himself again in 2008. But then the Seymour trade happened. Immediately the Patriots got worse. His impact is finally being felt in the locker room and on the field. He had 8 sacks last year and tied up lineman. Jarvis Green has proven that he is nothing more than a reserve end. Why this move? Did Belichick think he could coach up this unit and the offense would do the rest? Did he see that 2011 pick as a top 10 pick and get greedy? Did he think they couldn’t win this year? We’ll never know, but the secondary has gotten worse as the season has gone on, the pass rush has never materialized and is the big reason why this team will be watching most of the NFL playoffs. Thomas, by the way, has been a bust given his contract dollars.
2) The minuses have not been replaced with pluses or anything else. The 2007 Patriots had Stallworth at 3rd wideout and Jabar Gaffney at 4th. The 2009 Patriots have special teamer Sam Aiken at 3rd and some guy named Stanback at 4th. The Patriots have gone from Asante Samuel to Leigh Bodden to Jonathan Wilhite to Darius Butler. Any way you want to look at it, it’s not good enough. Burgess and Banta-Cain are not Mike Vrabel. Richard Seymour has been missed, I hope that pick turns out to be a stud or this trade will be a read disaster. So to recap, not enough weapons on offense, no weapons on defense.
3) Bad Drafting, Cheap, Bad Scheme or Arrogant. The jury is still out on the 2009 draft, but there is no doubt that there have been many more misses from 2006 to 2008. Dynasties end when you can’t replace good old players with good young players, ask the Dallas Cowboys. Imagine, a linebacker group of Laurinaitis, Beason and Mayo?
The cheap word has been thrown around by a few media outlets. I don’t buy it completely but when they are opting for 2011 picks over 2010 picks, letting All-Pros like Asante and Seymour walk, not locking up Tom Brady, not locking up Vince Wilfolk and not even throwing soft money at Jabar Gaffney you have to wonder what the plan is. They did spend money on Springs and Taylor which is an old Bruins trick, 5 players making 2 million over 1 making 10 million. I hate using the Patriots and Bruins in a sentence together but I will to make the point, that the Patriots are too good, to be thrifty at a time when the cap is at its highest point. And by the way, don’t get too excited for 2010, this ownership seems way too involved with the new labor deal, and that won’t be a good thing for offseason spending. Imagine Tom Brady going into his final season a free agent. Imagine that same Tom Brady a free agent, no salary cap, and Jerry Jones and his 1 billion dollar stadium lurking.
Finally, on the scheme, I see coordinators/failed head coaches like Greg Robinson and Mike Nolan come into New Orleans and Denver and turn the defenses around in one season using aggressive schemes with similar personnel to the Patriots. Dean Pees, was a failure at Kent St. as a head coach and yes it is Belichick’s game plan, but maybe its time to change. True genius adapts over time. What worked in 2004, might not work in 2009, clearly Bill thinks it’s a more offensive league. Could it be time to change the defense? It couldn’t hurt but don’t hold your breath, people who enjoy success as long as Bill can become arrogant. And when I say arrogant immediately a negative connotation comes to mind. It shouldn’t in this case; it’s his arrogance that made him great.
Epilogue: Dynasties can be rebuilt.
It’s not that common and there is no doubt in my mind that Asante’s non-catch is an image that will never disappear in what was the last night of this dynasty, but I could be wrong. In 2007, I saw a Steeler team get pasted by the Patriots in very much the same way the Saints pasted the Patriots on Monday night football. A year later I saw them hold up the Lombardi trophy. The Patriots have a hall of fame Quarterback, hall of fame coach and an owner who has succeeded in all his business dealings including football. The question I have is do they see the dynasty crumbling? And if they do, are they prepared to do what is necessary to fix it.