The New England Patriots under Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s reign had never lost an opening round playoff game. The New England Patriots themselves had never lost a playoff game in Foxboro since 1978. That all came crashing to a halt on January 10, 2009 against the Baltimore Ravens.
Despite Joe Flacco only attempting to pass the ball 10 times during the horrid game (at least to the eyes of the Patriots hopeful) the Ravens came away with a 33-14 victory.
The Ravens dominated the game from the beginning with Ray Rice bursting through the Patriots defense with an 83 yard touchdown run, the longest the Patriots had given up all season. A run defense that showed vulnerabilities during the regular season was gashed for a stunning 234 yards on the ground.
Tom Brady played the worst game of his playoff career throwing three interceptions and boasted an atrocious 49.1 passer rating.
After the loss, the pundits quickly jumped off the Patriots’ bandwagon after crowning them Super Bowl Champions prior to that season. They proclaimed “the end of an era,” and employed “the death of a dynasty” as their headlines and the crux to their hypocritical articles. They called Brady washed up and some fans seem to be under the impression that Brady is on a decline and getting “old.”
The media has a very fickle mind. They’ll exaggerate anything as long as it fits their agenda and aids selling newspapers, gaining TV watchers, and web page hits on the internet.
The New England Patriots are not on the decline—and neither is Tom Brady.
The Patriots' struggles this year are a combination of coordinators, free agents, and players leaving the team and the replacements not being able to produce at the same level as their predecessors.
The downfall of the New England Patriots is quite simple.
The lack of a consistent contributor at the third wide receiver position, the offense's inability to produce touchdowns in the red zone, poor halftime adjust by the offensive coaching staff, and the defense’s inability to produce stops at crucial junctures of play as well as produce ample pressure on the quarterback proved to be the Patriots’ Achilles heel(s.)
Five wide receivers started last year as Brady’s third receiver option (Aiken, Edelman, Galloway, Stanback, and Tate.)
Joey Galloway started the year as the third receiver option. The Patriots signed the guy in free agency in hopes that he would stretch the field and take the pressure off Randy Moss and Wes Welker. The experiment had a horrendous outcome.
Under the Patriots offensive system, a lot is asked of the receivers. In any given play, the receiver could run three different routes. That receiver has to be smart enough to comprehend which route he needs to run under different circumstances.
Galloway, like many receivers before him (e.g. Chad Jackson), had trouble comprehending the offense (as reported by the Patriots Football Weekly writers on their online radio show). This seemed to be the culprit between him and Brady not clicking at all.
His reluctancy to go over the middle didn’t help either.
After Galloway was a healthy scratch for a few games, he was cut. Then, the third receiver position was shared between Julian Edelman and Sam Aiken. Edelman started off the season great leading all rookies with 21 catches until he broke his arm in the blowout against the Tennessee Titans in Week Six of the season.
After Edelman hurt his arm, the Patriots activated Brandon Tate from the PUP list to play against the Buccaneers. Tate was only targeted once for an interception, a play Nick Caserio later described in a conference interview as Tate running the wrong route.
On the fourth drive of the next game, Tate re-injured his knee and was soon listed on injured reserve.
After the multitude of the injuries in the third wide receiver position, the Patriots signed Isaiah Stanback who saw playing time against the Colts in Week 10. Stanback started for the Patriots in the next two games against the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints.
Folks, if Isaiah Stanback is starting for your team, that doesn’t speak much about the depth you have at the wide receiver position.
Despite the lack of consistency at the third wide receiver position, the Patriots offense still managed to be the sixth most productive offense in the National Football League.
If the Patriots don’t catch the injury bug next season, the third receiver position, and the unit in general, will be on the strong points of the team.
During the off-season the Patriots signed veteran receiver Torry Holt who was under a very complicated offensive system in his years with the St. Louis Rams and is regarded as one of the best route running receiver of the last decade. Therefore, I doubt we’ll see a replica of the Joey Galloway situation.
The Patriots drafted Taylor Price in the third round of the 2010 draft. Price may seem like a raw project but I think he’ll be able to contribute in his rookie season. I’m optimistic that over time he’ll be a very productive receiver.
Brandon Tate is also returning to the unit and the 2009 third round pick is as healthy as he’s been in years.
Overall I don’t foresee the third receiver position being a problem this season if all of them stay healthy.
Five of the Patriots' six losses last year could be attributed to one thing: the lack of offensive scoring in the second half. In those five loses the Patriots led the opposition going into halftime, but couldn’t hold those leads to win those games.
The Texans loss should be thrown out because Belichick said in his press conference after the game that the team didn’t go into the game with any “set plan.” This could be illustrated by his pulling of Tom Brady out of the game with a lead, only to put Brady back on the field after Brian Hoyer gave up a fumble returned for a touchdown at the one yard line. Brady was later pulled out of the game after the Texans regained the lead with two minutes to go.
The Patriots scored 282 points in the first half of games last year; they only managed 145 points in the second half. That’s almost half the drop-off of scoring between the two halves.
What can this be attributed to? The de-facto offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
The Patriots' scoring differential between the two halves tells me that Bill Belichick and the offensive coaches came up with great game plans to score against the opponents early. But during halftime when Belichick has to make changes in his defense, Bill O’Brien and the offensive coaching staff were inept when it came to making the proper changes required to be successful.
We never saw problems like this during the Josh McDaniels and Charlie Weis eras. I do have hope that Bill O’Brien sees this problem and plans on fixing it. Belichick has mentioned in many interviews that O’Brian is a very bright guy so as of right now we all have to wait and see how he improves next season.
Another Patriots' offensive inefficiency was their lack of production in the red zone. The Patriots were third in the league in red zone trips with 65; but were 13th in the league in touchdown conversion rate, only managing to score 34 touchdowns out of 65 trips for a 52.3 conversion rate.
The main reason why the Patriots struggled so much in the red zone could once again be traced to the lack of consistency at the third wide receiver position. It may also have to do with the spread offense they utilize.
The spread offense is exactly what its name says—it spreads the offense out. But the red zone is a confined space; you can’t really spread the offense out. When your only options are Moss and Welker, it becomes quite easy to shut them out.
Teams know that Welker is going to be lined up in the slot. And let’s face it, Welker’s straight line speed is among the worst for starting receivers in the NFL, and his 5’9” frame doesn‘t help either. So shutting down Welker in the red zone isn’t very hard for teams to do—they just double him with a safety and linebacker.
Moss is the Patriots best red zone target but he can’t always be the one pulling in the touchdowns.
Ben Watson was second on the team in receiving touchdowns despite not getting targeted much, but he lost Brady’s trust a long time ago with his inconsistent route running and hands that are made of stone.
Bill Belichick addressed this situation in the draft when he drafted two versatile TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
Gronkowski will be the in-line TE who will be responsible for both blocking and catching, much like Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys. His 6’6” 265 pound frame makes him an ideal target in the red zone.
Hernandez will assume the HB/TE role that Dallas Clark plays for the Colts. Hernandez played in a similar spread offense under Urban Meyer in college, so I don’t think route running will be a problem.
The good thing about both of these two tight ends is that they have very good hands—something their predecessors (Graham and Watson) lacked.
With the new tight ends and additions at receiver, the Patriots should improve on their red zone efficiency next season.
For the past two seasons, the Patriots defense needs have been evident. They have to produce a consistent pass rush.
The secondary is no longer a detriment to the defense, but rather a plus.
The Patriots have very good depth in the secondary. Brandon Meriweather, despite his inconsistent tackling has proven himself a very good safety.
Meriweather is backed by veterans James Sanders and Brandon McGowan with Patrick Chung emerging as a candidate to play alongside Meriweather after his rookie season.
Leigh Bodden has rejuvenated his career in New England and has proven himself a top 15 CB in the National Football League. Darius Butler should play alongside Bodden this season with Devin McCourty and Jonathan Wilhite competing for the third CB spot.
The Patriots' secondary is in good shape, but it does not matter how good your secondary is if the QB is consistently provided with five to seven seconds to throw the ball. The defense isn’t going to get off the field or make crucial turnovers on a consistent basis.
The Patriots did draft Jermaine Cunningham in the second round to bolster the pass rush, but I don’t see him making much of an impact as a rookie. I think they’ll have to settle for what they got last season from their linebacking corps.
The Patriots, like any other team, have problems and weaknesses in their team. However, they have gone about fixing all of these problems. Whether the results will be positive has yet to be seen, nevertheless, you’d expect a team “on the verge of mediocrity” to have many apparent unsolved problems.
Overall, the Patriots main obstacle next year won’t be weaknesses on their roster but the daunting schedule they have to withstand.