The fall color is a dull beige in this part of New England
Patriots are 0-2 after two home games, with few game-changers on hand.
Eight days ago, Tom Brady returned to Gillette Stadium. He “rang the bell” before the Patriots opened the season against Philadelphia. He was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame, as owner Bob Kraft buzzed him past the rules that would have made him wait. When he got to the microphone, Brady frothed up the crowd by declaring, “I am, and I will always be, a Patriot for life.”
Forgotten, or shelved, was Brady’s frayed relationship with Bill Belichick, and Brady’s defection to Tampa Bay, where he won a Super Bowl. Forgotten was also the implication behind his words. What is a Patriot these days? Would you recognize it, in a different uniform?
On paper, the current definition of a Patriot is an 0-2 record, thanks to home losses to the Eagles and Dolphins. The 2018 and 2013 Patriots never lost a game at home. On Sunday night Miami beat New England, 24-17, and even though there was a bit of frenzy at the end, everyone knew who the better team was. The same thing happened against Philadelphia.
Those who drink from the half-full glass pointed out that the Patriots went to a Super Bowl, Brady’s first, and won it after losing their first two games in 2001. That was the year Brady subbed for the injured Drew Bledsoe and wound up knocking off the defending champion Rams. It was also the year of the Tuck Rule, in the snows of Foxboro, a subject that still inflames the grill of Jon Gruden, who was coaching the Raiders during that divisional playoff.
The Brady story nearly happened again last year, when injuries opened the way for Brock Purdy to play quarterback for San Francisco, which got to the NFC Championship game before Purdy himself got hurt. Surrounded by a killer system and Pro Bowl-caliber players galore, Purdy still has not lost a regular-season game. As we know, he was the final player picked in the 2022 draft.
Last year’s Patriots were 8-9 and finished 17th in points, 11th in points allowed. They were third in sacks and fourth in turnover margin and 32nd, or dead last, in red zone offense. Mostly they were beige, a competent bunch of clarinet and tuba players in search of a drum major.. Since Brady left, they are 25-27. They’re also 25-27 since Rob Gronkowski left, and since a raft of familiar playmakers took up positions in studios and broadcast booths.
It wasn’t just the quarterback. When Brady suffered an ACL tear in the first game of the 2008 season, Matt Cassel scrambled to find his helmet, ran to the huddle, and eventually led New England to an 11-5 record, although it wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. That was one of 14 consecutive years in which the Patriots had a Top Ten scoring offense. Eight different backs led the Patriots in rushing during that time.
Foxboro was also a prime destination for those players whose hands were aching for championship jewelry to go with their gold Hall of Fame jackets. Randy Moss and Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison leaped at that chance. Martellus Bennett, Corey Dillon, LeGarrette Blount, Roman Phifer and others found a need and filled it. Belichick never wondered about the red flags in your past because he knew, and you knew, and he knew you knew that you were entering a world of zero tolerance, and there was something inside that room that would nip your grievances in the bud. This was before people began talking, ad infinitum, about “culture.”
The Patriots also had an eye for the iconoclast, for the player who said why the hell not. Julian Edelman was a quarterback at Kent State before he became Brady’s eye magnet as a receiver; Belichick heard about him from a Dallas sportswriter, Rick Gosselin. Wes Welker couldn’t fit anybody’s mold before Belichick let him find his own. Mike Vrabel and Tony Bruschi were diagnostic defensive players, and Vrabel was a proven red-zone receiver. He is now coaching the Tennessee Titans and, in fact, was the last coach to beat Brady’s Patriots, in the 2019 wild-card round.
In their stead, the Patriots have…what? Mac Jones is the smart and feisty quarterback whom the Patriots took with the 15th pick in 2021. Whether he can take the pedestrians around him to a playoff spot in a conference that already has Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson and Tua Tagliavoa is debatable, to say the least.
The Patriots were having trouble finding deep threats in Brady’s final years, and that hasn’t changed. Their rich tradition of defensive backs got a boost when they took gifted cornerback Christian Vazquez in the 2023 draft. He might become one of the few players on this roster who is feared, not just respected.
Miami has quite a few guys who make a defensive coordinator’s chalk hand start to tremble. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle make up the fastest combo of receivers in the league, and the Patriots held them down reasonably. But they again showed they didn’t have enough finishers of their own.
They were trailing 17-10 when Gonzalez intercepted Tagliavoa. Once upon a time they imposed the full penalty for such a mistake. Here they went three-and-out and Jones was sacked by Andrew Van Ginkel. The Dolphins accepted the punt on New England’s 43, and Raheem Mostert streaked to the end zone on the next play. The rock rolled back down the hill.
Such games spark the questions about Belichick, 71, and his future, but that future doesn’t seem much different, except for some more generously-cut sweatshirts. He and his longtime girlfriend, who runs his foundation, split up recently. That doesn’t suggest he’s eyeing retirement. He also has two sons on his staff. He has kept the Patriots competitive, when other teams would have cratered, but there’s an insular quality that Kraft, on some level, must be questioning. When Belichick finally broke down and decided he needed an offensive coordinator, he fetched Bill O’Brien, from the glory years. The Shanahan Tree does not grow in Foxboro.
Most of this is inevitable. You don’t win forever, especially with a hard salary cap. The Cowboys were perennials, thanks to Tom Landry and Roger Staubach and the savvy drafting of Gil Brandt, until Brandt quit rolling sevens, and a new owner came along with a blowtorch. Pain ensued, followed by three Super Bowl titles.
Teams will have to play well when they come to New England, but now they know that if they do, they’ll likely win. And the Patriots will be prime-time material for the foreseeable future, because even though they aren’t a great product, they’re still a brand. Sears & Roebuck was, too.