With the Patriots facilitating more air travel than O'Hare Airport, ranking last in the NFL in pass defense (323.1 yards per game) and total defense (424.1 yards per game) heading into Sunday's game with the New York Giants, what previously passed for heresy -- fans second-guessing Bill Belichick's personnel decisions and former players questioning his defensive scheme -- is open debate.
Belichick was asked Wednesday about the play of recycled cornerbacks Antwaun Molden, who got benched on Sunday, and Phillip Adams, whose locker should be equipped with a revolving door, having been released twice by the team.
"I would say of the problems we had in the Pittsburgh game, I wouldn’t put that at the top of the list," Belichick said.
He's right. The Patriots' biggest issue defending the pass isn't the pedigree of the personnel in the secondary, it's the people coaching them.Belichick's most egregious personnel miscues haven't been drafting Terrence Wheatley or Darius Butler or cutting Leigh Bodden. It has been entrusting his defense to a pair of young, dedicated, but unproven coaches, defensive backs coach Josh Boyer and safeties coach/de facto defensive coordinator Matt Patricia.
There was a time that the Patriots trotted out cut-rate corners like Molden and Adams and not only survived, but thrived. This is a team that won a Super Bowl with Earthwind Moreland, Hank Poteat, Randall Gay and a moonlighting wide receiver, Troy Brown, in the defensive backfield.
The rules are more slanted toward the passing game now than they were in 2003 and 2004, with the bureaucratic enforcement of the five-yard chuck and defenseless receiver rules turning the NFL into a pass-a-palooza.
But during the Glory Days, we were told it was all about coaching acumen -- The System -- not the players. That was always a specious premise since those defenses had Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel in the front seven and Rodney Harrison in the secondary.
However, there was truth to the idea that part of the Patriots' success was attributable to coaching 'em up because in addition to Belichick they had a brilliant defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, and -- hold your nose Patriots fans -- a savant secondary coach named Eric Mangini.
Now, they have The Lost Boys, Patricia and Boyer. In them Bill Trusts.
Technically, the Patriots don't have a defensive coordinator. The title has been vacant since Dean Pees's departure following the 2009 season. But make no mistake, the 37-year-old Patricia, the team's linebackers coach from 2006 to 2010, is the defensive coordinator and has been since last season. He helps draw up the game plans and makes most of the defensive calls. If he is only coaching safeties, then Belichick is selling sodas in the Gillette Stadium stands on game day.
The 34-year-old Boyer has the title of defensive backs coach, but if you have a safeties coach, the only defensive backs left to coach are the corners. He was the solo secondary coach in '09, but after that season Belichick thought it best to separate the job and created the role of safeties coach, filled by Corwin Brown last season.
Boyer's previous place of employment before joining the Patriots as a coaching assistant (i.e. apprentice) in 2006 was as defensive coordinator of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which is right behind Central Florida on the list of schools to which the Big East is extending invitations.
There is a connection between the ascension of Patricia and Boyer and the decline of the defense. Save for Kyle Arrington, name one Patriots defensive back who has significantly improved under the two.
Most of the team's high draft pick defensive backs have flamed out in alarming fashion. Brandon Meriweather's play plateaued. Butler fell into a sophomore slump from which he never recovered. Wilhite was a coaching staff favorite and then fell out of favor. Now, Devin McCourty, who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, has been picked on by opponents this year.
You can blame poor draft evaluations for the demise of the departed players. However, succeeding in the draft is about picking the right player and developing him. The Patriots dearth of defensive backs is just as much attributable to the inability to do the latter than the former.
After all, when Crennel and Mangini were here, they got an undrafted free agent, Gay, and a fourth-round pick, Asante Samuel, ready to play for Super Bowl winners right away.
If you don't believe the empirical evidence of a coaching problem, then perhaps the factual evidence will do. Since 2010, when Patricia became the de facto defensive coordinator, the Patriots have been statistically one of the worst defenses in football.
Last year, they ranked 25th in total defense (366.5 yards per game), last in third down defense (47 percent conversion rate for opponents) and 30th in pass defense (258.5 yards per game).
This year, the Patriots uncoordinated defense is last in pass defense and total defense. They've allowed 39 pass plays of 20 yards or more, the most in the league. Only Indianapolis has allowed a higher third-down conversion rate than New England's 46 percent, tied with Carolina. Opposing passers have completed 66.7 percent of their throws, also 30th in the NFL.
It is often recited that Bill Parcells, the man Belichick can tie for career coaching victories with 183 on Sunday with a win over, fittingly, the New York Giants, never won a Super Bowl without Belichick as defensive coordinator. The same is true for Belichick and Crennel.
Belichick hasn't become out of touch or lost his touch. He's lost his help. He needs an experienced hand to collaborate with and coordinate his defense. You know like Dom Capers.
If not, the NFL may literally pass him by.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.