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Time to communicate

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 11, 2009 12:07 PM
Player punctuality is the least of Patriots coach Bill Belichick's problems now.

As the Patriots wrap up preparations for Sunday's game with the Carolina Panthers, what he has is a coach-to-player communication issue that has nothing to do with malfunctioning headphones in helmets or mysterious frequency failures.

We have seen uncharacteristic breakdowns from the Patriots this season in just about every phase of the game, and now we're witnessing a breakdown in communication between Belichick and some of his players.  

Belichick can't just dictate to his subservient subjects, not when the team is 7-5, and has lost three of four for the first time since 2002, and not when he has a team chock full of impressionable young players and veteran hired guns who didn't reside on Patriots Way when it was the path to three Super Bowl titles earlier this decade.

That became painfully obvious yesterday when linebacker Adalius Thomas, one of four players sent home for being tardy to Wednesday's 8 a.m. team meeting, went on the offensive about the circumstances surrounding and handling of his discipline for failing to be on time.

We can joke about Thomas's hysterical "Jetsons" reference, but what is happening in the New England locker room is really no laughing matter. If making an example of Thomas and the other players was a motivational ploy by Belichick, who is a master motivator, then it's already backfired.

“Motivation is for kindergartners,’’ said a ticked-off Thomas. “I’m not a kindergartner. Sending somebody home, that’s like, ‘You’re expelled until you come back and make good grades.’ Get that [expletive] out of here. It’s ridiculous.’’

Ouch.

Thomas, who called ahead to tell the team he was running late and wasn't told to go home until he showed up in the meeting at 8:09, is not a lone wolf howling at the Belichickian moon. No, he represents a small, but growing portion of players in the locker room who are beginning to do the unheard of -- question some of the methods and tactics of Belichick and the coaching staff.

There has been an undercurrent of ferment in Foxborough all season long. It started with the team's decision to exile outspoken defensive end Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders on Sept. 6, eight days before the season-opener against Buffalo. That trade was an eye-opener to a lot of the Patriots' rank-and-file, a reminder that what is in the best interest of the team doesn't necessarily take into account their interests at all.

Throw in the fact that nose tackle and defensive captain Vince Wilfork, the team's best defensive player, is being held to a bad, six-year rookie contract and has been unable to come to terms on a new deal, and that the Patriots are a team with a lot of Hessian soldiers like Thomas, the most expensive free agent in team history, who have experienced NFL life as members of less totalitarian teams and the Patriot Way has given way to the Patriot Wayward.

The reality is that not everyone in the locker room is simply downing the Patriot Kool-Aid without looking anymore. Some guys are grabbing the cup, sniffing it, and pouring it out when no one is looking.

This was the primary reason that Belichick brought back 40-year-old linebacker Junior Seau. Nobody speaks in more glowing terms of Belichick than Seau. The two men, football lifers and future Hall of Famers, have a deep appreciation for each other. Seau, who, if his teammates are to believed, might be a better orator than Barack Obama, returned to try to win a ring and to spread the coach's gridiron gospel.

The problem is that Seau is merely just a football figurehead. He plays a more prominent role on billboards plastered around town for his Versus show, "Sports Jobs with Junior Seau," than he does in Belichick's defense. To be a leader, you have to play some sort of leading role.

Look, Belichick was well within his rights to discipline Thomas, fellow linebacker Gary Guyton, wide receiver Randy Moss, and defensive end/linebacker Derrick Burgess for not making it to the meeting on time, especially when the team is coming off back-to-back losses and is at a crossroads in the season.

But accountability is a two-way street.

When Thomas was benched without warning against the Tennessee Titans earlier this season, the news was delivered by linebackers coach Matt Patricia and not Belichick. Delegation is part of being a great leader, but that was really a decision that needed to come straight from the head coach.

There still hasn't been an explanation as to why veteran cornerback Shawn Springs, who has been inactive for the last four games, is buried so deep on the depth chart you'd need a backhoe to find him.

Some players are dumb-founded that Springs, who was covering Terrell Owens for the Redskins last season, can't even get in uniform on game day, while Jonathan Wilhite, who has been lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, just goes about his merry business, drawing praise for his coverage on Reggie Wayne, who had 10 catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner in the aftermath of fourth-and-2 in Indy.

Despite being listed on the practice report with a knee injury during this time, Springs has been healthy enough to play; the Patriots just haven't wanted to play him for some reason.

For the first time in a long time, not every player in the Patriots' locker room is convinced that their coaching staff is giving them the best chance possible to win on game day.

One more unexpected or crushing loss and it could be check-out time for some players on Belichick's message.

But the good news for Belichick is that he's usually at his best in these types of situations, and this is a situation with a very clear solution.

All he has to do is turn back the clock to when the Patriots out-smarted, out-executed, and out-played their opponents.

If the Patriots win on Sunday and keep winning, all these issues that have suddenly arisen will seep back below the surface because winning is a universal language that everybody speaks.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...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.

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