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For Belichick, list of mistakes was long

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 11, 2010 08:17 AM

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Bill Belichick slumped his way to the podium at 4:17 p.m. and moped his way off at 4:23, a fitting conclusion yesterday on the day the dynasty died. Belichick’s team lasted all of five minutes against the Baltimore Ravens. The coach survived six. Then Belichick disappeared through a back door at Gillette Stadium, presumably on his way back to the drawing board.

Here’s the problem with having complete control, be it of the football operation or any other: at times like this, there is simply nowhere to hide. The buck stops with Bill. In the end, the 2009 Patriots looked a lot like the 2009 Red Sox, capable of beating the bad teams and often getting exposed by the good ones. Belichick built this team and coached it, meaning he was ultimately responsible for everything from the personnel decisions to the game decisions, many of which went terribly wrong in this most humbling Patriots campaign since Belichick’s first in New England.

This time, this is not about Belichick being arrogant, uncompromising or uncooperative with the fans, media, ownership, players or anyone else. None of that really matters at all and the truth is that it never did. This is purely about football now, about a Patriots team that has deteriorated over the last two seasons, about a 2009 club that started out badly before going from better to worse, about a series of decisions that delivered the Patriots from the pinnacle of professional sports to the here and now.

"I think we obviously have a long way to go this offseason as a team," quarterback Tom Brady said yesterday in the most succinct evaluation of the Pats offered after the 33-14 face-bashing at the hands of the Ravens. "Playing the way we played today, we’re not going to beat anybody, [much] less a good football team. It was kind of just the way the season went."

Indeed it was. And so for the first time in a long time, the Patriots enter an offseason with more questions than solutions, largely as the result of decision-making that failed to address some problems and created others.

Yesterday, while the Ravens were manhandling the line of scrimmage and turning the Pats into road pizza, the holes were glaring. The inside linebackers of the New England defense (Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton) were run over and tossed around. There was no pass rush to speak of. Sam Aiken had one catch for five yards on a day when the second-most dangerous receiver in the New England offense was a seventh-round pick (Julian Edelman) who played quarterback at Kent State last year. On three separate third-and-short rushes in the second quarter, the Ravens successfully ran over the right side of the Patriots' defensive line, a spot once occupied by Richard Seymour, traded away for a draft pick that won’t help the Pats until at least 2011.

That last issue became such a concern, in fact, that the Pats moved Vince Wilfork to right end at the start of the second half, asking the man in the middle of the Patriots' defense to replace another (Seymour) who might have been playing alongside him.

All of this brings us back to Belichick, whose problems, in retrospect, began to intensify at the 2009 draft. Possessors of the 23d overall pick, the Pats traded down to No. 26 and, ultimately, out of the first round. They needlessly included Mike Vrabel in a trade with Matt Cassel to Kansas City for the 34th pick, a move that only grew in peculiarity when the Pats subsequently sent two draft picks to the Oakland Raiders for Derrick Burgess to effectively replace Vrabel. (Burgess played sparingly yesterday and had one tackle against the run-focused Ravens, a curious development after Belichick praised Burgess’ run-stopping abilities last week.) In the draft, the Pats passed on a pair of highly-touted Southern Cal linebackers (Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga) either of whom they might have had instead of, say, Ron Brace, which might have left Matthews or Maualuga alongside Mayo yesterday instead of the undersized Guyton.

Beyond the draft, the picture got only more muddied. Seymour was dealt while Wilfork remained unsigned, all as Belichick traded for Greg Lewis (cut during training camp) and signed Joey Galloway (cut during the season) to fill out his receiving corps. Shawn Springs was signed to a three-year contract and spent much of the season as a healthy inactive, adding to a series of moves that made it appear as if Belichick were playing either musical chairs or pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.

As for the first-round pick the Pats got for Seymour – assuming the team actually uses it – remember that Brady will have turned 34 before the Pats begin to reap any benefits from that selection. By then, the Patriots may have an entirely new set of problems – or additional ones to go along with the ones they possess.

And then there is this: if, indeed, this was (dare we use the term) a bridge year, then why did Belichick go for it on fourth-and-2 at Indianapolis and against on fourth down at Miami? (In the latter case, he might have kicked a chip-shot field goal.) If the Pats were truly planning for the long-term, wouldn’t it have made more sense to entrust the Pats' defense with some responsibility in hopes of enduring the growing pains now more than later?

Then, at least, we might have had more reason to believe there was a long-term plan or a process.

Yesterday, at that one point in the game when the Patriots might have had a chance to play their way back in, the simplest truth is that the Pats could not stop the Ravens in short yardage. With Baltimore holding a 24-7 lead in the second quarter, the Ravens faced a third-and-1 at their own 49-yard line. The Ravens ran to their offensive left – the defensive right of the Patriots once occupied by Seymour – and converted a first down before quarterback Joe Flacco followed with an interception. The Patriots subsequently stalled on two possessions, the latter ending with a punt from the Baltimore 36-yard-line in hopes of pinning the Ravens deep in their own end.

On the game’s next possession, the Ravens twice faced third-down situations deep in their own end. A punt would have given the Pats the chance to score before the end of the half, a particularly appealing development given that New England was due to open the third quarter with the ball. The Ravens subsequently converted both plays with runs to the left side of their offensive line, again exploiting a hole that Belichick himself created by trading Seymour before the 2009 Pats season officially began.

And so, when the Patriots defense took the field for the second half yesterday, Mike Wright was at nose tackle and Wilfork was at right defensive end, the 2009 Patriots season ending exactly as it began.

With Bill Belichick trying to cover up his own mistakes.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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