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This think tank appears empty

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff December 7, 2009 09:37 AM

You thought nothing could bring you down from the weekend high of the Red Sox signing Marco Scutaro (Marco Scutaro, people.). But then the Patriots arrive on Sunday and have you wondering exactly what alien beings sucked the mind of your team's coaching staff. Oh, Bill Belichick, where for art thou?

To be frank, I've witnessed better play-calling in a budget Al Bundy flashback scene. If the Patriots were embarrassed last Monday night in New Orleans, yesterday's 22-21 loss to the Miami Dolphins playing with a backup QB and their best player on injured reserve was another incompetent breakdown in decision-making, play-calling, and execution.

You'd almost rather be embarrassed.

Really. Blowouts like last week happen from time-to-time over the course of a regular season to almost every playoff team out there. But two out of the last four weeks now, Patriots fans have witnessed their once-genius coach look better suited to be the headliner at the Mike Martz Leadership Awards rather than patrolling the sidelines for the Team of the First Half of the Decade. Memo to Stephen Gostkowski: Next time it's fourth and one, with two minutes left the half, just run out there before Bill has any idea what's going on. It doesn't appear that he does anyway.

Kick the field goal, and the Patriots' lead is 17-7, 17-10 should the Dolphins still drive and kick the field goal that made it a 14-10 halftime score. I know, percentages, aggressiveness, whatever. And if you do insist on going for it, might you consider not running the SAME EXACT PLAY? Laurence Maroney went left guard for no gain one play before Sammy Morris did the same. On the previous two plays, Maroney went left tackle (incredibly again on back-to-back plays) twice for a total of nine yards. In other words, there appears to be less variety in the Patriots' red zone playbook than there is on the Burger King wine list.

No matter what the math folks at AdvancedNFLStats.com think, it's not as if the Patriots are an offensive juggernaut right now. Take the points. Deal with going for it when you have a dependable running game, or your All-Pro quarterback doesn't look like the second coming of Danny Kannell. There's no consistency, rhyme, or reason to any moves the Pats are making now. Fourth and one at your own 44? We learned in Indy that you go for that, right? Right? Nope. Punt. Maybe the stat geeks can take my hand and walk me through this one.

But why place all the blame on the coaching? After all, Belichick wasn't out there for the final offensive play, when Tom Brady instantly went color blind. He wasn't the passive wide receiver in the end zone when Brady got picked off. Maybe there is something going on with Randy Moss, but if the man's not open, he sure isn't going to fight to be open, you can bet on that. If the Patriots keep losing like this, the locker room is bound to get more toxic than a shipment of Zhu Zhu Pets.

Who's better than the Patriots right now? Jeez, you got an hour? They'll still make the playoffs maybe. I mean, nothing is a given now, is it? I can see them losing at home to Carolina. I certainly see them losing on the road in Buffalo and Texas. I know you know, but the matter is so mind-boggling it deserves repeating: The Patriots have not won a road game on American soil since Dec. 28, 2008.

That's a sure sign of a team headed nowhere, lest January fairies sprinkle magic bon voyage dust over Foxborough when the Pats hit the road. Hey, it's more likely than Jerod Mayo making a game-changing play, right?

I'm beginning to lend some credence to the theory that the man we once knew as Bill Belichick disappeared in a flurry of fake noise in Indy, January 2007. Gone is the defensive-minded coach. Gone are the unique approaches to the game (Troy Brown in the defensive backfield, Mike Vrabel running a route). Gone is the toughness that defined the Patriots for so long under his tutelage, morphed into an aerial attack. All because Peyton Manning, Tony Dungy, and Co. got under his skin and finally beat him in the playoffs.

Since choking in the Arizona desert, the Patriots are 18-10, a record that's not exactly going to make anyone from Detroit feel sorry. But this year's 7-5 feels even worse than it is because of the inability to win on the road, poor play-calling, and the overwhelming feeling that it's going to go even further south based on schedule (two on the road, 7-5 Jacksonville) before it improves.

For the record, I like the Scutaro deal. He finally gives them a leadoff option, which was a gaping hole last season, and he comes at a pretty affordable price tag. Of course, since he plays shortstop, and was signed by Theo Epstein, he'll likely be a colossal failure.


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