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Message is sent; was it well-received?

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / December 10, 2009

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FOXBOROUGH - For Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss, Gary Guyton, and Derrick Burgess, being banned from work yesterday at Gillette Stadium meant a ride home through a nasty winter storm.

For everyone on the roster, it served as an ultimatum.

Either get on board, or get out of here.

And it’s a riskier approach than you might think.

The Patriots will be 1,770 days removed from their last Super Bowl championship when they take the field Sunday against the Panthers.

At Super Bowl XXXIX’s kickoff, injured rookie Brandon Tate was a senior at Cummings High in North Carolina, and starting cornerback Darius Butler was being redshirted at UConn. Take the average NFL career, multiply it by two, and it’s been almost that long since the Patriots last won at the highest level.

The point is, there’s a shelf life to how long those rings buy you respect in a player’s eyes. Just ask Charlie Weis.

On the eve of the first NFL Sunday of this season, with controversy swirling about his treatment of players, Browns coach Eric Mangini told me his philosophy was simple: Show the players you can help them win and get better, and they’ll follow you.

Mangini may not have won a lot of games this year, but he’s right.

Win games, they’ll follow. Start losing, and it’s harder.

And so stands Bill Belichick. He’s still winning, and he didn’t forget how to coach and teach, which means he’s making players better. But it becomes harder the smaller those Lombardi Trophies get in the rearview mirror, and with 53 players to worry about, getting them all on board is a tough task to begin with.

So Thomas, Moss, Guyton, and Burgess get the ol’ heave-ho, the message is sent, and there’s no guarantee that it’ll come back with positive results. It’s a risk. Plain and simple.

“I think [the law] would’ve been laid down at any time of the year, regardless of whether we lost,’’ linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said. “That’s not acceptable here. That’s Bill’s deal, and I think in general, everyone’s sense of urgency is a little higher now. We’re in that part of the season where it’s a four-game season.

“The antennas are way up. I think if anything it just brings the sense of urgency up even higher.’’

Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t.

One thing that’s certain is the problem didn’t start yesterday.

Thomas had pointed remarks after he was benched for the Tennessee game, imploring the media to “ask Bill’’ about the circumstances because “he has all the answers.’’ Moss has been criticized, right or wrong, for mentally checking out in Miami. Burgess has all of two sacks since New England traded for him in August.

But the most stinging part is the team’s record - 7-5 - which is acceptable some places, but not in Foxborough. The team has failed in the clutch. It can’t win on the road. And losses aren’t being taken the same way they used to.

Quarterback Tom Brady was visibly angry after Sunday’s loss. Television cameras caught Wes Welker cursing the world out. Yet in some corners of the postgame locker room, the visible difference between winning and losing had melted away, with players poking at and joking with each other.

Apprised of that last night, ex-Patriot linebacker Ted Johnson said, “Wow.’’ He paused, then said, “I would be shocked to have seen that.’’ So that never used to happen? “Never,’’ Johnson said.

“I’d be shocked to see the mood light or less than professional after a loss,’’ said Artrell Hawkins, a Patriot in 2005 and ’06. “My lasting impression is that was the most professional, business-like, winning-oriented team I’ve ever been on. You say guys are laughing, joking, not taking a loss serious? It would surprise me to no end.’’

Johnson also said the only comparable situation to the one that developed yesterday - with players being banished from the facility - came when Terry Glenn was openly insubordinate in 2001.

Of course, Glenn wound up looking silly when the Patriots won their first Super Bowl, just as Lawyer Milloy’s 2003 rants, after he was cut, seemed juvenile upon the club winning its second title.

Clearly, Belichick felt like it was time for a message to be sent. Typically, late-arriving Patriots have elicited fines, not time in a corner wearing a dunce cap, which is what these ousters amounted to. And so in a locker room where players have already groused about being treated like children, another salvo has been fired.

Asked about such discipline yesterday, and having been disciplined in the past, Panthers receiver Steve Smith said, “A lot of times coaches do what they want to do despite what the locker room may agree or disagree with. I don’t think that they make their decisions on, you know, based all the time on the best thing for the team. Because sometimes a coach will say, ‘I think this is best for the team.’ Then, it comes back and it may not be.’’

So can a coach lose his locker room that way?

“It depends on the state of the team,’’ Smith said.

Exactly. When you’re winning, it’s easy to harness the troops and explain such discipline.

The Patriots have lost three of four for the first time since 2002, and the last championship was won five years ago, and that makes things more difficult.

Remember, Moss is a captain with plenty of admirers in the locker room. Thomas is a respected veteran that has the ear of many of his teammates. All four guys who were tardy are players that are counted on to perform.

In contrast to those, Brady showed up at the facility to work shortly after his second son was born. In doing so, he sent a message of his own.

“As a captain and a leader of this team, the last thing that [teammates] need from me is to be really not focused on the job at hand,’’ Brady said. “There are plenty of things for me to be doing here this week.’’

He knows it, and sent his message, and the players respond to the quarterback.

Whether these guys will do the same for Belichick remains a question.

And its answer could well determine just how far this team goes.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com.

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