Patriots

After 6 weeks, Patriots remain all questions, no answers

This Patriots season has taken on the feel of a Bill Belichick press conference.

Is Josh McDaniels having a good season? That's just one question facing the Patriots. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Between the cable pundits, the sports radio caterwaulers, and the keyboard warriors, fans have become conditioned to expect their sports analysis in absolutes. There’s no place — or, maybe more aptly — no patience for ambiguity. You’re good or you’re bad. A contender or a pretender. A GOAT or a goat.

We want answers. We want explanations. We want them now. Which may be why, in this react-and-respond culture, its particularly frustrating that the Patriots’ season has essentially taken on the feel of a Bill Belichick press conference. The people have questions — but there aren’t many answers forthcoming, and so after six weeks we’re still left wondering what to make of this Patriots team, and still struggling with the constant contradictions that are coloring our feelings about it. We’re still seemingly grappling with the same questions, week to week, as we ride the pendulum that is the Foxborough football life post-Brady.

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Are they a team that’s really just a few plays away from being 5-1, or perhaps 4-2, as the optimists were suggesting even before Tony Romo trumpeted the notion during Sunday’s national broadcast? Or are they a team that could even more easily be 1-5 at this point, were it not for the follies of the Texans’ kicking game and overmatched coach David Culley?

Relating to that win over Houston, are they a team that deserves credit for erasing a double-digit deficit, for buckling down defensively, and for putting together a game-winning field goal drive in a game they couldn’t afford to lose? Or should we be more concerned that the Pats needed to do all of that when, in the two weeks sandwiching New England’s visit, the Texans were outscored by an aggregate total of 71-3?

For their part, the Pats hung in with two great offenses on either side of the win at Houston, keeping Tom Brady without a touchdown pass and taking Dak Prescott’s Cowboys to overtime. Is it encouraging, then, to see them among the NFL’s top 10 in points allowed, through Sunday? Or is it discouraging that they’re ranked in the league’s lower half in yards yielded, and looked woefully undermanned in the secondary as Dallas gained 567 on them?

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After that Bucs game, wasn’t there evidence that this team could build its success and identity around its toughness and defense? But, if so, then why did a Cowboys win seem inevitable once the Pats punted in overtime — even though Dallas still had 80 yards ahead of it when it took possession?

Is the true Patriots defense the one that stoked hope when it stopped the Cowboys on fourth down early, got an interception in the end zone, and forced a fumble at the goal line? Or is it the group that gave up a fourth-and-four catch before allowing Prescott to recover from third and 25 on the series that forced overtime, then again looked its most vulnerable in the biggest moments, just as it has all season?

If the defense couldn’t be counted on to stop the Cowboys in OT, should the Patriots have tried to convert offensively, and trusted their young quarterback to pick up a fourth-and-three? Or, if they didn’t trust him there, should they have trusted him to throw the ball over the middle of the field on second down, in the final three minutes of regulation, with a one-point lead and Dallas bleeding timeouts?

As for Mac Jones, aren’t we right to feel as good as we do about the poise, pro-readiness, and resilience that makes many think New England has found the so-called next guy at the most important position? If so, why does his offense have as many turnovers as touchdown drives (nine each) over the past four weeks, and why don’t his coaches trust him enough to follow-through on a plan to try for points before halftime?

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Is Jones really developing a rapport with tight end Hunter Henry, who has caught a touchdown in three consecutive weeks, and are the hard scoring runs from Damian Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson authentically promising indicators of the power this team could possess near the goal line and in short-yardage situations? Why, then, are the Pats still ranked 30th in red-zone efficiency, and why, oh why, are they letting Brandon Bolden carry the ball on third and one near midfield?

Josh McDaniels is worthy of the praise he receives as a playcaller, a quarterbacks coach, and a creative offensive mind, right? He’s someone Pats fans can take confidence in, true? So why can’t he come up with more effective ways to seize on the size and athletic abilities of guys like Jonnu Smith and even N’Keal Harry, particularly now that he’s got an accurate quarterback to get the ball into their hands? Why does the Pats’ red-zone approach feel so blah in comparison to what’s being used around the league.

In fact, the Patriots are well-coached in general, correct? Then how is it they’ve been so bad situationally, at the start of halves, and in taking care of the little things?

That advantage used to be a major part of the Patriots’ identity — but, with all of these questions hovering over every part of the operation, it’s impossible to identify what the Pats’ identity is at this point.

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They spent a boatload of money in the offseason, yet they don’t have enough talent to win on that alone. Heck, it’s hard to even say what their hallmark would be on either side of scrimmage.

They used to separate themselves with attention to detail, and advantages in special teams. Sunday’s 46-man roster included 10 players whose only action was in the kicking game, and still they had a punt blocked for the second time this season.

Then they burned another timeout this week when they couldn’t seem to get their defensive personnel straightened out, furthering what has become a recurring theme, and as these problems continue to compound the aura of competing against the Patriots and Belichick flutters further and further into the ether.

Gillette Stadium is no longer a home-field advantage, evidenced by the team’s 0-4 record there this season — and overall, since an 8-0 start in 2019, the Pats are now 13-18. Over that span, only 10 teams across the league have won fewer games. Of those 10, nine have changed head coaches in that time (with the Bengals being the lone exception.)

This not to say the Patriots would be wise to move on from Belichick, nor is it meant to suggest New England needs to abandon its program. Their point differential of minus-2 is the same as the Chargers team some have labeled a Super Bowl contender. The two-time reigning AFC champs, the Chiefs, are only plus-9. Most teams in the Pats’ neighborhood when looking at scoring margin are teams on track to make the playoffs — and, as Romo pointed out, it’s not crazy to say New England could currently be a four- or five-win team.

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But that’s the point. They’re not. For all the moments when it’s felt like they were turning a corner, or there was a reason to be encouraged, evidence to the contrary has come quickly thereafter. Every time it seems like they’ve figured it out — and that maybe we’ve figured them out — another question seems to surface.

The final minutes of Sunday’s fourth quarter, and the overtime that followed, was just the latest example. And that one leaves us trying to answer what might be the scariest question of all:

Six games in, with their new franchise quarterback, and with a supposedly upgraded roster, are the Patriots really better than they were a year ago?

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