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Patriots’ struggles can be linked to poor decision-making

Saturday, October 02, 2010

 

The leaves haven’t changed colors yet, but fall is quickly approaching and we’re stuck in some alternate sports universe where we’re suddenly talking hockey at a time when postseason baseball usually takes center stage.

What other choice do we have? The Red Sox have been officially eliminated from playoff contention and the Patriots look horribly average whether they win or lose. At least the Red Sox have an excuse, albeit a lame one. They’ve been decimated by injuries (haven’t we all?), and that’s enough to appease a fan base typically out for blood if and when the Red Sox fail miserably, so we’ll give them a free pass for 2010 even if you and I both know the front office should take its share of the blame.

The Patriots have no one to blame but themselves. The lineup on the field each weekend isn’t the hand they’ve been dealt – it’s the hand they’ve chosen. This isn’t a team with a new head coach inheriting mistakes from a former regime. This is Bill Belichick’s attempt at rebuilding defensively, and the results through three weeks have been mortifying regardless of the team’s 2-1 record.

The Patriots enter Week 4 ranked 28th out of 32 teams in points allowed per game (27.3) and 27th in yards allowed (379.3). They’re 20th against the run, 25th against the pass and 30th in third-down defense, allowing conversions on 50 percent of their opponents’ attempts. No matter how you spin it, those numbers are ghastly, and it’ll be difficult for the Patriots to maintain a winning pace in a competitive division if they continue to rot near the bottom of the league defensively.

How do they fix this mess? There are no reinforcements on the way. To paraphrase Rick Pitino, “Rodney Harrison is not walking through that door, fans. Asante Samuel is not walking through that door, and Tedy Bruschi is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they’re going to be gray and old.”

The Patriots aren’t suffering from untimely injuries on defense other than the loss of cornerback Leigh Bodden and safety Brandon McGowan, who, at best, are B-minus players, not veteran leaders who serve as the glue that holds a unit together.

The problem might be the Patriots’ recent history of striking out horribly in the NFL draft, not just with the players who’ve left, but with some of the guys who’ve hung around, too. Safety Brandon Meriweather, a first-round pick in 2007 – the only player, by the way, from that draft who’s still with the team – has somehow regressed from a Pro-Bowl defensive back in 2009 to a player who looks like a stray dog on the field, whether he’s taking the wrong angle on tackles or missing assignments.

After admitting he freelanced too much in practice, which led to his subsequent benching, Meriweather made a key interception in last week’s win over Buffalo, perhaps keeping him out of Belichick’s doghouse for at least one game. The sad part is he’s actually the elder statesman of the Patriots’ young secondary – a scary thought considering players with that kind of responsibility are typically veterans savvy enough to know better than to stray from the game plan.

Belichick should pray to the Football Gods that the rest of his defensive backs don’t use Meriweather’s actions as an example of how to behave in New England, otherwise the Patriots will enjoy a long season trading places with the NFL’s bottom-feeders.

They say you can’t fully evaluate a draft class until two or three years down the road, but it’s safe to say 2006, 2007 and 2008 were failures. With Laurence Maroney in Denver, the only player left from ’06 is kicker Stephen Gostkowski – a great player, but a kicker nonetheless, and history has shown you don’t need the draft to find a reliable kicker. As previously stated, Meriweather is the only player remaining from the ’07 class while the only noteworthy remnant from ’08 is linebacker Jerod Mayo. Linebacker Shawn Crable is back on the active roster, but he’s played one game in three years, and Terrence Wheatley’s only role these days is as an oft-injured defensive back who can’t stay on the field. Jonathan Wilhite and Matthew Slater are still here, too, but has anyone noticed?

To summarize, the Patriots drafted 28 players between 2006 and 2008. Only seven are still with the team and only three play active roles. The jury is still out on the ’09 and ’10 classes; it’s safe to say cornerback Darius Butler (a second-round pick last year) has been a major failure, but tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez (second- and fourth-round picks, respectively, in ’10) have been pleasant surprises. We’ll find out more about rookie cornerback Devin McCourty (first-round pick) and linebacker Brandon Spikes (second round) as the season progresses. What we do know now is they’ll need to grow up fast is this defense is going to have a chance to stop anyone in 2010.

Sometimes a team can blame bad luck, injuries or other extenuating circumstances for its mediocrity. The Patriots have no one to blame but themselves. This is the team they’ve chosen to put on the field. These are the players they drafted. This is who they wanted, not who they were left with, and it’s not good enough.

Until it is, the Patriots might take a backseat to the Bruins. What has this town come to?

 

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