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Patriots cut corners to get the team back on top, and now they’re falling apart

Despite Thursday's ugly loss to the Bills, the playoffs are still within reach for Mac Jones and the Patriots.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The scene Thursday night at Gillette Stadium was ugly.

Cameras caught Mac Jones screaming and cursing on the sideline about the play-calling late in the 24-10 loss to the Bills. Afterward, Kendrick Bourne said the play-calling was “sporadic” and called out the offensive line, saying, “Mac needs more time.” Hunter Henry said the locker room needs “accountability.”

This is what happens when you cut corners.

Bill Belichick won six Super Bowls with the Patriots in large part by outworking and outsmarting the rest of the NFL. Do your job. No days off. Move on a year too soon instead of a year too late. “We practiced that on Friday.”

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But Belichick and the Patriots abandoned their principles the last two years. They got impatient.

The Patriots violated a well-established NFL maxim in 2021 when they rebuilt through free agency, following one down year without Tom Brady. And they left everyone scratching their heads in 2022 when, instead of hiring an established offensive coach to replace coordinator Josh McDaniels, they simply brought in two of Belichick’s buddies, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. The two had never called offensive plays or coached quarterbacks, but they are loyal and came cheap (still being paid by previous employers), so that was good enough for the Patriots.

This is what happens when you thumb your nose at NFL convention (and you don’t have Brady):

▪ You get a team that is 6-6 and fading fast in the playoff race.

▪ An offense that ranks 23rd in points, 27th on third down, and 31st in the red zone.

▪ A team that has the worst penalty differential in the NFL (minus-23 penalties for minus-182 yards).

▪ A quarterback that isn’t clicking with his receivers and is declining, not improving, in his second year.

▪ Players screaming on the sideline, and players calling out teammates and coaches in the locker room.

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“I think everybody just needs to have some accountability with themselves and look themselves in the mirror,” Henry said.

There are several reasons why “thou shalt not build thy team through free agency” has become one of the NFL’s 10 commandments.

For one, in a sport that necessitates teamwork and individuals sacrificing for the collective good, it’s hard to bring in a lot of new pieces and expect it to mesh seamlessly. It’s also hard to get production to match the giant price tags it takes to sign the top players. By definition, you are overpaying for talent in free agency. Just ask the 2011 Eagles “Dream Team,” or any number of Washington or Dolphins teams over the last two decades that tried to buy success.

Here in New England, Jonnu Smith has produced the worst numbers of his career after getting $31 million guaranteed from the Patriots. Henry, who got $25 million guaranteed, is producing the fewest yards of his seven-year career this season (28 per game). Nelson Agholor, who got $22 million over two years, has seen his yards per catch drop from 18.7 to 13. DeVante Parker ($12 million over two years) has just 23 catches in 11 games. Kendrick Bourne ($15 million over three years) was punished in training camp for missing a meeting, has been buried on the depth chart all year, and now is calling out teammates and coaches in the locker room.

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Another reason building through free agency is tricky — there’s no institutional memory. It’s a bunch of mercenaries who don’t have emotional attachments to their team or teammates. They’re here simply because the Patriots offered them the most money or best opportunity. It creates a potential leadership void.

The defense and special teams still have a few holdovers from the championship days — Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Jonathan Jones, Deatrich Wise, Lawrence Guy.

But on offense, the only mainstay remaining is center David Andrews. Otherwise, it’s a new group, guys who never watched Brady and Julian Edelman practice; guys who don’t know much about the expectations and standards in Foxborough, and the way business is conducted.

The Patriots had never been the NFL’s biggest free agency spenders before 2021. They knew that the best way to build is organically, through the draft. But they spent wildly that offseason because they wanted to get back to competitiveness quickly following a 7-9 season (and, perhaps, because Brady had just won the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers).

Belichick and the Krafts didn’t want the long, thorough rebuild. They went for the quick fix. And it’s falling apart.

This is also what happens when you cheapen out at offensive coordinator and entrust the job to your henchmen instead of finding the best person for the job. You get Jones exploding on the sideline about not throwing the ball downfield enough, though he claimed his outburst wasn’t aimed at Patricia or anyone in particular.

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“Just emotion coming out, and we kind of needed a spark,” he said.

You get Henry listing all of the areas in which the Patriots are still struggling.

“Not sustaining drives. Not getting first downs and getting things going. Not possessing the ball. Beating ourselves, not blocking the right guy, not communicating well, or whatever it is,” he said. “Penalties, turnovers early on in the season. It’s not been good.”

And you get players openly questioning some of the coaches’ tactics.

“We just need to scheme up better,” Bourne said. “We need to know what they’re doing. We need to know what they want to do on third down, you know what I mean? We’re kind of sporadic. They call this and we call that and it falls into what they want. We need to have it where they’re falling into what we want.”

Belichick is trying to keep the team together. There are still five games to go, and the playoffs are still within reach.

“Just keep working through it. There’s no magic wand here,” he said.

But the Patriots cut corners and went for the quick fix. And now we’re seeing that the foundation is broken.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.