The calendar only says September, but the Festivus holiday has come early in New England this year.
The highlight of Festivus, as we learned in the classic “Seinfeld” episode, is the Airing of Grievances. And when it comes to the 2018 Patriots, there are many reasons to gripe.
The Patriots are 1-2, with two straight embarrassing losses to the Jaguars and Lions on national TV. The offense is sluggish and can’t score points in the first half. Rob Gronkowski can’t get open. Tom Brady has no magic. The front seven can’t lay a finger on the opposing quarterback. The run defense is getting gashed.
And it didn’t have to be this way. The offseason was loaded with controversial moves, and many of them have contributed to the Patriots’ disappointing start.
We have three major grievances with the Patriots so far:
1. Bill Belichick the general manager has decimated this team’s depth.
As the Patriots sputtered to just 10 points and 209 total yards Sunday night, and couldn’t pick up a first down until late in the second quarter, and had nothing left in the tank for the fourth quarter, it became quite clear that they don’t have the same firepower on offense as in years past.
It’s early in the season, of course, and the Patriots will improve on offense. But here’s the troubling aspect of the loss to the Lions: The Patriots essentially had their full lineup playing in this game. The entire starting five of the offensive line was in. Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, and James White played. So did Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and Cordarrelle Patterson. Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen too.
They have Julian Edelman coming back in two weeks, which will certainly help matters. And Josh Gordon might be able to contribute, assuming he can stay on the field.
But the Patriots don’t have many excuses to fall back on when it comes to the offense. This is who they are — an offense that doesn’t have playmakers outside of Gronkowski.
It puts the offseason decisions to get rid of Dion Lewis, Danny Amendola, and Brandin Cooks squarely in the spotlight. Lewis was the Patriots’ most explosive offensive player and a tough between-the-tackles runner, which they sorely miss right now. Cooks was a 1,000-yard deep threat. And Amendola was Brady’s trusty third-down receiver.
All are gone, because the Patriots didn’t feel like spending $6 million on Lewis or Amendola, and figured they could replace Cooks’s production with Dorsett, for a fraction of the cost.
Lewis and Amendola may have priced themselves out of the Patriots’ self-imposed market, but neither broke the bank. Cooks was under contract for $8.5 million when they decided to trade him. The Patriots easily could have brought back any or all three and made them fit under the salary cap.
Instead the Patriots invested in Burkhead, who seems to leave every game with a new injury. They invested in Michel, who rushed for just 50 yards on 14 carries and had two drops Sunday night. Dorsett has shown some good flashes this year, but he also had zero catches on five targets Sunday night, and hasn’t been the deep threat that Cooks was. Hogan certainly hasn’t emerged as a reliable third-down option. Patterson can’t get involved in the offense and has not been the dynamic playmaker we expected.
The defense, too, has been sapped of its depth, mostly by choice. In 2014, when the Patriots were embarrassed by the Chiefs, they at least had a talented and young defense — with players such as Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, Logan Ryan, and Darrelle Revis.
But they have let most of their young talent walk out the door, and have not found adequate replacements. The depth on defense was badly exposed in last year’s Super Bowl, and got badly exposed the last two weeks by Blake Bortles and Matt Stafford.
The defense shouldn’t completely fall apart when Trey Flowers and Patrick Chung are out of the lineup, but that’s what happened Sunday. The Patriots hit Stafford just one time — yes, once. They have very little speed in the front seven.
The last few years, Belichick the GM has been concerned mostly with finding value and players he likes to coach. But his focus on that, and not talent, has decimated the depth on both sides of the ball.
2. Maybe Tom Brady should have showed up to offseason workouts.
Brady’s decision to skip the entire voluntary portion of the offseason program, and show up only for two days of minicamp, is another decision that merits scrutiny. The offense looks completely out of sync right now, especially Brady’s timing with his receivers.
Michel has three drops in two games, and doesn’t seem to be in the right place at the right time — something that could have been worked on for two months in the spring. Brady doesn’t have good timing with Dorsett, and can’t get into a rhythm with anyone other than White.
Offseason practices don’t involve pads or full contact, but they can be beneficial for quarterbacks and wide receivers. Brady was the only quarterback in the NFL to skip them, and it’s fair to wonder whether that has factored into the slow start.
Skipping the spring workouts also diminishes Brady’s leadership abilities. How does he get on his teammates about timing and being in the right place and doing their job when he was the one who skipped the offseason practices? If Brady tries to call out his teammates, his credibility is hurt by the fact that he willingly stayed away from practice.
3. Poor drafting is coming home to roost.
One of Patriots fans favorite games is to go back and look at some of the draft-day trades Belichick has pulled off, and how he swindled other teams. The most famous example is from the 2009 draft, when Belichick traded a third-round pick to Jacksonville for two picks that turned out to be Edelman and Gronkowski. The Jaguars got cornerback Derek Cox out of the deal.
Well, that game goes both ways. The Patriots have made a bevy of trade moves in the last two drafts, and have passed up on several quality players.
Lions receiver Kenny Golladay, who caught six passes for 53 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots on Sunday night? Detroit drafted him 96th overall in 2017 with a pick they acquired from the Patriots. The Patriots traded up with Detroit to draft offensive tackle Tony Garcia, who never played a down and was cut after one year. Golladay is an explosive young receiver who would look great in a Patriots uniform. Advantage: Lions.
Running back Kerryon Johnson, who gashed the Patriots for 101 yards on 6.3 yards per carry Sunday night? The Lions drafted him 43rd overall, a pick they acquired from the Patriots (the infamous Jimmy Garoppolo pick). The Patriots chose Michel over Johnson in this year’s draft, and Michel looks lost so far, and has a worrisome knee injury. Johnson is also cheaper. Advantage: Lions.
Another receiver who would look great in a Patriots uniform is Browns rookie Antonio Callaway, who has 15 catches for 101 yards and a touchdown so far. The Browns took him 105th overall this year with a pick acquired from — you guessed it — the Patriots.
The Patriots passed over Johnson, Golladay, and Callaway. They ended up with Garcia, Duke Dawson, Christian Sam, and 2019 second- and third-round picks. Not one of those assets is currently contributing.
Add in some poor scouting at the top of the draft — Dominique Easley, Malcom Brown, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards — and it’s time to wonder whether changes need to be made to the Patriots’ college scouting system.