A day after unthinkable loss, there are no answers in Foxborough
FOXBOROUGH — The first rule of the Patriots’ locker room: You don’t discuss losses, or negative plays, or things that went horribly wrong.
Most players didn’t bother to show their faces during the 45 minutes of media time. David Andrews and Matthew Slater, two captains who had nothing to do with the Dolphins’ game-winning touchdown, took one for their teammates and held short group interviews. Defensive tackle Adam Butler, who was on the field for the touchdown, wanted nothing to do with questions.
“Already turned the page,” he said. “Maybe if you would’ve asked me yesterday.”
The players are just sticking to the script written by Bill Belichick, who almost never goes into detail when things go awry on the football field.
The coach at least offered a mea culpa of sorts Monday, taking the onus for the Patriots’ shocking lack of situational awareness on the last play, a 69-yard touchdown that involved two laterals and too many missed tackles.
“We have to do a better job of that. It starts with me,” Belichick said. “We’ve got to play better situational football. We’ll work to try to achieve that.”
Usually, Belichick has an army of supporters who will excuse his every decision that doesn’t work out well. But Sunday’s loss marked the second time this calendar year that even Belichick’s most devoted fans were left wanting answers.
The first, of course, was not playing defensive back Malcolm Butler in the Super Bowl, a move for which Belichick still has not provided any clarity, and probably never will.
And now comes the baffling decision to play Rob Gronkowski as the last line of defense on the final play of Sunday’s game. The tight end was battling injuries and stiffness and also isn’t well-versed in tackling and angles.
Nothing about it made sense.
“I think this is one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen by Belichick,” tweeted former Patriots receiver Donté Stallworth, who almost always has fond opinions of Belichick and his time in New England. “Not playing Butler in the SB is probably number 1. But . . . at least we know BB is human.”
Considering the Dolphins were backed up on their 31-yard line, and Ryan Tannehill had a bad throwing shoulder and a bad right ankle, there was no chance that he was going to be able to throw the ball 75 yards and reach the end zone.
Belichick acknowledged as much.
“I think it was a little too far to get to the end zone, but certainly a deep pass in that situation is a possibility,” he said.
To put Gronkowski on the field, the Patriots had to take a player off. They chose Devin McCourty, a team captain, their second-leading tackler, and one of their smartest and fastest defenders. McCourty played every snap but one Sunday, and the one he missed cost the Patriots a victory.
Of all the players to take off the field, why McCourty?
“That’s the way we substituted that group,” Belichick responded.
Did Belichick regret not having McCourty on the field for that play?
“I think there’s a lot of things that could’ve been better on that play,” the coach responded. “The game was a lot more than that play, but certainly that play wasn’t a good one for us.”
That’s as close as we’re going to get to an explanation for this uncharacteristically bone-headed substitution. McCourty, unfortunately, was not available at his locker Monday.
On WEEI, Belichick tried to downplay the whole thing.
“It’s the National Football League,” he said. “No one died.”
But this isn’t a typical football decision that just didn’t pan out. This was the most prepared coach in the game completely botching the final play and costing his team in a major way.
The Patriots had any number of players who would have been a better option than Gronkowski. McCourty, for one. Newcomer Obi Melifonwu, who stands 6 feet 4 inches and actually plays defense, could have played Gronk’s role. Nate Ebner would have been a better choice to stop the rugby-type lateral play.
Instead, Belichick went with Gronkowski.
Before Tannehill took that snap, the Patriots had a 99.9 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN win probability. The loss all but dropped the Patriots out of contention for the No. 1 AFC seed. If the Patriots lose on the road in the playoffs, they can point back to this play.
And some of Belichick’s most ardent supporters have been surprisingly critical.
“In a situation where chances of a hail mary are low, the ‘jumper’ (Gronk) should be substituted for another safety/DB,” former Patriot Tedy Bruschi tweeted. “For tackling purposes. That was not done.”
“I’m not used to seeing the Patriots play such sloppy football and bad situational football,” Rodney Harrison said on NBC. “This is something they practice every single day. Very disappointing.”
Belichick’s rivals reveled in his misery. Belichick has made dozens of coaches look foolish over the years, and Sunday was his turn.
“If this is any other coach in the NFL, he would be getting crucified, he would be getting killed,” Rex Ryan said on ESPN. “This is a huge mistake. You’ve got to put somebody in there that can make a play in space.”
It was the strangest play in what has become a strange year for the Patriots. Brady and Gronkowski held out of spring workouts and have looked off all season. The Patriots are getting crushed on the road by mediocre teams. They gave up a Hail Mary to the Bears, but luckily tackled the receiver on the 1-yard line as time expired.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of the universe balancing out. Many believe Belichick and the Patriots got away with bad decision-making at the end of the Super Bowl against Seattle in February 2015, when Belichick let the clock wind down and the Seahawks should have scored at the end. The Patriots definitely got away with one last December in Pittsburgh, when Jesse James’s touchdown was overturned and the Patriots escaped with a lucky win.
Now the weirdness is turning on the Patriots.
“Inexcusable,” Harrison said. “I played there for six years, and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Nor has anyone else.