If the Patriots had a Ten Commandments, they would probably start something like:
Thou shalt . . .
1. Do thy job.
2. Live thy life one day at a time.
3. Trade thy star players a year too soon instead of a year too late.
That third commandment has helped the Patriots maintain an unprecedented level of success over two decades. They have had little taste for sentimentality, and over the years have coldly discarded several star players who have significant cachet with the fans, despite having good football left — guys such as Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Mike Vrabel, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins, and Jamie Collins. No one player was ever above the system.
But the Patriots look like they have violated their holy commandment with this year’s team. The Patriots are 9-5 entering Sunday’s game against Buffalo, and their three star players — 41-year-old Tom Brady, 32-year-old Julian Edelman, and 29-year-old Rob Gronkowski — are looking their age this season.
“They’re older, they’re slower, and eventually father time catches up to you,” former Jets and Bills coach Rex Ryan said on ESPN this past week. Brady is “not as good as he’s been, and I think you can say that for a lot of these Patriots.”
It’s not that Brady, Gronk, and Edelman are having bad seasons, but the Patriots may have overestimated how much each player has left in the tank.
Brady is 13th in the NFL in passer rating (97.6), and is throwing interceptions at his highest rate in six years. Gronkowski is producing some of the lowest numbers of his career, as nine years of football and injuries seem to be taking their toll. Edelman is tied for the NFL lead with eight drops, even after missing four games to start the season.
And as the stars have struggled, so has the team. The Patriots have lost five games for the first time since 2009. They have lost back-to-back games in December/January for only the second time since 2002 (2015). Their 26.7 points per game is the Patriots’ lowest output of the decade. They rank seventh in the NFL in scoring, the lowest ranking of a Brady-led offense since 2006.
The Patriots usually solve their problems by September or October, but this year their issues have only intensified as the season has progressed.
“We have never had these types of conversations about the Patriots this late in the year,” said ESPN analyst and former 11-year quarterback Dan Orlovsky. “We have never talked about them with question marks rather than exclamation points. It partly speaks to their greatness, and it partly speaks to how human they look right now.
“Do they look slow? Yeah. Do they look like a lot of other teams do? Yeah, and that’s the thing for me. They look like a lot of other teams, and usually they don’t.”
Orlovsky said he doesn’t blame the Patriots for keeping Brady, Gronk, and Edelman, even if they are past their primes.
“You’d rather give them the benefit of the doubt and be wrong, in my opinion, because they’re so different than other people,” he said.
It’s just different than the Patriots have operated in the past. They rarely if ever have gotten sentimental about players, and it has helped them remain Super Bowl competitors year after year despite constantly turning over the roster.
The Patriots had their replacement for Brady in Jimmy Garoppolo, and it is now well known that Bill Belichick had intended to keep him for the long haul but was overruled last year by Robert Kraft amid pressure from Brady.
Brady certainly hasn’t been terrible this year, but he is making uncharacteristic mistakes, such as forgetting the timeout situation at the end of the first half in Miami, or throwing a terrible interception inside the red zone in Pittsburgh.
“When your quarterback, who is the greatest of all time, makes two boneheaded, backup-undrafted-rookie-quarterback type plays in back-to-back weeks, it’s like, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’ ” Orlovsky said. “Brady’s always been the dart thrower when it comes to the checkdowns, but he hasn’t been hitting the center of the target this year like he usually does, especially in the back half of the season.”
In addition to the interceptions, Brady also appears to be bailing on plays more readily this season. Brady has intentionally thrown the ball away 26 times this year, tied for his career high with two games to go. Last year he had 12.
“It’s like Brady, he’s not setting his feet. I don’t know what’s going on with Tom,” said Ryan, who faced Brady 15 times in the regular season and once in the postseason as a head coach. “The rush is bothering him, all that kind of stuff.”
As for Gronkowski, he looks like “a shell of himself,” Orlovsky said. Gronk has been dealing with back and ankle injuries for much of the season, and isn’t putting up his usual numbers. His red-zone opportunities are way down from last year, and he is not creating much separation, averaging the fewest yards after catch in his career (4.3 yards per reception, down from 5.3 last year and 7.6 in 2015). Ryan said Gronkowski looks like he is “running with a piano on his back. I mean, he is not healthy.”
The Patriots had trade discussions involving Gronkowski last offseason before the draft, but the trade was never executed.
“Gronk is playing productive football, but where he’s absolutely dominated — the red zone — he’s been a ghost,” Orlovsky said.
And Edelman, returning from a torn ACL, is leading the NFL in drops, and is also compiling the lowest yards-after-catch numbers since becoming a starter in 2013.
Brady, Gronkowski, and Edelman have brought multiple championships and a lifetime of memories to New England. But this year the Patriots are wheezing toward the finish line, and for the first time in two decades they look like they kept the band together a year too long.
“There’s nothing about this football team that scares you, and that’s the only AFC [playoff] team you can say that about,” Orlovsky said. “The only stuff that would scare you about the Patriots are ghosts of the past. I promise you, these defenses in the AFC are going to give their respect to Brady and the offense, but they’re not going to go, ‘Aw man, we’ve got a huge test on our hands,’ because there are better offenses in the AFC playoffs.”