It’s no secret that Tom Brady has struggled this season. And it’s no secret that this current collection of New England Patriots isn’t nearly as formidable as those of years past. While the 6-2 overall record and AFC East division lead may point to business as usual, the team has some serious flaws – and they may yet surface at the worst possible moment, somewhere down the road.
At the moment, referring to those flaws as “chinks in the armor” is a grave understatement. It doesn’t do justice to the disappointment of the passing game and the shakiness of the start to this young regular season. These Patriots are vulnerable, and it’s clear as day to those who’ve watched them play each and every Sunday.
But, it really shouldn’t be this way. Not with this quarterback, one of the few elite ones left behind the line and one of the best to ever play. Not with this coach, one of the most feared ones left roaming the sidelines and one of the most accomplished to ever coach. And not with this owner, one of the most respected ones left in the luxury suite and one of the best representatives of any sports franchise.
Onlookers talk about the “Patriot Way” way too much nowadays, but they’re the reason for its existence in the first place (if something like that ever did exist). Brady, Belichick, and Kraft are winners through and through. That word – “winner” – gets tossed around too often these days, but those three individuals have certainly earned that title over the years. And that is why this regular season has been so disappointing, despite the 6-2 start and early lead in a (weak) division.
It all starts with the “Patriot Way,” this overstated notion that the Patriots do things differently – a notion that New England places a greater emphasis on professionalism and humility than the other franchises league-wide. The Patriot Way supposedly symbolizes a modern day utopia, in which Vince Wilfork sets the tone in the locker-room and Bill Belichick sets the tone in the press conference, while Tom Brady leads the huddle and the rest of the unit merely falls into place.
And the Patriot Way is an ideal model in theory, but one that’s impossible to fully implement in practice. That has been proven over the last year or so, in gut-wrenching fashion. Aaron Hernandez is embroiled in legal battles. Wes Welker jumped ship to join an already potent conference rival. Gone are the days of Tedy Bruschi, when the Patriots would simply go about their business and steer clear of public scrutiny – when the individual with character issues would be put in check by the revered leaders on the team.
Furthermore, the Patriot Way has bred a top-down culture of overconfidence, even a steady air of arrogance. And this arrogance from within the organization has crept into the fray slowly and gradually, at a snail’s pace. The consequences are clearer to me now than ever before, and they manifest themselves in different ways.
Nowadays, the Patriot Way represents something else entirely to Bill Belichick and Bob Kraft. It means that the bits and pieces don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The individuals in the locker-room don’t really matter. The individuals answering the questions at the daily presser don’t really matter. The individuals in the huddle don’t really matter because the team trumps all.
The greater unit takes precedence, and so anybody from anywhere can be molded into a Patriot. Any wide receiver, no matter his foot speed and past production, can catch passes from Tom Brady. Why? Well, for one, because he’s Tom Brady – and guys like that don’t come around very often. And, secondly, because the New England Patriots matter, not the individual Patriot. At this moment, Belichick and Kraft believe that they can transform any player – no matter his skill set, injury history, personal character, or whatever else – into a Patriot on the field and off.
Well, it’s just not true. It may work in some instances, but certainly not all. And so, what is Tom Brady left with this season? A few appalling revelations later, one of the most talented tight ends in recent memory faces incarceration. An ugly contract dispute later, one of the most reliable slot receivers in recent memory now catches passes from Peyton Manning.
Now that the dust has cleared, Belichick and Kraft invested in another tight end with otherworldly potential, but a downright brittle one with extensive injury problems. And the two pioneers replaced Wes Welker – undoubtedly their quarterback’s favorite target over the past half-decade – with Danny Amendola, who’s never even played a full season in the league and probably never will.
The other investments – Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, and whatever other inconsequential wide receiver earned a roster spot – are downright pathetic. Masters of the dropped ball, they bring nothing but sleepless nights for a battle-tested quarterback with only a few elite years left in him.
Peyton Manning doesn’t have to put up with rookie mistakes and dropped passes. When blessed with talent, it is the duty of the front office to surround that talent with even more bits and pieces. It is an obligation to reap reward rather than revert to risk.
Unfortunately, that’s what the Patriot Way means now, as we inch nearer and nearer to the postseason – a coach’s decision to try out the risky investment, an owner’s decision to scrap reliability for the perennial question mark. The Patriot Way is the haughty belief that anybody can be changed, that anything can work in the right situation.
And it is unfortunate for Tom Brady, because the individual truly does matter. In football, you can only take so many risks until they begin to backfire.