Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In the Long Run, All Football Teams Are Dead, Too

There have been other horrible, humiliating losses for the New England Patriots in the 21st century, the 2003 Opening Day beatdown in Buffalo, a 2002 game against the Packers in which they flat out quit, the January 2011 playoff loss to the Jets, to name three. Each time, the franchise rebounded in short order.

So maybe last night's 41-14 defeat (no sportswriting synonym for getting beat like drubbing, thrashing, etc. is adequate to this occasion) to Kansas City will be a little-remembered L by December. Every season, every NFL team, even the Super Bowl champ, turns in one complete stinkeroo in which every player fails in an inexplicable defiance of the bell curve of probability. Maybe this was the Pats' bomb for 2014, like the overtime loss to the Jets was their 2013 turkey.

Or maybe not. It's possible those folks saying or thinking "the Pats will be fine," which is most people inside and outside the NFL, are placing their faith in facts from seasons past, not from season present. The "this was just a bad bump in the road" thesis rests on the plausible notion the Pats can't possibly be as bad again as they were last night. Trouble is, this wasn't their first bump of the year.

What was last night's misery but an extended play version of the second half of the opening game in Miami? Every single catastrophic flaw evident against the Chiefs was equally evident in the last 30 minutes against the Dolphins.

Inability to prevent the rush from getting to Brady? Check. Brady's subsequent inability to prevent said rush from causing him to commit turnovers and wasted plays? Check. Inability to run coupled with utter and complete inability of the defense to stop the enemy running game from impersonating the Oklahoma Wishbone attack of the 1970s? Check and checkmate.

One bad game can be a coincidence. Two is an issue. It is not alarmist to state that a season in which the Pats have played 16 quarters and been outscored 64-14 in six of them is a crisis. New England has played two games in which it didn't just lose, it was unable to compete.

The most glaring and disastrous of New England's problems has been the shocking decline of its offense, especially Brady's decline. But it's not a mysterious problem. When a team can't block very well, it won't move the ball very well. Should its quarterback be fortunate enough to escape disabling injury, he will wind up approaching every down in crisis mode to his own and everyone else's detriment.

The shocking Patriot problem is how twice this season its defense has been blown away by the opposing running game. This has always been a New England strength in the Bill Belichick era and especially in the Vince Wolfork era. Admittedly, Jamaal Charles is a superb back. His backup Knile Davis was Jim Brown last night. That's a defense getting blocked.

The inability to block and the inability to tackle are the most fundamental of football disasters. They spell loser on every coach's clipboard in the sport's history. They're also problems that rest more on the athletic abilities of the players involved than on a coaching staff's ability or inability to instruct them in the proper techniques, making them very hard to solve indeed.

Were I one of the many who cynically regard Belichick as the NFL's Machiavelli, I'd suspect him of replacing Brady with Jimmy Garoppolo in the fourth quarter to distract the QB-obsessed fans and media with the shiny object of a nonexistent controversy as he tries to address what he regards as his real priorities in what will seem to him as a very short week of practice indeed.

I am cynical enough to observe that in the offseason, the Pats had contract issues with two linemen. Coming off an injury, Wilfolk accepted a pay cut and stayed with the team. Logan Mankins refused one and was traded.

One fourth of the season in, the Pats can't block and have trouble stopping the run. Maybe they got that one backwards. Maybe the franchise's belief that all players except Brady are fungible has come to where all theories must travel -- the point where they stop working.


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