By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Observing and covering the Patriots during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era requires varying levels of restraint and caution. Prematurely proclaiming anything to be true has a habit of coming back around to make the prognosticator look like a fool. Just ask anyone who declared the 2014 Patriots to be dead in Kansas City.
At the same time, observing and covering the sport of football lends itself to being able to see some obvious and harsh truths. And Sunday night’s grisly 26-10 loss in Detroit should have provided enough evidence that the 2018 New England Patriots have some real problems — issues that should not be written off as being part of an “annual September slump.”
If the Patriots had lost two straight games in which they appeared to have been on the wrong end of a questionable call or two, or if the Patriots had lost two straight games where they were competitive but came up just short, then perhaps the conversation would be different. But instead, the Patriots followed up a double-digit loss in Jacksonville with a 16-point loss to a winless Lions team.
And the Patriots appear to be in trouble.
Of course, getting back to the issue of restraint, that is not to suggest that the 2018 season is doomed, that the walls are finally crashing down in Foxboro, that Brady has finally reached that cliff, and so on and so forth. Declaring any contending team to be officially finished in the month of September is generally an unwise practice.
But looking closely at this team with a critical eye, there’s unquestionably a lot of work to be done — to the point where the simple addition of Julian Edelman after Week 4 should not be looked upon as a season-saving moment. The Patriots’ issues at the moment are too numerous — and in some cases, severe — for any one player to solve.
Those problems were all on vivid display in Detroit. Lions running backs had gaping holes at the line of scrimmage to run through. Receivers had ample room to find space in the secondary. Quarterback Matthew Stafford was rarely pressured, as he had his most efficient performance of the young season. And that was only looking at one side of the ball.
Offensively, the Patriots started the game with three consecutive three-and-out series. It never really got much better. Tom Brady managed to lead the Patriots on just one touchdown drive, and even that drive came after the Patriots had taken over at midfield. The running game was punchless. And in what may have been the most dire situation for New England, receivers simply weren’t able to gain any separation on their defenders.
That weakness was most evident on broadcast replays from the overhead camera, which showed Brady’s perspective of the field. The quarterback stood tall in a pocket with decent protection, but that line could have held off the rush for hours. Most plays, Brady still wouldn’t have had an open receiver.
For two straight weeks, opponents have made covering the Patriots look easy. It was convincing enough to believe it actually is.
That’s a problem that can’t easily be fixed. Scheme and play calls can’t teach Chris Hogan how to beat man coverage from top corners. The reintegration of Edelman can’t make Phillip Dorsett a top-end receiver. And there’s no way for Sony Michel to go back in time and make up the valuable training camp and preseason action he missed in August.
Edelman also won’t be able to help a defense that allowed Blake Bortles to have the game of his life, and then allowed a Lions running back to top 100 yards for the first time since November 2013. Those matters point to some real defensive problems.
Likewise, Trey Flowers doesn’t solve all of these problems. He and Patrick Chung have been on the field for plenty of defensive breakdowns for the Patriots since last September.
Sure, you can look back on the 2014 losses to the Chiefs and Dolphins, or last year’s home losses to the Chiefs and Panthers, and find some solace that Super Bowls can still be reached when the Patriots lose twice in September. But that should hardly serve as any source of confidence for the future.
If anything — depending on your outlook on life, I suppose — it might provide reason to believe trouble lies ahead. It’s impressive that the Patriots were twice able to overcome early stumbles to reach the Super Bowl in recent years. But that’s hardly a sustainable method of success. Eventually, certain climbs are just too steep.
There’s also a force less tangible and harder to define that may be a factor. It’s one that may be easy to dismiss, on account of its abstract existence, but it’s certainly got plenty of history.
That factor is the fact that the team that loses the Super Bowl generally struggles the following season. A Super Bowl-losing team hasn’t made it back to the Super Bowl since 1993. In the last 24 years, only two Super Bowl-losing teams even made it to the conference championship the following year. Ten out of those 24 years, the Super Bowl loser failed to even make the playoffs in the following season.
There’s no one, uniform reason to explain that trend, but there’s also no denying its existence. So if you take that history, then consider the key players who walked out of Foxboro this past spring — from Danny Amendola and Nate Solder to Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis — and you have to view this current predicament as unique from past seasons.
With the Patriots sitting at 1-2, looking up at the 3-0 Dolphins in the AFC East, the story should not be how this year’s Patriots team compares to 2014 or 2017. It should be about the real problems this team has, and what the team can do to solve them or at the very least mask them.
It’s going to take a lot. If these Patriots want to even approach the expectations that are laid upon them every single season, they have a very long way to go.