Tom E. Curran

Can the Patriots ‘find themselves' entering pivotal 2023 season?

The Patriots need to rediscover their identity if they want to end a four-year playoff victory drought.

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FOXBORO – At this time of year, I get asked a lot, “How are the Patriots going to be this year?”

Honestly? First, they need to figure out who they are going to be.

Entering their fourth post-Brady season, this franchise known for discipline, cold-blooded efficiency and the highest level of quality control has slipped.

Have they simply lost their footing? Or have they fallen and can’t get up?

One way or another, this will be a watershed season. The team is 27-30 since December 1, 2019. They haven’t won a playoff game and have missed the postseason two of the past three years. They are 9-15 in their last 24 games after December 1. Last season, their situational football was poor, their special teams was porous and they got swamped by almost every decent quarterback they faced.

They aren’t who they were. That’s clear. A whole lot of "irreplaceables" have left since 2019 ended –  the greatest quarterback in NFL history, Dont'a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Julian Edelman, James White, Rob Gronkowski, James Develin, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney and Devin McCourty head that list. Add in the fleet of talented coaches who've gone – Josh McDaniels, Dante Scarnecchia and Brian Flores – and it’s obvious why they are different.

But it’s surprising that the DNA of the Patriots has dimmed so much. This season will very much be about finding it again.

Matthew Slater talked openly about this team finding its identity when the team reported Tuesday.

"I do think we are still forging it a bit," Slater allowed. "Obviously we’ve gone through some seismic change and that’s no mystery to anyone. A big part of the reason that we had continuity and stability, that changed in the last few years.

"I think we have to reach within ourselves and figure out what are the core principles we’re gonna adhere to no matter who’s on the team," Slater continued. "No matter what the situation, no matter what our record is, no matter what the circumstances may be. I like to think that hard work, commitment, selflessness all still exist within our organization. We’re just doing it with different guys. Sometimes that takes time."

The Patriots seemed to be on the right track in 2021. There was a lot to like about the direction of the team. But the departure of McDaniels and last summer's ill-fated decision to elevate Matt Patricia to offensive coordinator and Joe Judge to quarterbacks coach mortgaged the buy-in that's been automatic since Belichick’s been here. Blame-laying, finger-pointing and mistrust followed.

This team needed an enema. And a palate-cleanser. But so far -- based on very limited observation since August is just arriving -- it feels fresh and clean. From Mac Jones to Trent Brown to Kendrick Bourne, it’s smiles and good vibes all around. First-round rookie Christian Gonzalez looks very legit. Offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien’s mere presence has washed away the "What exactly are they trying to do?" uncertainty that hung over the entire training camp last year.

Mike Giardi shares his thoughts on the relationship between Mac Jones and Bill Belichick and what he saw from the Patriots offense during the first practice of training camp.

Even if the personnel and talent level isn't elite, there at least seems to be a purpose and a plan in place once again. No one should ever think 2022 was "necessary" for the Patriots to get their mojo back. But maybe it can be chalked up to a learning experience?  

Slater chooses to view it that way.

"I think for a lot of us in our culture we’re so hyper-focused on the end goal that we try to rush through the process," he said. "The process is so very important because it equips you and teaches you and gives you the things that you lack. I think the last few years have been a time of equipping, of learning through some low points and hopefully on the other side of it we gain the things we’ve lacked and come out better for it on the other side."

The pads come on Monday. Training camp really begins now.  

"We’ll see who we are," said Slater. "I know Coach (Bill Belichick) will tell you he has a vision for how this football team operates and it's the same vision he's had the past 20-plus years and hopefully we get to that. And hopefully it’s sooner than later."

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