Tom E. Curran

Three words to describe the Patriots' 2023 season: ‘What a waste'

The impressive success of Bill Belichick's defense has all been for naught.

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Looking back across the 16 games the Patriots have played, it’s hard not to think, “What a waste.”

Nitwits like me thought this could be a playoff team. That all the Patriots had to do was play Bill Belichick football -- well-coached, situationally smart, efficient and mistake-free -- and the wins would rain down.

It was easy to be optimistic because -- as Belichick himself said in March -- the cause for optimism was the past 25 years.

It was already a good defense. The offense would revert to being what it had been for most of 2021.

Now, 16 games in with the Patriots at 4-12, we’ve seen a truly great defensive performance flushed down the toilet because “We’ll see how it goes …” turned out not to be a great approach to putting a competitive offense together in the 2020s.

If even half the foresight and acumen Belichick brought to his defense was spent on the Patriots offense, they’d be in the playoffs. It wasn’t. And it hasn’t been for a half-decade or more.

What constitutes a good week for the Patriots? Annoying a decent opponent.

They did it Sunday against the Bills. They did it a couple weeks before against the Chiefs. They annoyed Philly and Miami at the start of this season.

Can being annoying be construed as being on the cusp of competent?

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Take the annoyances and then mix in unexpected wins over less-than-mediocre teams like Pittsburgh and Denver. Now squint.

Do you see a plucky team held together by duct tape and popsicle sticks that’s been on the wrong side of a few breaks? Do you look at Sunday’s loss when the Patriots -- for the second week in a row -- got pennies from heaven with a special teams touchdown and say, “Man, sooooo close!”?

Do you -- like quarterback Bailey Zappe -- say, “If you take away those four turnovers, what happens? Who knows?”

Maybe you do.

Or maybe you realized weeks ago that moral victories that weren’t chased by actual victories were worthless.

Celebrating when the Patriots are toilet paper stuck to the shoe of a playoff-bound team is kind of a comedown for this organization. And four years of “Wow, that was fun!” near-misses (Seahawks in ’20, Cowboys and Bucs in ’21, Vikings in ’22) and two outlier wins over the Bills (wind game in 2021, Week 7 this year) out of 64 contests ain’t a sign that prosperity is just around the corner.

At least in 2021 and 2022, the Patriots could still be relied on to curb-stomp bad teams. But would you be STUNNED if they lost to the Jets on Sunday?

The Patriots have spent two years hanging around in games because they found “other ways to score.”

They are 12-21 since the start of last season. Here’s the breakdown of game-by-game offensive touchdowns.

They stunk last year on offense and have gotten worse this year. Almost unimaginably worse. Look at the season-by-season offensive scoring since 2019:

You can blame Mac Jones, Bill O’Brien or injuries if you like. That’s easy.

Or you can conclude they don’t have enough good offensive players. That too many of the players they draft either don’t fit or don’t develop. That there’s no cogent offensive system built around a core of players with complementary strengths.

That Bill Belichick’s post-Brady approach of “We’ll see how it goes” has been in effect for four full seasons now. From Tom Brady to Cam Newton to Mac Jones to Bailey Zappe. That’s how it’s gone.

Belichick may sprint from responsibility for the offense. Blame coaching staff attrition. Blame cap constraints from the late-Brady years. Blame Jones for being an insurrectionist. Blame Robert Kraft for foisting Bill O’Brien on him if Belichick actually believed things were headed in the right direction under Matt Patricia and Joe Judge.

And he may guide conversation to the defense where it’s been one fruitless week of brilliance after another.

The Bills' scoring drives on Sunday went like this:

  • Four plays, four yards, FG
  • Four plays, 14 yards, TD
  • Seven plays, 24 yards, FG
  • Eight plays, 75 yards, TD

One sustained drive.

It’s been like that since Week 1 when they held Philly to four field goals and a 26-yard touchdown drive and lost because of a pick-six.

Even in the 38-3 loss to Dallas, there was only one touchdown drive of consequence, a 10-play, 75-yarder. Everything else was field goals and defensive scores as the Cowboys went up 28.

In the 34-0 loss to the Saints, the game started with a pick-six for New Orleans. There were two TD drives longer than 35 yards.

And while the offense can’t take the slightest jostle without falling to pieces, the defense lost Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez for the year. One of the two outside cornerbacks they counted on, Jack Jones, had to be released for pain-in-the-assery. Jonathan Jones missed a bunch of time. Jabrill Peppers missed the past two games. But it’s still “next man up.”

Is that because of Bill Belichick?

Some of it, sure. It’s the players he and the personnel department scouted and selected. And it’s the development of the players under the position coaches Bill trained and hired. And it’s the week-to-week game plans hatched by Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick.

And it’s Belichick’s defensive blueprint, since everyone on that side of the ball -- players and coaches -- was raised on his philosophies. It’s his stoic, do-your-job mentality. He’s the one that fostered a mindset to pursue excellence even if -- in the grand scheme -- the excellence won’t be rewarded because the offense is so atrocious.

But credit for the Patriots' brilliant ’23 defense should start with the ones executing it -- the players -- and then the coaches putting them in position to do so: Jerod Mayo and Steve Belichick.

Since offensive line coach Adrian Klemm has been ill and away from the team, Bill is working with the offensive line more than he is the defense.

It’s his baby, sure. But he’s not doing the care-and-feeding.

It must pain Belichick to be 71, 15 wins from passing Don Shula and realize that having the foresight to construct even an average offense with offensive tackles, better wideouts, multiple competent tight ends, a third-down back and veteran depth at quarterback and along the line would have meant four or five more wins this year. Job secure. Shula in sight. Steady as she goes.

Didn’t happen. What a waste.

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