by Jordy McElroy
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick might have constructed arguably the best defense in franchise history, but he also had a hand in deconstructing a prolific offense that has been humming for nearly two decades with quarterback Tom Brady behind center.
A quick stroll down memory lane to Week 2 in the season, and the Patriots had Julian Edelman, Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Demaryius Thomas on the depth chart. There was talk of world domination, going 19-0 and hoisting a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
And then the wheels fell off faster than a speeding Bugatti without the lug nuts.
The Brown experiment turned nuclear after the seven-time Pro Bowl receiver was named in multiple sexual assault allegations. Thomas was sent packing to the New York Jets in a trade for a sixth-round draft pick, and Gordon was picked up by the Seattle Seahawks after being waived by the Patriots on November 1.
Edelman is The Last Jedi for the Patriots’ depleted receiving corps. He’s the lone option of comfort for an aging quarterback that has little time and waning patience in a locker room full of promising young bucks that have yet to put things together on the field.
When will that be? Two years? Three years from now? Brady may not even have one year left in him if this lingering mess doesn’t sort itself out.
The cool thing to do seems to be piling onto the 42-year-old quarterback playing behind a makeshift offensive line with no running game and limited receiving targets. Belichick has coasted without scrutiny due to his sensational efforts on the defensive side of the ball. He deserves nothing less than a standing ovation for building the sort of defensive monster capable of helping carry a lopsided load to a fourth consecutive Super Bowl appearance.
But he also deserves his share of blame for some crucial personnel mistakes on offense.
He gets a pass for the whole Brown saga considering how quickly that situation unfolded. The Patriots weren’t the only team vying for his contract, and the organization wanted to ensure they didn’t let the opportunity of landing the on-field version of Jerry Rice slip through their hands. In a perfect world, they would have done more digging and perhaps something would have popped regarding Brown’s pending allegations.
Yet, that was a blow-up Belichick didn’t see coming. Grab a broomstick, and we’ll sweep that big whoopsie under the rug.
But there is no rationalizing the decision to jerk Thomas around before sending him away to one of the worst teams in football. The veteran receiver did everything he was asked from the organization, including waving off other offers to return to the Patriots after he was initially cut from the roster.
“It was insulting, for sure,” Thomas told the New York Daily News. “Once I got cut [on August 31], I could have just come here [to the Jets] and not stayed there and re-sign. When they re-signed me, I was thinking that I was good. Two weeks later, I was gone. So, it’s like, ‘Why did I waste my time?’ Because at the end of the day, it was kind of a waste of time for me.”
It isn’t like Thomas didn’t give Belichick a good reason to keep him around. He hauled in seven passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns against the New York Giants in the preseason finale. Throw in the fact that he’s a consummate professional, and it only validates his point that his time in Foxborough truly was wasted.
Thomas has 34 receptions for 405 yards during his stint with a Jets team that played a large chunk of the season without starting quarterback Sam Darnold. Even with Darnold on the field, they’re still the second-worst offense in the league behind the Washington Redskins. Brady could have used that sort of big-bodied veteran talent at receiver capable of doing some of the things the team is expecting from rookie first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry.
Consider what the Patriots offense would have looked like if Belichick kept Thomas, Gordon and brought fullback James Develin off injured reserve instead of Harry. Gordon might be running like he has a “piano on his back,” but he’s still a player defenses have to respect as a deep threat option.
And the same goes for Thomas.
The Patriots’ lack of a true deep threat receiver has defenders pressing because they aren’t concerned with anyone beating them over the top. All they have to do is double Edelman and stop pass-catching tailback James White to make the greatest quarterback of all time look below average.
That isn’t to say Harry isn’t going to be a great player someday. He missed most of the season with an injury before getting thrown into the fire of one of the league’s most demanding offenses. Meyers especially looks like an ascending talent within the Patriots system, but his youth and inexperience have come with the usual hiccups you’d expect from a rookie player.
Mohamed Sanu has only been with the team for a few weeks, while Phillip Dorsett continues to be hit-or-miss on the field.
It was mostly miss against the Houston Texans defense for more than just Dorsett.
There is enough blame to go around for the Patriots being arguably the most suspect 10-2 team in NFL history. Then there is the reality that they’re only one game out from the No. 1 seed in the playoffs with Brady behind center and Belichick standing on the sideline. The duo has a habit of achieving the impossible, even when the rest of the sports world is ready to write their obituary.
One side is singing “Amazing Grace,” while the other is on the practice field plotting, improving and readying to strike an unsuspecting NFL making the familiar mistake of burying them too soon.