By KEVIN McNAMARA
Reality bites, reality hurts.
That’s the predicament the Patriots face this morning after an embarrassing 33-6 beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49`ers. The loss was the team’s third in a row, the franchise’s longest losing skid in in 18 years. At 2-4 the Pats are multiple games under .500 for the first time since 2001.
For the uninitiated, the 2001 and `02 seasons marked the introduction of a quarterback named Tom Brady into the mix in Foxboro. Let’s just say that losing streaks largely disappeared for the next 17 or so seasons but that golden era is long gone.
This is the new reality, a reality where the Patriots own awful quarterback play and a roster devoid of young talent thanks to several years of desultory drafting by Bill Belichick and staff.
Cam Newton will receive more than his fair share of bows and arrows this week after a truly awful performance against the Niners. He knows it and seems prepared to face the music.
“I told myself driving home `if you keep playing games like that, bro, it’s going to be a permanent change,” he said Monday on WEEI. “It’s simple. I just have to play better. At the end of the day I look in the mirror and have to figure this out.”
The question is what is reality with Newton and the Pats’ offense? After overwhelming a bad Miami Dolphins team in the season opener largely thanks to Newton’s running skills (75 yards, 2 TD’s), the Pats played very well but couldn’t handle Russell Wilson in a 35-30 loss at Seattle.
Newton ran for two more TD’s in that game and his attempt at a third – a potential game-winner – was stuffed by the Seahawks.
But since then teams have clued in on Cam. He will not beat defenses with his legs. They are daring him to throw to what is a challenged group of receiving targets. The results aren’t pretty.
In a 36-20 win over Las Vegas, Newton’s QBR was an anemic 19.4 but the Pats rushed for 250 yards to grab a win. Newton contracted the Covid-19 virus and was unavailable for a showdown game at Kansas City where the team’s defense put up a good fight in a 26-10 loss to Patrick Mahomes.
Newton returned last week but played horribly (QBR 21.1) in an 18-12 loss to Denver. He ran for 76 yards but threw two interceptions and was sacked four times after a week of the team battling Covid cases and missing practice time.
That set up a visit to Gillette by the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo. The ex-Patriot, the one-time successor to Brady, sure was ready for his return to New England. Despite a 3-3 record with losses to bad Miami and Philadelphia football teams, the 49ers tattooed the Patriots.
This game was over at the half (23-3) with the Pats springing leaks everywhere. The offense didn’t convert once on third down and was out-gained 301-59. The defense couldn’t stop Jimmy G or the rushing game as one speedy 49er after another flew by the Ja`Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings, Brandon Copeland and whoever else tried to stuff up things at linebacker.
Then there was Newton. If he’s ever played a worse half of football I need to see it. Looking slow and confused, the one-time NFL MVP completed 4-of-8 passes for 30 yards and threw two interceptions. He was so bad it made sense for Belichick to consider pulling him at the half in favor of Jared Stidham, who isn’t very good at all.
That decision ultimately came at the start of the fourth quarter with San Francisco in complete control at 33-6.
“He came to me and said `Stidham is finishing.’ I agreed,” Newton said of his quick sideline conversation with Belichick.
To his credit Newton is only pointing a finger at himself. He may not know it but he’s 29th in the NFL in QBR (42.6), ahead of only Sam Darnold (Jets) and Dwayne Haskins (Washington). He’s thrown for two TD’s and seven interceptions in his five games. That’s ugly, but also reality.
“I don’t know what funk, spell or omen is in boogey’s household right now, but I have to let off some chakras or some sage,” he said.
While Newton hasn’t shown he’s even close to a long-term answer at QB, a larger problem is an overall lack of depth and talent on the roster. It would be great if Belichick and his scouting department broke the spell that’s clouded too much of their drafting ability over the last four or five years. The Pats have hit on some picks because, hey, it’s almost impossible to go O-Fer. So we’ll give you Chase Winovich, Jake Bailey, Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Bentley, Deatrich Wise, Joe Thuney, Elandon Roberts and even Ted Karras.
But the misses – especially in the top three rounds – have robbed this team of its next wave of solid players. depth and needed rising stars. Cyrus Jones, Vincent Valentine, Derek Rivers, Duke Dawson, N’Keal Harry, Joejuan Williams, Yodny Cajuste? Swing and miss! And three of the team’s top rookies (Kyle Dugger-Josh Uche-Devin Asiasi) weren’t active versus the 49ers.
One other, over-looked factor with the Patriots. Since the team’s run to the Super Bowl in 2018, the coaching staff has been strip-mined. Seven of the 14 assistant coaches on that team now work elsewhere in the NFL or have retired. Two (Joe Judge, Brian Flores) are head coaches. Belichick may be happy with that group’s replacements but that’s a serious talent drain.
These Patriots are left with an uphill climb just to make the playoffs in this bizarre season. Who knows if the NFL will even make it to its playoffs in January. But the Patriots and their fans are seeing what life without Brady truly looks like, what a team with a shaky quarterback group looks like.
It’s a new reality and, right now at least, it sure isn’t pretty.