For New England Patriots fans of a certain age, the two-decade run of on-field success the team enjoyed with Tom Brady at the helm was to be savored, particularly since the franchise’s history pre-Brady didn’t offer much in the way of major victories.
Younger fans, however, may be getting a sense of what their grandfathers and mothers are talking about when they recall the mediocre-at-best Patriots of years ago — because right now, the team is looking to be just that.
New England is 0-2 for the first time since 2001 after losing at home to the Dolphins last Sunday night. This weekend’s game against the Aaron Rodgers-less Jets (1-1) may end in a win, but will serve to highlight what has become reality for the Patriots: they’re good enough to beat the teams they “should” beat, but not good enough to win against better squads. They don’t look like a playoff team, but they aren’t a team destined for a top-three draft pick either.
And yes, Patriots fans, that 2001 team went on to win the Super Bowl, but it took a scary injury to Drew Bledsoe in Week 2, the injury that pushed Brady into service. This time around, to borrow from Rick Pitino during his failed stint as Boston Celtics head coach, Tom Brady isn’t walking through that door.
In fairness to Mac Jones, whoever followed Brady as the Patriots’ franchise quarterback was always going to be compared to him. No one should be compared to Brady because no one is Brady, but when fans are used to seeing exceptional play at the position for as long as New England fans did, the bar is set pretty high. Add in the fact that conventional wisdom at the time of the 2021 draft was that getting Jones at No. 15 was a gift for the Patriots when he was expected to go higher. On top of that, Jones was a product of Nick Saban’s Alabama team, and given the relationship between Saban and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, well, it seemed the football gods were still smiling upon Foxborough.
And this writer will believe for the rest of her days that Belichick caused an immeasurable amount of harm to Jones with the decision to name Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as offensive coordinators last season. Belichick has said dozens of times that the offseason between Year 1 and 2 is critical for an NFL player’s growth, and he saddled Jones with those two?
Bringing back Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator offered hope that change was coming, but thus far it hasn’t arrived. New England’s offense is bland and cautious — against Miami, Jones was just 5-for-15 when attempting passes longer than 10 yards, and in 154 offensive plays this season, just two completions have gone for more than 20 yards. New England has few offensive playmakers and is hampered by a subpar line that is dealing with multiple injuries, starting eight players already.
None of this can completely absolve Jones. Great quarterbacks find a way to win, and 33 games in, Jones hasn’t shown that he has that quality. He has one game-winning drive thus far, and it came his rookie season.
He had the opportunity in both of New England’s games this season to bring the Patriots all the way back and start to build a legend. Against the Eagles in the opener, the Patriots were down 16-0 due in large part to two turnovers, a pick 6 and a lost fumble, but cut the deficit to 25-20 with 3:37 to go in the fourth quarter. The Patriots got the ball two more times and had all three timeouts but couldn’t get the touchdown they needed.
With Miami last week it was more of the same: the Patriots were in an early hole, climbed most of the way out — and couldn’t get to the end zone on their last possession, an 8-yard sack on first down at the Miami 39 essentially killing the final drive.
The defense is solid. It always will be with a Belichick team. After the Dolphins rolled up 536 yards of offense against the Chargers in Week 1, including 466 passing yards for Tua Tagovailoa, New England kept that attack largely at bay and Miami scored 24 points to the 36 it scored against Los Angeles.
But a defense can be asked to do only so much, and in recent seasons, if the defense isn’t at its best the offense can’t pick up the slack. Including the Philly loss, the Patriots are 0-12 when Jones starts and the opponent scores 25 or more. They’re 10-12 in the post-Brady years in games decided by seven points or fewer, and with this year’s two losses coming at Gillette Stadium, New England is two games under .500 (25-27) at home in that time.
Maybe the Patriots can bounce back Sunday on the road against the Jets. But after that is a trip to Dallas. They’ll offer hope, then likely feelings of despair. For other NFL fan bases, it’s a familiar feeling.
It’s one Patriots fans may unfortunately have to get used to too.