For the New England Patriots the 2010-2011 season ended with enormous disappointment.  The Patriots finished the regular season with a league-best 14-2 record and guaranteed home field throughout the AFC playoffs.  They had an impressive record of 6-1 against the 2011 playoff field.  The season ended, however, with an embarrassing loss to the rival New York Jets. Afterwards, Patriots owner Bob Kraft even questioned that game plan.  It was strange offseason with the lockout and an abbreviated training camp.  Despite last year’s failures the Patriots were still the consensus pick across the NFL and in Vegas to join Green Bay in Indianapolis.

Now at 5-3 the Patriots are at a crossroad as they hit the half way point of their season.  A win over the New York Jets this week and they are back in the driver’s seat for the division.  A loss and they will be on the outside looking in.   The Patriots should not be in this position, and contrary to what Ron Borges wrote Monday, this dynasty or “elite era” doesn’t need to end now.

However, barring a miraculous turnaround to the season it looks like it will be another failed bite at the apple for Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.  Things were going wrong awhile before Eli Manning’s winning touchdown pass on Sunday.  You have to go back to the end of last season to find the root cause of the Patriots journey to mediocrity.

1)      2011-12 Coaching Staff – A team that once boasted a staff of Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan is now left with Matt Patricia, Bill O’Brien, Pepper Johnson and Josh Boyer.  Johnson is the only one of the four with any strong links to the old regime having been trained under Crennel.  Peculiar that Belichick who once surrounded himself with experienced veteran coaches continues to chose this route.  Just look around the league and see what some experienced defensive coordinators like Wade Phillips (Houston), Mike Zimmer (Cincinnati) and Rex Ryan (Jets, albeit as a head coach) in relatively short time.  While the Patriots and Belichick are going on year four of a rebuilding process.

2)      2011 Draft – There were promising, impact defensive players available all throughout the first two rounds of the draft.  The Patriots ended up with an offensive tackle, a late first round pick in the 2012 draft, an oft-injured cornerback and two running backs that aren’t being used.

3)      2011 Free Agency – Because of the lockout, free agency didn’t start till the summer.  And because 2010 was an “uncapped” year there were an inordinate amount of Free Agents available on the market.  Peter King of SI, listed his top 50 Free Agents prior to the mad rush.

There were some impressive players on the defensive side of the ball, an area where the Patriots at the moment aren’t just bad, they are desperate.  One or two could have made a gigantic difference.  Just look at the numbers some of these free agents are putting up this year.

  • Cullen Jenkins DT Eagles (5 Sacks)
  • Jason Babin DE Eagles (9 sacks)
  • Antonio Cromartie CB Jets (3 INT, 1 FF)
  • Johnathan Joseph CB Texans (3 INT, FF, 10 PD)
  • Dashon Goldson S, 49’ers (2 INT, 1FF, 39 tackles)
  • Carlos  Rogers CB 49’ers, (3 INT, TD, 9 PD)
  • Dawan Landry S Jaguars (53 tackles INT, FF)
  • Matt Roth DE, Jaguars 3 Sacks)

The Patriots chose to shop at the bargain basement once again.  Brian Waters has worked out as a starting guard on offense. Defensive ends, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson have had their moments, but neither has shown to be consistent threats to the quarterback. The Patriots more than any team knew the landscape coming out of free agency, and with the draft already done they didn’t plug holes where they needed to, and they began the season almost $10 million under the cap. It’s OK to question if Robert Kraft is willing to go the extra dollar for a championship, especially, when you see the amount of undrafted and late round picks starting for this team.

4)      Two bad trades – Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco.   They have been busts through the first 8 games. Both players’ careers were already on downward trends which is why the Patriots were able to acquire them without giving up much in trade. Ocho’s $6 million price tag makes this gamble that much more painful and puzzling.

5)      Construction of the 53 man roster – Belichick always says he puts out the guys he thinks are going to give him the best chance to win. Watching this defense it’s hard to believe that cutting both starting safeties (Meriweather and Sanders), a slot corner (Leigh Bodden) as well as adding Shaun Ellis were the right moves. That is especially so when you see the likes of Josh Barrett, Sergio Brown, James Ihedigbo and Phillip Adams roaming the secondary.

6)      The Danny Woodhead Experiment – I love Danny Woodhead, but unfortunately Bill O’Brien does too, and that’s becoming a bad thing. Woodhead is great in a defined role, which includes short passes out of the backfield and draw plays from the shot-gun.  But lining it up every week and running him off tackle is an exercise in futility.  Against the Giants it cost them on a key 3rd and 1 and later it cost them a chance to run the game clock down to 1:15 after Woodhead got tossed out-of-bounds like a rag doll.  That inexcusable decision by O’Brien with BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the sideline was as big a contributing factor to that loss as any other mistake the Patriots made against the Giants.  The Patriots have other running backs that run better between the tackles, but O’Brien still hasn’t figured that out yet.  He’s still content with the Woodhead off tackle for a yard.  I’m focusing here on Danny Woodhead, but in contrast to last year, the play calling in general has been unimaginative.

7)      The  Bend-but-don’t-Break Defense – At this point, why not start taking chances?  The Patriots have stuck with an aggressive attacking style all season.  They had success against the Giants for most of the game by applying pressure.  When they backed off, Manning shredded them. Death by a thousand cuts is messy and it seems at times to disrupt the rhythm of this offense as they wait on the sidelines.

8)      Sitting tight at the deadline – The NFL Trade deadline is pretty quiet, WR Brandon Lloyd was perhaps the biggest name moved.  He was the NFL Yardage leader in receiving last year and played under the Josh McDaniels system. Lloyd was a free agent  at the end of the year and the Patriots did not want to waste a 5th round pick on him, which is ironic, since they have wasted a lot of 2nd and 3rd round picks the last four years.

9)      Play the Kids – You drafted Jermaine Cunningham, Stevan Ridley, Taylor Price and Shane Vereen high because you expected they could be impact players.  They have all had injury problems, but when healthy they are still low on the depth chart.  At this point isn’t it time to take a chance?

10)   Too much pressure on Brady – Age is going to be a factor with Tom Brady in the very near future.  Is it starting this year?  It’s possible, but it also could be that the Patriots have structured team in a way that puts winning and losing all on Brady.  He’s had four mediocre to bad games and the Patriots have lost three of them.  He’s not the problem, but with no help on defense or special teams he’s becoming part of it.

Some would have you believe that the Patriots’ struggles this season didn’t happen overnight.  I’ve  made that point myself, but on the flip side, you can look at things under the microscope and realize that in the NFL you can also turn it around overnight.  I see an AFC field with flaws up and down, a few tweaks here and there and the Patriots could easily be the team to beat this season.  In January the Patriots might stick it to all the dissenters –  I hope I am one of them.

In 2001, they went from 6-5 to the Super Bowl.  That team did it with heart, determination, coaching and some pretty good talent.

This year they will have to overcome shortcomings in many of those same areas, shortcomings that are the result of bad decisions up and down the organization.