NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick talks with quarterback Cam Newton before the Sept. 13 game at Gillette Stadiuim in Foxborough, Mass.

The New England Patriots’ worst season since 2000 did not just happen.

It was founded on several years of poor drafts. It was propped up by months of bad quarterback play. And it’s fueled lately by three straight blowout losses that have the Pats reeling heading into a season finale against a two-win Jets team that could beat them on Sunday.

It’s been a fast fall from grace. The Bills and Dolphins simultaneously ascending during the Patriots’ downfall has ensured that the team’s road to rebuilding will be much longer and more difficult than expected. It’s possible the team won’t contend again until 2022.

So how did the Pats get here, mired in mediocrity after decades of dominance?

There’s plenty of blame pie to go around. Better grab a plate.

1. No post-Brady plan (50%)

Perhaps Bill Belichick thought Tom Brady would cave, crawl back, and be thankful for the contract he pushed on the soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback. Brady didn’t bite, instead opting to explore free agency.

The always-prepared Belichick had to know that was a possibility, and had to have a plan to deal with the GOAT’s departure.

Only, he didn’t. Not really.

Jarrett Stidham was pumped up as the second coming, until he wasn’t. Belichick, who had been in communication with Cam Newton during the free agency process, finally pulled the trigger when Stidham was deemed unworthy, the price for Newton dropped, and the former NFL MVP had no takers.

Did Belichick think he could actually get Newton up to speed with the Patriots’ complex offense in a COVID-charged environment with no preseason games?

Basically, Belichick rolled the dice on the most important player on the field.

He gambled Newton would return to his NFL MVP form — or something close to it — after suffering major injuries to his shoulder and foot. That gamble failed miserably. His lack of having a legitimate plan to replace the greatest quarterback of all time is most responsible for the team’s demise.

2. Poor drafting (25%)

While the two most recent drafts from 2020 and 2019 can’t be fairly judged just yet, the previous four can, and didn’t do the Patriots many favors.

Offensive guard Shaq Mason and long snapper Joe Cardona are the only remaining players from the 2015 draft, where they made 11 picks. From 2016, offensive guard Joe Thuney is the only player from that nine-player draft. From 2017, only defensive end Deatrich Wise remains. The 2018 group was a bit better, but not much. From the nine players drafted in 2018, only four (Isaiah Wynn, Sony Michel, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Ryan Izzo) remain.

Bottom line: Having just four players from three recent drafts going back five years is staggering.

Meanwhile, punter Jake Bailey (2019 draft) stands as the team’s lone Pro Bowl player since 2013 (Jamie Collins).

That’s just deadly for a football franchise. Drafts are the lifeblood of any team and the Pats have whiffed on way too many in recent years.

3. Zero weapons (15%)

The quarterback situation was not helped by the fact there were no legitimate targets, or weapons an opposing team had to worry about.

That allowed defenses to focus on stopping the run, their lone strength, because the passing game posed no threat.

The Patriots’ tight end room has been designated the worst in the entire league. And, their receivers aren’t much better.

Having Julian Edelman try to play through, then miss significant time with a chronic knee problem didn’t help. Beyond that, first round pick N’Keal Harry has been a bust thus far. And Jakobi Meyers and Damiere Byrd are playing above their pay grade. They should be No. 3 receivers, instead of 1s and 2s.

As for the tight ends, the Patriots drafted a pair in the third round, but Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have essentially been non-factors. Until getting hurt, Ryan Izzo carried the load, but even he didn’t register in the top 50 graded tight ends for Pro Football Focus.

So no matter if it was Newton, Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer, the quarterbacks didn’t have much in the way of reliable outlets to help the cause.

4. Free-agent losses (5%)

In the past, the Patriots were able to endure free-agent losses. Not this year. The list of departures included Tom Brady, a six-time Super Bowl winner, along with defensive stars Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts and Danny Shelton.

So that’s the most important player on the team, and four significant contributors on defense. Without Brady, the Pats did not have any semblance of a passing offense in 2020. Without Van Noy, Collins, Roberts and Shelton, their front seven was decimated. Opposing teams ran on them almost at will, and there was little to no pass rush.

In the past, the Patriots also had Brady to cover up many of the warts. But with him out the door, those deficiencies were exposed.

5. Opt-outs (5%)

The Patriots had eight players opt out before the season started, due to COVID-19 concerns. That was the largest total of any team in the league.

Among those not playing were Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, offensive tackle Marcus Cannon, running back and core special teams player Brandon Bolden, wide receiver Marqise Lee, tight end Matt LaCosse, newly signed full back Dan Vitale and offensive lineman Najee Toran.

The Patriots got by and made do on most of those fronts, but sorely missed Hightower. Between his leadership on the field as the signal-caller, and his ability to be a run stopper who could also get to the quarterback, those qualities weren’t replaced. The only plus was having some of the young players, Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, gain valuable playing experience.

Beyond that, not having Hightower’s presence contributed to the Pats not being a playoff team.

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