The Patriot Way: An Obituary
NFL Preseason Week 1 - The Patriot Way, the most successful and celebrated professional sports coaching/team-building philosophy of the 21st century, died this week of complications resulting from excessive hubris.
Personified by Bill Belichick and largely responsible for Tom Brady's rise to superstardom, The Patriot Way collapsed on Monday after a training camp practice by the offense described by veteran observers as " distressingly bad."
Despite multiple setbacks over the past three offseasons, The Patriot Way, an overarching culture and managerial structure which has endured for over 20 years and produced six Super Bowl victories, was thought to still be strong enough to overcome one miserable day of training camp. But then Patriots veteran David Andrews spoke to skeptical reporters after Monday's practice.
"Look, we'll see," Andrews said, per ESPN's Mike Reiss, who noted that the normally cordial team captain was trying to cut the media session short. "Nothing looks as good as it does those first couple of weeks. You just have to keep moving forward. The thing doesn't have to be its best Week 1. Obviously we want to go out there and win and compete. But it's that steady incline throughout the year. That's when you have the success."
The moment a veteran player was forced to admit that the offense might not be properly installed by the start of the season to a press pool suddenly emboldened to ask tough questions, it shattered the illusion that the Patriots are still guided by some unique ideology or ethos. The Patriots are no longer trendsetters, thought leaders, paragons of enduring excellence or "the team to beat" by any stretch. With The Patriot Way gone, they are just another team slogging through August like the Chicago Bears or New York Jets.
While the precise tenets of The Patriot Way were never explicitly codified, it has long been assumed that the philosophy is built upon a foundation of meritocracy (the best people get the most important jobs and most playing time), accountability ("Do Your Job"), and a clear delineation of duties (coaches, scouts, execs, and players all communicating clearly and sharing short- and long-term goals). Recent events revealed, however, that none of these vital signs were flickering any longer.
Meritocracy: Top offensive lieutenants Matt Patricia and Joe Judge failed disastrously outside of Foxborough and are rapidly proving woefully unqualified for their current coaching roles. Both were re-hired because they were trustworthy functionaries, not worthy replacements for departed coordinator Josh McDaniels.
Accountability: Not having an offensive coordinator means not having someone to take the heat when the offense sputters. Belichick himself ceased justifying his decisions with anything but grumbled cliches to a cowed press pool long ago. It appears that Patricia will not regularly meet with the media.
Clear Delineation of Duties: Patricia appears to be the offensive line coach, playcaller, and some sort of deputy general manager with a vague front-office role. The precise structure of the Patriots play-calling and game-panning duties is being kept a mystery. New offensive concepts such as a "Shanahan-style" running game are mostly hearsay. Players sound compelled to tap dance around direct questions about who is calling plays or making final decisions. It's secrecy for secrecy's sake, the sort of pointless paranoia more associated with failed Belichick assistants such as Patricia, Judge, or Bill O'Brien than with the legendary coach himself.
Other principles of The Patriot Way, such as the use of analytics to guide in-game decision making and exploit offseason market inefficiencies, appear to have been abandoned years ago.
The Patriot Way, which allowed the franchise to rule the NFL almost through divine right from 2001 through 2018, began to fall into decline when Brady left New England amid whispers of financial and interpersonal conflicts before the 2020 season. Nick Caserio, Belichick's long-time front-office majordomo, also left the organization for the Houston Texans in that offseason. The Patriots stumbled through a disappointing draft and uneventful free agency period on the way to their first losing season since 2000, with Belichick uncharacteristically blaming salary cap issues for the team's decline during virtual press conferences.
The arrival of Mac Jones in 2021 appeared to revive The Patriot Way, but coroners now suspect that Jones and the cadre of mostly B-tier free agents the team signed last offseason merely masked the symptoms without treating the root cause of the illness. Jones was prematurely crowned The Next Brady after the team's 9-4 start, lulling Belichick and his evangelizers into the belief that the coach had become infallible.
The condition of The Patriot Way became critical when McDaniels left for Las Vegas in January and Belichick left the offensive coordinator post vacant, promoting Patricia to his catch-all role and recalling Judge, fresh off his failure to develop a young quarterback named Jones, to serve as quarterback coach. Numerous executives also followed McDaniels to the Raiders. The entire Patriots org chart now looks depleted, as does the roster after another offseason of veteran defections and dubious draft decisions. It's a far cry from the days when Belichick was flanked by Brady, McDaniels, Caserio, Dante Scarnecchia, and what appeared to be a never-ending pipeline of promising defensive assistants.
Still, all of the Patriots' perceived losses and gloomy projections remained bulwarked by the The Patriot Way, which created an unwillingness—even among critics—to dare to question Belichick's mysterious wisdom. That illusion vanished this week, not just as players fumbled through questions about poor practices, but as Brady prepared for another deep playoff run, McDaniels demonstrated the wonders of his rushing-and-screens game plan in the Hall of Fame game, Caserio's draft class earned rave reviews in Houston, and the national media began finalizing their 2022 predictions with little attention paid to the Patriots, Belichick, or Jones.
If it was ever more than mere mythmaking by media members who ran out of things to say about a successful team over the course of 20 years, The Patriot Way was the result a collaboration among players/coaches/execs who were brilliant at their individual roles, with Belichick as president and chairman, not dictator. In that respect, The Patriot Way was suffocated by negligence: Belichick not only lost too many voices and collaborators but refused to replace them.
The Patriot Way is survived by the Patriots themselves, who are projected by Football Outsiders Almanac to win 8.7 games and are +160 to make the playoffs (tied with the Raiders, below the Dolphins at +140) at Draft Kings. The Patriots will make their preseason debut against the Giants on Thursday night and are sure to put on a brave face against a team in far worse shape than they are.
The Patriot Way is also survived by legions of fans who have already responded to this column by howling IT'S ONLY PRESEASON or @OldTakesExposed with a little pencil emoji. Give them their space: denial is the first stage of grief.
News 'n' Notes
And now for some news 'n' notes from around the NFL.
New York Jets tackle Mekhi Becton suffers kneecap/patella injury
A brief history of Jets first-round draft picks prior to 2022:
- Zach Wilson, 2021: Posted the lowest DYAR in the NFL last year.
- Alijah Vera-Tucker, 2021: Coming off a solid rookie season.
- Mekhi Becton, 2020: Career getting swallowed by injuries/weight issues.
- Quinnen Williams, 2019: Still on the team and playing well.
- Sam Darnold, 2018: Saw ghosts. Got mono. Got Gase'd. Currently having his dignity vampire-drained by Matt Rhule.
- Jamal Adams, 2017: Traded for picks that would become Vera-Tucker and Garrett Wilson. Adams wasn't traded because he played safety like a 215-pound defensive end; that transformation wasn't complete yet. The Adam Gase administration just didn't like him and didn't want to pay him.
- Darron Lee, 2016: Last seen bouncing around Raiders camp in 2021.
- Leonard Williams, 2015: Traded to the Giants for draft picks which became Ashtyn Davis and cornerback Michael Carter. Williams was traded because the Gase administration just didn't like him and didn't want to pay him. He's now one of the best players on the Giants, if a tad overpaid.
- Calvin Pryor, 2014: Played four NFL seasons.
- Dee Milliner, 2013: Played three NFL seasons. If you think the Gase administration was bad, we'd like you to meet some general managers named Mike Maccagnan and John Idzik.
- Sheldon Richardson, 2013: Still knocking around the NFL as a disruptive defensive tackle for hire. The Jets traded him because they just didn't like him and didn't want to pay him in 2017, receiving in exchange Seahawks Twitter Mega-Binkie Jermaine Kearse and a draft pick that the Eagles ended up using on Dallas Goedert.
- Quinton Coples, 2012: Four NFL seasons.
OK, that's a full decade and we're bored. By the way, here are all the second-round picks: Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims (busting), Marcus Maye (the Jets didn't want to pay him), Christian Hackenberg (all-time bust), Devin Smith (Mims 2015), Jace Amaro (toolsy tight end who couldn't block or catch), Geno Smith (lol Seahawks), Stephen Hill (supersized Mims). The Jets also traded a bunch of second-round picks away because that's how you rebuild.
On the one hand, it looks as though the Jets draft record has improved under the much-respected Joe Douglas. On the other hand, Adams, Williams, and even Darnold briefly looked like legit up-and-comers before they Jets'd out. Looking at the list above, it's often hard to tell where bad luck and poor performance by the prospects themselves end and where bad coaching and management begin.
Becton's injuries may save the Jets the trouble of trading him next year simply because they don't like him and don't want to pay him. But that will do nothing to stop the vicious cycle of disappointment.
Roquan Smith requests trade from the Bears
The problem with the Roquan Smith situation is that the new Bears braintrust should have anticipated a Roquan Smith situation. He's on his fifth-year option, as picked up by Other Ryan last year. He's a core young veteran starter. The Bears have $96 million in 2023 cap space and whistle-clean ledgers beyond that. So … they should have signed him to an extension in March.
Or, as Aaron Schatz speculated on Tuesday, Matt Eberflus doesn't think Smith fits his system or Ryan Poles just wants "his guys." If that's the case, the Bears should have traded Smith before the free agency period, just as they traded Khalil Mack.
Poles may not have wanted to pitch a pre-draft fire sale to either the fans or The Magnificent McCaskeys. So he chose what sounds like a like-it-or-lump-it lowball offer to play for a team headed for a five-win season. The Bears would be better off in 2022 with either an extra third-round pick (they could have TWO Velus Joneses right now!) and nine million on the books or a well-compensated Smith eager to set a tone in the locker room than they are with a disgruntled, holding-in Smith. All they had to do was something.
Smith will get dealt near the trade deadline to a contender for a fourth- or fifth-round pick in 2023. If the goal is to draw out the rebuild over multiple years—as it so often is—then Poles is right on schedule.
Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker signs four-year contract extension
Tucker is already a Pro Football Hall of Fame lock and can lay claim to the title of greatest kicker of all time. He's also only 32 and should be a Pro Bowl-caliber kicker for at least the rest of the 2020s.
Let's take a look at where Tucker ranks on some all time leaderboards:
Field Goals: 27th all time, 326. If Tucker kicks 30 field goals this year (he kicked 35 in 2021), he will pass Jay Feely, George Blanda, Steve Christie, Al Del Greco, and Eddie Murray, tying Olindo Mare for 21st place, assuming Matt Prater also keeps moving up leaderboards. All-time leader Adam Vinatieri is 273 field goals—about nine seasons—ahead of Tucker.
Extra Points: 52nd all time, 382. Tucker is down among not-so luminaries such as Dan Bailey and Mike Nugent in extra points, in part because he played on several Ravens teams that scored fewer than 30 touchdowns in a season. Blanda holds the all-time extra point record thanks to kicking forever and spending a decade in the high-scoring AFL.
Field Goal Percentage: First all time, 91.1%. Players' rate stats decline as they age, and field goal rates have been increasing for decades, so Tucker is unlikely to retire at the top of this list. But perhaps he will: 91.1% is really close to the unavoidable asymptote of 100%, and it's hard to imagine kickers sustaining accuracy rates in the 95% range. (The best kickers naturally end up getting more low-likelihood attempts, creating further drag on the upper limit). The young kickers just below Tucker on the all-time rate list include Harrison Butker, Younghoe Koo, and Daniel Carson, none of whom have a ton of ballast in their bulk stats right now or look like all-time greats likely to stay in the 90% range for years.
Who cares if Tucker loses the all-time field goal percentage crown in 2033 by going 6-for-15 when the Ravens don't have the heart to replace him? What's important right now is that he remains the NFL's best kicker, giving the Ravens an edge (they rank first in our special teams projections) that other teams cannot count upon.
And whatever Tucker does in 2033, rest assured that Lamar Jackson will have gotten around to negotiating a new contract by then.
Deshaun Watson to start in the Cleveland Browns preseason opener on Friday
There is no defensible football reason for this. Watson is suspended for a minimum of six games: it's not like a preseason shakedown in mid-August will impact how "rusty" he is on October 23. Jacoby Brissett needs ramp-up time with the starters right now, not Watson. Friday's game is in Jacksonville, so this is not a sap to Browns season ticket holders who want to gawk at the creepo they have chosen to root for. (Rooting for a team is a choice, folks). The Browns preseason broadcast team cannot be thrilled at the prospects of having to mutter and stammer through vague discussions of Watson's "situation."
Watson's preseason start on Friday is either:
- A Haslam-level middle finger to the other owners, Rodger Goodell, and human decency;
- A Kevin Stefanski-level decision somewhere between "let's see if this flies" and "frankly, I don't want Brissett hurt at this point;"
- An effort to force Goodell and his "designee" to issue a verdict quickly; or
- Further indications that no one in the Browns organization has the foggiest idea what they are doing.
At this point, all I want from the Watson Files is clarity and finality. Issue a clear suspension and let us stop talking or thinking about this scuzzwaffle for a while. One year would be a lot better than six games, but six games would be better than another week of Watson conversations. Those of us who talk about him on radio, write about him, and are forced to ingest a steady stream of media about him really need the break. And just imagine how his dozens of (alleged) victims feel.
Watson won't disappear on Friday. But Walkthrough promises to be a No-Deshaun Zone until his next meaningful NFL game. And I sincerely hope that doesn't happen in October.