Callahan: How to split the Patriots’ blame pie after a disastrous 2020 season

The 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. Bad drafts (60%)
Over the past seven years, the Patriots’ collection of draft classes has ranked among the worst in the entire league. This is why the team’s roster is now old and hollow.
Punter Jake Bailey is the team’s only homegrown Pro Bowler since 2013, and before his selection, the Pats and Bengals were the only franchises to not draft a Pro Bowler during that time. Meanwhile, their top picks busting out has become an annual occurrence: Dominque Easley, Cyrus Jones, Derek Rivers and N’Keal Harry, to name a few.
If any one or two of those players hit — especially Harry — this is a different team.
The Pats’ current roster state is a multi-year failing, especially at tight end and wide receiver, where aging stars, Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, were never properly replaced despite years of notice. The tight end position has been a black hole for two years now, wide receiver for three, and the front seven is so thin on talent it’s been fielding practice-squad players for half of this season.
It’s no surprise the Pats’ lone elite position group — their offensive line — boasts the front office’s two best draft picks of the last five years: 2016 third-rounder Joe Thuney and 2020 sixth-rounder Michael Onwenu. The draft is how the Patriots found themselves in this mess, and it will be their only way out of it.
2. Inadequate weapons (15%)
What more can be said?
The Patriots field the least threatening group of pass catchers in the entire league. Together, they rank dead last in all major receiving categories. No defensive coordinator looks at this group and does anything by smile.
Rookie tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene have appeared in 13 combined games and caught two passes for 10 yards. Two passes! Dalton snagged both of those despite playing in three fewer games. This position has been a total failure.
Out wide, Damiere Byrd is a No. 4 option masquerading as a starter. Jakobi Meyers would be best served as a slot receiver on a good team. N’Keal Harry might get cut next season, and deservedly so. No one — including little-used Donte Moncrief and Gunner Olszewski — can separate from man coverage, aside from Meyers.
The job of a wide receiver is simple: get open and catch the ball. When you fail at the first, as the Patriots have, you can’t execute the second, and that’s sunk their offense as much as anything.
3. Poor quarterback play (15%)
Regardless of how you divide blame for the Pats’ passing woes — from being hardly Cam Newton’s fault to their his sole responsibility — the truth is Newton hasn’t played winning football. And that’s all that matters.
He’s operating a conservative, rudimentary passing attack in Week 16, a reflection of his progress and his receiving corps. Newton’s been protected at an above-average level, yet he’s thrown twice as many interceptions as touchdowns and been benched three times.
Newton powered the Patriots to becoming one of the best rushing teams in the NFL, but in an era of all-time passing, the value of such a ranking is diminished. Not to mention it offers the Pats nothing when they fall behind.
Not that Jarrett Stidham or Brian Hoyer (remember him?) have been better. Together, they arguably cost the Pats a win at Kansas City in Week 4. Stidham has completed exactly half his career passes and thrown a pick on almost 10% of his attempts. He’s not an NFL starter, something the coaching staff has quietly tried to communicate with its staunch commitment to Newton and refusal to start the kid.
4. Bad breaks (5%)
As the Patriots well know, every Super Bowl champion benefits from good fortune at one time or another during its journey.
On the flip side, most bad teams are spurned by Lady Luck during lost seasons, something the Pats have now learned.
No NFL team had more preseason opt-outs than the Patriots, who desperately needed Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung for stretches of the season. The team’s COVID-19 outbreak in early October killed any momentum the team had carried from a 2-1 start, which preceded an admirable effort at Kansas City despite same-day travel circumstances. After that, Pats players and coaches worked straight through what was retroactively labeled their bye week once their home game against Denver was postponed.
Later, key injuries and personal tragedies dented their already scarce depth at running back, tight end, defensive line and linebacker.
5. Tough schedule (5%)
In the same way the Patriots’ cupcake schedule in 2019 built them up into a juggernaut they were not, their difficult 2020 slate has accentuated certain weaknesses.
For the first time in 20 years, the Pats will likely have shared the division with two playoff teams, assuming the Dolphins clinch a Wild Card spot Sunday. Games against Miami and Buffalo account for a quarter of their schedule. Then, there were trips to play the Chiefs, the AFC’s top seed, the NFC West champion Seahawks and the potentially playoff-bound Rams. If Los Angeles falters this weekend, that means Arizona will make the postseason.
The Pats hosted the Cards in Week 11, two weeks after beating the Ravens, another contender, on Sunday Night Football. They were fortunate to edge Baltimore, but unlucky that their two games post-outbreak came against well-coached defensive teams, the Broncos and 49ers, who both beat them. If there’s any silver lining to 2020, it’s that next season’s schedule is guaranteed to be easier.
Though the road ahead unquestionably remains rocky.

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