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COLUMN: Patriots at a crossroads after early season struggles

Patriots: New England Nation

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS – OCTOBER 25: Head coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots looks on from the sidelines during their NFL game against the San Francisco 49ers at Gillette Stadium on October 25, 2020 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

During the incredible and seemingly endless Patriots dynasty of two full decades you always knew the day would come. You know of the day I’m talking about–the day the Patriots were just…..average?

Average might be a generous term after the Patriots were beat down by Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, 33-6, the worst home loss in Bill Belichick’s coaching tenure in Foxboro.

That escalated quickly.

We knew the day was coming, but this quickly? The Patriots crossroads is seen clearly through the lens of the quarterback position. The guy that left Foxboro after 20 years and six Super Bowls led his first place team to another win yesterday. Oh yea, Tom Brady also put another feather in his Buccaneers cap by securing the all-time touchdown passing mark from Drew Brees.

What about the guy that was supposed to be Brady’s heir apparent? Jimmy Garoppolo was serviceable Sunday, leading San Francisco to a win. His zero touchdowns and two interceptions didn’t jump off the box score, but it could have been Johnny Foxboro leading the 49ers over the Pats yesterday at quarterback. He’s gone. The Patriots traded him in 2017.

What about Cam Newton? Remember when he was getting MVP buzz after the first two weeks of the season. He could do it on the ground (week one against Miami) or through the air (week two at Seattle). But since then Newton has struggled to throw the ball with any consistency and the designed runs have been few and far between. Newton is missing on reads and on throws. The most telling part of Sunday might have been during the postgame press conference when he had to remember which interception of his three a reporter was asking him about.

Newton is only here on a one year deal playing for peanuts and with the Patriots able to use the franchise tag on him for next season. Is he the future or a one year rental? The Patriots will find out plenty about Newton in the coming weeks as he faces adversity. Belichick assured everyone he’ll be the starting QB Sunday in Buffalo.

And if Cam isn’t the solution? It doesn’t feel like Jarrett Stidham is either. After everyone in Foxboro was pumping up “Stiddy” as the next guy into the month of July, he failed to win the backup job or do enough in replacement duty to stand out.

So who is the Patriots long term quarterback while Brady and the Bucs thrive and Jimmy G tries to dink-and-dunk the 49ers back to the Super Bowl? Even Bill Belichick might not know. But the Pats won’t be bad enough to tank for Clemson standout Trevor Lawrence and when was the last time a good quarterback was available in free agency? The Patriots need to figure out the game’s most important position or this post-Brady era could get ugly.

As for the team as a whole-a week after a disappointing and atypical clunker at home against the lowly Broncos, we all pointed to the lack of practice and COVID protocols that prevented the Patriots from properly preparing for the Broncos. What’s the excuse this week? There is none. And that’s the problem.

Bill Belichick and Cam Newton acknowledged that they needed to play better and coach better after Sunday’s loss but do the Patriots have the guys in the locker room to make that happen? The team’s lack of playmakers has become glaring. The lack of weapons that plagued Tom Brady in 2019 is rearing its ugly head again.

Newton only had seven completions to receivers on Sunday with N’Keal Harry leaving the game to injury and Julian Edelman looking like a shell of himself, clearly battling injury. Remember the Tight End position? The job Rob Gronkowski held down at an all-pro level? The Patriots have by far the lowest amount of competitions to tight ends with rookie Dalton Keene making his debut while fellow rookie Devin Asiasi missed the game. Neither has made the impact Patriots fans hoped for.

It’s also hard to “ground and pound” with a running game when there is no legitimate threat in the passing game. In 2019 when the Patriots rebranded as a running team en route to a Super Bowl win, defenses still had to respect Brady in the pocket. No one is afraid of Newton’s arm right now.

The defense that overachieved early in the season is clearing missing the leadership and play of opt out players like Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung. Sure the secondary is solid but the Pats front seven got run over Sunday to the tune of 197 yards. Speaking of the secondary, rumors are already swirling that Belichick could be shopping defensive player of the year, Stephon Gilmore. Trading Gilmore would be further evidence that the Patriots are in fact rebuilding.

Bill Belichick is too good of a coach for the Patriots to play like this the rest of the season but it will be a dogfight just to be in the AFC playoff picture in December.

The Patriots are average (I won’t say bad, quite yet).

We knew this day was coming. Just not this quickly.

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