Hannable: Reasons for Patriots’ issues in 2018? Look no further than the top

Ryan Hannable
December 17, 2018 - 10:03 pm
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It’s been an unusual year in New England when it comes to the Patriots.

At 9-5 with two weeks remaining, the Patriots are already guaranteed to have the most losses in a season since 2009 and also have a real chance to play on wild card weekend for the first time since that year as well.

There’s no denying there have been some outlying factors that certainly haven’t helped matters, particularly on offense. Julian Edelman was suspended the first four games, Rob Gronkowski has been battling ankle/back issues, a number of receivers didn’t work out over the summer leading to the team trading for a troubled Josh Gordon after Week 2, and then the running back position was finally at full strength just two weeks ago.

“It’s taken awhile for things to come together for us," Tom Brady said on Mut & Callahan Monday morning. "I think every week you learn and it’s learn right up through the end of the year. We’ve just dealt with a lot of different situations and injuries and players coming in and out.”

But, what it really comes down to is the Patriots’ best players are not playing to their capabilities, or at least what they have shown in the past. It’s as simple as that.

As much as some would like to deny it, Brady at 41 years old has slipped a bit. This certainly is not saying he’s no longer a very good NFL quarterback, or anything along those lines, it is just acknowledging he is not playing at the same MVP level as year ago. 

There are a number of factors that go into that — potential trust issues with who he’s working with in the passing game, potential injury, etc. — but Brady is not carrying the offense like he has been able to do in the past.

He’s also not performing well compared to other quarterbacks in the league. Going into Monday Night Football, Brady is 18th in completion percentage, fifth in passing yards, tied for 10th in touchdown passes and 12th in quarterback rating.

Edelman and Gronkowski have not been the same, either. The Patriots were able to get away with one of them missing significant time each of the last two years, but that was because Edelman had a phenomenal year in 2016 and Gronkowski stayed virtually injury-free last year. 

Now, both aren’t 100 percent and it’s showing up.

Gronkowski has missed three games and even though he hasn’t been on the injury report recently, he clearly has been battling ankle/back injuries really since Week 2. The tight end is a lot slower than what we’re used to seeing and that comes with lacking an initial burst off the ball. He just isn’t as explosive as in the past.

Teams also aren’t treating him differently than just an average tight end. Gronkowski isn’t getting double-teamed as much as in the past and there was a long stretch in the middle of the year where opposing linebackers could almost take him out of games strictly in 1-on-1 matchups.

The 29-year-old is on pace to have 51 catches for 752 yards and three touchdowns, which will be his fewest catches, yards and touchdowns when playing more than 11 games since his rookie year in 2010.

Meanwhile, Edelman has been solid since returning from his four-game suspension, but what some aren’t realizing is he’s also coming back from a torn ACL. The shifty wide out is still quick, but his feet aren’t as good as they were pre-injury when cornerbacks would consistently get burned because of his shiftiness. It just seems like it’s a lot harder for him to get open than in the past. He also appears to be dealing with a foot injury that he shakes out almost every week.

In addition, he missed the first four weeks and that certainly played into the team losing Weeks 2-3 on the road. Not saying he solely would have been the difference, but he definitely would not have made them worse.

On the other side of the ball, it’s Dont’a Hightower.

The linebacker was given the benefit of the doubt early in the year coming back from a season-ending injury last year, but it’s now been 14 games and he still looks slow. He makes up for it sometimes because of how smart of a player he is, but it is very clear age has caught up to the Alabama product.

Hightower has 43 tackles on the year, which are ninth on the team. Kyle Van Noy has exactly double that. With Hightower missing just one game, that is not good.

At one time Hightower was considered the Patriots’ best player on defense, but now he is part of a slow and aging linebackers group that has had issues with running backs in coverage, and now are having issues stopping the run.

All good teams are led by their best players, and right now the Patriots’ just haven’t been able to like they once could.

With that being said, there are still two weeks of the regular season left and then whatever happens in the postseason. It’s notable there is no real dominant team in the AFC and the Patriots can really beat any team on any day, but at the same time they can lose to any team on any day.

The Patriots and their star players still have a chance to change the narrative when it comes to them and the team, but if they don’t it may be the sign the recent run of dominance with them is nearing its end.

Related: Bill Belichick on OMF: 2018 Patriots ‘a lot different’ than 2009