Patriots deliver gut punch with first loss

Patriots deliver gut punch with first loss
September 17, 2012, 5:14 pm
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Imagine its a typical workday.

Maybe one a lot like today.

Youre sitting at your desk, catching up on e-mails, trying to be productive on a lazy Monday morning when all of sudden, an unfamiliar face appears in the hallway. Think George Clooney from Up in the Air (or one of the Bobs from Office Space). A quiet, confident man with a nice suit and a fancy briefcase.

He walks through without saying a word, sets up shop in an empty back office and closes the door behind him. At first, no one's quite sure what to think, but deep down, everyone knows the deal.

And then it begins. One by one, he starts calling co-workers into the room. A few minutes later, each one exits looking like their dog was just hit by a truck. They walk over to their desk, pack up their stuff and leave the building immediately. After five or six rounds, you get the call.

You take a deep breathe and make your way to the back already knowing whats about to happen; already in a panic over what youre going to do next.

You walk in, grab a seat and this Clooney character starts to speak:

OK, Dennis (Lets pretend your name is Dennis). Listen, first of all, I just want you to know that Im not here to fire you today.

Huh?

Your mind is blown.

Hes not here to fire you?

All right . . . hes not here to fire you!

A massive smile takes over your face. You unleash an emphatic fist pump an uncomfortable combination of young Tiger Woods and 2004 Howard Dean. You can't help it. Finally, you regain your composure and sit back down, already with a new lease on life.

Clooney continues: Were not firing you . . . but we do have to let you go.

HUH?

We dont want you to think of this as of firing, Dennis. Thats not what this is. Instead, were setting you out into the world to find what truly makes you happy . . . and were doing it immediately. I'm sorry. I know this is tough, but I promise it's for the best."

You walk out of the office in a daze, caught somewhere between anger, embarrassment, panic and confusion. What. The. Hell.

Did that really just happen? Did it have to happen like that?

If we've learned anything here in New England during this era of Patriots football, it's to never assume too much about what happens in the first month of the season.

After all, over the last 11 years, weve seen the Pats start 0-2 and go on to win the Super Bowl. Weve seen them start 3-0 and not even make the playoffs. Weve seen them get blown out by the Bills in Week 1, get outplayed by Steve Spurriers Redskins in Week 4, and then not lose another game for 13 months.

We've experienced all kinds of early-season drama drama on par with the aftermath of yesterday's loss to Arizona and the consequences are never as devastating as they feel in the moment. That doesn't mean that we should simply ignore the issues that presented themselves yesterday at Gillette. It's just that we know better than to get too carried away. We know that as easy as we can sit here today and question Bill Belichicks stubbornness, Josh McDaniels play calling, Tom Bradys arm and Gostkowskis nerve, the Pats can just as easily take care of business next week in Baltimore and flip the script entirely. We know that the script will flip another three or four times after that, at which point this team will hopefully head into the playoffs stronger and more prepared to succeed for having fought through the countless ups and downs of a 17-week season.

Bottom line: For now, we know that nothing about this team is real, and it probably won't be for some time. All we can do is go with the flow and always keep at least one foot on the ground.

But even with one foot on the ground, Sunday left us with plenty to digest.

The Wes Welker story will obviously dominate a lot of the conversation. At this point, it's clear that there's something going on. It's not so much that he's played fewer snaps, but that he's losing his snaps to Julian Edelman. That means either a) Belichick and McDaniels actually believe that Edelman a converted college quarterback with 60 career receptions over three-plus seasons gives them a better chance to win than the most prolific and generally reliable receiver in franchise history. Or b) It's something more sinister.

Being that these are the Patriots, we'll never get a clear cut answer and that will only lead to more conspiracy theories and greater speculation. But at the same time, thanks to the events of Week 2, the Welker conversation is about to enter into Sleep Mode.

With Aaron Hernandez on the shelf for the foreseeable future, there's no way the Pats can afford to bury Welker. He's going to have to play, and because he's Wes Welker, he's going to put up numbers. At this point, I don't think anyone will be surprised if No. 83 morphs back into the Slot Machine and helps carry the Pats through this Hernandez-less stretch. But we'll always wonder what's really going on, and how it will play out once they're back at full strength.

Here's a conspiracy theory that's not nearly as fun: Most of the commotion surrounding Welker's role is in direct comparison to last year's numbers. When he was on the field for only 64 percent of the team's snaps in Week 1, we looked to 2011, when he played 89 percent of New England's snaps and immediately assumed the worst. It's a phase out! This is personal! Belichick's lost his mind! But then there's this: Last year, Welker's playing time was up 19 percentage points from 2010, when he was only out there 70.7 percent of the time. In 2010, Welker's playing time was up eight percentage points from 2009, when he was out there only 62.1 percent of the time.

When you look at that big picture, is it possible that 2011 is actually the aberration, and not 2012?

After all, in terms of last season, you know the Pats expected to lean on Chad Ochocinco far more often than they did (or could). On top of that, Gronk was still maturing into the beast he is today and Aaron Hernandez missed three games with an MCL injury (and was out of sorts for a few more). Last season, they had no choice but to run Welker into the ground. Meanwhile, in 2012, the role theyd envisioned for Ochocinco was realized in Brandon Lloyd. Gronk and Hernandez had developed into the best tight end combo in football, and for the first time in forever, there was some semblance of a dynamic running game. So, isn't it only natural and logical that Welker's playing time would decrease? I'd say so, but still, the concept of losing that playing time to Edelman makes you wonder about the motives behind the shift.

On top of Welker, we're left with questions about the offensive line, which is down two Pro Bowlers from last season and looked the part against Arizona's attack. We're left with questions about the offense in general: How will they respond to the loss of Hernandez, a guy we've spent the last few months lauding as the most essential cog in Josh McDaniels' game plan? And what's up with that game plan? There were a ton a real frustrating and questionable decisions made in that huddle on Sunday (Tom E. Curran expands on that here).

We're left with questions about Gostkowski, who didn't just miss that last field goal, but straight up shanked it. Does this effect him moving forward? Does it effect Belichick's confidence in his kicker? And how about the symbolism over in Indy, where Adam Vinatieri nailed a 53-yard game-winner with eight seconds left?

There's been a lot made over the last 24 hours about the very unPatriot-like approach that New England took in their last possession on Sunday. The fact that, despite being at home with one of the best quarterbacks of all-time under center, the Pats elected to play for a field goal instead of flexing their muscles and going for the kill. After the game, Belichick was asked about the strategy, and naturally deflected the question: We scored a touchdown; got it called back," he said. "We had a touchdown called back."

Right, but it was a touchdown scored on a draw play that was run with no timeouts and less than a minute on the clock. All signs point to the New England playing for a field goal there, and it just doesn't make sense. Maybe for Norv Turner, but not a stone cold killer like Belichick.

Unless of course, it does.

Are you familiar with situational football?

Of course. And if you're familiar with Bill Belichick, then you know how much he loves the concept of situational football. Of putting his players in a position where, at some point down the stretch, they may find themselves again, only with much more on the line. He does this for a few reasons: 1) For the experience. So they're familiar with the weight of that kind of pressure situation. 2) To see what they're made of. To get a glimpse into how certain players react under certain conditions.

Belichick loves situational football. And you wonder if, especially after Woodhead's touchdown was called back, Belichick saw that last possession as an opportunity to throw his field goal unit into the fire. To give them the experience of having one snap, one hold and one very make-able kick be the difference between a win or a loss.

Worst case scenario: It's a Week 2 loss to a non-conference opponent. But more importantly, a wake up call, a fair punishment for four quarters of sad football (and a few days of less than inspired practice) and a season long reminder of the dangers of taking any NFL team for granted.

Best case: You win a game that you had no business winning, and your field goal unit will be that much better prepared the next time their backs are against the wall.

I don't know. That's obviously just a guess. Guessing is all we can do when it comes to understanding what goes on behind the Belichick curtain. We can only guess at what's going on with Welker. We can only guess on Brian Waters. We can only guess on Branch and Gaffney and the current state of the Patriots offense.

And we can only hope they'll take the field on Sunday night in Baltimore and prove that there's no need to second guess anything. Hard to believe that it's that easy, but at this stage in the NFL season, it doesn't take much to change the entire identity and all the expectations for a particular team.

Don't believe me. Go back and read every word that was written about New England last Monday.

With everything else that's going on with the Pats right now, not to mention the fact that, like we said, nothing has ever been decided in Week 2 of an NFL season, it's difficult to focus too much on the truly ridiculous final minute that we witnessed yesterday at Gillette.

Honestly, is there another game that even compares to what happened down the stretch there? When Ryan Williams ran for that last first down, the game was over. When Williams fumbled two plays later, and Woodhead rambled into the end zone, the game was over. When Gostkowski shanked the skin off of that last second field goal, the game was over.

In that one minute, we experienced the depression and emptiness of an upset loss.

The happiness and instantaneous celebration of a most fortunate and inexplicable turn of events.

And then, just as quickly, a crushing blow. One that took you out right at the knees and made you feel worse embarrassed, almost stupid for ever getting your hopes up in the first place.

It was just a brutal loss.

But thankfully, one that the Pats can go about quickly making up for.

Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine