2009 another lost season for the New England Patriots

The 2009 season was a series of peaks and valleys for the New England Patriots. It ended six feet under after the Baltimore Ravens beat the snot out of the home team at Gillette Stadium in the second AFC Wild Card game.

The 33-14 blow out didn’t expose any previously unknown flaws in the Patriots roster or scheme, it was more of a summary of the many woes that kept the team from getting much of anything going this season.

In sharp contrast to 2001, 2003 and 2007, the 2009 player acquisitions failed to give the team a boost. Consequently, the Patriots’ slow but visible decline continued on both sides of the ball. The play calling on offense frequently seemed unimaginative and even erratic, quite often robbing the Patriots of momentum. Defense was more or less the same as it has been for the last couple of years, but with ever less offensive production to hide behind. Opposing teams went after New England’s defense with downfield passing and generally had great success doing so.

The most memorable play of the season is no doubt head coach Bill Belichick’s decision to go for first down on fourth and two with the ball at his team 28-yard line late in the game against the Indianapolis Colts. If the Patriots had managed to get the two yards they would have won, but a short pass right was briefly bobbled by runningback Kevin Faulk and by the time he had secured the ball he had been push behind the first down marker. The Colts went on to win the game.

In the week leading up to the game against Carolina Panthers late in the season Belichick sent four players home from practice after they arrived late for a film session. One of the players, wide receiver Randy Moss, seemed to respond by completely tanking it against the Panthers. Whatever the case, Belichick regained control of the team and steered it to its first AFC Division East Championship since 2007. That was as good as things got. In the final game of the regular season wide receiver Wes Welker sustained a major knee-injury that ended his season and probably doomed New England’s. Without his sure-handed Wizard of the Underneath Brady was left with a receiver corps that on balance was weaker than the mostly sorry lot he had to work with in 2006.

However, one shouldn’t be overly pessimistic regarding the team’s prospects in the 2010 season. Two new upper echelon receivers should prove quite enough to substantially improve the offense even before Welker’s return. That alone would likely improve all other areas of the team just by creating more yards, more first downs and more points. The Patriots haven’t had a quality third wide receiver since Donte Stallworth departed after the 2007 season and it has shown. Stallworth had the speed, strength and balance to present a true homerun threat when lined up alongside Moss and Welker. Without a quality third wide receiver the offense has been unable to counter defenses’ measures to minimize the damage wrought by Moss and Welker. It has also meant that the Patriots have a thin corps. Julian Edelman, who played quarterback for Kent State in college, has absolutely no business playing second wide receiver and quite frankly probably isn’t all that good even as fourth. The same is equally true for Sam Aiken, who earned his living as a special teams contributor before injuries and failed attempts to upgrade the wide receiver position suddenly put him in the top four.

Likewise, adding two defensive players, preferably linebackers, with notable pass rushing skills and the secondary will likely look quite a bit better than it did in 2009. The current lack of pass rush has made it extremely difficult for the secondary to contain even average passing attacks. A stronger pass rush could change that and in the process give defensive players a chance to prove themselves as playmakers, something they were painfully unable to do this past season.

Yes, a few more points and a bit more pressure could – should – be enough to restore the Patriots to the elite level of NFL, to the 12-13 wins range and to competing for first round byes rather than play off berths.

Some wail and lament that the loss to the Ravens was the end of the dynasty. As I wrote here at the time, I think the 2006 regular-season loss to the Miami Dolphins was the end of the dynasty, but it really doesn’t matter when the dynasty died or if it is dead. What matters is success in 2010, what matters is winning the next Lombardi Trophy.