Now that the Albert Haynesworth experiment has failed and the Ochocinco... whatever it is... is failing as well, it looks like the New England Patriots have lost their grip on not just the AFC East, but their dominance of the AFC as a whole. With a reputation for cutting ties with a player a year too soon rather than a year to late (sans Tom Brady), the Haynesworth and Ochocinco signings were out of the norm for the Patriots. But, without a playoff win since the AFC Championship game in 2008, are they getting desperate?
In recent years the Patriots have gone away from the pillar that made them who they were. That no one, no player was greater than the sum of parts making up the team. With a reputation of getting more out of their players than most, the Patriots reached the pinnacle of success in the early aughts. They won three Super Bowls in four years, and narrowly missed another in what was an undefeated regular season. (They remain the only 18-1 team in NFL history.)
While New England had its share of great players develop and come through, they did it predominantly over this stretch with great organizational guys and strong role players. Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk and Deion Branch were just as vital in those Super Bowl runs as were Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, and Richard Seymour. The first three in that group combined to total 1-All Pro selection among them compared to 10-All Pro selections for the others. And with the exception of Brown and Faulk, all were allowed (or pushed) to leave New England.
Fans did not show outrage over it. The media did not criticize it, in fact they celebrated it. It was the Patriot Way and it worked. All-knowing Bill Belichick had three Super Bowl rings in four years to prove it.
Then something happened. The rest of the AFC elite began to catch up. Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts figured out how to beat Tom Brady when it mattered and the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger to physically overwhelm opponents.
Finding their dominance threatened, New England started to take steps to amend The Patriot Way, slowly but ultimately opening the door for the situation they find themselves in now.
Step 1: Dangerous Chemistry Experiments
Their first move showing signs that New England was willing to go away from their "team above all else" mantra was Belichick bringing in Randy Moss. After his luster wore off in Minnesota and two disappointing years in Oakland, New England was willing to take a chance. A chance they would be the ones to unlock Moss’ hidden motivation and take advantage of the overwhelming talent Moss still possessed.
The Patriots had already had success converting a "problem child" into a productive member of the team when they acquired Corey Dillon in 2004. But this challenge was on another level.
Taking a chance in the draft is one thing. Taking a chance on Randy Moss is something entirely different. Belichick and Brady were certain the culture they had worked so hard to impress upon everyone in that locker room was strong enough and contagious enough to win over Randy Moss. If they would be right he would be more than enough to vault the Patriots back to the peak of the AFC.
They were right… for a while. Until his skills declined and his personality relapsed in 2010, Moss gave the New England Patriots three tremendous seasons. Compiling nearly 4000 yards receiving and 47 touchdowns and contributing to what was nearly the most incredible run in the history of the NFL. As great as he was in and for the Patriots, though, perhaps he unlocked or rather enabled a behavior within them that lies within all great team and coaches. A trait that can lead to either success or, in most cases, horrible failure.
Like the pretty girl in school who is certain she can convince the jerk to settle down and "change his ways," many NFL coaches KNOW they can turn around a player. Get him to play to his potential, get him to focus and "change his ways." Sure, no other coach around the league has been able to but they are different… Bill Belichick was different.
Thinking like this comes out of desperation and, more often than not, ego. This is where the Patriots found themselves after their Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. They had gone 18-1 and lost the Super Bowl. They did everything right. Tom Brady threw for 50 touchdowns… 50. Yet they did not win it all. How did this happen and more importantly what could be done to fix it.
Step 2: Life Without Brady.
Roll forward to the beginning of the 2008 regular season. This would be the year the Patriots completed the improbable run to an undefeated season culminating with them as Super Bowl champions. Why wouldn’t it. Nearly every piece from the 2007 version was back. The football gods apparently had different plans: Tom Brady was removed from the equation a mere 11 passing attempts into the season. With Matt Cassel at the helm New England finished a very respectable 11-5 but missed out on the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
Panic and desperation sets in. As a result the Patriots find themselves willing to compromise, and due to the success they initially had with Randy Moss, take a few more chances. As they had not done before during the Belichik reign they began looking around the league for lightning in a bottle. That next project that would again allow them to prove the Patriot Way conquers all.
As noted in the beginning, once known for cutting lose players still in their prime (see Richard Seymour just two years prior) New England was now bringing in veterans, often broke down and in decline. Fred Taylor was brought on board in 2009 and over the course of two seasons played in 13 games and rushed for four touchdowns. Junior Seau was coaxed out of retirement, but contributed only 36 tackles in 11 games over two seasons. Torry Holt was then signed heading into the 2010 season but never played due to injury and eventually retired.
These moves however would pale in comparison to what the New England Patriots would do prior to the 2011 season. In what can only be described as the most "I’ll change his ways" efforts ever taken upon an individual, the Patriots signed not one but two of the most notorious head cases in the NFL.
Step 3: Enter Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.
Changing these two while convincing them to buy into the Patriot Way would be more difficult than getting Kim Kardashian to accept a lifestyle out of the spotlight. But desperate times call for desperate measures. The Steelers had just played in their third Super Bowl since New England last won, and their hated rivals over in New Jersey -- Rex Ryan's Jets -- had made it to the previous two AFC Championship games.
Something had to be done. That something was Ochocinco and Haynesworth. This would make the difference, it had to. Only it didn’t.
Sitting in 2nd place at 5-3 in the AFC East (behind of all teams the Buffalo Bills) with this Sunday’s game at the Jets looming, the Patriots need a win. This team has not needed a win in some time. Having already parted ways with Albert Haynesworth after only six games and three tackles in, and 9 receptions and 136 yards into Ochocinco’s season, that is where they find themselves. The Albert Haynesworth failure says a lot about the player, but it is also an indictment of the team and where they are.
The New England Patriots do not just want to win… they are desperate to win. And their actions show it.