Fitzy: Gut check, Aisle Patriots

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This makes no sense.

Remember all the way back to Summer 2020? Yes, it’s been a tumultuous year, so I’ll give you a second to kickstart your recall, if need be. OK, now, on the second to last day of summer, to be exact, the Patriots were fresh off a complete team victory over the Miami Dolphins in Cam Newton’s debut. The offense was energetic, diversified, unpredictable and most of synchronous. The defense played fast, aggressive and connected. Cam was electric. Belichick was ecstatic. The fanbase elated. The first game of the post-Brady era a rousing roundabout success.

You felt great, right?

The next week they travel to Seattle to play an offensively superior and defensively inferior Seahawks team on Sunday Night Football. After a debut won largely on the ground the Pats air it out, with both Newton and Julian Edelman having arguably their finest days as QB and WR. Forced to keep up with Russell Wilson and company the Pats storm back, only to lose on by not converting the final play on the goal line. Heartbreaking and yet heartening at the same time, it would come to be known as a “moral victory”, with fans, media and team alike believing in this team.

You still felt great or pretty great, right?

Now, just over a month later, with only one victory added to the tally, coming off three consecutive defeats - two of which were mostly non-competitive, the most recent being arguably the worst regular season loss in the Belichick era - I couldn’t tell you about any bright spots on the Patriots, how they turn their season around, nor with any certainty that these same Patriots could beat the Cowboys, Jets or Jaguars at this point.

You feel gross, right? Yeah, me too.

So, what happened?

Never have I seen such a dizzying turnaround, such a drastic dropoff -- from awesome to awful in just a month’s time -- in all my years of Patriots fandom, Belichick or not. The dark days of Hodson, Millen and Secules under center, Rust or MacPherson patrolling the sidelines (yes, I was there for them) are what made the ascension of the Patriots to competitive relevance in the mid 90’s so thrilling. What made their rise to dominance during the Brady-Belichick era so satisfying. And what’s making this team’s parallel play to those early atrocities so jarring.

Those teams stunk. This team doesn’t. Or does it? I’m confused.

In the year following the departure of Tom Brady most Pats fans will likely tell you that they knew they’d lived high on the hog for a long time and expected some regression. I thought it was a house money season; whatever you get you take it because you’d been on top for ages. And so long as the team played hard and delivered an effort indicative of Patriots football this century, I think most fans would accept whatever fate the team endured. That’s not to say winning and complacency birthed a softness in the Foxboro fanbase that makes moral victories an acceptable norm. Rather with this team’s recent history and staggering offseason attrition just being good would be, well, more than good enough.

What we’ve seen since the end of the first half in Kansas City has been unsettling and at times unacceptable. Dare I say embarrassing? I dared. I stand by. It’s like Hoyer’s two red zone gaffes in KC opened a portal to an alternate universe, dragging the good effort and talent of these 2020 Patriots into it, leaving behind a pallid shell of their early season selves.

Even when the Patriots were bad in Belichick’s first season (at one point 2-8 on their way to 5-11) there was never anything but an admirable effort given in a time of turnover and renovation. When the Patriots lost four straight (once during the Belichick era) it was 2002, after a 4-0, a time chalked up to Super Bowl hangover, growing pains for Brady, the champs taking everyone’s best shot (also I blame Tara Reid, who Brady was allegedly dating at the time). Statistically, Belichick’s worst defeat was the opener from 2003, a 31-0 shellacking in Buffalo (no 31-0 moral victories), which could be rationalized as The Milloy/Bledsoe revenge game. Also those same Patriots beat Buffalo 31-0 in Foxboro to end that same season, in which they won the Super Bowl. I couldn’t tell you Sunday what the plan was, on other side of the ball, other than “Try not to lose by 50”. And I don’t know how you’d convince me this team would score 31 points again this season.

Belichick has more than his work cut out for him, perhaps more than ever before. And with all the personnel and schematic issues facing the Patriots, their first job is to figure out who they are. Forget about an identity crisis as to whether or not you are a running or a passing team. This team’s identity crisis is wondering whether they are good or not. Whether they’re competing for now, or rebuilding for later. Will they be buyers or sellers? Basically, are they in or are they out?

There’s no one person you can blame beyond Bill. Sure, you can blame Cam, who has played his worst football the past few weeks, but maybe COVID-19 affected him more than we realize, because he’s all out of sorts. But Cam doesn’t play every position. I understand blaming others for your problems is a rite of passage and beloved pastime in New England. That and drink and deny the ones we love our honest emotions are some of our most endearing traits. But now is the time for honest assessment and accountability. And it starts with the coach, who is nowhere near a hot seat, but might for the first time in ages be feeling some warmth. And not the loving kind.

Most fans will tell you that a bounty of championships spoiled them, but that establishing a new reign of terror, or addressing the lack of duckboat parades, is far from paramount to them. They just want the team to be fun to watch, especially given the dearth of things to do and see together these days. The Patriots have built up too much of a name, a brand and a reputation to watch it all get flushed down the contact-free drain in a matter of weeks. Nobody likes losing, but losing in consistently non-competitive fashion?

Believe it or not most fans, be they die-hards of old, dynasty babies or in-between like yours truly, could handle a rebuild, or even kinda sucking again, if we knew what the plan was. But after a hot start the team seems rudderless, hopeless, listless - all the wrong -less words! You’ve even got former players saying the team “is lost” now. And now the Pats are playing for their season’s mortality, before the trade deadline, on the road, against a division rival that’s been under thumb for over two decades, barking at the gate, waiting for a chance to put your hopes to bed and establish a new pecking order in the East.

So what will it be, 2020 Patriots? Was Tedy Bruschi right, before he walked his comments back? Have the words of Trent Dilfer from 2014 finally come home to roost? Or are these growing pains that should be expected in a post-Brady pandemic filled season? Should we have seen this coming? Is that why Brady left? Does Belichick have the answers, since this is the task he so willingly undertook? Despite criticism aplenty these are the players he, and his dog, selected to represent the most successful franchise in sports over the past twenty-plus seasons. And for a team that’s made playing and thriving in big games their raison d’etre for decades, they face their biggest challenge in ages this Sunday.

Well, maybe their second biggest. First, they need to figure out who they are, what they’re doing, who they’re going to do it with, and how they plan on doing it.

You know, just another average week in Foxboro.