Is This (Finally) the End of the Patriots?

I don’t think what happened last night is Tom Brady’s fault. I’m going to tell you why, and it’s going to sound like I’m making excuses, and in the long run, maybe that will end up being the case. It’s entirely possible to see how ineffective the Patriots have been on offense over the first four weeks and suggest they are fatally flawed and there is something horribly wrong with them to the extent that even Tom Brady and Bill Belichick can’t fix it.

Watching the Patriots get blown out by the Chiefs on Monday night, it was hard to focus on Brady when the world was falling apart around him. It would be like blaming the Earth for being engulfed by the sun after it turns into a red giant. Monday’s loss — and to a lesser extent, these first four games for New England — looked and felt like an offensive ecosystem collapsing.

There are all kinds of problems with New England’s offense. Brady is somewhere on that list, but he is hardly near the top. He isn’t wobbling in passes with a fraction of his old arm strength, or getting caught up in the pass rush without the ability to move inside the pocket, or losing the ability to hit his receivers in stride. Most of his throws Monday night were on time and on the money, notably the slant he threw to Brandon LaFell that yielded a missed tackle and a 44-yard touchdown. This throw to Gronkowski for 17 yards had zip and was placed where Brady wanted:

Was he Aaron Rodgers? No. Was he much different from the guy he was in 2012 and 2013, when we weren’t having a discussion about whether Tom Brady was toast? Just about indistinguishable, to be honest.

The players around Tom Brady, however? Beyond a few hardy souls who held up against a physically dominant Chiefs defense, they were close to useless. I went back and charted the entire game after the blowout ended, and it was honestly incredible to see how flailing and desperate the offense was around Brady.

That starts with the offensive line, which was already New England’s biggest problem heading into Week 4. This was supposed to be the week the Patriots turned things around, by virtue of benching dismal right guard Jordan Devey and inserting rookie fourth-rounder Bryan Stork into the lineup at center. Devey was inactive Monday, with Stork starting at the pivot, fellow rookie Cameron Fleming moving into the starting lineup at right guard, and Dan Connolly shifting over to replace Marcus Cannon at left guard.

Honestly, the whole line played so badly that it made me wonder whether Devey should come back next week. Unless there were unannounced injuries or planned rotations, the Patriots benched three offensive linemen during parts of Monday’s game. Tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer were each taken out after subpar series before returning, while Fleming was benched for Ryan Wendell (who himself was benched earlier in the year). Fleming was whipped repeatedly by Allen Bailey, most notably on the pressure that produced the first of two Brady strip-sacks. Solder was then left in the dust by Tamba Hali on the second, with Hali jumping the snap count and hitting Brady without as much as a touch from Solder.

Brady was hurried on seven of his 25 drop-backs, and that number was only that low because Josh McDaniels dialed up every bit of smoke and mirrors he possibly could to distract the Kansas City pass rush from eating his linemen alive. There was a shovel pass, an immediate swing pass, a play-action off the jet sweep, and at least four screens. Brady rarely was asked to throw downfield, and even if he had wanted to, he wouldn’t have had the time anyway. The Patriots ran the ball a fair amount early on, but they rarely did much with it, as their seven rushes produced just 24 yards in the first half. The offensive line didn’t look much better on those runs, with a third-and-2 sweep wiped out when a pulling Stork was simply shoved into the backfield.

Brady also didn’t get a ton of help from his receivers, LaFell aside. Julian Edelman was closely covered all night, but there were three very catchable balls from Brady that hit Edelman in the hands and bounced out. More disconcertingly, Edelman simply stopped in the middle of an out-and-up route, leaving Sean Smith with one of the easier interceptions you’ll ever see.

Then again, why should we expect Brady to get a lot of help from his receivers? Rob Gronkowski clearly isn’t anywhere close to 100 percent. Edelman is a college quarterback who nobody else in the league wanted in free agency before the 2013 season. Danny Amendola, who some idiot expected to replace Wes Welker, is almost a punch line and serves essentially as Edelman’s backup at this point. Aaron Dobson, a 2013 second-rounder, can’t get on the field. Tim Wright, the deep sleeper from the Logan Mankins trade, has four catches in four games. LaFell, somehow, is the only receiver who looked like he belonged on the field for most of last night.

And, truthfully, there’s little reason to think the line should be very good. Legendary Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia made a career of piecing together excellent lines from scraps under Belichick, and while Robert Mays and I talked about the possibility of the Patriots struggling without the retired Scarnecchia in a (very rosy) Patriots preview podcast, nobody could have envisioned it would be this bad.

Perhaps we were naive to think otherwise. Stork and Fleming are rookie fourth-rounders. Wendell was an undrafted free agent. Cannon was a fifth-rounder, and while he fell in the 2011 draft because he was suffering from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the time, he really hadn’t been very effective when Scarnecchia was still around. The more distressing problems have been with tackles Solder and Vollmer, the two high draft picks who had been playing at an elite level in years past. They’ve both looked to have regressed mightily.

The most typical play of the game came on a third-and-3 in the second quarter. The Chiefs rushed four against five Patriots offensive linemen. Watch as three of Kansas City’s four rushers beat their men at the snap, only for Brady to take the perfect step in the pocket and move right past them. I won’t argue that he might have been able to run for the first down, but that would have ended up taking a hit. Instead, Brady throws in stride to a tightly-covered Edelman, who has the ball bounce off of his hands under pressure from Marcus Cooper, ending the drive.

Who is the problem there? The quarterback who probably chose incorrectly between two middling options and made a good throw? The receiver who couldn’t come up with a catchable-but-difficult pass? Or the offensive linemen who looked like they got hit with the music box from Super Mario Bros. 3?

That’s not to say that Brady played perfectly or anywhere close to it on Monday night.1 He looked like a passer who wasn’t confident in the players around him and was doing whatever he could to avoid relying on the rest of the offense. When Brady would try to throw his receivers open early, he would put passes in places where only his receiver would be able to make plays on the football, but went so far out of his way to do so that the throws were also in places where his receivers couldn’t really make plays on the ball.

As was the case last week, when Brady rarely trusted his line long enough to go past his first read, his throws were often out as quickly as possible and to the first open receiver he could find. Some of that was by design, as McDaniels clearly wanted to ensure Brady didn’t have to hold on to the football and get walloped. The first interception was mostly Edelman’s fault, but it’s also fair to say it would have been a likely incompletion or possibly even still an interception even if Edelman had finished his route. And the second pick was entirely on Brady, a desperate throw toward Amendola into a window that simply wasn’t there.

The Chiefs also deserve credit, especially for what they did when Brady was on the sideline. The Patriots came into the game with the league’s best defensive DVOA, and while the Chiefs mostly attacked New England’s 18th-ranked run defense, they did enough against the top-ranked pass defense to give Patriots fans pause.

Andy Reid put together an excellent game plan with his passing attack, showing little fear of the New England rush while manipulating the Patriots with all kinds of varieties on trips sets. The Chiefs lined up Dwayne Bowe in the middle of those sets early, forcing the Patriots (when in man coverage) to either line up Darrelle Revis against Bowe outside of Revis’s comfort zone on the sideline or stick an inferior cornerback on Kansas City’s best wideout. Bowe beat Revis on a slant for a key first down before Kansas City’s first touchdown. The Chiefs split Jamaal Charles out in another trips bunch set on the next drive for a 5-yard touchdown catch. And the Patriots had no answer for Travis Kelce, who glided past overmatched linebackers during a eight-catch, 93-yard night.

As smooth as Alex Smith was, the Chiefs simply beat up the Patriots at the line of scrimmage. Knile Davis and Charles combined for 199 rushing yards on 34 carries, many of which came with a red carpet guiding them through the line of scrimmage. Twenty-two of their 34 rushes went for four-plus yards, a first down, or a touchdown, which is a good sign of how consistently effective they were running the football. One can only imagine how furious Eagles fans were as they shouted at the TV about how Reid should have done this with Duce Staley and Brian Westbrook years ago. At least they got to see Reid fumble with clock management at the end of the first half.

While the Chiefs certainly contributed, it’s also fair to say this is a problem that has been brewing for the Patriots. Their offense was abysmal against Oakland in Week 3, scoring 16 points against a team that has allowed 29 points per game in their other three contests to Geno Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Ryan Tannehill. The Patriots’ most impressive performance of the season is a 30-7 win over the Vikings, a game where they got a blocked field goal return for a touchdown and four interceptions from Matt Cassel, who might actually have sacrificed his free will to Belichick in return for his NFL career. In that game, Brady was just 14-of-21 for 149 yards. It wasn’t exactly the Brady of old.

In fact, after four games, his numbers are actually pretty Cassel-esque. After last night, Brady is 81-of-137 (59.1 percent) for 791 yards (5.8 yards per attempt) with four touchdowns and two picks. That’s a passer rating of 79.1. It’s not Uggs-worthy. It’s also not without precedent. Brady has posted several stretches during his career with a passer rating below 79, including four-game runs during the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, and 2013 campaigns. He’s come back from worse than this, and it’s not uncommon for a good quarterback in the middle of his prime to have a bad stretch like this, let alone one toward the end of his run.

It’s easy to speculate that this is some new low level of play from Brady because it’s the four opening games of a season, but that’s likely an artificial endpoint. Brady posted a 70.8 passer rating during the first four games of the 2003 season, throwing seven picks during a 2-2 start. After that, he bumped things up to a 91.1 rating over the final 12 regular-season games, throwing just five picks while leading the Patriots on a 12-game winning streak before winning the Super Bowl.

For whatever reason, it seems difficult to believe he’ll make that sort of leap forward this time around. Maybe it’s because he’s older. Maybe it’s because the line is so horrific, even though I doubt that sports radio hosts were calming down Patriots fans in 2003 because they had Scarnecchia on staff.2 It’s not impossible to envision a second-half run where the Patriots finally get the interior line combination right, Gronkowski gets healthier and looks more like his old self, Edelman stretches teams horizontally, and somebody — likely Dobson — provides a semblance of a deep threat.

After Monday, though, it’s not hard to envision the end, either.

J Schooled

The clock ran out for EJ Manuel on Monday afternoon. Bills coach Doug Marrone announced he was benching Manuel for Kyle Orton, a move that seems to bring Manuel’s time as the team’s quarterback of the future to an abrupt end. Even worse, it’s hard to argue that the move represents much of a surprise.

If Manuel’s started his final game for the Bills, it’ll be one of the quickest hooks a quarterback selected in the first round has experienced in recent memory. After struggling with knee injuries throughout his rookie season, Manuel only made it through 14 starts before being benched for Orton. That would be the second-fewest starts by a first-round quarterback through the first four years of his career3 since the turn of the century. The only first-round passer with a shorter run would be Brady Quinn, who had 12 starts in his three seasons with the Cleveland Browns.

Manuel still has time to add to his totals, but after Sunday, it’s hard to imagine the Bills will find him to be a particularly appealing option. It’s not unreasonable to say Manuel was the reason the Bills lost to the Texans on Sunday, given that the Bills defense absolutely shut down the Houston running game and picked off Ryan Fitzpatrick early in the second half, giving Manuel a short field while up 10-7. Manuel proceeded to throw a memorable pick-six to J.J. Watt, which totally shifted the game. Houston led the rest of the way.

And it wasn’t just one bad play. Manuel had one of the worst performances you’ll see from a passer all year. His numbers — 21-of-44, 225 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions — aren’t just bad. Somehow, they overrate the way he played, too. Manuel was 10-of-11 on throws to his running backs, with most of the resulting 79 yards coming after the catch. On throws to his wide receivers and tight ends, Manuel was 11-of-32 for 146 yards, and 80 of those yards came on a pass to Mike Williams against a totally blown coverage by the Texans defense. That stuff counts, but the degree of difficulty on the plays where Manuel actually accrued yardage was very low.

It seems quick to bench Manuel just two games after he led the Bills to a 2-0 start, but Manuel was erratic in those two season-opening wins, and there’s a chance this has been the plan for a while. The Bills signed Orton to a relatively large contract for a backup quarterback in late August, a move that seemed to suggest Manuel would be on a short leash.

Given that Orton didn’t know the playbook and had to get into something resembling game shape after sitting out training camp, even the most aggressive timeline would have had Orton taking over the starting job after one month of prep. Despite Marrone saying, “Oh my god … absolutely not,” at the idea of putting Orton in a week ago, we’re now one month into the season, and Orton is on his way in.

There is one complicating factor that likely accelerated Manuel’s demise: the arrival of new owner Terry Pegula. The rule of thumb in the NFL is to assume that a new hire in a major role will enact change upon the people below them. When a new coach gets hired, it’s fair to assume he’ll hire new assistants. When a new general manager gets hired, it usually means the head coach is going to go, which gets rid of his assistants. And when an owner spends more than $1 billion to acquire something that’s been disappointing and substandard, you better believe that everyone in the organization is going to go unless they suddenly exhibit some level of competency.

For Marrone, the future is now. The former Saints offensive coordinator failed to develop Manuel (the first pick from his first draft) into a viable starting quarterback. It’s hard to imagine Pegula would trust incumbent general manager Doug Whaley4 to draft a quarterback or Marrone to develop that passer into a star. With that off the table, Marrone is only really left with the option to win now, and it’s not difficult to imagine he believes that Orton gives the Bills a better chance to win during the remaining 12 games.

And, of course, the reality is that the Bills don’t benefit very much from sticking with Manuel. The silver lining in trying to develop a struggling young quarterback is that you usually end up reaping a high draft pick if he doesn’t work out. The Bills, however, sent their 2015 first-round pick to the Browns in the Sammy Watkins trade, a move that will likely delay their next rebuilding project. Unless Marrone can coax a winning season out of Orton, who hasn’t been a regular since 2011, neither he nor Manuel will be around when Buffalo’s next rebuild begins.

This Guy Right Here

Jaguars safety Winston Guy started the first game of the season against Philadelphia and played 100 percent of the defensive snaps, a feat he repeated during Jacksonville’s Week 2 loss to Washington. In Week 3, he played 81 percent of the defensive snaps before being benched by Gus Bradley for freelancing and taking too many penalties.

During Jacksonville’s 33-14 loss in San Diego on Sunday, Guy (no. 22) played just one defensive snap. This was that snap:

The Jaguars cut Winston Guy on Monday morning.

Filed Under: NFL, New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars, Winston Guy, Buffalo Bills, Kyle Orton, EJ Manuel

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell