“We know we’re not a 2-4 football team,” first-year New England free agent tight end addition Jonnu Smith said with confidence during his Wednesday press conference at Gillette Stadium as the 2-4 Patriots prepare to host the 1-4 Jets Sunday afternoon in Foxborough.
Obviously, we all know what Smith means. The Patriots are better than their record. After an offseason spending a quarter of a billion dollars of Robert Kraft’s money and taking a quarterback in the first round of the draft, the rebuilt roster supposedly has more talent than a two-win team six games into the season.
That the moral victories of last-minute losses against the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Dolphins could have and maybe even should have gone the other way.
That 2-4 could just as easily be 5-1.
Given the reality of a late fumble against Miami in the season opener, a missed-by-inches field goal at the gun against Tom Brady’s Bucs and the crazy ending to the Dallas game just last Sunday, that’s probably true.
But Bill Belichick has made a career in New England living in the standings-based reality of the moment and saying, more often than any of us might care to hear, that “It is what it is.”
Belichick’s mentor and former Patriots boss Bill Parcells had an even more simple way to assess teams, “You are what your record says you are.”
The Patriots are indeed 2-4. They are 0-4 playing at home. Have NFL’s 26th offense based on yards, 24th when it comes to points scored. The defense, one that’s faced three first- or second-year QBs in the first month and a half ranks a bit better, sitting at 17th in yards allowed and tied for ninth in points allowed.
The problem for the Patriots in what they clearly believe is an uncharacteristically poor start to the season is that there is no one problem.
We’ve all seen the fumbles and interceptions that have left New England tied for 23rd in the NFL in turnover differential.
But it goes well beyond one kind of mistake or one area that’s led to the losing.
It’s been a cocktail of concerning littler errors.
Coaching has included plenty of questionable decisions and the basic inability to field 11 players on defense at times.
Offensively there are missed blocks and improperly run routes, as Kendrick Bourne admitted on last Sunday’s pick-6 interception to the Cowboys.
Defensively there’s poor execution on “gotta have it plays,” guys just a step behind in coverage and an overall lack of impact plays to impact the outcome from a unit supposedly littered with versatile veterans.
Special teams has had kickoffs out of bounds, blocked punts, penalties and more failed execution than we’ve come to expect in the third phase that’s such a focal point for Belichick and veteran players like Matthew Slater.
It’s a roster that’s had key players like Trent Brown and James White land on IR, traded away No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore in a quiet contract dispute and entered this week with 16 players on the injury report.
Put it all together and the Patriots are very much a 2-4 football team at this point.
They are living life in the middle of the NFL pack, where rookie QB Mac Jones has so accurately noted games are decided by just two or three plays. They are walking that fine line with no margin for error.
Good teams make those plays consistently.
Bad teams almost never make them.
Mediocre teams do it some weeks and fail the next.
In the next few games we’re going to find out who the 2021 Patriots are.
Are they really a team worthy of the No. 7 pick next spring’s draft, where they are currently slotted?
Or as veteran Adrian Phillips alluded to this week, are they ready to “make a run”?
At 2-4 New England would need to go 8-3 over the final 11 games to get to double-digit wins. Maybe they can and maybe that’d be enough to be in the playoff conversation. That’s a couple big maybes.
It would also come against a schedule that’s road-heavy, includes two December battles with the division-leading Bills and such potentially-formidable (or potentially-beatable, depending on confidence level) other foes as the Chargers and Titans. There aren’t too many “penciled in wins” on the slate other than this Sunday’s hosting of the Jets and a visit from the Jaguars on Jan. 2.
But as this New England team has shown to date, there really are no sure-wins. No presumptions of clean play or ability to control games. This team hasn’t earned the benefit of that competitive doubt.
It’s simply a 2-4 team.
If there is to be a run, if things are to change it has to start Sunday against the Jets.
First-year linebacker Matt Judon has been another guy to express belief and hope that the Patriots are better than the performances they’ve put on tape, but the former Raven is also taking a realistic look at New England’s lot in NFL life.
“I can sit up here and say we could have been, we should have been, or we could, but the reality of it is we’re 2-4,” Judon said. “Nobody in the locker room wants to be 2-4. Nobody in the locker room is happy about that record. But the one thing we all are is we’re encouraged. It’s not the end of the season. … It’s not written in the record book yet, so we can change that. We can change that. And that is why we’re all encouraged. We all know we can do better. We all know what we need to do better and we’re going to go out there and do it better. We have to or it can get ugly real fast.”
So are the Patriots due to make a winning run, even if the playoffs may already be somewhat of a longshot? Or are they in delusional denial of who they really are as a football team?
Check back Sunday evening a little after 4 p.m. because if the much-talked-about turnaround doesn’t start this week then it’s probably not happening.