What happened to the Patriots' discipline? Look to the sidelines

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Eight penalties for 78 yards last week versus Miami. Two of those were on Special Teams. If the Patriots have any chance to win in Buffalo on Saturday night, they have to clean up their own yard first and right now, the Pats' yard isn’t helping New England’s property values.

In total, the Patriots were flagged for 95 penalties in 17 regular season games, roughly five and a half penalties per game; ranking ninth best in the league. After my deep dive into their penalties this season that cumulative number frankly underwhelmed me a bit. I actually thought it would be a far worse based on my season long eye test. After further review however, it was that same eye test that revealed the cold, hard truth.

Though the penalties in quantity aren’t completely egregious nor out of whack with their six Super Bowl championship seasons (surprisingly so), context matters and this is where the eye test really comes into focus. If you watch the games then you know, the timing of the Patriots’ penalties have been brutal. The Patriots won 10 games this season and in those wins, they won the game within the game; winning situational football. Converting on third down, making defensive stops on third down, sustaining drives with key first downs and by minimizing turnovers and mistakes. In their seven losses it’s a different story. Of the 95 penalties received this season, nearly 50 percent of them came in their seven losses.

Football teams get penalized, every one of them. The Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s least penalized team with a league low 69 penalties (over four per game). A major separator between the contenders and the pretenders however is discipline; i.e. not making back-breaking mistakes at crucial points of the games. This unfortunately, is where the Patriots have too often failed this season, resulting in a lower conference playoff seed than we had hoped for just one month ago.

The Patriots received eight penalties in each of the Miami losses and in a crucial loss to the Colts in Week 15. Those were not only too many penalties to recover from but some were just brutally timed and stifled momentum. See Sunday’s two special teams’ penalties that awarded Miami free first downs after the defense made the necessary stops. So what’s the difference this year? Why the sudden lack of discipline in those key moments?

Look to the sidelines folks. It’s called brain drain.

Look at where the mistakes are happening. Bill Belichick can’t be everywhere. Too many of the great thought leaders in the Patriots brass have been scooped away. That’s just the way of things for successful organizations like the Patriots. Eventually, brain drain catches up with you and the Pats have lost some key coaches that were attached to very areas of their operation, where the requisite discipline it preaches matters most.

Offensive Line: The Patriots went from having arguably the best assistant coach in league history, Dante Scarnecchia leading its offensive line to bringing in two new assistants to lead the position group; Carmen Bricillo in 2021 and Cole Popovich back in the 2020 season, serving as an assistant under Scarnecchia.

In 2020 Scarnecchia’s final season, the offensive line had a mere 8 penalties called against them compared to 23 this season. 2020 is certainly an extreme example given the lack of passing attack the Patriots had that season but the difference is stark and we all know what Scarnecchia brought to the team. No offense to the current coaches, a man like Scarnecchia is nearly impossible to replace but if you’re looking for answers as to why the discipline has diminished on the line, I’d start there.

Special teams: A hallmark of the Belichick winning formula since the earliest days of his head coaching career. In 2021 however, outside of its Kicker Nick Folk, the special teams unit’s most prominent moments have been more bad than good.

Three blocked punts. Zero returns for touchdowns and two crucial penalties in last week’s loss in Miami, all underscore the fact that things just haven’t been tight under the leadership of special teams coordinator, Cameron Achord. Before we all have a good chuckle about Achord’s predecessor Joe Judge, let me remind you that he did a fine job here with the Patriots special teams unit. You wouldn’t know it by listening to his press conferences in New York this year but special teams were a strength in New England under Judge’s lead. That’s why he got hired in New York.

Now you can laugh…

Back to the issue of brain drain. This has been a challenge that the Patriots have been surviving through since Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel left after the initial Patriots dynasty was secured. You probably recall the famous 2004 Super Bowl group hug between Belichick, Weiss and Crennel, that’s when the brain drain started as chronicled here: Dante Scarnecchia's departure adds to Patriots' problems (audacy.com). Click on that article I wrote two years ago to see the full list of the Patriots faithfully departed coaches. It’s a remarkable loss of talented minds over a 16 year period, yet the Patriots have persevered.

Like an old love however, trusted football protégés once lost, sometimes find their way home. Usually after they’ve been fired; see Matt Patricia. I think Patricia’s return has been a good thing for the team and probably for him too, as his role as team consiglieri suits him well.

Right now, there are a couple of old friends available on the market. Personally I would have had an offer in front of Brian Flores to be Assistant Head Coach within 60 seconds of hearing of his brow raising dismissal on Monday. Talk about discipline, that guy is a born leader of men and the Patriots would be fortunate to get him back.

Then there’s Joe Judge. Unlike Flores, whose stock rose after he left New England, Judge’s current market value is like that of a penny crypto stock, but I have good news for him, his old employer could use some help on special teams and can provide a safe space to resuscitate his coaching reputation. Provided he doesn’t speak. Ever…

Regardless, the Patriots brain drain problem is both real and likely will be ongoing with smart leaders like Jerrod Mayo on the staff already getting interviews. This problem isn’t going away but the Patriots are used to dealing with it. The discipline issue though? There’s exactly two days to fix that. Anyone have Brian Flores number?