FOXBORO — For the Patriots, it was a sobering Monday morning.
Less than 24 hours after their playoff defeat to Baltimore, a relatively muted locker room was crowded with garbage bags and moving boxes as the franchise started its offseason with talk of missed opportunities and open speculation about what comes next.
While players cleaned out their lockers at Gillette Stadium — tight end Benjamin Watson’s nameplate was already missing from the top of his locker by the time the media arrived at 9:30 a.m. — Patriots coach Bill Belichick lamented the fact that the postseason had come to a jarring halt for the 2009 team.
“Whether it’s the first round or whether it’s the divisional round. Whether it’s in the championship game, whether it’s in the Super Bowl. If you don’t win at any one of those — or even last year, as you’re playing to get into the playoffs — the treadmill stops, and you don’t take another step,” Belichick said Monday morning. “It doesn’t go, and you fall off it. The other teams keep playing.
“No matter when that feeling comes, it’s a pretty disappointing feeling.”
Belichick acknowledged there were positives about the 2009 season, including the division title. He also lauded the players, calling them “very professional” and a “hard-working group.”
But at the same time, the end of any season brings a finality that is tough to shake. And the way things ended on Sunday — with the stunning 24-point first-quarter explosion by the Ravens, boos from the Gillette Stadium crowd and a four-turnover performance from quarterback Tom Brady — sent the Patriots into the offseason with a bitter taste in their collective mouth.
“There really wasn’t much to feel good about in [Sunday]’s performance all the way around,” Belichick said. “We’re all accountable for it. It starts with me. We worked long and hard this season and to finish that way is certainly a big disappointment for all of us, everybody involved.”
“Not a lot of us probably got a whole lot of sleep last night. It’s obviously a disappointing way to end the season for all of us,” Brady told WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan (transcript here). “Anytime it ends, it’s tough to swallow. And certainly the way we played yesterday, no one likes to go out like that. It’s just one of those days where we didn’t put our best out there. If you’re going to beat the good teams, you’ve got to play well. We just didn’t.”
“You come in here in March and it all comes down to one game. And for the team not to play good — and for me personally not to have a good game — it’s just tough to swallow,” said kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who missed a field goal attempt and struggled on kickoffs.
“You get over it, though. There are going to be other seasons, other games. But now you just feel like you let down your team, you let down your fans a little bit. It is tough to look around and wonder who’s going to be here and who’s not. But that’s out of your hands and out of your control.”
Belichick said the offseason evaluation process will begin over the next week, and will involve several major personnel decisions, some of which could be affected by the labor situation. But as it stands right now, the Patriots have several players who are unsigned for 2010 — nose tackle Vince Wilfork, right guard Stephen Neal, running back Kevin Faulk, left guard Logan Mankins, defensive lineman Jarvis Green, cornerback Leigh Bodden, Watson and Gostkowski.â¨
While Neal speculated about retirement after Sunday’s loss, Faulk passionately stated his case to stay in New England. (“I’ve been here 11 years. It’s like home. Why would I want to leave?” he said. “My kids love it here, my wife loves it here. Why would I want to leave?”)
Even though he said he wants to stay, Wilfork said Sunday he could see himself elsewhere in 2010. And on Monday, Gostkowski said that he has also made peace with the fact that he may have played his last game in New England.
“You think about it, but it’s out of my hands,” he said. “What I’ve done here the last four years is already done. There’s nothing else I can do. There’s no more kicks I can make or miss or anything else that I can do. I think my four years here speak for themselves, and it’s definitely a place I want to be back at — a great organization. Love the Krafts, love coach Belichick. Love everything that’s happened for four years here. It’s definitely somewhere I want to be.
“This is a place where I do want to come back to. I don’t think like that. If it is [the end], then that stinks. But hopefully, I’ll be back.”
In addition, there are several veteran players who could part ways with the Patriots, including linebacker Adalius Thomas, who clashed with Belichick on a few occasions this season.
“Every year the team changes,” Thomas said. “This year’s team is different from last year’s team. Next year’s team is going to be different than this year’s. No team will ever stay the same.”
“That’s the nature of the business,” center Dan Koppen said. "Things change from year to year, the coaches and players, and the guys in this locker room understand that and know that. Bill and the guys upstairs, luckily that's their job. They've got to decide what to do next year. We just have to take the time off now and come back hopefully better.”
But for right now, the treadmill has stopped. For many players — some of whom won’t be required to return to Gillette Stadium for offseason workouts for another two months — it’s a strange and vaguely unsettling feeling.
“You have an itinerary telling you where to be at what time,” Gostkowski said. “You know, ‘Be here at 8 o’clock. Meetings start at 8. Practice at 12.’ Now, you got nothing. You’ve got no itinerary. What do you do?”