Tomase: Patriots dropped hints they weren't a championship team all season and we didn't listen

John Tomase
February 05, 2018 - 12:05 pm
Zach Ertz

Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

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There's a scene at the end of every great thriller when seemingly innocuous details unspool in a character's memory and reassemble into a clear narrative. Of course Bruce Willis died. Of course Keyser Soze walked out of that police station. Of course DiCaprio lived a dream within a dream within a dream within . . . OK, I still don't get Inception.

The crumbs were there, if we just knew where to look. In hindsight, they feel embarrassingly obvious. The same goes for the 2017 Patriots.

The Pats dropped hint after hint after hint that this wasn't going to be a Super Bowl season. They almost won it anyway because Tom Brady, but if we're being honest, the warning signs drew a map straight to Sunday night's heart-pounding 41-33 loss to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.

We either ignored the clues or convinced ourselves they didn't matter. Nothing could stop the Pats, not Julian Edelman's injury or Malcolm Butler's contract or losing on Banner Night or fielding a putrid defense or Tom vs. Time vs. Belichick vs. Seth Wickersham.

But in the end, a flawed Patriots team met a flawed finish. The defense that struggled all season, its imperfections papered over like the walls of a neglected cottage, finally encountered an offense it could not stop. That it was led by a backup quarterback should tell you all you need to know. This unit was never good enough to win a title.

So much about this season felt wrong. It started with a $65 million contract for free agent Bills corner Stephon Gilmore, who wasn't exactly a household name despite playing within the division, and whose communication problems led to multiple 80-yard touchdowns in the first month. The deal felt like a slap in the face to the Pro Bowler Butler, a theme which carried straight through the former Super Bowl hero's shocking Super Bowl benching while Jordan Richards flailed about in coverage like a goldfish on the counter.

It continued with the trade of a first-rounder to the Saints for wide receiver Brandin Cooks. For weeks, we assumed the Pats would recoup the pick by shipping Butler to New Orleans, because there's no way Belichick would trade a first-rounder for a wideout, right?

But that deal never materialized, and Cooks never quite made the leap to consistently dominant weapon. His season ended in a crumpled heap after a brutal hit in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, Butler's play suffered all year, his payday never materializing and his head never right. Whether the Patriots mismanaged the asset or Butler allowed outside forces to distract him is immaterial. When the Patriots defense needed a stopper, Belichick left a sobbing Butler on the sidelines, his helmet strapped in sad futility.

But there was more. Edelman's season-ending knee injury robbed Brady of his most reliable weapon, and even though Brady still went on to win the MVP, there's no telling how many extra hits he absorbed without his security blanket.

Even without Edelman, and even with Butler playing poorly, and even with a questionable front seven, we nonetheless declared the Patriots candidates to go 16-0 like a bunch of drunk fanboys. The Chiefs dispelled that notion right quick, leaving a seething Brady to hit the gas while his supermodel wife consoled him on the ride home.

Things improved, but not as dramatically as 13-3 suggests. The Pats lost at home again, this time to the Panthers, before scoring uninspiring victories over crap teams like the Buccaneers and Jets. Along the way, a mediocre defense lost its best player when linebacker Dont'a Hightower suffered a season-ending injury.

We waited for them to hit their traditional late-season stride, but instead they regressed, losing to the Dolphins and committing twice as many turnovers as they forced down the stretch. A case can be made that only Brady stood between 13-3 and 9-7, his greatness masking deficiencies all over the roster.

His priorities felt divided, however. From stumping for the TB12 method to reportedly clashing with Belichick over trainer Alex Guerrero to dropping a self-serving documentary series during Super Bowl week, the 40-year-old exuded a wildly different vibe than his no-nonsense 30-year-old self.

He played a central role in Wickersham's ballyhooed ESPN story, which looks truer and truer by the day. Did he subtly force the Jimmy Garoppolo trade behind the scenes? Was he at the center of a power struggle between Belichick and owner Robert Kraft? Would choosing him over Jimmy G. hasten the end of the dynasty? What did it say about future stability that coaches and coordinators wanted to jump ship?

Brady found himself in the middle of it all, and that was before a practice mishap left his hand gashed. He certainly didn't cost them the Super Bowl, not after throwing for over 500 yards, but on a night when the offense needed to be perfect, his late fumble proved the difference.

When his final Hail Mary landed incomplete, the shock hit us like an earthquake, but we should've seen it coming. Fault lines rattled Foxboro all season, and rather than acknowledge the potential for collapse, we ignored the seismograph.

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