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The Hits Keep Right on Coming as the Patriots are Expected to Lose Their Two Best Players to Shoulder Surgeries

Richard Rodriguez. Getty Images.
Sam Hodde. Getty Images.

If there's one way of looking at the world that gets a bad rap, it's Cynicism. I'm not referring to just the belief that life is terrible and pointless and everything you care about is devoid of meaning, which has been popularized by serial killers and Skip Bayless. 

I'm talking about classical Cynicism, as practiced by some of the Ancient Greeks such as Diogenes, who studied under Socrates and taught Zeno of Citium, who was one of the founders of the principles of Stoicism. In short, the Cynics believed that true happiness could be obtained by rejecting the trappings of (to them) modern society, such as wealth, fame, power and reputation. And instead, to rely simply on the bare necessities. Which doesn't mean they were hermits. Quite the contrary. Diogenes himself lived in a ceramic pot in the middle of Athens. And embraced the insults that were hurled at him for his unconventional lifestyle. In fact, he appreciated being call a dog, stating that "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."

I mention all this because one of the logical extensions of this philosophy - both the modern and the ancient versions, is that no matter how bad things seem at any given moment, don't lose hope, They can always, always get worse. Which matters now more than ever.

Consider the following:

--The Patriots are 1-3 for the third season in a row.

--They just lost 38-3. The last time they were than non-competitive in a game was a 45-7 loss to the Jets. That was in Bill Parcells' first season, just over 30 years ago to the day. Meaning this was the most lopsided loss under Mr. Kraft's ownership.

--They're 30th in the NFL in points.

--71% of their drives have ended with punts or turnovers. No other team has more than 67%.

--"Bill Belichick" has been trending on my X/Twitter feed for the last 36 hours, and virtually every reference is speculation about when exactly he's going to lose his job.

But as the Cynics would say at a time like this, just because things look as grim as they ever have in the last three decades, doesn't mean they can't get worse. Sometimes you hit rock bottom. Other times, the cruel gods of fate drop you to the rock bottom of the Marianas Trench, hand you a pick and shovel and make you start digging your own grave. Today is one of those days. 

The best player on the 2023 Patriots has been rookie Christian Gonzalez. In his four career starts, he has taken on a Murderer's Row of elite wide receivers and has fought them all to a standstill. Despite the caliber of deep threats he had been taking on in solo coverage, often without safety help, he hadn't given up a touchdown, was giving up less than 10 yards per reception, was 13th among corners with a passer rating against of just 67.5 and was 9th in Pro Football Focus coverage grade. Plus he hadn't missed a down going into the Dallas game. And killed the Cowboys' opening drive by throwing a blanket party on a Cee Dee Lamb fade route in the end zone. He's been looking for all the world like one of GM Bill's best draft picks.

The best Patriots player of the last three seasons has unquestionably been Matthew Judon. In fact, with his 32.0 sacks, 62 QB Hits and 33 Tackles for Loss over his 38 games, he's at least been in the conversation for best free agent signing of GM Bill's career. 

And both left that toxic waste dump of a loss with eerily similar shoulder injuries. Here's where we're at with those, in order that they occurred. First Gonzalez:

And Judon: 

Which means we've leapt right over the "Weirdo living in a clay pot on the sidewalk" part of this horrible season and gone straight to the "Lewis Winthorpe III on the bus eating a sandwich out of his Santa beard" phase:

Except that Lewis had Billy Ray Valentine, his butler, and Ophelia's spectacular, gratuitous nudity to help him get back the life the Dukes stole from him. Let's really lean into the Cynicism here by looking at the Patriots options.


Myles Bryant - Throughout his career, Bryant has been almost exclusively a slot corner, with 481 of his 689 total snaps last season coming on the inside. The only players who had more than 59 reps in the slot were safeties, and none more than 168 snaps. Even with that, his passer rating was 102.3. This year? His alignment numbers have been skewed by the fact he got a battlefield promotion when Gonzalez went down. With predictable results. His passer rating on the season is 118.7. And is likely to climb if he's lined up at boundary corner any more, as Dak Prescott went 7-for-7 targeting him. Just watch Lamb blow by him on the first play after Gonzalez went down for a vision of that dystopian future.

Shaun Wade - Wade was also pressed into emergency duty, playing 64 snaps. He gave up receptions on six of the eight times he was targeted, for 76 yards. And missed two tackles. He was also put on special teams for one of the few times in his career, filling Gonzalez shoes. It went about as well as you'd expect:

Jalen Mills - This is probably the most viable option, since position versatility is supposed to be Mills' jam. It was in Philly. And I expected it to be the same here. But in his first two seasons in New England, he's almost exclusively been a wide corner. But his playing time has been going down steadily since he arrived. From over 900 snaps in 2021 to about half that last year to just 71 total so far this season. And while it would be nice if he could play inside:

… that's not a luxury this team can afford. 

Any Given Jones - Marcus will be out for a while. Jonathan has been an injury scratch for three straight weeks. Jack is eligible to come off IR this week, though Belichick was typically non-committal about his progress as of yesterday. If there's going to be any hope at all for this position, Jonathan will have to return to the starting lineup, Jack will have to keep his sidearms in a gun locker, and both will have to be prepared to play every down.

Defensive end:

Josh Uche - At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Uche has never been anything but a specialist on a team that doesn't often make roster space for specialists. But his impact on the pass rush makes him worth it. Unfortunately, that's all you can expect him to do. Over the course of his career, he's been on the field in run situations less than a quarter of the times he's been rushing the quarterback. And he's been dropped into coverage even less than that. With good reason. Offenses run at him when given the chance. And in 13 career targets, he's given up 12 receptions. 

Anfernee Jennings - At fifteen pounds heavier, Jennings is the anti-Uche. The run-stopping Yin to Uche's Yang. With a total of just 21 pressures and one sack in his two-plus year career, despite 221 pass rush snaps. If you could put these two together, Voltron-style, they'd form something approximating Judon's versatility and production. But those buttinskis on the Rules Committee decided a long time ago that counts as 12 men on the field.

Keion White - I think this is your best bet to anchor the end of the line opposite Deatrich Wise Jr (and sometimes Jahlani Tavai when he's not playing off the ball linebacker). In camp and throughout the preseason games, White was moved inside in a 3-point stance and outside in a 2-point quite a bit. In the regular season, he's been almost exclusively used a tackle in odd (meaning 3-man) fronts with his hand in the turf. Once Judon went down, they put him at ROLB for 11 snaps. And while it seems like the plan has been to bring him along slowly, it would appear they've lost that luxury. They're left with no choice but to lean on him more heavily, starting now.

So there's the situation. Assuming Belichick is, in fact, losing favor with ownership - which I am not by the way, but just to play the game here -  he'll have to figure out a way to salvage the season by playing these cards he's dealt himself. Even though he's lost his two best players indefinitely, and possibly for the season, we don't do excuses around here.

All the rest of us can do is hope this will be another one of those times when Belichick proves everyone wrong and throws it in the Cynics' faces.