The late, great Bob Ross was more than just perhaps the finest artist in human history. An absolute master of turning a blank canvas into a landscape of pine trees, mountains and lakes in under 30 minutes. He was also perhaps the finest philosopher of this or any age. With messages of positivity that will span the test of time. From his core belief about turning accidental brush strokes into beautiful birds:
To this splendid expression of finding hope in difficult times:
“Gotta have opposites, light and dark and dark and light, in painting. It’s like in life. Gotta have a little sadness once in awhile so you know when the good times come. I'm waiting on the good times now.”
Now that deserves to be immortalized in a frame and hung in a motel lobby. And for New England Patriots fans, it's never been more relevant than it is right now.
I'm going to confess; I've had a tough week. This might not be the lowest Pats fans have felt in over 20 years, but if it isn't, it's damned close to it. Everyone I've talked to since Monday sees no way out of the morass we find ourselves in. It feels like the worst fears of the offseason have been realized, and it's only going to get worst. A buddy of mine yesterday - who is a diehard Pats fan - was talking down Mac Jones and talking up Zach Wilson, of all people, as a quarterback he'd rather have right now. Even if you allow for the recency bias of Jones coming off his worst game as a pro and Wilson having his first respectable career game, that is an astonishing admission. Yet it's a pretty fair and accurate representation of where most Masshole's heads are at these days.
On that note, I'm not a master painter (I hear it too, but that's not where I'm going with this sentence; get your mind out of the gutter) or a brilliant philosopher like Bob Ross. What I am is a student of history. A completely biased Patriots apologist to be sure; but one with a brain wired to remember the moments others forget as they convince themselves we've never been in this situation before.
I mean, I understand how bleak things look. Believe me, I've been paying attention. It's depressing AF:
Yet there's a school of thought about Bill Belichick's Patriots, one that I adhere to, which states that the first month of the season is an extension of training camp. The theory being that as the NFL rules continue to reduce practice time more with each passing year, that the teams with more complex systems tend to be slower out of the gate. This is not a new concept by any means. It's not a thing that's just been invented to excuse the horrific start to 2023. I've been saying it for years here. And often falling back on the analogy of my friend from old day job who owned a beautiful precision-engineered German driving machine. Yet every couple of months or so, I'd pick him up at the shop in my high-mileage Ford Explorer because his land-rocket needed a great deal of maintenance. It was designed in a wind tunnel by guys in lab coats and to keep it running at peak efficiency meant he couldn't just toss the keys to the guys and Jiffy Lube and read ESPN the Magazine in the waiting room.
It's the same with the Patriots schemes on both sides of the ball. To thoroughly squeeze the life out of this metaphor, this team has been taken on four road tests and its still misfiring. And if we're to get where we're supposed to be going, it has to come down off the lift now, finely tuned up and firing on all cylinders right now. No later than Sunday's game against New Orleans. Otherwise we're facing months of talk about benchings, firings and looking at quarterbacks in the draft.
The point I've been building toward is that we have been here before. Many times. There is plenty of historical precedence for Week 5 games that became must-win scenarios after the first month of the season was spent in the garage being worked on. In chronological order:
2001, 2-2 start - This one came a mere two weeks after Drew Bledsoe was vivisected by a clean hit from Mo Lewis in New York. Tom Brady's first start was a blowout win over the Colts, which was all thanks to the defense and running game, as he completed just 13 passes for 168 yards and no scores. His second start was a loss at Miami in which the Pats only scored 10 points, turned the ball over three times and had just 69 net passing yards. Meaning there was precious little hope going into Week 5 against the Chargers. And basically zero hope when they fell behind 26-16 halfway through the 4th quarter. But New England scored on their last three drives, including an Adam Vinatieri game winner (we'd hear those words again) in overtime. They'd go 3-2 over the next five games to get to sit at 5-5, and then never lose again the rest of the season.
2012, 2-2 start - This season actually started out 1-2. As they were facing the Broncos in Week 5, who had acquired Peyton Manning after his rigorous offseason conditioning program that in no way included a mysterious treatment in Europe that is not allowed in the US or any help from the Guyer "Anti-Aging" Clinic, there was panic in the street. Even away from Denver (which had traditionally been The Last House on the Left for the Patriots), the Broncos were always a bad matchup for this team. And a 2-3 start was unthinkable. Yet even though Manning was not at all the beneficiary of HGH, he outplayed Brady, throwing for 337 yards, 3 TDs and no INTs. But the Broncos turned it over three times as New England won 31-21, and went on a run that turned their 1-2 start into 10-3 and eventually the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed.
2014, 2-2 start - Here's the one we should all remember without looking it up. That 41-14 debacle at Kansas City on Monday night. Trent Dilfer's "Let's face it: They're just not good anymore!" that made the intro of a thousand hype videos. Belichick's postgame stonewalling where he answered every question with "We're onto Cincinnati," that went from outrage to catchphrase to rallying cry in a matter of months. They may deny it now, but the consensus among a lot of people then was that Brady was done. He was 37 at the time. It had been 10 years since his last ring. And an unhealthy percentage wanted Ol' Yeller taken out back behind the barn and to let the Jimmy Garoppolo Era begin. The result was a 43-17 carpet-bombing of the 3-0 Bengals, and the Pats would lose just one meaningful game (they rested everyone in Week 17) the rest of the way, a 5-point loss at Green Bay, on their way to winning Super Bowl XLIX.
2017, 2-2 start - Ah, this one brings back memories. First there was speculation that the Houston Texans had solved the Rubik's Cube that was the Pats offense. Then, after giving up an excruciating game winning drive to Cam Newton (22-of-29, 316 yards, 3 TDs) to drop to 2-2, the Patriot defense wasn't just bad; they were on a record pace of historical badness. Despite the fact they'd just made one of the biggest defensive acquistions of the Belichick Era. I had to dig deep, but I found this little nugget:
[Stephon Gilmore] played Sunday like he’d never been to a Patriots practice before. Worse. Like he’s not really clear on the whole concept of cornerbacking and doesn’t know who to ask because nobody around speaks his language. …
There’s a holocaust of wrong going on with this defense right now:
–Last year they gave up 15.6 points per game, best in the league. This year it’s double that.
–All four quarterbacks they’ve faced have had 300 yard games.–They’ve surrendered 156 more passing yards than the No. 2 team. That’s a bigger gap than between teams 2 and 7.
–The difference in total yards between them and No. 2 team is bigger gap than between teams 2 and 14
–Like I said in the KJR, they’ve given those QBs a passer rating close to 2016 Matt Ryan.
–They’re giving up 10.0 AY/A. Meaning teams are averaging a 1st down with every throw.
So yeah, when you’ve lapped the rest of the field like the Pebble Beach Tiger Woods of Shitty Defense, it can’t possibly be just one guy.
If you've noticed a pattern starting to develop here, you won't need to be reminded that the defense in general and Gilmore in particular figured it out. In Week 5, they went on the road to Tampa and held the 2-1 Bucs to just 14 points. They'd only give up more than 20 points twice over the next 14 games, an average of just 13.2 per game during that span, before the hot streak ended suddenly in The Super Bowl That Shall Not Be Named III. And after needing a month to get settled in, Gilmore would win the DPOTY the following season.
2018, 2-2 start - This was another 1-2 start. And came on the heels of all the talk about the Super Bowl hangover, Malcolm Butler's benching, the controversy around Brady's Tom vs. Time docuseries, his and Belichick's supposed mutual disgust at one another's very existence, and the slew of free agents they lost, including Butler. In the fifth game, they were on a short week. Fortunately though, they were facing the Colts, whom they owned like a property on a Monopoly board and who came into Gillette at 1-3. A 38-24 win that was never that close ensued. And that 1-2 start would improve to 9-3 on their way to winning their sixth banner.
2020, 2-2 start - Never mind. This one ended up at 2-5 thanks to losing Newton and Gilmore both to Covid and everything else that befell the franchise in that chaotic, terrible year. Moving right along.
2021, 1-3 start - If Mac Jones has a signature win in his career, this is it. After coming off the GOATadammerung Game in which he outplayed Brady but a Nick Folk game-winner attempt at the end doinked off the crossbar, they went to Houston and fell behind 22-9 in the 3rd quarter. But scoring drives on three straight possessions tied it up. Then they made it four in a row as Jones led a 7:00 drive that drained the clock and set Folk up for a chip shot to win it. An overtime loss to Dallas followed, then the Pats went on a seven-game win streak to make the playoffs.
2022, 1-3 start - A Week 5, 29-0 domination of the Lions at home sparked a 5-1 run. I can't put too much stock in this one, due to how badly this team played down the stretch. But the fact of the matter is, after a month of struggling to install their schemes on both offense and defense, they figured it out and went on a tear. Which is the overall premise I'm trying to get across.
I've just listed eight slow starts to eight very different seasons over 23 years. And in seven of them, the metaphorical vehicle I couldn't shut up about earlier started revving its engine and took off. It had better happen starting now, or it will be the disaster we've all be dreading. Granted, past performance does not predict future results. It's just that the point I'm making is there's historic precedence to think it will happen again.