The New England Patriots suffered an agonizing 25-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. The loss can primarily be pinned to a defense that, quite frankly, has been abysmal throughout the better part of the season. The secondary was shredded on almost every play, allowing third down conversions of as many as 15 yards with nary a defender in sight.
One look at the defensive roster should give you an idea as to why this unit has struggled so badly. Players like Gary Guyton, Rob Ninkovich, Tracy White, Antwaun Molden, and Brandon Deadrick simply don't belong on the field in an NFL game as regular contributors. In addition, the roster is loaded with aging, faded veterans like Shaun Ellis, Andre Carter, Albert Haynesworth, and Gerard Warren that also can't be counted on week to week. Finally, the younger group of players has been beset by injuries or outright lousy play from the likes of Devin McCourty and Jermaine Cunningham.
As people have begun to come around to the realization of the staggering lack of talent and depth with this group, it's important to acknowledge that there is no mystery General Manager or Defensive Coordinator calling the shots on this. The man in charge of personnel and of organizing this group is everyone's untouchable icon, Bill Belichick.
In 2009, Player Personnel Manager Scott Pioli departed for Kansas City. Pioli handled a large portion of the duties that came with that job, including drafting players, free agents, trades, etc. He had input from Belichick, but largely, the final say landed with Pioli. When he left, owner Robert Kraft handed those duties over to Belichick, and essentially gave him free reign to run the franchise as he saw fit.
Given his outstanding track record as a coach and his keen eye for talent, the move to grant the coach more power certainly made sense, but knowing what we do now, it seems to be too much responsibility for just one man to handle.
It's not the first time (nor will it be the last) that an owner has granted a coach more power than he can handle. Currently there are two other coaches in the league who have the same autonomy as Belichick: The Eagles' Andy Reid, and the Redskins' Mike Shanahan.
Reid has had his title since 2001, and has certainly had the most success with it, but it's also worth pointing out that he also has a GM who handles a great deal of the leg work when it comes to making deals, though Reid has the final say. Shanahan on the other hand, has mostly no oversight when it comes to making personnel moves, and has had a difficult time adjusting to handling both duties. After a tumultuous 6-10 record last year, the Redskins have lost four of their last five game this season, and fans are already beginning to clamor for change.
I'm in no way advocating that Belichick should be fired, as he's been a tremendous representative of the team for over a decade now, and has certainly brought the franchise into the upper echelon of the NFL. However, at some point, changes need to be made when improvements aren't being seen, especially over the course of a three year period. At some point, the grace period needs to end for things that were accomplished nearly a decade ago.
Ideally, what should happen is that Robert Kraft should relieve Belichick of his duties as General Manager and Defensive Coordinator and have him focus solely on coaching. Freed from the burden of having to run multiple aspects of the organization, Belichick would theoretically be able to spend more time game-planning and working with individual players and hopefully result in an improved product on the field.
It's happened before.
Mike Holmgren left the Green Bay Packers in 1998 in order to accept a lengthy contract from the Seattle Seahawks that also granted him the title of Executive Vice President and General Manager. During his four seasons with the additional title, Holmgren compiled a record of 31-33 with Seattle while spending an insane amount of money on talent that had largely not produced results.
Following a 7-9 record in the 2002 season, the ownership group, not happy with having spent a great deal of money on a product that was yielding minimal results, pushed to have Holmgren fired. Team President Bob Whitsitt and Holmgren agreed to a compromise however, that took away Holmgren's personnel duties and allowed him to focus solely on being a head coach.
The results were almost immediate. The Seahawks won 10 games in 2003, their first double digit winning season since 1986. It began a string of five consecutive winning seasons (longest in franchise history), culminating in the teams brilliant run to the Super Bowl in 2005 (an ugly and somewhat controversial 21-10 loss to the Steelers).
A great deal of the team's success can be traced simply to an influx of talent in those years after Holmgren was relieved of his duties. Players like Marcus Trufant, Lofa Tatupu, and Leroy Hill were all drafted by the team's personnel group and helped turn them into an upper tier team.
Simply put: When Holmgren was allowed to focus solely on coaching the team, he was at his best and so was the Seahawks franchise.
Belichick has been a tremendous ambassador for the game of football in New England. The Patriots' brand is now one of the most recognizable in the league, thanks in no small part to his abilities as a coach. However, having one man in charge of your entire operation is simply too much to handle.
Since taking complete control of football operations, Belichick's defenses have slid toward the back of the pack before hitting rock bottom this season. The offense has obviously not suffered much, but holes have sprung up there as well, thanks to a rapidly aging offensive line (see: Matt Light) and the lack of a consistent running game.
With Tom Brady still playing well but getting into the latter stages of his hall of fame career, it's time for Robert Kraft to make a decision. Relieve Belichick of his player personnel duties and let him focus on what he does best. Coaching.
As long as Belichick remains in charge of all player personnel moves this team will continue to win regular season games at a solid clip, almost solely on the back of its All Universe quarterback. But, in Foxborough, regular season wins aren't the goal. In order to win the ultimate prize, you need great defense and coaching. Right now, the Patriots have had very little of either.