Add the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys to the list of crumbling American institutions. On Sunday, these once-proud organizations lost by a combined score of 58-9. The San Francisco 49ers embarrassed the Patriots 33-6, handing Bill Belichick his worst home loss in two decades in New England. The Cowboys played even worse, falling 25-3 to Washington in a result that seemed to cement that their season is over. These teams were reduced to something worse than noncontenders in Week 7—they were noncompetitive.
The Patriots and Cowboys are the NFL’s two most valuable franchises and have won a fifth of all Super Bowls in league history. In 2020, they’re a combined 4-9. The Pats (2-4) and Cowboys (2-5) are both reeling from the loss of a superstar quarterback—New England learned Tom Brady was leaving in an Instagram post in March, while Dallas lost Dak Prescott to a broken ankle earlier this month—and are searching for answers as seasons that started with playoff aspirations spiral out of control. Let’s break down each team and see if we can learn anything from picking through the wreckage.
New England Patriots
For 20 years the Patriots were defined by the greatest quarterback and head coach pairing of all time. Now the Pats have a quarterback making rookie mistakes and a defense that looks poorly coached. The result is New England reverting to a state of pre-Brady ineptitude. For the first time in a quarter century, the Patriots have scored a dozen or fewer points in three consecutive games. Unsurprisingly, they’re 0-3 in that stretch. It is the first three-game losing streak for New England in 18 years.
The problems start with Cam Newton, who played horribly on Sunday. He struggled to make the right reads, and when he did he was often inaccurate. Newton missed wide-open receivers without rhyme or reason. He overthrew deep passes and underthrew short ones. Ideally, quarterbacks should throw passes where only their receivers can catch the ball. On Sunday, Newton threw two interceptions where only the defender could make a catch. Late in the second quarter, Newton channeled his inner Luka Doncic and bounced a pass to Damiere Byrd. This throw would embarrass a high school quarterback.
Newton is playing so poorly that it’s fair to wonder if he is fully healthy. He tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month, and hasn’t looked the same since his return to the field in a loss to the Broncos in Week 6. He also had surgery on both his shoulder and foot in 2019. But Newton insists that he is fine.
“I’ve just been pressing,” Newton told reporters after the 49ers loss. “The energy has definitely been off for me, and at times it’s not rewarding when you’re just going out there with this aura about yourself that’s not you. I love playing this game, I have fun playing this game, but the performances here haven’t been delightful for me.”
Newton ranks 29th in ESPN’s total quarterback rating, ahead of only the Jets’ Sam Darnold and Washington’s Dwayne Haskins among qualified quarterbacks. The Pats have the fewest passing touchdowns (three) and most interceptions (11) of any team in the NFL. Brady had more touchdown passes for Tampa Bay on Sunday than New England has all season. While Belichick said that Newton would remain the starter, it is never a good sign when the question needs to be asked.
Every aspect of the Patriots offense has exacerbated Cam’s struggles. It’s no secret that the Patriots’ wide receivers are bad. But now Julian Edelman looks like a husk of his former self, and N’Keal Harry seems destined to be defined as the guy who Belichick drafted over DK Metcalf. New England is so desperate for receiving help that Byrd—an undrafted receiver who couldn’t crack the Cardinals receiving rotation this year—has emerged as one of New England’s top options. The numbers speak for themselves. Entering Week 7, Patriots wide receivers created the least separation of any receiving corps in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats. A lack of separation plus a quarterback with accuracy issues equals turnovers. Passes targeting Patriots receivers this season have produced one touchdown and eight interceptions, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
The tight ends are somehow even worse than the receivers. New England’s tight ends have combined to make eight catches for 98 yards this season. That makes them the worst group in the NFL—and perhaps the worst group the NFL has seen in many seasons. While New England’s running backs have had to carry a disproportionate amount of the passing game load, their offensive line has struggled as injuries have mounted. Shaq Mason and David Andrews have both missed time, and guard Joe Thuney and backup tackle Justin Herron each suffered ankle injuries on Sunday. But the biggest loss the Patriots feel is legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired after last season. Scarnecchia was vital to maintaining consistency amid New England’s constant shuffling along the line, and his absence has loomed over that group’s recent issues.
Belichick-coached teams have historically counteracted ineffective offense with hypereffective defense. But the 49ers gashed the Patriots time and again Sunday. The Patriots allowed 301 yards by halftime, the most that a Pats team has given up at home in the first half since Belichick took over in 2000. San Francisco did not do this with intricate gameplanning minutiae. The 49ers just beat the Patriots up. Take Jeff Wilson’s 16-yard touchdown run in the closing moments of the first half, in which the 49ers offensive line washed the Patriots edge defenders away like the tide taking out driftwood. San Francisco rushed for 197 yards on 37 carries (5.3 yards per carry) in total, and it was actually worse than that. By the time the Patriots benched Newton in the fourth quarter, the 49ers’ average yards per carry was at 6.0.
New England’s defensive decline is not surprising. This offseason, the Patriots experienced one of the greatest exoduses of defensive talent since free agency began in 1993. They lost linebackers Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts as well as defensive tackle Danny Shelton to other teams. Then safety Patrick Chung and linebacker Dont’a Hightower—quietly one of the best players Belichick has ever coached—opted out of the season due to the pandemic. In their place, the Patriots have had to rely on a plethora of young, inexperienced players. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Shilique Calhoun, and Anfernee Jennings have shown flashes of promise at linebacker, but overall they’ve been disappointing. Defensive end John Simon is one of the league’s worst run defenders and pass rushers.
If this defense seems uncharacteristic of a Belichick group, well, consider that these defenders haven’t gotten much time with Belichick. They had roughly 14 padded practices during training camp, and only about a half-dozen practices in October due to the team’s coronavirus outbreak. This is not an excuse for Belichick as a coach. Instead, it’s an indictment of Belichick as a general manager. Belichick’s issues drafting receivers were funny during the Pats’ run of titles because everything else was going so well. Now those roster holes are being exposed, and he also hasn’t made his new quarterback feel comfortable in the offense.
As confusing as Brady’s decision to leave New England seemed back in March, it looks a lot clearer now. While the Pats were embarrassed Sunday, Brady looked fantastic for the Buccaneers, passing for 369 yards with four touchdowns—again, more touchdown passes than New England has racked up all season. Doubling the insult is that the Patriots lost in Week 7 to a team led by Jimmy Garoppolo, the man who was once supposed to replace Brady. But the real gut-check moment for these Patriots won’t come against Brady or Jimmy G. It will come next Sunday against Buffalo. The Bills lead the AFC East at 5-2; the Patriots are three games out of first place for the first time in 20 years. If the Patriots don’t win that game, their reign atop the AFC East might be over. Like everything else, we must brace for the new normal.
Like many crumbling American institutions, the Cowboys have made a lot of bad decisions that are being exposed by bad luck. Let’s start with the bad luck. Prescott broke his ankle two weeks ago, and backup quarterback Andy Dalton went out with a concussion this week. That left Dallas to play third-stringer Ben DiNucci, a rookie seventh-rounder, in Washington. DiNucci (Di-who?-cci) was just the latest backup to see game action for the Cowboys. Dallas’s once-daunting offensive line has been decimated. Former All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith is out for the season with neck surgery; left guard Joe Looney is on injured reserve; All-Pro center Travis Frederick retired this offseason; All-Pro right guard Zack Martin missed last week with a concussion; right tackle La’el Collins is out for the year after having hip surgery. The only starter left on this line is guard Connor Williams, who is average at best. Two years ago, Dallas had perhaps the league’s best offensive line. Now it might have the worst.
The Cowboys’ quarterback–offensive line situation is so bad that it renders the roster’s biggest strength—an excellent pass-catching group that features Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup—almost useless. There is a serious chance that Dallas will head into next weekend with four backup offensive linemen, including an undrafted rookie free agent at right tackle, protecting a seventh-round rookie quarterback. For a team that entered 2020 hoping to win the division, this is close to the worst-case scenario.
The bad luck exposes the bad decisions. As bad as the offense has been without Dak, the defense has been worse. Dallas has allowed the most points in the NFL, but that barely scratches the surface of its ineptitude. The Cowboys have allowed more points through seven games than all but one team in NFL history. Only the 1973 Houston Oilers allowed more points in seven games than the 2020 Cowboys. Dallas can’t stop the run (it ranks 30th in run defense grading per Pro Football Focus) or defend the pass. Its PFF pass coverage grade is 36.4 of 100. Across a whole season, that would be the worst mark any team has had in five years.
The cornerback position in particular has been a disaster, with opposing quarterbacks continually targeting Jourdan Lewis and Daryl Worley. This is where Dallas’s decision-making comes in. Over the past few years, the Cowboys front office has paid the wrong guys. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, the third-highest-paid defensive end in the league, has recorded just seven sacks over the last two seasons. Linebacker Jaylon Smith, who signed a five-year extension in 2019, has been awful in run defense, awful in pass coverage, and awful at hustling to tackle ballcarriers (just watch no. 54 jogging after Odell Beckham Jr.). Meanwhile, the Cowboys let cornerback Byron Jones leave in 2020 free agency. Their cornerback depth was then exposed after both Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie went down with injuries.
Elsewhere on defense, the free agents Dallas has signed have mostly gotten injured or been ineffective except for Aldon Smith. Now, the Cowboys have perhaps the worst group of interior defensive linemen in the league, and the worst group of cornerbacks too. Oftentimes, teams are weak in the middle of the field or at the edges. Dallas has the distinction of being dreadful in both.
There are also basic indicators that the coaching is bad. The Cowboys’ offense leads the league in turnovers, and their defense has the fewest takeaways. Running back Ezekiel Elliott fumbled five times in his first six games, tied for the highest mark in the last 50 years. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s play-calling has been terrible. Moore is a favorite of Jerry Jones and was retained by new head coach Mike McCarthy; perhaps this was a condition McCarthy had to accept to get the job. Thus far, though, Moore’s play-calling has left his quarterbacks exposed in protection.
On defense, new coordinator Mike Nolan installed a system that neither puts his defenders in position to get the most out of their skill sets nor simplifies their jobs enough to make learning the scheme in limited practice time realistic. These coaches have made players’ jobs harder, not easier. If there was any doubt about that, it was erased when the Cowboys were blown out on Monday Night Football in Week 6, after which Dallas players anonymously sniped at their coaches to the media. According to the NFL Network’s Jane Slater, one player said the staff was “totally unprepared”; another said that “they just aren’t good at their jobs.”
A coach’s number one job is to get buy-in from players. That has never been more important than in this strange 2020 season, and no coach this side of Adam Gase seems to have done a worse job of it thus far than McCarthy. Most depressing for Cowboys fans is that even in a historically bad division, this season still seems unfixable. Dallas already had its come-to-Jesus moment, when Prescott’s gruesome injury led to an unexpectedly emotional moment for the Cowboys organization. That was this team’s opportunity to come together. Instead, it came apart.
Prescott was so good while healthy this season that he could overcome many of Dallas’s issues. Andy Dalton can not. DiNucci, well, bless his heart. Much of that is on McCarthy. He has failed so spectacularly through seven weeks that it begs the question of why Jerry Jones hired him in the first place. The Jason Garrett era was defined by Dallas stringing Cowboys fans along with hope and then crushing it at the last moment. The McCarthy era thus far has removed any hope as quickly as possible.
But in Dallas, everything comes back to Jerry Jones. “The very first press conference I was ever involved in [in 1989], I explained to everyone how I was going to run the Dallas Cowboys,” Jones told a Dallas radio station last year. “I said I would be involved in everything from this to jocks and socks, whatever. And I’m not trying to be cute. There has never been any doubt in anybody’s mind how I run the Dallas Cowboys, and how I ran the Cowboys from the day I got here. Nobody can exchange a player, nobody can do anything unless I have approved it tacitly or otherwise.”
If Jones makes all the decisions, it’s hard not to give him all the blame. Not coincidentally, this is on pace to be the worst Cowboys team since Jones’s first season, when Dallas went 1-15 in 1989. Dallas could still make the playoffs because no NFC East team has three wins yet. The Cowboys go to Philadelphia next week with the chance to take first place, but this version of Dallas seems destined for last.