- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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When Bill Belichick refuses to engage at a level of detail beyond the final score of a given contest -- why his team succeeded, why it failed, why it was inconsistent, why a certain play worked or did not -- he often employs five words that serve as the ultimate conversation-stopper: "It is what it is."
With 75 percent of the 2009 NFL regular season complete, Belichick is now cornered by his own rhetoric. The New England Patriots are what they are. Once forecast for greatness this season, they were an elite team with an elite coach and a trio of elite players on offense and defense. After a devastating Super Bowl defeat against the Giants two seasons ago and the loss of Tom Brady on the opening weekend the following season, they were also highly motivated, a team with much to prove.
Instead, the 2009 Patriots are not elite but are rebuilding. Rebuilding in talent, rebuilding in confidence, rebuilding in aura, relearning all the painful steps necessary to becoming a reliable, championship-level team. Perhaps Belichick, the keen overseer of his charges, has known all along what it has taken the rest of the punditry and fan base 12 games to see: Wipe away the mystique, the big names and the pedigree, and the result is an above-average football team but a middling Super Bowl contender at best, as capable of losing to any playoff team as winning, as capable of losing the wafer-thin one-game lead in the AFC East as maintaining it.
That it took so long to see through the dense fog of the Patriots legend is a compliment. Quarterback Tom Brady has succeeded so many times in so many situations that an interception in the end zone just doesn't compute. Belichick has so often been so far ahead of the guy running the team on the opposite sideline that his decision-making seemed beyond reproach. The organization had scored so many hits without significant misses in personnel that events that would set other franchises back seemed as though they would simply disintegrate under sheer force of will.
Today, we know none of this is true. And the considerable amalgam of forces -- losing Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Corey Dillon, Mike Vrabel and Asante Samuel -- is the equivalent of losing much of the core of a dynasty, and it was folly to assume that the effects would not be severe. And no one has yet emerged as a true successor, or at least an adjunct. It is all a work in progress. In hindsight, it appears the Patriots are right where they should be: a club trying to find its way as it transitions into a new era.
The Patriots are following a familiar pattern. The first difference among mediocre, good and great teams lies in the ability to win on the road. The Patriots have not yet won a true road game this season. They beat Tampa Bay in London, a neutral site with neutral fans. They are 1-5 on the road. The last time the Patriots lost five road games in a single season was in 2000, Belichick's first year with the team, when they went 5-11 and finished in last place.
The second mark is winning the championship points, something the Patriots once did as well as any team in the league. After losing Sunday in Miami, Brady said the team lacked its usual boa-like ability to smother opponents. Brady is right, and instead of championship moments, the 2009 season thus far is best known for a certain lack of concentration:
Laurence Maroney fumbled on the goal line in Indianapolis. Brady threw a pick in the end zone shortly thereafter. A potential three-touchdown lead turned into a devastating loss, highlighted, of course, by the infamous fourth-and-two. A 14-0 lead in Miami was transformed into a 22-21 loss, and a fourth-down call marred the loss. Even the coach is having a tough year.
Nor is Belichick hitting all the right notes with his club. Adalius Thomas has chafed at how Belichick has used Thomas' skills since he arrived. After toiling in Washington, Shawn Springs couldn't wait to play for Belichick but has been inactive for four straight games. Now, according to a story broken by Providence Journal Patriots reporter Shalise Manza Young, Thomas, Randy Moss, Gary Guyton and Derrick Burgess were sent home for arriving late to a morning meeting Wednesday because of a snowstorm.
Then there is the uncomfortable but necessary conversation about the personnel on this club: Maybe the players just aren't that good. Benjamin Watson once appeared to be soaring but is not an impact player. He has 22 catches on the season for 321 yards. Last year, he caught 22 passes for 209 yards. In 2007, the undefeated year when everything was golden, he caught 36 passes for 389 yards and six touchdowns after a promising 49-catch 2006.
Maroney has played every game this season and has a career-best eight rushing touchdowns but does not appear to have fully recovered after being lost for virtually all of 2008. He's averaging 3.9 yards per carry after his first two years of 4.3 and 4.5, respectively. Maroney, often criticized for dithering before making his move, does not have a step to lose. The Patriots' running game, thanks to injuries, seems better statistically than it actually is.
Kevin Faulk is his usual steady self, but he is not a starter, and the Patriots look like a two-man team offensively. Joey Galloway flamed out. Sam Aiken may one day be a big-play option, but he cannot yet be counted on consistently.
The result is an overreliance on the three true impact players on offense -- Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker.
The Patriots cannot score in the second half, and part of the reason is that it is so easy for opponents to adjust to them. New England has by far the most predictable offense among division leaders. This season, Welker and Moss have accounted for more than half of the club's receptions, a trend that began when they arrived and has continued, perhaps to a fatal detriment.
The Chargers may throw to their receivers the most, but San Diego has a weapon -- Darren Sproles, who has caught 39 balls for 449 yards and is averaging 18.4 yards per pass -- that the Patriots lack, as Maroney is not a receiving threat.
A Brady staple had always been his tendency to spread the ball around, but his reliance on Welker -- without the emergence of another offensive weapon -- has turned these Patriots into a monolith.
With the Patriots, once diverse and dynamic, everyone knows that either Moss or Welker will get the ball. No team is even close. By the second half, the Patriots are about as predictable as an episode of "Law & Order."
The Patriots' defense is fallible, as is the front office for trading a talent such as Seymour. Still, since 2007, this team has been built for offense, and it is on offense that it is the stalest.
That is not to say the Patriots won't make the playoffs or win the Super Bowl. This is, after all, the NFL, where parity is king. Yet Patriots victories are less assured than at any previous time in the Brady-led era. Even the shortcomings of the post-2002 Super Bowl were less jarring. It was a 9-7 team and played like it, for it lacked the overall talent of this 2009 team.
But as Belichick would say, it is what it is: The Patriots are not in the same class as the unbeaten Colts and Saints, which have both exposed them differently in defeating them. They are a team in transition, with about a month left to produce the kind of performances that will live up to the mystique and expectation of a dynasty. Otherwise, the mystery will be solved, once and for all. They will be just another team.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and the forthcoming "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter.
The rebuilding Patriots are going through growing pains.