- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Patriots gathered as a team the day after Sunday's 22-21 loss to the Dolphins, coach Bill Belichick delivered a message to players that went something like this:
"It's going to take more commitment for us to get where we need to go. More film work. Coming in a little early. Leaving a little later. Not running out of the building."
That is what one player heard in the team meeting room that day, so he wasn't surprised at what unfolded Wednesday when four players showed up late because of ice and snow and were told to leave the facility with words that wouldn't be fitting to reprint on a family Web site.
With the Patriots coming off back-to-back losses, and Belichick's having mentioned the importance of putting in extra time just two days earlier, the coach apparently viewed this as a test of how much his words meant. That's probably why he came down so hard on Derrick Burgess, Gary Guyton, Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas.
Instead of giving them a simple slap on the wrist or fining them $1,700 -- a hefty price that has been levied on some players who were late in the past -- he brought down the largest hammer of all by banning them from the facility for the day.
Of the four players who were sent home, Thomas and Moss will warrant the most attention as to their reactions to the discipline.
One player described the atmosphere between Thomas and Belichick as high tension for most of the season. It started when Thomas was a healthy scratch against the Titans on Oct. 18, and it's been clear that Thomas -- who is now a part-time player who comes off the field in pass-rush situations -- hasn't been a happy camper since.
At the time, one line of thinking was that the decision could motivate Thomas to raise his level of play. Instead, it has only created a further divide between him and the coach who once joked at practice about the Brinks truck being backed into his driveway when the team signed him to a five-year, $35 million contract in March 2007.
Gone is the Thomas who used to smile and hand out "Humble Pie" T-shirts in the locker room, a humorous tribute to the way Belichick would drill every player even in a resounding win. In his place is a more somber player who seems to know that this will be his last season in New England -- and that the only reason he's still in town is the salary-cap charge the team would incur for cutting him.
Unlike Thomas, whose situation seems too far down the road to reverse course, there is more uncertainty about how Moss will react to being sent home.
He is, after all, a team captain.
When reporters enter the locker room each day, Moss is often talking with running back Kevin Faulk, one of his closest friends on the team and one of the strongest influences in the locker room. Faulk has become a go-to guy in times of adversity, and this is certainly one of those. One of his greatest assists this year could be to aid the re-entry of Moss, who is sensitive to criticism at times, into the locker room Thursday.
As for Burgess, don't mistake his lack of production on the field -- he's been a disappointment since being acquired for third- and fifth-round draft choices -- for not caring. Although Burgess can come across as cavalier at times when speaking to reporters, one player described him as a hard worker who has put in the necessary time since arriving in New England. It just hasn't panned out on the field.
Guyton also has been diligent, and Wednesday's transgression is seen more as a misstep by a hardworking second-year player who should have known better than to cut it so close regardless of weather conditions. He might have been only three minutes late, but at this stage of his career, he should have been an hour and three minutes early.
One of the more telling comments Wednesday at Gillette Stadium came from quarterback Tom Brady. Asked about his remarks after Sunday's loss to the Dolphins -- in which he said he thinks the team sometimes fights through adversity but other times doesn't fight very hard -- he explained that he wasn't necessarily talking about game day.
"What I was alluding to was the other six days of the week, we've got to make a commitment to each other," Brady said. "If Coach wants us to come in on Monday and work or stay for a two-and-a-half hour practice on Wednesday and Thursday, then with no bitching or complaining, you just do the job. I think at times we all feel a little bit sorry for ourselves; you're beat up, you're tired, you're sore and it's the end of the year, and you go, 'Why is he doing this?'
"But in the end, you're either gaining ground on a team or you're losing ground, and I always prefer to be gaining ground and getting ahead and staying ahead over the course of the week -- through walk-throughs, meetings, post-practice film, film study on Tuesday, through all of the treatment that you've got to do. There's a lot that goes into it."
The Patriots lost ground Wednesday, the most important day of the week for installing a game plan. Two days after delivering a message to the players that it would take a greater effort, Belichick backed his words with harsh discipline by sending four players home.
Now we'll see whether that sparks a greater sense of commitment or creates a deeper chasm for a team that might be on the verge of imploding.
How the Patriots respond to Bill Belichick's stand will define their season.