By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- It wasn't all that long ago when the Patriots held their ground as the class of the NFL. Competing for championships every single year for the better part of two decades, guided by elite leadership from the ownership and coaching levels, and getting primo quarterback play made the Patriots the gold standard for longer than anybody could have ever imagined. Just two years ago, they hoisted a Lombardi Trophy to prove that they were still the same force they'd always been.
Now ... now they're not a desirable landing spot for a quarterback who's looking to get out of Detroit, arguably the saddest franchise the league has to offer.
Things have changed in short order, to say the very least.
That is, of course, based on the big Patriots news of the weekend. It came from Tom E. Curran, who reported that Stafford told the Lions that he would accept a trade anywhere except the Patriots. By necessity, that means that Stafford would have accepted a trade to the Jets, or the Texans, or the Browns, or the Jaguars, or the Falcons, or the Raiders, or the WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM.
Any of those franchises? Fine by Stafford.
The New England Patriots? Not a chance.
That is just jarring.
Of course, this may not necessarily be a grand indictment of the Patriots franchise as a whole. It could merely be a personal problem that Stafford holds with Matt Patricia, who led the Lions to a pitiful 13-29-1 record over the last three seasons and has since been re-hired by his former boss, Bill Belichick.
Yet even if that were to be the case, a quarterback who's made exactly one single Pro Bowl who has also won zero playoff games never would have ruled out an opportunity to join the Patriots, if one had arisen, during the golden years. The limited interaction that would come with a coach who was hired for "scouting and working with the Patriots' coaching staff" would surely not have been a deal-breaker in those days.
The reason it is now, one can assume, has to do with the general state of the Patriots. They went 7-9 in the first year without Tom Brady, and while Cam Newton's passing struggles were a portion of the problem, his surrounding cast was a larger issue. Their production at the tight end position was almost nonexistent, their first-round wide receiver ranked 151st in the NFL in receiving yards, their best player was a 34-year-old wideout who missed half the year with a knee injury, and their offense as a whole finished 27th in yards gained and 27th in points scored.
The Patriots' offense was better than only Jacksonville, Cincinnati, Washington, and both New York teams. Yet Stafford didn't refuse to consider a trade to any of those bottom-five offenses. His only concern was in New England.
That, frankly, does lend credence to the Patricia factor. No doubt. But the point remains: Stafford's lost 16 more games than he's won in his career. He's gone 14-25-1 over the last three seasons. He's been on a winning team just four times in his 12 seasons. He's 0-3 in the playoffs, never having even seen the divisional round. His head coaches have been Jim Schwartz, Jim Caldwell, and Matt Patricia.
One might envision such a player -- one who's thrown for over 45,000 yards with 282 touchdowns -- might leap at the opportunity to play for Belichick and Josh McDaniels, for a franchise that averaged 12.5 wins per season in the 2010s and has won 16 playoff games, three Super Bowls, and five conference championships since he entered the NFL. Clearly, though, that's not the case.
Perhaps most damning of all, if you really take a step back and analyze the entire picture, you can't really blame him. (Outside of his decision to not rule out the Jets and Washington, of course. You can blame him for that.)
And while Stafford may have his reasons -- reasons which may include No. 2 pencils and a bushy beard -- the fact of the matter is that the Patriots are not a particularly desirable location right now. That concept was unfathomable as recently as a year or two ago, but now it is a stark reality check and a reminder of how quickly things can change in the NFL.
That's not to say the Patriots are doomed going forward. It is to say that the necessary improvements are multiple, and the need for Belichick -- without Nick Caserio for the first time in a long time -- to stack up hit after hit on those additions is as critical as ever. In terms of recapturing the dominance that defined the previous two decades, Belichick doesn't have a whole lot of time to get to work to turn things around.
While most of us who have watched him work for 20 years anticipate seeing that 7-9 record climb toward improvement, Stafford's stipulation might be an indicator that folks around the league might not be so optimistic regarding the Patriots' future.
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