FOXBORO, Mass. -- The New England Patriots' season is over even though the team will be playing two more home games. Win or lose against the Bills today and against the Ravens next week, the Patriots won't be playing in the postseason for the first time in four years.
AFC champions in 1996 under Bill Parcells. AFC East champs in 1997 under the direction of Pete Carroll. Wild card entry and opening round loser in 1998. To fourth or fifth place in 1999. That's not progress, which is why there will be changes made -- serious changes -- in the makeup of this team before the Bills see New England again in the 2000 season.
The most obvious change will be in the coaching staff. The won-lost record was disappointing in 1998, prompting Pats owner Bob Kraft to consider making a coaching change then. But, after leaving Carroll hanging for about a week, the team finally determined that Carroll would be back.
After considering the run of serious injuries to key players (Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson), Kraft and personnel director Bobby Grier decided that Carroll deserved a chance to work with a full roster for a full season. He got that this year but couldn't deliver. Except for the loss of Johnson in training camp, the Pats remained healthy. It still wasn't enough. Despite a 6-2 record in the first half of the season, the team completely collapsed under the weight of its own offensive mistakes, losing five of their last six games.
Divisional losses to the Jets, Bills, Dolphins and Colts were capped by last week's numbing 24-9 loss to the Eagles, which, coupled with the Bills' win in Arizona, mathematically eliminated the Pats from the playoffs.
While Carroll and his staff are the most obvious victims of this collapse, a number of players and possibly the head of the football operation will also come under serious scrutiny. Kraft has remained away from the day-to-day operation of the team as he concentrated on putting together the financial and political pieces of building a new stadium. For the next month, he's been concentrating on evaluating the management of his team.
Grier has been the vice president in charge of personnel since 1995 and was the overseer of drafts that found key players like Ty Law, Ted Johnson, Curtis Martin, Dave Wohlabaugh, Terry Glenn and Lawyer Milloy. But those came from decisions made in concert with Parcells when he was coach. Grier had the final authority but Parcells was a major factor in all choices.
With Parcells' departure, Grier has been in complete charge and the results have been decidedly less impressive. The team had four extra picks (one in each of the first four rounds over three years) as compensation from the Jets for the hiring of Parcells and two more first- and third-round picks in 1998) as compensation for Martin, who signed with the Jets as a restricted free agent.
As a result, the team had a total of 27 draft picks in the last three years, 14 of them in the first three rounds. Only four of them are starting -- center Damien Woody, cornerback Tebucky Jones (who's taking Law's place), defensive tackle Brandon Mitchell and free safety Chris Carter (who may give way to rookie Tony George today).
The Patriots are getting older and there are no young developmental players ready to step in. Offensive linemen Damon Denson and the University at Buffalo's Ed Ellis were fourth-round picks in 1996 who were supposed to be challenging Max Lane, Todd Rucci and Zefross Moss for starting positions by now. Denson is out of football and Ellis spends his Sundays in street clothes as a member of the inactive list. Second year wide receiver Tony Simmons and tight end Rod Rutledge were supposed to play major roles this year. Neither has developed, however, and neither is a factor on offense.
What happens next year? What if unrestricted free agents like Milloy, Troy Brown, Tedy Bruschi and Shawn Jefferson decide to go someplace else? There's not a lot of quality depth behind them right now. Nor, given the personnel department's recent track record, can much be expected in the future.