The recent comments from former Patriots defensive end Cassius Marsh are surprising not simply because of their strength but because of their rarity. During the 18 years that Bill Belichick has coached the team, the atmosphere hasn’t changed. So why haven’t more former Patriots popped off?
One possibility is that the Patriots misjudged Marsh as someone who would respond well to the New England environment. Belichick and company typically look for — and find — players who will buy in to The Patriot Way, which consists (in a nutshell) or having a hard shell that tolerates constant badgering and fear-based motivation, that puts team above individual, and that results in the successful players making financial sacrifices for the greater goal of effective cap management, not just to afford free-agent starters when needed but to have a robust middle class of experienced players who provide depth when injuries inevitably happen.
Even if Marsh didn’t fit in, he’s hardly the first. So why haven’t past Patriots teed off on Belichick’s methods after leaving the team?
The closest anyone else has come to taking shots at The Patriot Way happened nearly three years ago, when receiver Reggie Wayne asked to be released after a short stint in New England because “the work environment was tough” and Wayne was “not having fun.” Considering that Wayne occupied a central role on a Colts team that exuded excellence and that featured a strong, detail-obsessed personality at quarterback, the revelation was a bit of a shock.
But Wayne never suggested that the sense of unhappiness went beyond himself. Marsh’s comments broadened the focus to include others.
“They don’t have fun there,” Marsh said. “There’s nothing fun about it. There’s nothing happy about it.”
That has prompted some within league circles to wonder whether the Patriots have, over time, lost their nucleus of players who revel in the ends-justify-the-lack-of-fun approach. Players who believe winning is fun enough. Players who willingly accept the fact that championship football is zero fun, sir.
If past Patriots teams had a guy like Marsh who was grumbling about not having fun, team leaders would have swooped in immediately and rectified the situation, one way or the other. Marsh wouldn’t have believed that “they don’t have fun there.” He would have simply concluded that they have a different idea of what fun is.
At a time when the discontent has spread to players like quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, maybe there really is a deeper problem in the locker room, where the core of players obsessed with winning has been overcome by a critical mass of players who are sick of being constantly criticized. The tipping point quite possibly came during Super Bowl LII, when Belichick apparently departed from the win-at-all-costs mindset to instead play some sort of mind game with cornerback Malcolm Butler, leaving him on the sideline as the defense couldn’t stop Philadelphia’s offense.
Whatever the reasons and whatever the trigger, it’s becoming more and more clear that something has changed in New England. And while none of it may matter when it’s time to suit up and play in September, the fact that both Brady and Gronkowski are nowhere to be seen necessarily affects the overall preparation of a team that uses every phase of the calendar as a building block toward the next one.
If they and others find themselves resenting Belichick’s ways and questioning the effectiveness of his methods and his message, coach and players could be on a collision course for a level of dysfunction that they may not be able to overcome.