Patriots' problems run deep

Have we gone leadership crazy?

Since the Patriots' 2009 season ended with a dud, one thought echoed across New England and subsequently around the NFL: The team's up-and-down campaign and stunning playoff collapse was a result of a gaping leadership void.

In an instant, got-to-have-it-now society, the knee-jerk conclusion that the Patriots lacked leadership seemed to be one that many rallied around. If only Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel were around, things would have been different. It has been the easy answer to sum up a wildly inconsistent 2009 Patriots season.

From this view, it's also the wrong one.

Leadership and locker-room chemistry were issues for the Patriots, but they weren't the only issues. If the solution was that easy, the team's offseason planning would be a snap.

Leadership had nothing to do with Ravens running back Ray Rice turning what could have been a 10-yard run into an 83-yard touchdown on the first offensive play of the Pats' playoff loss to Baltimore. Bad tackling by Pro Bowl safety Brandon Meriweather did.

Leadership had nothing to do with quarterback Tom Brady throwing ill-advised interceptions at Miami, New Orleans and Houston. All three picks represented a significant problem for the Patriots this season: Brady's uncharacteristic breakdowns in his decision-making in critical situations.

Leadership had nothing to do with the defense's inability to hold second-half leads. One of the NFL's greatest leaders of the past two decades, Junior Seau, was on the field for some of those defeats.

No matter. One week into the Patriots' sooner-than-expected offseason, it seems to be all leadership, all the time.

Lost in the leadership discussion is that no one, it seemed, was talking about it after the Patriots pasted the Jaguars 35-7 on Dec. 27. Most of the chatter then -- just two weeks prior to their brutal playoff defeat -- was that the Patriots might be putting things together at the right time.

Also conveniently forgotten is that even with Bruschi, Harrison, Seymour and Vrabel last season, the defense ranked 26th in the NFL on third down and struggled in critical situations, and the Patriots couldn't beat a top AFC team, all of which ultimately kept them out of the playoffs.

That's not saying the retirements of Bruschi and Harrison and the debatable trades of Seymour and Vrabel didn't drain some major leadership from the locker room. They did. And that hurt the Patriots; the presence of at least some of those veterans might have eliminated some of the drama-filled subplots that unfolded in the locker room this season.

But to lay the season's struggles on that is overlooking the more important issues: The Patriots need more playmakers, management needs to be sharper in identifying and keeping that talent, and coaches need to be better at cultivating, scheming, and communicating with players when their situations get sticky (e.g. safety James Sanders and his in-season reduction in playing time).

Start there, then factor in the importance of better locker-room chemistry, and you'll have a more accurate reflection of what went wrong in 2009 and what steps the club needs to take in 2010 to improve.

As for the all-leadership, all-the-time buzz, it gained momentum when Brady, the day after the team's embarrassing loss to the Ravens, was asked on sports radio WEEI about replacing some of the vital cogs who had been part of the foundation of the Patriots' recent success.

"The reality is obviously the leadership on our team wasn't where it needed to be," Brady said. "I'm speaking for myself. I was one of those leaders that certainly needs to do a better job in getting everybody on the same page and filling the void of those key players."

Some might have felt that Brady was saying the Patriots didn't have enough leaders. Yet the feeling here is that Brady was saying something entirely different -- that the team had leaders and it was wildly frustrating that more wouldn't follow them.

Brady, Seau, running back Kevin Faulk, receiver Wes Welker, left guard Logan Mankins and defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are all strong leaders in different ways.

It's fair to say the leadership wasn't as strong as it has been in the past, but is that really the reason the Patriots' 2009 season was so inconsistent and ended with such a thud?

Not from this view.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.