Team in transition just not tough enough

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Shortly after the New England Patriots were steamrolled by the Baltimore Ravens in a 33-14 season-ending beatdown, nose tackle Vince Wilfork summed up the state of affairs.

"We didn't play like it was a playoff game, more like a preseason game. We would never get the job done with that effort we put out there," he said in the team's quiet locker room, where some players were emptying their belongings into large trash bags and hauling them out for the season.

"You can chalk this one up and start for next year. That's the only way you can go from here."

When a team's season ends in the playoffs, it's always abrupt. For the Patriots, this was also embarrassing.

The junior varsity performance will serve as a starting point for changes to be made in 2010. It also provided another piece of evidence as to what defined the 2009 Patriots: This team was too inconsistent and not mentally tough enough, a weakness quarterback Tom Brady repeatedly referenced.

Give them credit for gutting their way to a playoff berth, where the hope was that they'd catch fire. Instead, they flickered out weakly.

Many will point to debatable personnel decisions as a primary reason the 2009 season unfolded this way -- whether it was trading defensive lineman Richard Seymour and linebacker Mike Vrabel, or miscalculating that veteran receiver Joey Galloway could fill Jabar Gaffney's void in the team's three-receiver offense. Their top free-agent signing, cornerback Shawn Springs, couldn't get off the bench for a four-game stretch midway through the season.

No question, those decisions hurt the Patriots at times in the short term.

When it came to all the defections, the influx of youth and retirements of safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi, the question was whether the team in transition had enough to be championship caliber. Now we know the answer. It didn't. It wasn't the right mix.

The Seymour deal sent ripples through the locker room, highlighting the often-sensitive divide between management and players. Receiving a 2011 first-round draft choice was a steal, one that will help the franchise's goal of sustained success, but what did it say to the players who were thinking about the here and now?

As for Vrabel, it was clear to many that he was declining on third down, but it now seems as if the Patriots were looking at things backward. Vrabel's toughness on first and second downs, against the run as an edge-setter, was something the 2009 team sorely lacked and that alone would have been worth keeping him around, especially given the minimal return in his trade to Kansas City. Not to mention that Vrabel could have helped in the transition to a young defense that was learning on the job.

That's where Bill Belichick's planning for 2010 can start. This team, first and foremost, needs more Vrabel-type toughness.

The box score doesn't lie: The Ravens ran 62 plays Sunday and 52 were runs. It was nothing fancy, it was simply here we come, try to stop us. That the Patriots couldn't was stunning, given that toughness and run-stopping is a trademark of a Belichick-coached defense.

Other priorities for the future include a major focus on the pass rush and giving Brady more weapons to throw to at receiver while factoring in Wes Welker's recovery from torn knee ligaments.

The Patriots have some good ammunition with which to work -- their own first-round draft choice and three second-rounders. In the event there is no salary cap, they also won't be restricted in free agency: The final eight playoff teams, a group the Patriots are not part of, won't be able to sign a free agent unless they lose one.

The top players with contracts expiring are Wilfork, defensive end Jarvis Green, offensive guard Stephen Neal, running back Kevin Faulk, cornerback Leigh Bodden, defensive end Derrick Burgess, tight end Benjamin Watson and pass rusher Tully Banta-Cain.

Guard Logan Mankins and kicker Stephen Gostkowski also have expiring contracts, but if there is no salary cap, as expected, they will revert to restricted free agents, making it a near certainty they will return to New England.

Wilfork acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding his situation.

"As time ticked off that clock, it kind of dawned on me," he said. "I told my teammates, the guys I played with on that defense, 'I don't know if this is the last game I played with you or not, but if it is, I love you and I'm going to miss you.' Who knows? We'll go from here and see what happens."

Wilfork said he would be upset if the Patriots assigned him the franchise tag -- a one-year deal at the average of the top five players at the position -- because his goal is to sign a long-term contract.

Elsewhere, the future of outside linebacker Adalius Thomas with the Patriots looks shaky. He is due to make $4.9 million in the fourth year of his five-year contract, which is a lot for someone the coaching staff apparently views as a two-down player. Starting left tackle Matt Light, who is scheduled to earn $4.5 million, is another player to watch as he enters the final year of his contract. Receiver Randy Moss, whose season was nothing short of a roller-coaster ride, is under contract for 2010 and figures to be back.

On top of all that is the biggest contract of all: Brady's. He enters the final year of his deal in 2010 and it's hard to imagine that won't be addressed by the time the team returns for training camp in July. He's the biggest-ticket item of all and his agent, Donald Yee, was in town for Sunday's playoff loss.

Brady used the words mental toughness, leadership, discipline and commitment when describing reasons why the Patriots have been successful in the past. He said the 2009 team displayed those characteristics at times, but not all the time.

"I think that's something that we all reflect on and individually, that's where we have to make more of a commitment to each other," he said. "I think [for the] guys that are going to be here next year -- the 2010 version of the team -- it's going to be something we can learn from this year."

It happens fast in the NFL, as the Patriots were already turning the page Sunday.

An up-and-down 2009 season -- which started with the promise of Brady's return, included a fourth-and-2 firestorm in Indianapolis and crashed with Welker's knee injury in the season finale and a blowout playoff loss -- was already in the rearview mirror.

It's time to look ahead, with players due in to Gillette Stadium on Monday morning for their exit physicals. The Patriots' season is over, as is a decade in which they played in four Super Bowls. If they are to return to elite status in the NFL, plenty of work needs to be done.

It starts now.

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