The New England Patriots find themselves in disarray leading into Sunday night's nationally televised home game against the Cincinnati Bengals, facing not only the obvious questions about their play on the field, and about whether future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady is essentially washed up, but the Patriots face questions about coaching decisions as well.
In the one of the strangest decisions, possibly in the entire 15-year tenure of New England Head Coach Bill Belichick, going into last Monday night's game in Kansas City, the Patriots put only three wide receivers on the active list, going instead with five running backs.
It looked like the Patriots were geared up to play some old-school, smashmouth football against the Chiefs, attempting to run the Kansas City defense into the ground. Right?
Wrong. Despite the artificially depleted receiving corps, New England ran the ball on a mere 16 plays all game. The result, as every Patriot fan knows and all are doing their best to forget, was the worst Patriots loss since 2003 — a 41-14 drubbing.
The one benching that caused the most head scratching among Patriots observers was second-year wide receiver Aaron Dobson, who in 2013 posted a respectable rookie season, appearing in 12 games and rolling up 519 receiving yards with four touchdowns.
But by benching Dobson for the Chiefs game, Belichick kept his 23-year-old, 2013 second-round draft pick out of action for the second week in a row. Given the Patriots' seemingly desperate need to provide Brady with additional receiver options, benching Dobson seemed to make no sense.
Rumors quickly started to circulate that Dobson was benched for disciplinary reasons after "mouthing off" to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. Belichick let the rumor float in the always-febrile Boston media for several days, before tersely stating that Dobson's benching was for "football reasons," and had nothing to do with discipline.
Dobson also denied the rumor on Friday, saying, "It was just a rumor. I had no reason to feel awkward in any way with my coaches or anything," adding that he and McDaniels "have a really great relationship, to tell you the truth."
So what were the "football reasons" for Dobson's mysterious absence? A clue may have come in a statement by Tom Brady after the Chiefs' game in which he appeared, without naming names, to question the football ability of his teammates.
"We don't have the kind of offense that's going to perform at a high level," Brady said in an interview of Boston sports radio station WEEI. "It all ties together. If we're not playing well, we're not going to have good stats. There is no magic play, there's no magic scheme."
Respected Patriots beat reporter Mike Reiss said on ESPN.com that Dobson's benching was likely the result of "struggling to get open in practice."
"Don't do well in practice, hard to have confidence to put the player in a game," Reiss explained.
So has Tom Brady simply lost all faith in Aaron Dobson, due to alleged poor performance in Patriots' practice? If so, Brady himself could have provided the motivation for Belichick to leave Dobson on the bench.
In written statement issued after his terse exchange with the media, Belichick — or whichever New England media relations rep wrote the press release for him — went into greater detail, saying that Dobson "has always been respectful to me and to the rest of the coaching staff. He has never once been argumentative or confrontational," and condemning rumors of the "loud disagreement" with McDaniels as "completely false."
If indeed Aaron Dobson is in uniform for the Patriots Sunday night game in New England -- and if so, how often Tom Brady gets him the ball -- it should go a long way to clearing up the mystery of Dobson's benching.