By: Bob George/
September 30, 2002

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SAN DIEGO - Roman Phifer. 34. Anthony Pleasant. 34. Victor Green. 32. Otis Smith. 37 in a few weeks.

Priest Holmes. 180. LaDainian Tomlinson. 217. Ricky Williams. Sweet dreams, Patriot Nation.

How else can you explain it? All of sudden there are rushing lanes? All of a sudden Patriot defenders forgot how to tackle? All of a sudden when there used to be exploding to the ball, the only exploding now is the sonic boom from the speed of the running back?

The last time an opposing running back did this stuff to the Patriots, the Oakland Athletics ruled baseball for three years. The guy who used to do this stuff is better known for being associated with Ron Goldman and Kato Kaelin than Reggie McKenzie and Joe DeLameillure. This sort of thing simply doesn't happen to the Patriots, folks.

What was supposed to be lessons learned in a close shave over Kansas City at the Big Razor Blade morphed into a Calamity At The 'Comm. Or, perhaps the Quagmire At The Q. Maybe you prefer Blown Up By The Bolts.

Any way you look at it, the Patriots have some work to do with themselves following a 21-14 defeat Sunday at the hands of the Chargers, a team the Patriots have had great success against since men first landed on the moon. It was the first loss for the Patriots in this city since 1969 and the first loss of any kind against this team since 1970 at Harvard Stadium.

The Patriots have always found a way to beat teams recently, and they always find a way against the Chargers. Last year's 29-26 OT win was the best example, as they scored ten quick points at the end of regulation to send it to the extra session. The historical end of it is really irrelevant, but the Patriots have been on the other end of long jinxes before, and often times the stigma of such a jinx helps the jinxor versus the jinxee.

But on Sunday, before an unusually vocal sellout crowd in normally placid Qualcomm Stadium, where the most yelling is usually done by fans of the other team, the Chargers rose up and cut down the Super Bowl champs. Borrowing the copycat system used so well by defenses who like to follow the Patriot lead in shutting offenses down, the Chargers used the Chief blueprint from last week to reduce the Patriot defense to rubble.

The only problem with what the Chargers did was why Tomlinson wasn't featured all game long like Holmes was last week. Had Marty Schottenheimer ran Tomlinson 30 times or more like Holmes did, the NFL single game rushing record held by Corey Dillon of Cincinnati would likely have fallen. The Patriots had a horrid time with Tomlinson all day long, and their inability to stop him, combined with some anomalic mistakes by Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri, lost the game for the Patriots.

One really has to wonder about the overall team speed of the Patriot defense. Has age finally caught up with them?

At first thought, you might think not. How can the Patriots look like a wrecking crew against Pittsburgh and the Jets, and suddenly look pathetic against Kansas City and San Diego? Aging doesn't happen overnight, unless you're the head coach.

The answer to this question lies more in the opposition than it does the Patriots. The league still didn't take the Patriots seriously going into their week 2 encounter with the Jets. But since then, the Patriots have been favoured in both games, and now offenses are playing the Patriots like nobody did all last year. The champs are finally getting their props, and offenses are now finally coming at them with the intensity that defending champs usually get.

In other words, the Patriot defense was perfect for an opposing offense that didn't take them seriously. Now that the league finally does, you have two backs combine for 397 yards in two weeks. The age has been there all along. It's just now finally being exposed for all to see.

For the second week in a row, Smith was burned on a deep pass route for a touchdown. The Charger offensive line bullied the Patriot defensive line all game long. Thoughts of Tedi Bruschi's and Roman Phifer's injuries being the only thing wrong with the defense were quickly dispelled; on Tomlinson's first touchdown, he did an incredible cutback to the outside against Bruschi, and it was all over.

Can this be fixed?

The sight of Napoleon Harris in a Raider uniform is still discomforting. The sight of Brock Williams still not having played a down for the Patriots is really discomforting. The sight of Leonard Myers in street clothes engenders a similar reaction. The fact that most of the rest of the defensive line is over 30 is incredibly discomforting. Start with these sad facts and go from there.

The Patriots may not be able to address this problem right now, except for retooling a few things, and getting back to basics. Age isn't the only issue here, as Lawyer Milloy played one of his worst games as a Patriot thanks to a hail of missed tackles on Sunday.

If the answer indeed does lie in merely closing up rushing lanes, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel have shown that they know how to make adjustments and can probably come up with a few quick remedies. But they had a week to try and fix the Holmes issue, and the problem got worse, not better. In that case, adjustments may not matter.

Sooner or later, old legs stop being young and calendars catch up with guys who try and cheat on Father Time and Mother Nature. There is no question that guys like Smith, Pleasant and Phifer have gotten every bit of ability out of their bodies over their careers, and have served as models for young players to follow in regards to conditioning. But there will come a day when they simply can't get it done anymore because the body won't allow it.

In that case, Belichick is either going to have to really be a genius, or plan accordingly when it comes to spending Drew Bledsoe's compensation pick.

Because all the spirit and attitude can't make up for old legs that simply can't be young anymore.