It’s official. On Wednesday, the Boston Red Sox completed the worst meltdown in the history of Major League Baseball after failing to hold on to a one-run ninth-inning lead against the Baltimore Orioles. On the same night, the Tampa Bay Rays came back from a 7-0 deficit in the eighth inning to beat the Yankees and secure the AL Wild Card.

After starting the season with a 2-11 record and, at one point, working their way up to the best record in baseball, the Sox ended their 2011 campaign by losing 16 of their final 21 games. The team that some experts even considered to be the greatest — at least on paper — prior to the start of the season could not even beat the lowly Baltimore Orioles. They deserve every bit of the criticism to come.

But who is to blame… How about the manager? Terry Francona has led the Red Sox to two World Series titles and many playoff appearances during his tenure with the team, but this season he failed miserably in his duties. On Friday it was announced that he would not return as manager next season, but even prior to that he hinted that he didn’t want to come back. Simply put, players won’t follow or respect a manager that doesn’t want to be there.

How about the front office? General Manager Theo Epstein and his cohorts failed to make the necessary moves to stabilize the team. When starting pitcher Clay Buchholz went down with a back injury, the Sox brought in Erik Bedard — who hadn’t pitched a full season since 2007, and hadn’t pitched period since 2009 — to take his place. But the problems of the front office go back to the beginning of the season when, instead of building a team from the inside out like they used to, they took the tactic of the “Evil Empire” New York Yankees and bought their talent. Carl Crawford, a perennial all-star, had the worst year of his career and failed to make a crucial catch in Wednesday’s game that allowed the Orioles to take the lead.

And really, that’s what it comes down to — performance on the field. Yes, the manager and the front office made mistakes, but, in all honesty, blame the players. Blame them for underperforming. The pitching staff over the course of the meltdown was just awful. Lackey couldn’t buy an out, and even Lester and Beckett disappointed.

The fielders were no better. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, like fellow newcomer Carl Crawford, did not earn the contract he received. Overall, he had a great season, but he seemed to disappear when it mattered most. Even more disappointing was the defense, which was supposed to be a strength of the team. They committed 23 errors during a stretch of 21 games, which points to a lack of physical and mental preparation. The blame for lack of preparation, different from performance, can be blamed on the coaches as well as the players themselves. Off the field, egos ruled a leaderless locker room and drove the players apart when they needed to come together. Besides Pedroia, no one stepped up to take control of a team that felt as if it was entitled to a trip to the World Series.

The offseason will see a complete overhaul of the team, but the blueprints for success are already there and have been since 2004 when the self-styled “idiots” brought Boston its first title in 86 years. They may not have been the most talented team ever assembled, but they played with heart and grit and they had each other’s backs. They won because they were determined and they never said die, and because they put the team first and believed in earning what they got. The 2007 championship team operated in a similar fashion. If the Red Sox want to make it back to October next season, they’re going to have to find a way to get back to playing like idiots rather than entitled, overpaid assholes.