New England Patriots 2010 Preview
There’s no sense opening a discussion about whether the New England Patriots dynasty has ended. It has. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment. Perhaps January 14, 2006 in Denver, when Tom Brady lost a playoff game for the first time.
Or, maybe it was January 21, 2007 in Indianapolis, when the Pats’ postseason ownership of the Colts was eradicated by an 18-point Peyton Manning-led comeback. Or, February 3, 2008, when the New York Giants took the field as 12-point underdogs in Super Bowl XLII and ruined New England’s perfect season.
Then again, it could have been September 7, 2008 when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard inadvertently smashed his helmet into Brady’s knee, obliterating the future Hall of Famer’s ACL, MCL and aura of invincibility. Or, maybe, the dynasty ended January 10, 2010 when the Baltimore Ravens came into Foxboro and – almost literally – ran all over the hapless Pats.
Likely, it wasn’t just one of these moments. We tend to think that dynasties undergo a sudden collapse (textbooks fit the story on one page). But most dynasties slowly crumble. Heck, the Ming Dynasty took about 45 years to unravel. The Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl in five years. The only major figures left from the title years are Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft.
Of course, because of these three, there’s still prosperity in Foxboro. The Patriots haven’t reigned supreme over the NFL in five years, but they’ve been major contenders. Brady, at 33, is nowhere near finished. Belichick doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. And Kraft remains the humble delegator that he’s been since Day One. It’s not out of the question that this team could generate a second dynasty and win three of the next four Super Bowls.
That said, it’s also possible that things could crumble further. Muckrakers have been searching eagerly for signs of this. They’re looking at the quarterback. Not long after the playoff loss to Baltimore, Brady talked about the team’s need for renewed leadership. But then, he spent most of his offseason in California, leading some to deduce that he’s miffed about the organization’s delay in extending his expiring contract.
In 2005, Brady signed a discounted deal so the organization could acquire more veteran talent. Belichick and the front office did acquire talent – most notably bringing in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Adalius Thomas in 2007 – but they didn’t fully abandon the callous, frugal business practices that largely define what people call “the Patriot way”. Some believe this has irked Brady. While it’s true the Patriots are not opposed to dismissing expensive stars – see Asante Samuel or Richard Seymour – it’s not like the organization refuses to spend. This past offseason, they made Vince Wilfork the highest-paid nose tackle in NFL history (five years, $40 million; $25 million guaranteed). And, though they were rebuffed, they offered restricted free agent guard Logan Mankins a long-term contract worth $7 million a year.
What could have Brady irked is if he’s sensing that he’ll get slapped with a one-year franchise tag amidst the Collective Bargaining turmoil. But still, what’s more likely: that Brady spent the offseason in California as a negotiating ploy, or that he spent the offseason in California to be closer to his children? Kraft has said Brady’s deal will get done – it will.
A more legitimate concern is the amount of power Belichick has accumulated. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio oversees the front office’s day-to-day operations, but Belichick makes all final decisions. As the head coach, Belichick chose not to replace offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels last year. Sure, there is a play-caller – quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien, who has been criticized for being stale and, some have speculated, not high on Brady’s list – but there’s no Charlie Weiss-like figure handling the offense’s heavy lifting. What’s more, this past offseason, defensive coordinator Dean Pees retired. Instead of hiring a replacement, Belichick elected to assume a more active role himself.
A rogue head coach with no general manager and no offensive and defensive coordinators? That’s as much centralized power as you’ll find in the NFL. History shows that strong, centralized power, when misused, destroys dynasties. Of course, history also shows that such power can also create dynasties.
Since Wes Welker and Randy Moss arrived, the Patriots have shattered passing records with a video game-like spread offense. But in order to claim another Lombardi Trophy, they may need to reassume the modus operandi that won them Lombardi Trophies to begin with: balance. Welker is coming off February ACL surgery. Remarkably, he could still take the field in Week 1, but with his game predicated on shiftiness and quick cutting, it’s highly unlikely he’ll be in top form. The Patriots can rely more on Welker’s clone, Julian Edelman, but the second-year receiver is not a 100-catch talent.
What’s more, Moss is slowing down. At 33, he’s lost a smidgen of his speed and leaping ability. He’s still arguably the best pure deep threat in the game, but his change-of-direction has stiffened, which kills his already-subpar route running. Moss used to lift coverages by simply lining up; now, he only lifts coverages when the play is specifically designed for him to do so.
Tom Brady, who should regain his superstar form after struggling to trust his reconstructed knee at times in ’09, has other options. Thirty-four-year-old Torry Holt is no longer a dynamic all-around force, but crafty route-running and sticky hands make him an excellent No. 3. Best of all is Holt can mentor last year’s third-round pick, Brandon Tate, as well as this year’s speedy third-round pick, Taylor Price. Quietly, the Patriots are hoping one of those two can replace Moss in 2011.
The Patriots also upgraded at tight end. Inconsistent Ben Watson and blocking-specialist Chris Baker were both allowed to leave over the offseason. In their places will be talented rookie receiving tight ends Rob Gronkowski (second-rounder) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth-rounder). Gronkowski, an enticing athlete who missed the ’09 season at Arizona with a back injury, is also a solid blocker, but for insurance, the Patriots have 10th-year veteran Alge Crumpler (owner of one of the NFL’s biggest rumps).
There are myriad receiving options, but with Welker and Moss destined to take a step back, it would make sense for New England to be more run-oriented in 2010. There is an outstanding quartet of veteran running backs who can make this happen. Laurence Maroney is an effective power runner when he commits to playing downhill. If he dances and fumbles too much, the Pats can replace him with Fred Taylor. Taylor is 34 but still attacks holes with good initial quickness.
When healthy, 33-year-old veteran Sammy Morris is an elusive and hard-to-tackle all-around runner. Morris is at his best operating from space (shotgun formations, screen passes, etc.), but these duties are already handled – masterfully, in fact – by Kevin Faulk, a 12th-year veteran who epitomizes the perfect role player.
The Patriots offensive line is cohesive and versatile enough to play in a pass or run-oriented system. Many believe that second-year tackle Sebastian Vollmer is destined to replace Matt Light on the left side. Perhaps…in three or four years. Right now, Light’s mobility in the run game and chemistry with Brady in pass protection make him far too valuable to disturb. Vollmer is still developing his footwork anyway. If Vollmer does start, it would likely be ahead of iffy pass-blocker Nick Kaczur.
Left guard Logan Mankins demanded a trade over the offseason, but it does him little good to sit out 2010. Mankins has a unique ability to land powerful blocks on the move, but the Patriots aren’t utterly dependent on the sixth-year pro. If need be, their history suggests they’d simply tap versatile ex-Jaguar Dan Connolly or last year’s fourth-round pick, Rich Ohrnberger. Of course, both would be drastic downgrades from Mankins. If coaches were genuinely confident in either backup, they wouldn’t have persuaded to convince oft-injured right guard Stephen Neal to delay retirement one more year. Soothing the potential instability at guard is the veteran leadership of underpowered but technically-sound center Dan Koppen.
The Patriot defense ranked fifth in points allowed last season, but in reality, it was a very average unit. The absence of a true pass-rusher put a heavy burden on the young secondary. But Bill Belichick, confident in his complex, versatile 3-4 scheme, chose not to make major personnel changes over the offseason. Instead of going after Julius Peppers, the Patriots re-signed outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess. Neither player is explosive. Banta-Cain managed a career-high 10 sacks last season, but he’s a stiff, upright player who can be attacked in the run game. Burgess is just plain low on gas; don’t be surprised if second-round rookie Jermaine Cunningham – who, at 266 pounds, fits the Patriot linebacker mold – takes over sometime before December.
The Patriots signed veteran defensive linemen Damione Lewis and Gerard Warren to low-paying one-year contracts. Both have spent their entire careers in 4-3 schemes, but both could still vie for serious playing time (in fact, Warren will likely start ahead of trusty utility defensive lineman Mike Wright). But neither Lewis nor Warren is a pass-rusher.
Vince Wilfork – the best nose tackle in the NFL – is capable of not just devouring double teams, but penetrating the A gaps. But he doesn’t regularly reach the quarterback (7.5 sacks in six years). Neither does Ty Warren, though the left end is one of the game’s best edge run-stoppers.
The Patriots will have to either manufacture pressure with aggressive blitzes or settle for soft zone coverages. Both scenarios restrict what Belichick can do with the secondary. Corner Leigh Bodden re-signed here in part because he’s comfortable in this scheme. Bodden can play press coverage, but he prefers to give receivers some space so that he can eye the ball. Darius Butler has the inside track on the No. 2 job, but he’s a bit slow-twitch in man coverage.
If Butler remains inconsistent, coaches can slide him to nickel and give athletic first-round rookie Devin McCourty a shot. Third-year pro Terrence Wheatley is also an option, if he can finally stay healthy. Jonathan Wilhite has also shown flashes at times.
Fortunately for New England, free safety Brandon Meriweather has morphed into an upper-tier ballhawk. Meriweather’s range will only continue to improve as he sharpens his awareness. The Pats are hoping for another good return on a high-draft pick, as they’re prepared to start hard-hitting ’09 second-round pick Patrick Chung at strong safety. If Chung isn’t ready, there’s always plain but serviceable James Sanders or, more likely, thick-framed dime back Brandon McGowan.
It’s clear that improving the run defense was of utmost importance this past offseason (wonder if the Ravens’ 234 rushing yards in the Wild Card round had anything to do with that). Belichick spent a second-rounders on slow but strong Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes. The sooner Spikes starts, the sooner run-stopping liability Gary Guyton can be demoted to a more fitting nickel role.
Whoever lines up inside will get to play next to third-year sensation Jerod Mayo. Injuries and unpreparedness for leadership responsibilities tripped Mayo in 2009, but as a rookie, his agility, closing speed and resounding strength made him arguably the best inside linebacker in the game. Keep an eye on Mayo’s backup, as well. Second-year pro Tyrone McKenzie missed his rookie season with an ACL, but the 243-pounder is healthy and outspoken about his star potential.
It’s hard to believe Stephen Gostkowski is entering his fifth season – it seems like yesterday he was replacing Adam Vinatieri. The hope is that fifth-round rookie Zoltan Mesko can be the long-term punter. New England doesn’t prioritize the return game; either Kevin Faulk or one of the receivers (Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman or Matthew Slater) will be plugged in here.
The Patriots have the offensive personnel to thrive in any system, but they’ll find that a more balanced approach will hide some of the receivers’ impending limitations and also make life easier for their decent-but-somewhat-stale defense. The key to executing this will be Belichick and Brady, who aren’t bad guys to count on.
Predicted: 1st AFC East
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