With Sunday’s disappointing but somewhat anticipated Patriots loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship, that brought an end to one of the most challenging yet entertaining seasons to take place in Foxborough in recent memory.
But, now, as those offensively-potent Broncos prepare for next month’s Super Bowl against the defensively-stingy Seahawks, the offseason has arrived in New England.
So, what’s next?
Big picture, the Pats have a dozen free agents, most very replaceable by external options. Only two names stand out at the top of the Hope to Retain list with the market set to open on March 11:
In those two contributors lies an interesting debate: What wins championships, offense or defense?
The Patriots last won a Super Bowl in 2005, their third in four years. They’ve been eliminated from the postseason eight times since, rarely by the so-called superior team. In those contests, the Pats allowed an average of 27.3 points and scored just 17.8.
As an aside, that’s one thing that’s a bit comforting about this year’s exclusion. The Broncos were unequivocally the better team last week, both on paper and on the field. Moving on…
Those stats make sense this time around. Tom Brady lacked Rob Gronkowski on offense and was forced to throw to the likes of Austin Collie, Matthew Slater, and Matt Mulligan in a conference final game, while the defense was missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Brandon Spikes and, for most of the day, Talib. When Wes Welker knocked the cornerback out with a knee injury, Peyton Manning saw mismatches and the Patriots saw stars.
Often times over the last dozen years, however, the Patriots have had their horses alongside Brady in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that group has just come up short when it mattered most.
Now, Brady needs the weapons more than ever. The franchise-altering quarterback is no longer at a point in his career where he can be relied upon to elevate a young or inexperienced arsenal to new levels. It was a problem throughout this season, and he’ll be 37 come the start of the next one.
For those ready to quickly point out Edelman’s emergence from free agent anonymity, yes, he had a tremendous year, but that’s as much a credit to his athleticism and the system he plays in as it is to Brady.
That doesn’t mean Brady isn’t one of the best of all-time or even one of the best now. But he’s inarguably on the decline. How many years of elite-level play (with a Broncos-like stable of targets, that is) does he have left? Two? Three? Everyone knows – the Patriots included – his window is closing. In a couple seasons, it will be slamming.
The time to act is now.
Just as when the Pats loaded up for the 2007 season, they must do so again. New England has to reward its star with a veteran or two who can help raise his play for a change.
Clearly, the team could not have anticipated Gronkowski’s second injury in 2013, nor foreseen the circumstances surrounding Aaron Hernandez. It could not force Emmanuel Sanders away from the Steelers.
But it could have elected to bring back Welker and Danny Woodhead rather than hoping for similar production out of Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. It also could have given Brady a deep threat with any level of NFL experience as opposed to several rookies.
Sadly, for all the credit Bill Belichick deserves for his coaching performance, his personnel decisions warrant equal criticism.
That makes re-signing Edelman a priority, and he’s going to receive offers this time around after a 105-catch, 1,056-yard season. What happens if the market prices him out of New England? It is reasonable he asks for a similar deal to Amendola’s five-year, $31 million pact. If he does, and leaves, can Amendola really be counted on to take over his role, as he was expected to this season when it was Welker’s job? After year one, he and Brady still aren’t on the same page. The injury-riddled receiver won’t be cut, so we’ll find out.
Just as important, the Pats need an outside threat with speed. Preferably someone, ya know, taller than six feet. Aaron Dobson could be that guy, but would you gamble your salary on it? Eric Decker will be a free agent, but would the Patriots pony up the dough for him? Or Anquan Boldin? How about Golden Tate (wait, he's 5'11") or Hakeem Nicks? Sanders is available again. Or they could try to trade for Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald? They don’t need superstars, per se, but another experienced veteran or two who isn’t signed and cut throughout the season would be a marked improvement.
Moreover, they’ll need to sign an impact tight end, someone who could allow free agents Michael Hoomanawanui and Mulligan to be more complementary pieces should either return. Whenever Gronkowski comes back from this latest knee injury, there’s no telling how long he’ll be available from there. He alters the dynamics of the offense like few others in the game, but has proven undependable. It’s fair to ask, would Tony Gonzalez play one more year with an established contender? Maybe Dennis Pitta? Or, going the other way, maybe a high-round pick in May’s draft would be a viable solution? The team presently has seven selections.
The only other offensive free agent of note is LeGarrette Blount. As impressive as the running back was in three of his final four weeks, especially in light of what was expected of him, he’s not a necessity with Stevan Ridley, Vereen, and Brandon Bolden in the fold.
Well in front of Edelman and Blount on the overall wish list, though, is Talib.
The 27-year-old is a top-notch, shutdown corner who owned every opponent’s primary receiver when healthy. But, like with Gronkowski, health has been a problem. His season has prematurely ended two straight years in an elimination game. Both times, the defense collapsed without him.
The Pats shouldn’t franchise the center of the secondary – which would more than double his salary to the tune of more than $11 million – but his performance warranted a bump in pay and a multi-year deal. It’s a wonder if the limited marquee options at his position will, too, force him to look elsewhere. The only benefit of the hefty franchise tag is that it all but guarantees his return. That is to say his injury history doesn’t frighten the organization. If it does, there’s always a free agent like Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The pass-rush could use some help as well, but the Patriots were a top-five team in sacks – even if they literally couldn’t brush up against Manning in Denver – and ranked in the middle of the pack in deflected passes.
From there, there’s actually great reason for optimism. A healthy Wilfork, Mayo, and Kelly, and continued improvement from Chandler Jones, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, and Alfonzo Dennard could easily place the Patriots among the top defenses in the league. Little more than health and some additional depth are needed, not big names. Even Spikes is expendable.
Consider the Pats’ first five games in 2013, when they allowed a mere 14 points per game before substantial and overwhelming injuries set in. More often than not, Talib was the chief difference-maker, but Wilfork and Mayo were noticeably influential. In the end, the Patriots finished 26th in the league in yards allowed per game (373.1) and 10th in points against (21.1).
As important as offense is, defense wins championships. Since the 2000 season, only once has the league’s top scoring team won the Super Bowl (Saints, 2009). On four occasions, it’s been the best defenders (Steelers, 2008; Patriots, 2003; Buccaneers, 2002; Ravens, 2000). In about two weeks, after the Broncos and Seahawks have squared off, one of those lists will have another entry. Bet on Seattle.
Each time the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl this century, with one exception, they’ve had a top-six defense. Fortunately, in that sense, they have more work to do on the other side of the ball and already possess the most significant piece on offense under center.
With Brady at the helm, the Pats will always be competitive and, in all likelihood, they’ll always win their habitually inept division. But, the Patriots can’t afford another wasted year in the Brady era, another offseason of discussions as to whether he’s won his last championship. Injuries and lack of talent and depth forced them to overachieve, and they were an upset shy of reaching the Super Bowl. Still, it was very unlikely they would have won the big game. They need the components to again be a favorite.
For Belichick, bound for Senior Bowl practices, personnel evaluations, draft and free agency preparations, and salary cap analysis, the 2014 season is underway. A year from now, hopefully the 2015 campaign won’t be.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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