After a grueling and at times unbearable 3 months, the NFL lockout was finally lifted last week ensuring that there will be pro football this season. Fans and players in New England rejoiced and immediately began dreaming of high scoring offenses, home playoff games and Super Bowls. But, with the bulk of free agency now in our rear view mirror, there's just one problem with those dreams...
The Patriots are still not a legitimate Super Bowl contender and no amount of points that they ring up during the regular season is going to change that. What's worse, the Bill Belichick of 8 or 9 years ago would know that. You can't expect to simply outscore teams in the playoffs in the NFL, it almost never works.
The additions of the mammoth Albert Haynesworth and the enigmatic Chad Ochocinco have generated great interest among the fans and media, and both have the potential to bolster the team at their respective positions, but neither one of them plays a position where the Patriots are light on talent.
Where the Pats lack top end talent is on the defensive side of the ball. Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo are certainly the exceptions, but neither really addresses the major issues that the team has, namely its ability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, cover elite receivers, and slow down the top running attacks in the playoffs.
In the last 2 years, both the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens had great success in their playoff games running the football and converting on 3rd downs, both of which can be directly attributed to the Pats inability to get into the opposing teams backfield. Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco were knocked to the ground a combined ZERO times (zero QB hits, zero sacks), while Tom Brady was dropped a total of 8 times. In the running game, the Pats managed just 8 stops behind the line in those 2 games, compared to 13 for their more defensively inclined opponents.
When you lack elite pass rushers or run stoppers, you had better have elite corners and the Pats haven't had those either.
A bevy of DB's ranging from good (Devin McCourty) to mediocre (Darius Butler) were consistently left on an island and expected to lock up top tier receivers while opposing QB's were allowed what seemed like an eternity for someone to get open. A top end pass rusher at defensive end or outside linebacker has seemed like an obvious need for the team the past few years.
Admittedly, the free agent market is not often flush with the type of players that the Patriots are in need of, and when they are available the price tag is often extremely high. But when those opportunities present themselves, past free agent busts like Adalius Thomas shouldn't prevent them from making a serious play to acquire those players (see: Peppers, Julius). Most of the time, your best chance to get your hands on those coveted skill player come via the draft, and this is where the Patriots have made major errors.
The players that they have chosen have largely been good additions at their respective positions, but they pale in comparison to what could have been. Clay Matthews, Ray Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Mike Jenkins are all players that could have been had the past 3 years and would have made a huge impact on a defense that desperately needs impact players.
As it stands now, the team that takes the field for its season opener in Miami on September 12th will look largely the same as the one that was so agonizingly defeated at Gillette Stadium in the divisional playoffs 7 months ago by the rival Jets. Chances are, the warm weather and the weaker opponent will lead to Brady putting up MVP numbers, the team steamrolling the hapless Dolphins by 2-3 scores and all will be forgotten. The rest of the regular season will likely follow the same script, with the Patriots rolling to another elite regular season record and a home playoff game. Unfortunately, once the playoffs start, the weather will turn south, the defenses will ratchet up a few notches and the Patriots will doubtlessly run into the Jets or someone similar and the season will come to the same crashing halt that it has the past 2 years. And just like that, another year of Tom Brady's career will have been wasted.
And that's really what it comes down to.
There's an argument to be made that the Patriots are simply being patient and allowing the talent on the field to develop into the type of unit that Bill Belichick hopes will lead the team in the near future, and under more conventional circumstances it would be the best way to go. Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, McCourty and Pat Chung are all capable of becoming upper tier players at their respective positions and leading the defense of this franchise going forward, but Brady is no spring chicken anymore and as a result, patience may no longer be the best option.
When #12 went down at the start of the 2008 season with that gruesome knee ACL tear, it should have been a wake-up call that the clock is ticking on the future hall of famer. At 33, Brady is at an age where he may only have one or two more seasons as perhaps the league's best signal caller. Two players that followed the same career path as Brady, Dan Marino and Joe Montana, both saw their numbers begin to decline after their 33rd birthdays as the injuries began to pile up. Tom will probably follow in the same footsteps.
With this in mind, the Patriots should abandon their overly frugal spending ways for the next few seasons in favor of trying to maximize the remaining years where Brady is still at or near the top of his game.
This isn't a call for the Kraft family to morph into the second coming of Daniel Snyder and start throwing outrageous contracts at players who don't deserve them, but instead to get more aggressive in the draft by using all of those stockpiled picks to move into the upper end of the 1st round to select the best possible players regardless of what the price tag might be. There really is no reason to hold back at this point unless you believe Brady isn't capable of winning a title anymore (not true) and you'd prefer to build for the future.
The reality is that once Brady retires you'll be rebuilding anyway.
Despite the 3 Super Bowl wins in 4 appearances and the countless awards that have been piled at his doorstep, assuming things continue on the same track and Brady retires in a half-decade's time, the Patriots will have gone a full decade without winning a title. While that certainly may not seem like much in the grand scheme of things (hey there, Jets fans), it will still feel a little hollow if this era ends without at least 1 more championship.
And unless the philosophy changes or the team catches lightning in a bottle, that's the direction they are headed.