The NFL season will officially kick off tomorrow night in Green Bay where the Packers will unveil their latest Super Bowl banner before taking on the New Orleans Saints. A few nights later down in Miami, the Patriots will open their season on South Beach against the Dolphins with far less fanfare.
Despite the use of one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game in Tom Brady along with one of the most potent offensive attacks in recent NFL history, the Patriots have flamed out of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons with hardly even a whimper and haven't held a banner ceremony in 6 years.
This, after hosting three of them in the span of four years before that.
Over the past couple of seasons, the philosophy, execution, and yes, blind luck that provided the Patriots with the opportunity to win those three championships has faded away. Gone are the dominating defenses, the elite special teams, the consistent draft successes, and the successful low budget free agent signings. They’ve been replaced by a dominating offense, weak secondary play, untimely releases of top players, and a bizarre draft strategy that values the number of picks over the quality.
The philosophy change from defense to offense is what's most troubling. As Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts will tell you, a high octane offense will win you a lot of regular season games, but when the chips are on the table; your best bet is to be better at preventing points than scoring them.
The big factor that everybody likes to point to when it concerns the Patriots and their defensive struggles is the pass rush. Last season, the team was hardly ever able to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and force mistakes. As a result, the secondary players were forced to defend their areas of the field for longer periods of time than normal.
What people forget though is that even the Super Bowl winning Patriots teams of the early to middle part of the last decade were not pass-rushing savants. During their 2003 run to the championship, the team produced 41 sacks, just five more than last year's squad.
What those championship teams had that this team lacks were elite (or at least above average) corners and safeties with the capability to shrink the field and allow the middle of the road pass rush more time to get into the backfield. Players like Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Tyrone Poole, Eugene Wilson, Rodney Harrison, and Lawyer Milloy were generally good for between five and ten "coverage sacks" per season as a group, simply because the quarterback often had no other alternative but to either throw the ball away or take the hit.
One thing that the Patriots did well with during that time was having a new potential star player at the position when they cut, traded, or released the incumbent. Ty Law was replaced by Asante Samuel, Milloy by Harrison, etc. In the last few years though, the team was not prepared in the long term to deal with the fallout of the release of one of its best players. Depth had become an issue.
So, when Rodney Harrison retired and Asante Samuel was foolishly allowed to sign in Philadelphia the cupboard was left largely bare, their positions manned by inexperienced players or over the hill veterans who weren't capable of filling the sizable shoes of their departed predecessors.
With the release of safeties Brandon Meriweather, James Sanders, and cornerback Darius Butler, the reality of the Patriots poor drafting and free agent signings in the secondary has finally been acknowledged.
Sanders is simply the latest in a long line of veteran secondary players that never quite panned out for New England as they attempted to replace their stars. While Sanders certainly wasn’t as bad as say, Shawn Springs, he was expected to anchor the secondary and be an impact player, but never reached that level.
Meriweather, from the moment he was drafted was regarded as a bizarre pick for New England simply because he didn’t fit the Patriots "model" of a player who kept his nose relatively clean and put the game above himself. After a good rookie year playing alongside Rodney Harrison, Meriweather lived up to his reputation coming out of Miami, focusing far more on trying to get himself on ESPN’s "Jacked Up" segment than making the simple tackle and taking the right angle to a ball carrier. Even the most ardent Patriots supporters acknowledge that his two pro-bowl selections are a complete farce.
Then there's Darius Butler. The former second round pick out of UConn never lived up to his draft selection and never really improved after arriving in Foxboro. He struggled to keep receivers in front of him, didn't tackle well, and often got lost in zone schemes and was often making tackles ten yards past the line of scrimmage as a result.
All of the above players have since been signed by other teams and will be given opportunities to compete for playing time, but for those who don't see these moves as an acknowledgement of drafting and free agency missteps, take a look at the deals that these players are getting. Both Meriweather and Sanders will be working on low guarantee, one year "show me" deals this season, while Butler will toil in Charlotte with the lowly Panthers on the hopes that he will eventually develop into a low cost building block.
As for the players still on the Patriots roster, Devin McCourty has shown flashes of being one piece of the puzzle in the secondary, but questions remain as to whether the team will be able to fill the rest of the holes. The projected starters include McCourty and Leigh Bodden at the corner spots and Patrick Chung and Sergio Brown manning the deep middle of the field.
The offense will likely be more than adequate again for New England (offensive line issues aside), so the teams dominance of the regular season is likely to continue. But, as we know by now, this team does not measure itself by regular season wins. In order for them to return to the Super Bowl and give Tom Brady another championship, the secondary will have to be vastly improved and be able to keep other teams off the scoreboard when the games matter most.
So, assuming the Patriots tear through the Dolphins Monday night, remember that games in September always make offensive minded teams look great. The only real measuring stick for the improvement of playoff teams comes in January.