New England Patriots on Paper: Juggernaut derailed or just rescheduled?

If the New England Patriots learned anything from the past two seasons, its that even the best laid, even-keeled plans can take a sideways turn into the surreal, even as far as to plunge into the maw of the preposterous at times…

…and so as free agency opened and the draft approached, it became very clear that something extraordinary was going to have to happen – and that something was insurance against the injury bug that destroyed yet another trophy run in 2013, just as it had the year before.

Jan 20, 2013; Foxboro, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez (81) runs out on the field before the start of the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

And it’s not as if there was a need for superstars or starting quality rookies, rather, prudence dictated that obtaining quality depth at every position was imperative, with a focus on the defensive secondary and the receiving corps – and they got both, in abundance.

It wasn’t a flashy draft and free agency was void of top-shelf headline material, but the Patriots covered their bases like no other team could have and came away with pure magic.

Even so, the Patriots offseason has veered off into a weird H. P. Lovecraft-style tale, complete with freakishly large men having their bodies cut open and repaired under total secrecy while the team as a whole is going through a collective strength and conditioning program and a continued emphasis on getting younger and faster and staying healthy…

…which has been a very real issue as several core members of the team missed significant time last season, most notably the tight ends and in the secondary.  Had quality depth been in place, we may well be talking “repeat” instead of relaying our hopes for getting a reasonable facsimile of a full season out of several key players.

There’s no denying that football is a rough sport – as physically taxing and destructive as any on the planet and sometimes surgery is the only way to repair the damage, but what the Patriots tight end position has been through for the past 18 months borders on absurd – and it has been just recently in that span that we’ve learned of many of how broad the scope really was.

Rob Gronkowski has now had four operations on his left forearm and is scheduled for a procedure on his spine within the next few weeks.  Chances are high that Gronkowski will be a candidate for the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list to start the season, becoming eligible to be activated to the roster after six weeks of the season has passed.

Aaron Hernandez had some scope work done on his shoulder and new kid Jake Ballard is coming off microfracture surgery that cost him all of the 2012 season – none of this the kind of news that gives one any sense of optimism going forward…

…and the psychological issue for these players shouldn’t be discounted either as there’s a certain amount of anxiety that comes with returning to the field after a major injury.  We saw it with Hernandez short-arming balls and favoring his rolled up ankle after he spent three weeks on the skids, also with defensive end Chandler Jones, who clearly did not display the same burst when he returned from his own ankle issues.

But there’s not a better example of the effect that a physical injury has on the brain than when the team opted to bring Gronkowski back too early from the broken forearm late last season.  When Belichick saw Gronk trying to block as an in line end, that should have been the end for him until the AFC title game – at the earliest.

Giving full effort, the mammoth tight end was reduced to delivering the equivalent of a stiff arm to the defensive end, while holding his broken left arm out and away from his body like a bird would a broken wing…

…sheer brute strength and iron will in play more than technique, unable to protect himself as a blocker without causing further damage to his broken wing – a willing receiver, but the injury forced him into a vulnerability that was a danger to his welfare and he should have been shut down right then, at least until the Super Bowl

Hindsight being what it is, it’s easy to sit back and spout off about that now, but the fact is that there were many who felt that way back then – and these are the same people who believe that the Patriots have missed out on at least one more trophy in-part because the athletically gifted tank of a tight end, the very one who creates matchup issues just by stepping onto the field, the one who opens up the field for others and gives Tom Brady a reliable safety valve – was broken and unable to contribute.

Truth.

It’s scary to think that the Patriots’ offensive philosophy for the past three years in large part took it’s parameters from the mismatches that Gronkowski and fellow freakish tight end Hernandez created in theory – a powerful thing to witness, yet we’ve seen it so seldom the past 18 months that it doesn’t even rate a ripple on the NFL seismograph any longer.

Everything on the offense suffered due to their injuries last season, and only the determination of the running game and inspired efforts from Tom Brady and Wes Welker and the stylings of one of the best offensive lines in football had them in the AFC Title game…

…but the wheels fell off as Gronkowski had previously been lost for the season and Aqib Talib came up lame in the first quarter against the Ravens – the result of both injuries were as predictable as the Patriots became because of them, and Baltimore was able to focus on pushing New England’s offensive and defensive lines around without having to worry about Gronk trampling them and Talib blanketing them.

Ah, but the secondary is a story all unto itself, and we’ll get to that soon enough – right now the focus needs to be on the receiving corps – which has gotten bigger by leaps and bounds, faster and younger by design – a design that has put an emphasis on size to try and protect their oft-injured stars by making the opposing defense defend the entire field.

And that is the point, making the defense defend the entire field.  The Patriots have not been doing this, instead relying on diminutive slot receivers and Brady’s arm to move the sticks while leaving their two best weapons, Gronk and Hernandez, on individual islands with zero protection – and when one of them gets hurt, which was inevitable given the protracted number of reps, we get the heartbreak of 2012.  And 2011.  And 2010…

If the Patriots are to have a chance at their 4th Lombardi Trophy, things had to change – and they have, at least on paper – not in the ranks of the tight ends where depth is still an issue, but in the outside targets that in theory will eliminate some of the hazards that have felled the tight ends in recent years…

…the outside speed means that safeties have to cover their deep zones, preventing them from sneaking up in the box to chop their legs and forces the overall defensive scheme of their opponents to go small – in effect, nickle and diming them – and when that happens, we get to see things like running backs sprinting trough gaping holes and the tight ends wide open down the slot.

But chances are that we will not see the athleticism of the tight ends in full effect until after Halloween, what with Gronkowski in Frankenstein mode, but the duo of Hernandez, Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and either Daniels Fells or undrafted free agent Zach Sudfeld should fill the bill while Gronkowski gets in game shape on the PUP…

…and that should be enough, delaying the juggernaut without midseason injuries cancelling it all together – particularly with the massive upgrade at the receiver positions, which is where we focus next…

Tomorrow: Tape a cheetah to their backs…

Topics: Aaron Hernandez, Jake Ballard, New England Patriots, Rob Gronkowski

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  • http://sbpra.com/paulvsuffriti Paul V. Suffriti

    “Tape a cheetah to their backs”…grandma can only get faster

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