As off-seasons go, the New England Patriots’ organization has seen better.
The Patriots’ Summer of Pain has fans and beat writers alike walking around in a fog - some overwhelmed and jumping off the bandwagon, some holding on for dear life through blind faith - unable to look through the din of indiscretion and curative procedures to see the good things that the organization has been able to accomplish in spite of their well-documented and cringe-worthy burdens…
…what with the tight end depth chart altered by surgeries, subsequent infections, drunken wrestling and multiple felonies – and the wide receiver positions experiencing nearly a complete turnover in personnel, most see the summer of 2013 as a time of tribulation for the Patriots when the reality is that it is actually a significant step forward in a nearly complete multi-year overhaul.
For years, Bill Belichick’s arrogance and stubbornness had trumped his coaching ability – perhaps one of the greatest game plan and on-the-fly tacticians ever to roam the sidelines, what he inherited when taking over the reigns of the Patriots in 2000 good enough for a scheme that took them over the top and winning three NFL Championships in four years with balance on offense and brutality on defense.
But the team has been in perpetual rebuilding mode since, as the core of the championship teams began to suffer age and attrition, Belichick seemingly content to stray from the championship recipe and never really acknowledging the errors of his ways, rather, continuously patching the potholes on the road to the Super Bowl instead of repairing the road properly with fine quality material.
This era of narcissistic delusion – borne out of sudden and protracted success - began when Belichick became distracted and obsessed by speedy objects in 2006 when the allure of world-class speed in the backfield produced Laurence Maroney, his frolicking style a departure from the bulldozing manner that dictated the championship style of the previous seasons - but by the time Belichick and the fans finally had seen enough of Maroney’s ballroom act, another experiment with speed in the personage of Randy Moss was in full beast mode, presenting it’s own unique set of distractions…
…all the while the defense was falling into disrepair, the result of questionable drafts predicated on Belichick’s preternatural need for speed - missing on every pick with the exception of a couple of offensive linemen – his defenses steadily becoming reliant more on creating big plays at opportune moments than being fundamentally sound.
At the same time, the depth charts at receiver and running back became a revolving door while he and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tinkered with the offense, consistently putting more and more of the anxiety and workload on quarterback Tom Brady…
…who in response became predictable as he clung to anything familiar he could find - which for the past 5 years has been Wes Welker, never really looking for anything else consistently, because there really was nothing after Moss crashed and burned like everyone said he would. So defenses were able to focus on Welker – until Gronkowski and Hernandez arrived on the scene.
But when those two proved to be fragile despite their enormous talent, Brady tried focusing on Welker once again – the connection failing twice on two of the biggest stages that professional football has to offer.
The potholes were ok being patched, we were told, until there was a sufficient amount in the talent budget to fix the road properly - but in the interim, every time the Patriots’ bandwagon hit one, it always stopped New England from reaching their desired destination – which has been well-documented and used to depict the end of a dynasty or, even more disturbing, the end of the Patriot Way.
But in 2010, with McDaniels out of the picture and off failing in Denver as the Broncos’ head coach, Bill Belichick took the title of both coordinators, putting into motion his sinister plan, rebuilding the team with almost complete turnover in an effort to return to the championship recipe - wanting to implement and build a base for domination on both sides of the ball and getting it up and running his way before handing over any responsibilities.
With stalwarts quarterback Tom Brady, guard Logan Mankins, Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and second year linebacker Jerod Mayo as a core, the 2010 off-season saw a concentration on replacing an aging roster with new young fireballers as part of what could now be termed as a five year plan to turnover the roster.
In the three years since, thirteen players were drafted that became starters, with another four arriving via free agency or trade, and all that is left to overhaul are the receivers this season and the offensive line next – all of this taking place while the Patriots remained among the top dogs in the AFC with smoke and mirrors, duct tape and Belichick’s coaching talent, going to the conference championship game twice and the Super Bowl once, not finishing with less than 12 wins with teams that were inferior overall to the one about to unfold in Foxboro in three weeks.
So, the unfortunate Hernandez situation and the Gronkowski surgeries aside, things are going pretty much as planned for a Patriots’ team that is on the verge of vying for yet one more run at being dynasts before Brady’s time is up – and it is a time of great risk and even greater potential reward.
Forget about Aaron Hernandez. Forget Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. Welker’s whining about money and his sniping little comments got him a one way ticket to Denver while Lloyd’s reportedly strange behavior alienated his teammates and made for some cringe-worthy moments in the locker room…and we don’t need to delve into the Hernandez thing for any reason at all.
So of the high-impact pass catchers from last season, Only Rob Gronkowski is still under contract, but he won’t be running folks over until about mid-season as he is expected to be a candidate for the PUP list due to a recent back surgery - so with Belichick’s credo being to concentrate on the players that are in camp, it is obvious that we start there…
…with a genuinely diverse mix of veteran presence and youthful exuberance that will vie for up to six roster spots for the right to tell their grandchildren that they caught a pass from the Hall of Famer Brady, a stark contrast from last season’s roster errors.
Danny Amendola joined the team just moments after free agency began in March, with former Bills’ “Z” man Donald Jones coming into the fold a few days later – followed by tenured underachieving veterans “Molasses” Mike Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins as Belichick built his veteran base before going into the draft…
…picking up big Marshall University receiver Aaron Dobson and TCU speed merchant Josh Boyce on the second day of the annual selection process – with the team hoping that Dobson would join Amendola split wide with Hernandez manning the slot and Gronkowski roaming the flat, and Stevan Ridley’s bruising running style an impetus for the success of the play action.
But Gronkowski can’t stay out of the operating room and Hernandez can’t stay out of trouble, leaving many to concede the season as lost right out of the gates, when in fact a pair of rookie free agent pick ups could make the pass catching corps an even more lethal entity for Brady to target.
After the draft, many teams coveted Rutgers wide receiver Mark Harrison and Nevada tight end Zach Sudfeld, as both were projected second day selections – but both passed over, Harrison due to perceived maturity issues and Sudfeld to protracted injury history – and due to the bad luck with the tight ends, both have a chance to become legitimate steals for Belichick, who even during his seasons of delusion always seemed to find a gem or two in that manner.
Sudfeld is a 6′ 7″ 255 pound athletic freak coming from a program where tight ends were considered mostly extensions of the offensive line, and as a result is an excellent blocker with the size and pass catching skill to project as the in-line tight end along with former Giant Jake Ballard, and could provide enough of a skill set to bridge the gap enough to allow Gronkowski to heal properly and to get in football shape on the PUP list…
…and the gap in athleticism at the H back position created by Hernandez’s alleged indiscretions has created a huge opportunity for Harrison, who has the track star speed that Hernandez didn’t while bringing greater size – both he and Sudfeld adept at running the seam effectively.
Running back Shane Vereen fits into the mix as well, his role as a change of pace back likely to be magnified and expanding to more of an H back role as he could be on the verge of exploding onto the scene as a double threat both out of the backfield and the slot.
If things were to work out in this scenario, that would give Belichick the flexibility to employ seven receivers (with special teams All Pro Matthew Slater a receiver in name only) and just three tight ends, Dobson, Boyce and Jenkins split wide, Amendola, Jones or Edelman and Harrison flanked wide or in the slot – with Ballard, Sudfeld and Michael Hoomanawanui as the tight ends until Gronkowski is able to return.
No matter how the team looks when the season starts, the receiver position will have been completely retooled and Brady will have had no choice but to adapt his game to what turns out to be a receiving corps which is potentially much more explosive than what he’s had the past three seasons – and the Patriots offense able to force a the opposing defense to truly defend the entire field for the first time in a decade…
…what with the power running game in excellent hands with Ridley, Vereen and LeGarrette Blount, running behind the best offensive line in the game and Brady having a fine new arsenal of weapons - there may be no stopping this offense.
Next: In defense of the defense