Another very good regular season for the New England Patriots, another playoff that ends in disappointment. In a franchise that’s always thinking about the biggest prize possible, losing and looking bad for a second consecutive time in the conference championship game calls for more than simple personnel changes in order to improve the supporting cast around Tom Brady.
Not matter how you look at it, Brady took a step backwards this season. He dropped in almost every significant statistic, and even though it had something to do with his receiving crew just not being up to par with previous years (injuries or simply quality), it was about him as well. His misthrows in the loss to Denver were an example that despite the impressive comebacks (needing too many of them this season), Brady just isn’t at the same level he used to be.
Which means Belichick needs to make some changes. Not just in bringing in better players or giving money to guys he usually allows to leave, but also changing something in his overall philosophy, which means starting to look a lot more like the Patriots teams that did win Super Bowls: Less offense, less Brady, and a lot more focus on defense and the running game. The win over the Colts was a perfect example.
The Patriots did very well, not this season, but in the past, using their two tight-end set with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez is in prison (or on his way there) while Gronkowski seems to be the best redzone target in the NFL, only with durability problems that can’t be ignored. Aside from Gronkowski, Patriots’ tight ends caught only 13 passes all year long, which means Belichick needs to look for a tight end in the league or the draft that’s going to provide a very reliable target, and get an offense that stuttered at times this season, partially due to the lack of weapons, compared to recent years. Michael Hoomanawanui isn’t going to be it.
Another issue for the Patriots will be Aqib Talib and the cornerback position. Talib distinguished himself as one of the best corners in the NFL last season, playing a huge role in the defensive improvement on the secondary the Patriots show. He’s 27 and in his prime, which means he should get a big contract. The question that always hovers around these sort of issues is whether or not the Patriots, a franchise that doesn’t spend freely on players in such positions, will finally commit to a player who has been great for them this season and a bit in the previous one, or once again prefer young names that simply aren’t that good.
Pass rushing was terrible in the game against the Broncos – the Patriots managed to pressure or hurry Peyton Manning only three times out of 43 dropbacks. Chandler Jones had a great season with 11.5 sacks; Rob Ninkovich had 8.5, and they are a good duo to have. Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork missed the AFC Championship game, and although they’re not exactly the pass-rush type, they were sorely missed. Still, the Patriots need better depth at the defensive end position, and should be willing to spend a bit more than they were last season, when they turned down the option to sign John Abraham.
The people in charge know what they’re doing. The Patriots haven’t been this successful for so long by getting lucky, and it’s more than just having a great quarterback. The organization is ruled by Bill Belichick very well. However, the Super Bowl has always been the goal for this team since winning it for the first time at the beginning of the century. When that’s your standard, then some might say the drought of the last nine years is something of a failure, and might call for a chance in direction – not change the head coach or anything like that, but seeing him change in the way he conducts business.