Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Three Questions for the New England Patriots

With the Super Bowl over and some pretty definitive evidence that even if the Patriots had managed to beat the Broncos, they wouldn't have had a shot against the Seahawks, I think we're ready to look forward to next season.

Given how successful the Patriots were this season with so many catastrophic injuries, there are good reasons to be optimistic about next year. I mean, they got to the AFC championship game with a team just a few notches above their practice squad. Even getting just a portion of the talent they lost to injury this year, back for next year would make them, yet again, favorites to win the AFC East and make it to the finals. But injuries weren't their only challenge and as Brady and company look to win their fourth ring, I think there are three questions they need to answer first.

Do any of the rookie wide receivers have the talent to contribute to a Super Bowl win next year?
It is pretty clear that the learning curve for a new wide receiver for the Patriots is a little steeper than the average. Given how much of their success depends on Brady's decisions after the play has been called and after it has started, a new wide receiver has a ton to absorb before he can really contribute. But even if they all do get fully and completely on the same page with Brady next year, do they or does any one of them have the talent, whether as a deep threat or in terms of yards after the catch, to influence the structure of opposing defenses? If the Patriots think the answer to this question is “No,” then that determines their top off-season priority: get an impact wide receiver any way they can. Over the years this Patriots team has had a ton of success by staying out of the off-season auctions, and finding talent either undrafted, deep in the draft, or picking up mid-risk high-reward free agents, but I just don't think they have the luxury this time around. More on this later, but I think the window for another championship is beginning to close. However, if they do believe one or all of their rookies this year will blossom next year, then they find themselves (again) with a lot of flexibility this off-season. They'll be able to take their time, look for hidden gems in the draft, or try another veteran free agent who might have one more season left in the tank.

How much should we rely on Gronkowksi?
The Patriots are still a good team, even without Gronk, but it was clear their offense, as it is constructed now, just doesn't have the depth to win a championship without him. The problem is, for whatever reason (and I'm not going to speculate about how his off-field behavior might contribute) Gronk can't seem to stay healthy enough to help the team to a Super Bowl. Furthermore, he now finds himself uniquely vulnerable for career ending injuries. What happens if that forearm breaks again? What happens if that knee takes another hit? And then there's the regular wear and tear a huge body accumulates while being battered by other huge bodies. Gronk could come back completely healthy and, in the existing offensive system, put up record breaking numbers, or, he could not. I don't think the Patriots should answer this question with personnel (though they probably will look for another tight end who can catch) but, if they want an offense that is not as limited by his absence, they might have to answer this question with strategy. Essentially, they should build the “No Gronk” plays into the system, diversifying it slightly so that, should they not have him, it is harder for their opponents to take advantage of that absence.

In some ways, this question is a lot harder than it appears. You might be thinking, “Of course you diversify your offense, why wouldn't you?” and I think there is some truth to that. But changing an NFL offense isn't that easy, if for no other reason than the team would have to first answer the question, “Change it to what?” And given the challenges they had incorporating rookie receivers this year, do they really want to throw a whole new set of plays and wrinkles at them? In terms of return on investment, there is a chance it is actually better for the Patriots to continue with their current system and hope Gronk stays healthy.

When should we start planning for the post-Brady Patriots?
Assuming he stays healthy, which is a pretty perilous assumption, I think it's reasonable to expect Brady to play well for another, maybe three years. But two, three, or five years from now, Tom Brady will retire and the Patriots will have to start someone else at quarterback. Unfortunately, unless Ryan Malette is the next Steve Young, the Patriots are going to face a ton of difficult decisions in the lead up to that transition. Unfortunately, one of those decisions might be sell off our valuable players, collect draft picks, live with failure for a few years, and rebuild the team from scratch for whatever character of competition the NFL then has.

They could, of course, decide to make those decisions after Mallet has proved his abilities one way or the other, and given all the other decisions that would be required of a “post-Brady” plan, it'd be hard to argue against that idea. As with the Gronk question, in terms of cost/benefit, there is a lot to be said for just waiting this one out. You know, especially since New England area sports fans are so forgiving. They totally won't turn their back on the Patriots if, after over a decade of unparallelled excellence they have to slog through five or six crappy seasons, right? Right?

For the last eight or so years, I've had a somewhat distant relationship with professional football. I've worked on Sundays and so, have only watched the Monday night, Thursday night, and occasional Sunday night prime time games. Even once I got a DVR, football was never quite important enough to me, to go through the trouble of recording (and then fast forwarding as much I as watch) the games and watching them later. But, my schedule changed and now, assuming I get around to buying those wireless headphones for the TV, I'll be able to watch pretty much every game next season. Which makes me wonder how my relationship to the sport will change. Of the four majors, football is my third favorite to watch (after hockey and baseball and before basketball, and I still much prefer rugby, and, in the right setting curling) and I've reached a satisfying relationship with it. The few games I got to watch had an “eventness” to them that I don't know if they'll have next year.

Will watching more games deepen the relationship? Will I gain a better understanding of football systems? Will I get bored? And how much do I care about concussions in the NFL? I will now be expression an opinion that I did not have the opportunity to express before. And there's that whole non-profit not paying taxes thing.

Also, since I've got you, Shawn Thornton's goal was the best goal.

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