Well Pats Nation, it’s all over, another Patriots season in the history books. We supported, cheered, bled blue and silver all season long and it nearly looked like we’d make a repeat Super Bowl appearance, the first in the league since Brady and the boys did so in 2004. In the end, a talented, fierce, and well-schemed Denver defense took our offensive line to task and brought a season with so much defined by a vicious tenacity to a grinding halt. Folks keep saying that we need to give credit where it’s due with regard to Peyton’s performance, and I will say this: he didn’t do badly, he managed the game well and scored enough to win. But let’s not pretend that Manning or the Broncos would have felt confident in their victory if you told them before the game that they’d only put up 20 points on the Patriots, missing two open looks in the end zone, so no Champion-caliber quarterback was he if we’re going to be honest (that honor belonged solely to the smiling, dancing, leaping, scoring machine that is Cameron Jerrell Newton). And I’m no Peyton hater. He’s one of the best to ever pay his position and his revival in Denver was something I lauded. But I was an unabashed believer two months ago that we’d never see him take the field again and now he’s headed to his fourth Superbowl appearance, so that’s worthy of our respect. But let’s not pretend he got them there. That was Osweiler and that dominant defense.
Do I sound bitter? Well perhaps I am a little, but not as much as you might think. To start the season I don’t know how many of us were predicting a return to the big game but the perennial success plan employed by the Patriots over the last decade and a half always keeps this probability relatively high. In the end, injuries kept this team from achieving its fullest potential and most complete identity, while their deficiencies on the offensive line showed how destabilizing depth depletion and inexperience at the position can be. This article lists the Pats as the most injured team in the NFL this season and while there’s no need to recap the extensive list of injuries… I’ll do it anyway.
Julian Edelman (broken foot, out wks 11-17), Dion Lewis (torn ACL, IR Wk 9), Dont’a Hightower (MCL sprain, Wk 12), Danny Amendola (knee sprain, Wk 11), Ryan Wendell (shoulder, knee, illness, IR Wk 9), Nate Solder (torn bicep, IR Wk 5), LeGarrette Blount (hip, IR Wk 14), James Develin (broken leg, IR preseason), Aaron Dobson (ankle, IR Wk 11), Jamie Collins (undisclosed illness, beginning Wk 9), Brandon LaFell (foot, out first 6 wks), Bryan Stork (neck, out first 8 wks), Marcus Cannon (toe, out wks 6-10), Sebastian Vollmer (concussion, out wks 6-10), Jabaal Sheard (ankle, out wks 6-9), Tre Jackson (knee, out wks 8-11)
Patriots Season: What Free Agents do we have to worry about?
One of the best upsides as we look ahead to the 2016-17 season is that the personnel will look largely the same, supplemented by guys like Nate Solder returning from lengthy injuries. The number of free agent decisions that the team has to make is relatively low with few big-impact players. At running back, the return of Dion Lewis will play into the team’s thoughts on LeGarrette Blount, a 29-year-old UFA returning from a hip injury, and Steven Jackson, whom many believe will not even return to the league next year. I personally think we should bring them both back for short money and employ the bruising back in greater balance to our passing attack. Full back James Develin also makes the FA list, whose broken tibia kept him out of this year’s run, and is likely to see some form of reworked deal.
On the offensive line, Guard/Center Ryan Wendell and Tackle LaAdrian Waddle are both coming to the end of their deals and given the difficulty at the position this season neither should be considered a sure thing to return. On the other side of the ball, DT Akiem Nicks, with 23 tackles this season, is perhaps the biggest target for the Pats to re-sign and may present the most challenge given his possible high price tag. As far as “option” years, Gronk’s next three are option seasons and the team’s move is a foregone conclusion. Jerod Mayo’s option, though, seems unlikely to get picked up after ending the season on IR with a shoulder injury to add to his knee and pectoral issues. A leader and team captain who has played all seven of his seasons with the Patriots, it is always difficult to see a player of Mayo’s caliber depart Foxboro.
Improvements for Patriots Season 2016
The Pats fired offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo the day after the AFC Championship Game, a move that was more statement than house cleaning. The returns from injury at the position will certainly be helpful in 2016, but how else will the team improve a unit that got Brady hit a stunning 20 times in the biggest game of the season? You know what would be really nice? A first round pick to spend on a franchise offensive tackle, such as Notre Dame’s Ron Stanley. Although David Andrews, Shaq Mason, and Tre Jackson were all rookies so perhaps the positon need is better met with some veteran experience added in free agency.
At the wide receiver position, they return their big 3 and signed Keshawn Martin to a 2-year contract extension earlier this month. Will fan-favorite-despite-his-drops Brandon LaFell be brought back or cut for the 2016 season? Will the team add one of the big-name FA possibilities like Alshon Jeffery to provide the necessary deep threat? What group of receivers will again provide Tom Brady the greatest opportunity for success? Tom’s need for a go-to guy, filled mostly by Edelman in the post-Welker era with Gronk much of last year and even Amendola for a few games at the end of this season, has now made him somewhat one-dimensional and predictable. When Tommy is in the zone, there’s no one you’d rather have leading your team. But when he is put off-rhythm and that go-to guy unavailable he suddenly looks frightfully unsure. And in this year’s AFC Championship Game he had neither the fire nor the vision necessary to win on the elevated stage. I love the guy, think he has years still ahead of him but will it be Tommy’s mental ability that erodes before his physical abilities?
Also quite appetizing on the FA market are Patriots killer Von Miller, RB Matt Forte, OT Russell Okung, and safeties-named-Eric, Berry and Weddle. Given the Patriots’ reluctance (read: intelligence) to not overspend on any position, some of these seem out of reach. Miller will almost certainly return to a fat contract in Denver, for instance. But this is the Bill Belichick-led New England Patriots. The only thing we know about what they’re going to do in the draft and off-season is that we have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do. I stole this stat on past Patriots seasons from another article and it’s certainly worth mentioning in relation to the team’s lack of a 1st round draft pick: in the Belichick era the Patriots have gone without a first rounder three times since 2000. In each of those drafts, they still managed to find a superstar: Tom Brady (2000, 199th pick), Julian Edelman (2009, 232nd pick), and Jamie Collins (2013, 52nd pick).
In talking to my fellow Pats fans, there is disappointment to be sure, but there’s not as large a sense of surprise as one might think there would be with the season’s non-Superbowl conclusion. This is somewhat telling about who the Patriots were this year and about how their run to the Championship didn’t feel as fated as years past. The flip side of this coin is that if the team was able to get one game away with broken players and some subpar play calling, the outlook for the 2016 season is bright. Still, it would have been really nice to see the look on god-awful Goodell’s face at the end of the Patriots season as he handed Kraft and Brady the Lombardi trophy.