Tuesday, December 22

The Patriots Run Of Dominance Is Over...For Now

A day after the New Orleans Saints obliterated the New England Patriots I had a phone conversation with my esteemed colleague Catfish. As a Patriots fan I explained to him that my point-of-view was that the Patriots as we know them are through. Since the beginning of their run in the NFL in 2001 when Moe Lewis changed football life as we know it, the Patriots began a successful run in the league that included 3 Super Bowls, 4 AFC Championship Games, 6 playoff appearances, and a slew of regular season records (some now broken). Like every dynasty the league has seen however, it does not last forever. While many would say that to accomplish these feats in the salary cap era as we know it in football is tremendous, it gives no solace to fans who know things will never be the same in Foxboro. That small sliver of Pats fans in the football world do not compare to the humongous horde that is witnessing the sunset of New England's run with delight and revelry. It is completely understandable, considering the Patriots winning ways, controversial on-field persona and the dour-faced coach whom engineered the campaign. No compassion, no violins will serenade Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots as they leave the top floor of the NFL's elite club. The one ray of hope is that the franchise's ability to adapt, bring in new personnel, and the tread left on Brady's tires may lead to another run at the top.

I began writing this post weeks ago but between the new job and the move it ended up sitting on the shelf, like this blog. However, a discussion with Catfish last night over Spygate has emboldened me. This was meant to be a post after the Saints dismantled the Patriots in a way they have not been since they began their run. This will not be an examination of Spygate, the subject is far too tedious and moreover, everyone has their own version of what happened and how it should blemish Belichick's legacy. I will say that I agree the incident does diminish what the Pats accomplished but I do not take it to the level of some journalists who love to reach for the low-hanging fruit to bash the coach or the degree of vitriol of some fans who want to discount what the team accomplished. Instead let's take a look at some of the factors as to why the Patriots are what they are, a 9-5 team clinging to the division lead.

Subtraction by Subtraction

While Belichick has his hands covered in the dust of the foundation of the franchise as we know it, he also surrounded himself with good people. When Belichick spurned the Jets after Bill Parcells wanted him to become the head man in new York, it was the dawn of the current incarnation. Belichick headed to New England because Robert Kraft gave him complete autonomy to run the team as he saw fit. This was a new chance to break away from the conflict he had in Cleveland and the troubles he saw in the future coaching the Jets. The rest is NFL history but what Bill did that helped sustain that success was surround himself with other great coaches and football minds.

Naturally over time these coaches have moved on to other opportunities. Sufficed to say they have not all turned out especially well. His two key assistants during the Super Bowl run were Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. Say what you will about their head coaching stints, but those two coaches helped produce the 3 Super Bowl championships. After Super Bowl 39 the two left to pursue their head coaching spots and that began a movement of the league to snap up young coaches that Belichick was grooming and that were helping to maintain the Patriots success. Eric Mangini and Josh McDaniels were next in line. Mangini left after one season to coach the rival Jets, and we have all seen the fallout from that which includes frosty handshakes and the root of the Spygate controversy. McDaniels left after the 18-1 season to head the Broncos. While McDaniels was never labeled as "offensive coordinator" he was behind the Patriots juggernaut offense which set the record for total points in a season, Brady's passing TD record and Moss's receiving TD record. Now the Patriots have Dean Pees as Defensive Coordinator and Bill O'Brien in McDaniels old position. This is not a condemnation of the current staff but the turnover has played a part in where the Pats stand today.

Another factor is the front office attrition. Despite the fact that Belichick is the de facto GM and always has been, the input of Scott Pioli and others of his ilk also puts the burden more on Bill to find other great football minds and to shoulder more of the responsibility in personnel decisions.

Offensive Firepower Low On Powder

This year the Patriots are averaging 26 points per game, a stat bolstered by the 59 point output against a then-listless Titans team and a 35 point mark against hapless Tampa Bay. The average is up 1 point from last year. I doubt the difference has between Brady and Matt Cassel is 1 point per game. The bottom line is the offense has become predictable. Randy Moss's routs are being jumped by cornerbacks and the deep balls have not been as crisp as they were two years ago. Wes Welker remains the linchpin for the offense by catching 109 balls for 1198 yards. The running game has limped along at 14th in the league and was hindered by Fred Taylor's injury although Lawrence Maroney has been playing better when not fumbling. The formula still works well enough to get the Pats to where they are but when you look at how much they score in wins and losses this year it is 29.6 in wins and 19.6 in losses. At home, where the Pats have been perfect, they are averaging 30.7 whereas their road PPG average falls to 21.4 (bolstered by the 35 points scored against Tampa in London). One of the key aspects to the Patriots dominance this decade was their ability to play consistently great no matter the location.

A key point with their predictiveness is their inability to score in the redzone. They sit currently at 49.1% in Red Zone efficiency. There have been numerous games where the Patriots would have came away with the victory if they had finished off drives like they had in the past. Their first loss of the season to the Jets featured a 0/3 performance in the Red Zone in a game they lost 16-9. In the most crushing loss of the year to Indianapolis 35-34, the Pats were 3/6 in the Red Zone and the Colts were 1/1. Of the 3 failures in the Red Zone by the Patriots, 1 was a fumble by Maroney at the goal line and the other was a pick by Brady.

The other factor that is hurting the Patriots on offense is the offensive line. Tom Brady's success during the decade has been predicated on his ability to sense pressure and slide around in the pocket, but the recent troubles at the line (which I believe started at the tail end of the '07 season, see: Super Bowl 42) have led to Brady getting hit, and hit hard. Certainly injuries are a factor, but as the pressure has been dialed up by defenses, the protection has not entirely answered the call. Brady has been sacked 16 times, but he has gotten hit many more. Add to the equation that Brady is coming off a major knee injury, and his lowering confidence in the line is leading to inaccuracy.

No Game Defense?

One only need look at the fateful 4th and 2 decision by Belichick to observe to state of the New England defense. Catfish, who would do well to get his thoughts even in rambling form quickly on the blog, pointed out weeks ago during our conversations that Belichick knew that his defense was going to be sub-par this year and therefore was prepared for the struggles. If you look at the draft, 4 of the first 7 picks were defensive, including their first 3. Add to that the Seymour trade to obtain even more picks at the expense of Oakland and Belichick is clearly thinking of the future.

With the loss of Bruschi, Harrison, Vrabel, and Seymour the Pats have few left on the defensive side of the ball who have rings. Ty Warren and the anchor, Vince Wilfork hold the line, but both have recently been injured. Belichick knew the young players on defense would need time to adjust to his way of approaching football, so he brought in veterans like Banta-Cain and Shawn Springs. Springs has not panned out and the linebacking core was shaken by Mayo's early injury. Adaleus Thomas was seen as a great pick-up by the Pats a few years ago, but he has been lackluster of late. While Belichick has been willing to let big money players go from the beginning (Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Assante Samuel) he has always been confident he can get his new players up to speed. There has been a gap in the pass defense this year though; Bodden, Wilhite, and Butler have looked poor to outright bad at certain times this year. Patrick Chung, the Pats first draft pick of the year, has shown promise but is not there yet.

All this said the Patriots are tied for 3rd in scoring defense and 10th in total defense. But again, the Patriots are not expected just to beat up on medicore teams and their performance has fallen short against the NFL's elite (Indy, New Orleans). Belichick is a great enough coach to get them to win and make the playoffs, but at this point the organization and fans will not accept that as good enough.

Reformation or Decimation

So where do they go from here? While I was in a panic over the result from the Monday Night game, Catfish assured me Belichick is planning for the future. With a bevy of draft picks including 4 in the first 2 rounds in 2010, the Patriots are setting the table for a return to the league's highest echelon. Another year to coach up the young defense and to patch up the offensive line would certainly cure many of their ills.

Offensively, the opportunity I perceive is the chance to get Charlie Weis back to playcalling. The ripping he has gotten over the Notre Dame situation is mostly deserved but the man knows offensive football. He took a no-name QB named Brady and a core of receivers that consisted of Troy Brown, David Patten, David Givens, and Deon Branch and won three titles. This past year at ND he guided Jimmy Clausen and stud receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate to big seasons, the team just could not play defense. He has maintained a close relationship with Brady and with how much Tom has matured over 5 years since they working on the same team, I think it would put the offense back into the unstoppable category.

Few teams can maintain the level with which the Patriots have achieved this decade under the current league parameters. The Colts have been on par with the wins and records they have made and the Steelers have been in the discussion with their two titles. Neither team has had the controversy and "us against the world" mentality of the Pats and that is hard to sustain. That mental edge which Belichik infuses to his players and in turn the players exude on the field has dulled this year. With the infusion of new, younger talent crafted to combat the new era of speedy, offensive football and Belichick and Brady at the helm, we could very well see a return to form for the Darth Vader led imperial army of the NFL.


NFL draft said...

The NFL Draft

is creating a partnership with researchers at Boston University who are studying the long-term effects of brain injuries on players, the Associated Press reported.
“It’s huge that the NFL Draft
actively gets behind this research,” Robert Cantu, the co-director of the school’s research program, told the AP. “It forwards the research. It allows players to realize the NFL Draft is concerned about the possibility that they could have this problem and that the NFL Draft is doing everything it can to find out about the risks and the preventive strategies that can be implemented.”

Cleet said...

How relevant to the topic.