The Patriots’ season officially starts today, Thursday, July 26th with the beginning of Training Camp.
If you live under a granite Plymouth rock or aren’t that big into sports, then you may have missed the past seven-eight months down at One Patriot Place. Honestly, I am somewhat jealous if this is you.
Beginning with a Seth Wickersham article that outlined the potential demise of the Patriots in early January to rumors of a Rob Gronkowski trade/Tom Brady retirement, the first half or so of the calendar year has not been kind to the New England Patriots’ players, coaches, fans, and owner Robert Kraft.
After a heart-wrenching, and somewhat baffling, defeat in Super Bowl LII, the Patriots’ reign in the NFL appears to be coming to an end. The sooner you and I come to that realization, the sooner you can lower your expectations for this team.
Like anything in life, all good things must come to an end (except Star Wars and Dunkin Donuts iced coffee on a hot & humid New England summer day). Starting quarterback Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are not excluded from this fundamental rule.
I understand that eventually people get older and will retire from whatever job they have. I’m also a simpleton and can’t see that far in the future, so if you came back from the future and told me Brady and Belichick were still with the Pats in the same roles for two years or ten years, I’d believe you either way.
Despite what I have just said, I have every right to believe that the Patriots will be just fine this season, and so should you.
Who’s Going, Who’s Coming?
Like most teams in the NFL, the Pats saw plenty of turnover at various positions and although a fair amount are carrying over from last season’s team, there are still plenty of newcomers.
Off-Season Moves So Far
Draft Picks – 1st: OL Isaiah Wynn (Georgia), RB Sony Michel (Georgia); 2nd: CB Duke Dawson (Florida); 5th: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley (Purdue); 6th: LB Christian Sam (Arizona State), WR Braxton Berrios (Miami-FL); 7th: QB Danny Etling (LSU), DB Keion Crossen (Western Carolina), TE Ryan Izzo (Florida State)
Acquisitions – DL Danny Shelton (Browns), CB Jason McCourty (Browns), DE Adrian Clayborn (Falcons), RB Jeremy Hill (Bengals), OL Matt Tobin (Seahawks), WR Cordarrelle Patterson (Raiders), OL Luke Bowanko (Ravens), TE Troy Niklas (Cardinals), WR Jordan Matthews (Bills), OL Ulrick John (Packers), OL Trent Brown (49ers), P Corey Bojorquez (UFA), WR Devin Lucien (UFA)
Departures – OL Nate Solder (Giants), WR Danny Amendola (Dolphins), RB Dion Lewis (Titans), TE Martellus Bennett (Retired), LB Shea McClellin (UFA), WR Brandin Cooks (Rams), OL Jason King (UFA)
Looking at this list of players can be a little intimidating and confusing when trying to re-piece the starting roster together. The most important players on these lists include Solder, Amendola, Lewis, McCourty, and draft picks Michel and Wynn.
Out of the players leaving, Solder is probably the most significant departure, seeing as Brady has only really had two players protecting his blind side: Matt Light & Solder. Protection and communication along the offensive line are critical for a soon-to-be 41-year-old Brady.
The thing about Belichick, the general manager, is that he looks at the numbers and cap space and knows when to move on from a player based on their production versus their potential salary in the coming years.
Players under Belichick become expendable because he sees a player’s production and will easily replace someone if he can find similar production for a cheaper price. This isn’t ground-breaking analysis, but it’s always worth mentioning.
Let’s do a little exercise called Player A & Player B. Both of these players are wide receivers. I’ll take a look at each players’ last 48 regular season games (three full seasons worth of games) and see who was the overall “better” receiver:
Player A: 330 targets, 218 receptions, 2,642 yards, 17 TDs, 66 Catch%
Player B: 228 targets, 167 receptions, 1,668 yards, 9 TDs, 73 Catch%
Using a little intuition (or Googling), you may have been able to figure out these two players.
Player A is Jordan Matthews and Player B is Danny Amendola.
Both Matthews and Amendola have spent their playing days as slot receivers and Matthews will look to fill the void left by Amendola. He will also help fill the primary slot role normally manned by Julian Edelman while Edelman serves his four-game suspension to start the season. Matthews would most likely move somewhere else on the field when Edelman returned, but he would be an admirable replacement for the first four games.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Aaron, we know Amendola doesn’t perform that well during the regular season and he’s never been the primary receiver, but he always comes up clutch in key situations in the playoffs.”
Sure, I hear you peanut gallery and it remains to be seen if Matthews can even be remotely as clutch or valuable as Amendola, but from a pure statistical point-of-view, Matthews might turn into one of the best acquisitions of the off-season.
This is just one example of Belichick acquiring players with similar statistics as another player that he released or traded for less money. There are plenty of examples of Belichick replacing production in the form of cheaper players (such as replacing one running back with several backs to match that one back’s productivity), which is just one of the ways he has kept the Patriots’ dynasty together for so long.
This snippet alone should give you enough faith that although players come-and-go, Belichick always finds a way to replace production from one player with similar production from one player or a combination of players.
To Worry or Not to Worry
Here we are: the part of the article you were really looking forward to the most.
As the regular season approaches, I get the sense that there isn’t as much excitement about this upcoming year as there has been in years’ past. This probably has to do with the fact that from the end of Super Bowl LII to the present day, there has been rumor-after-rumor of the turmoil of the Patriots franchise going on behind the scenes.
From the benching of pro-bowl corner Malcolm Butler (this will always be painful to talk about) to Gronk potentially not returning and Brady sounding like more of a diva each passing day, there has been less “hype” than there has been around this time for the last 18+ seasons. If you have some time, I highly recommend listening to 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak and Bertrand show that runs through each event from last season’s Super Bowl through the present day (16:00-29:35 on their podcast).
When looking at the Patriots and their potential for this season, I think the best way to prepare for it, like the coach, is from a purely statistical approach.
In the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots have only had less than ten wins once (2002, Brady’s second season as a starter) and have not had less than twelve wins since 2009, arguably one of their worst seasons in this era, when they had ten.
In addition, they have failed to win the division just twice (2002 & 2008) and one of those years, backup QB Matt Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record and only missed the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with the New York Jets (thanks again, Miami).
The other thing to look at is that the Patriots have their original pretty-boy quarterback still slinging the ball all over the field (sorry, Jimmy Handsome).
Aside from his first full season in the league, Brady has never thrown less than 23 TDs, 3,500 yards, and has never thrown more than 14 INTs. These were the worst statistical numbers for Brady in his career and those teams were miles worse than most teams Brady has been on.
The floor for this team is already so high that they could literally roll out of bed and win the AFC East by two or three games.
There’s something in the Foxboro air that isn’t getting the juices flowing as much as Patriots fans are used to around this time of year. With the Butler benching from the Super Bowl ultimately looming over camp and the media headlines, it will remain to be seen if Belichick can get his players to buy-in this season and put his blunder from the big game behind him.
Even during the darkest times of the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots worst seasons were still above average compared to most of the teams in the league. Even when Belichick famously said in 2009 that he “just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to,” that team still made it to the playoffs (before getting demolished by the Ravens Wild Card weekend).
If we’re just going off his previous track record and the fact that we have never really seen a Patriots team significantly underperform for an entire season (or at least fail to make the playoffs), we all need to realize that the Patriots will be just fine.
There are three certainties in life: Death, Taxes, and the Patriots making it to the AFC Championship. I’m not great with predictions, except for my piece last year on Brady, but the Patriots are going 12-4. Book it.
*All stats for this article were gathered from the following sites:
Pro-football-reference, Nfl.com, Si.com, Thesporttank.com