Well, that’s not exactly true. I do want to talk about it, but I don’t want to believe it happened. That is, by far, the worst I have ever seen the Patriots play in the Belichick era. From the D to special teams to an offense that looked totally lost, this was a terrible way to end the season. All in all it was an up and down season but, overall, this was a team that never seemed to be able to put the pieces together and seemed strangely lost for most of the year. Lest we forget, aside from a furious comeback in week 1 and a dropped pass in week 4, the Pats would have likely been 8-8 and out of the playoffs. Of course there were bright spots as well (the drubbings of TB and Tenn) and games where a play or two (or holding a late lead) would have netted them a couple more wins (Indy, Miami, Houston etc…) but, when all is said and done, the 2009 Pats were like the 2009 Red Sox. A good team that beat who they were supposed to beat, but didn’t make the key plays you need to make to beat the really good teams.
However, to say this is the end of an era or this team is finished as a contender is to overreact. There are still good solid pieces in place and, with good offseason decisions, I think this is a team that will compete again next season. You have a young D that is pretty good and should get better. If you take away the 83 yard run by Rice, they only gave up 156 total yards and only 16 first downs…not bad. Now, I know that doesn’t tell the whole story and you can’t just take away that run. But, the basic point is that there is talent there.
I think the biggest changes need to come on the other side of the ball and, to me, there are four key things the Pats must do this offseason to regain their elite status.
1. Protect Tom Brady: I don’t know if it was a scheme problem or a talent problem, but the beating he took, especially late in the season, is inexcusable. Part of this is the lack of a running game (so teams can key on him) and part of it is the play calling (can’t have the long developing plays if you can’t protect). But a part of it has to be the blocking schemes and who they have in place to block. Solutions must be found.
2. Get a RB: Maybe it is Maroney. Maybe it is Taylor. Maybe it is Morris. Maybe it is someone else. A running game has to consist of more than draw plays to Kevin Faulk. You need a back who you can trust to carry the ball 20 times a game, who you can rely on pick up the extra blitzer, and who can eat up yards, and clock, for you late in the game. Look, Faulk is a good thrid down back. But he is not an every down guy and I just don’t buy that he gives you the best chance to win. And to have a combined 4 carries for 12 yards between the other three is a recipe for failure. I do think the solution may be on the roster, but I do think you need to go into next season with a clear starter.
3. Find another receiving weapon: This doesn’t mean go out and sign a veteran. This means get back to what made the Patriots so dangerous in the early part of this decade. Remember when Brady’s favorite receiver was the open one? He needs guys he can trust there and that means you don’t just go for the big name, you go for the right guy. Hell, I’d probably throw the bank at Jabar Gaffney or Deion Branch and try to get them back. Welker, Moss and Edelman is good first three, but we need more. However, no matter who you bring in, it is essential that they start working with Brady ASAP. Brady must be at the mini-camps and pre-training camps in order to maximize the opportunity for him to build chemistry with his weapons.
4. Retool your game plans: Belichick is known for putting his guys in the right position to make plays. Guys like Vrabel and Bruschi could handle schemes that Guyton and Mayo can’t. If I were Belichick I would instruct my coordinators to start over. Spend the next few weeks looking at the guys who are on the roster and design plays with them in mind. What makes them good? Where are they strong? How can we give them the best chance of making the key plays? And, when the players start coming back to camp, appreciate who you have…don’t gameplan like you are longing for the past.