NFL: Is the New England Patriots' Biggest Strength Also Their Hidden Flaw?
The last few years have not been as kind to fans of the New England Patriots as the glory years from 2001 to 2004, when the Patriots won three Super Bowls in five season.
That said, the Patriots have had almost unprecedented success over the last decade:
- Since the end of the 2000 season, the Patriots have never been out of playoff contention.
- Even in the two years they failed to make the playoffs, they were still in the hunt until Week 17, and in both cases had the same record as the ultimate AFC East division champion.
- The Patriots have played in six of the last eleven AFC Championship games.
- Tom Brady has led the Patriots to the Super Bowl in five of the 10 seasons in which he's started more than one game.
- Since Tom Brady became the starter in 2001, the Patriots have won 150 games (including playoff games)—20 more than any other franchise.
One of the keys to the Patriots' regular-season success has been the ability of the coaching staff to get players to buy into the Foxboro philosophy: When one player goes down with an injury, it's the job of the next player in line to fill in to the best of his ability. Likewise, it's incumbent upon the coaches to design schemes that play to the strengths of their players while trying to minimize their weaknesses.
That's how the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl with what many analysts called the "worst pass defense in NFL history," one that saw 40 different players take snaps on the defensive side (including converted wide receiver Julian Edelman).
That's how the Patriots set offensive records even after trading away Randy Moss in 2010; they re-focused their offense around rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
And that's how, after the Patriots lost Brady for the year during the first quarter of the first game of their 2008 season, they were able to contend for the division title with Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game at quarterback since high school.
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Year in and year out, no matter what happens, as the injuries mount, the Patriots nevertheless seem to find ways to win games. But it is that very perseverance and adaptability that helps the Patriots get to the playoffs that also hurts them in the playoffs.
The teams that make it to the postseason are often ones that are not devastated by injuries; certainly it is rare for teams to have numerous injuries to go on extended winning streaks, as the Patriots did in 2011.
One need only look to the Houston Texans, who were forced to turn to their third-string quarterback, T.J. Yates, late in the season, and finished the year 10–6, after limping into the playoffs with three consecutive regular-season losses. Even more striking, though, were the Indianapolis Colts, who dropped from playoff contender to No. 1 draft pick status after losing quarterback Peyton Manning for the season.
Thus, it is not surprising that key injuries down the stretch, or in the playoffs, have ultimately been instrumental in each of their last five playoff losses:
- 2006: The flu ravaged the Patriots' locker room in the week leading up to the AFC Championship game in Indianapolis. As the Patriots begin to drop like flies due to exhaustion in the second half (forcing the Patriots to play ST players like Eric Alexander on defense), the Colts mount a remarkable comeback.
- 2007: In Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots lost Stephen Neal to injury early in the game, weakening the offensive line.
- 2009: The Patriots lose Wes Welker in the regular-season finale against Houston; while Julian Edelman made valiant efforts, the lack of Brady's security blanket made the game much easier for the Ravens.
- 2010: The dynamics of the offense suffered with Aaron Hernandez limited by injury; he had just one catch for 4 yards in the Patriots' playoff loss to the Jets.
- 2011: The Patriots lost one of their best pass rushers, Andre Carter, against the Broncos in Week 15, but the most important injury was Rob Gronkowski's high ankle sprain against the Ravens in the AFC Championship game. Despite his valiant efforts in the Super Bowl, he, too, was limited, making the Patriots' offense much easier to defend.
None of these, of course, were the sole reason for the Patriots' playoff woes; but none of them can be dismissed as completely irrelevant.
The biggest question, though, is if there's anything the Patriots can do about it. After all, I doubt Patriots fans want to see the team change to a philosophy that makes them less likely to make the playoffs.
Similarly, no team can have All-Pros at every position in a salary cap era. On the other hand, one can argue that the Patriots should have done a slightly better job at having a third tight end in the roster who could actually both block and be a credible pass-catching threat; this year, while the Patriots often used offensive linemen as extra blockers, none of them were ever used as receiving targets. Similar roster tweaks could definitely help them down the home stretch in future years.
Finally, the Patriots' injury woes are partly a result of their success: How many times have you heard of teams treating regular-season games against the Patriots "as their Super Bowl?" (Mailing it in against the Patriots often leads to humiliating losses.) It would behoove the Patriots' strength and conditioning staff (and medical staff) to spend time this offseason researching what they can do—equipment changes, rehab techniques, or anything else—to minimize the number and severity of the injuries that are an inevitable part of football.
Hobbled Patriots teams have set records. Imagine what a fully healthy Patriots team could do.
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