Cost-Effective Moves the Patriots Can Make This Offseason
"Tonight, we just didn't do enough things well enough to win...They just made more plays than we did. That's pretty much the story."
It sounded similar to some of defensive tackle Vince Wilfork's comments in his postgame address:
"Tonight, we just didn't make enough plays. They made more plays than we made."
To hear these comments, you'd think the game was decided by one or two blunders or a small handful of missed opportunities. But it wasn't decided that way at all. The Patriots were dismantled and smashed in every possible way. As the game unfolded, many of New England's players looked dejected, disoriented and forlorn. They didn't even score in the second half. They lost by 15 points.
That's a long way away from not making enough plays.
Last season, the Patriots also played the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. New England's former cornerback, Sterling Moore, stripped a potential game-winning touchdown from the Ravens. Then, Baltimore's former kicker, Billy Cundiff, missed a game-tying field goal. The Patriots won by three points. That's an example of a game that was actually decided by a few more plays being made by one team than the other.
But last Sunday's contest wasn't about a few plays, it was about everything. It was about the whole enchilada. The Ravens fractured the Patriots. Now, the Patriots (and their fans) have an entire offseason to put the pieces back together.
Here are cost-effective moves the Patriots can make to rebound and return with a vengeance in 2013.
Re-Sign Wes Welker
With Wes Welker set to become a free agent over the offseason, the Patriots will weigh the pros and cons of re-signing him to another one-year contract or promoting him to a lengthier, meatier deal. On a bleaker note, they'll also likely weigh the pros and cons of re-signing him at all.
There are solid arguments to be made from either end.
On one hand, Welker's whirlwind production hasn't been enough to win the ultimate crown. The lack of Super Bowl rings means there's no "core championship unit" to maintain, unlike the Boston Bruins, who have gone to great lengths to keep most of their Stanley Cup core intact over the last few seasons. If the Patriots allow Welker to walk away, they'll have more financial freedom to build the championship core they envision.
On the other hand, from a statistical standpoint, Welker is as reliable as any player in the NFL (he's topped 100 catches and 1,000 yards in five of his six seasons with the Patriots). The golden rule is as follows: When Wes Welker and Tom Brady are healthy, the Patriots are championship contenders. That's a good rule to stick with.
Ultimately, the cost-effectiveness of the situation comes down to this: Letting Welker walk makes the most financial sense right now, but the long-term effects could be disastrous.
Brady might get the blues if his favorite receiver isn't on the field with him. The team would chase an endless list of players with the "potential" to match Welker's production (they'd also bleed cash in the process).
Getting rid of Welker would also mean potentially handing their stud to an AFC rival. That rival could thwart New England's quest for a trip Super Bowl in 2013. Can you imagine any worse scenario than Welker winning a ring with another team?
Also, consider this: In the scope of this whole new offense (which includes two very fragile tight ends), Welker's health has been the most stable element in the mix. With Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez constantly a tweak or two away from missing games, how can they let their most stable receiver walk?
Bottom line: The Patriots need to re-sign Welker. It's the wisest, most cost-effective move in the broader scheme of things.
Provide a Safety Net for Ailing Tight Ends
Gronkowski and Hernandez dominated in 2011, but multiple injuries caused them to dip in production in 2012. Hernandez had 28 fewer catches, 427 fewer yards and two fewer touchdowns. Gronkowski had 35 fewer catches, 537 fewer yards and six fewer receiving touchdowns.
The dilemma doesn't end there.
Gronkowski launched to superstardom in 2011 and 2012, but ended both seasons in need of major physical rehab. Injuries caused him to be ineffective during the most important game of his life (Super Bowl XLVI) and absent during the second-most important game of his life (the 2012 AFC Championship Game).
Similarly, Hernandez emerged as a stud in 2011 and continued that dominant trend into 2012, but he didn't play the full 16-game slate in either season.
These worrisome patterns suggest that these pricey tight ends will only be available in sporadic fashion in 2013 and beyond.
Of course, trends can be broken. But for the amount of dough the Patriots spend, they should never be lacking in offensive potency during the playoffs (they only scored 14 points in Super Bowl XLII, 14 points in the 2009 wild-card game, 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI and 13 points in the 2012 AFC Championship Game).
The bottom line is this: The Patriots are committed to the talents of these two expensive tight ends, but they're also committed to their future injuries. True "cost-effectiveness" requires a safety net to prevent the team from losing another season down the rabbit hole.
The Patriots need more wide receivers. They need to stockpile offensive catchers like they would bottles of water before a trek across the desert. These receivers don't need to be studs, they just need to be talented and healthy.
This team should be scoring more points in the playoffs, no matter who's injured. No excuses.
Part Ways with Patrick Chung
Patrick Chung simply never materialized into the profound defensive leader many expected him to be. His power was intense, but his body never allowed that power to exist for any meaningful period of time. In fact, one could argue that Aqib Talib had more of an impact in less than a full season with New England than Chung had over the last few years.
The Patriots' secondary has some good chemistry in place. Flawed as Devin McCourty, Alfonzo Dennard and Steve Gregory might be, they do have an intriguing "je ne sais quoi" between them. What they really need is a leader who can bring them together and elevate their collective game. But, over the course of 2012, it became clear that Chung wasn't the leader to get the job done.
The most cost-effective move here is to let Chung walk and put a pile of cash towards a newer, faster and more physical beast who can provide some emotional glue in this young secondary. The Patriots need someone who gets tougher and more energized as a game unfolds, someone who plays all 16 regular-season games and then plays his finest and meanest football in the playoffs.
They need to a true game-changer.
Re-Sign Julian Edelman
It's easy to see why Julian Edelman has blossomed: The kid's a football player. It's more than his profession, it's his soul; he's tough, energetic, athletic, totally devoted and extremely coachable.
The Patriots spent four years grooming him in a strange, hybrid image: Part wide receiver, part slot receiver, part blocker and part genius as a returner on special teams. That's a tall order for most raw talents, but this particular lump of clay molded perfectly. He's four different players in one body.
The Patriots need to re-sign Edelman and make him a fixture of the team for the long haul, even into the post-Brady era. He's a cost-effective hero who can do it all.
This kid has a championship catch in him. Now's the time to have him sign on the dotted line.
Remake the Secondary in a Stronger Image
New England's secondary made important strides in 2012, but ultimately, it was gashed in rapid bursts by Joe Flacco, just as effectively as it was picked apart in a rather slow-drip fashion by Eli Manning in 2007 and 2011.
New England's defensive backfield has a knack for bending without breaking during the regular season, but that's partially because Brady's potent offense provides a certain degree of camouflage. When Brady's offense collapses in the postseason (another worrisome trend), the secondary doesn't have the legs or firepower to bail the team out.
Being "cost-effective" is about learning from your team's trends (especially the ugly ones). Just as it's important to horde receivers and tight ends to make up for potential future injuries to Gronkowski and Hernandez, it's important to bulk-up the secondary in case Brady's offense falls apart in the playoffs again.
The Patriots should sever ties with Kyle Arrington (a free agent this offseason) and Ras-I Dowling (a free agent in 2015). They should re-sign Talib (a free agent this offseason) and rebuild the rest of the secondary through the draft and free agency.
To succeed in the future, the best place to look is the past. The Patriots had a golden secondary many years ago; they need to go back into the history books and reacquaint themselves with their own philosophies on winning.
Learn from Their Mistakes
If you're looking for cost-effective moves, how about a free one?
Learning from your mistakes costs nothing. Nada. Zilch. It's as free as sunlight, air and hope.
But, more and more frequently, it seems like Belichick won't learn from his team's major playoff losses. It seems like he's still playing chess.
Sure, he won three titles playing some chess in New England. But at the time, he had guys like Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Matt Light, Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison moving those chess pieces. It's easy to be cerebral when you have nightmarish mad dogs who inspire mental dread and physical fear in everyone they come into contact with on the field.
But those mad dogs are long gone.
Sure, this team still wreaks havoc in the regular season, while other teams are finding their identities. But when the postseason hits, the Patriots stay cerebral while the other teams get desperate, audacious and aggressive.
The real problem is, too many teams have seen the Patriots crumble in too many big games. There's no myth left over from the dynasty years; all that magic dust is gone. Without that myth, without that magic dust, there's no armor. They don't intimidate anybody in the playoffs anymore. Some rival players even trash-talk the Patriots because there's such a lack of intimidation there.
In a recent ESPN video, analyst Trent Dilfer explained his perspective on what the Patriots need in order to break their alarming trend of losing big playoff games:
"[They need] the recognition that they're no longer that team that always has the highest football IQ in big situational moments. You go to the Seattle game and how they lost that game...the first time the Ravens came back to them...and in the AFC Championship Game...I don't see them as mentally sharp as they've been in years past. I think that can be addressed through coaching."
There's a lot of truth to Dilfer's point. The Patriots seem to be a team that feels it can win big situations with its football IQ. But what the Pats fail to realize is that a lot of other teams have caught up; those teams have studied the Patriots' methods for success, and those teams have gotten wiser and stronger themselves.
Teams like the Giants, 49ers, Ravens and Seahawks combine football IQ with football muscle. John Harbaugh and Jim Harbaugh play chess, just like Belichick, except they have the dangerous and daring mad dogs to help move the chess pieces.
In addition to being daring and dangerous, it's also about being hungry to win and hungry to validate the chip on one's shoulder. Flacco and Colin Kaepernick are hungry to do both, just as Eli Manning was hungry and Brady was hungry. Hunger propels fearless men to new heights. The most cost-effective move the Patriots can make over the offseason is to re-discover their hunger.
The Patriots need to stop this trend of losing playoff games to tougher teams who want it more. They need to ease up on the finesse. Enough IQ. They need to get mean, demented and snarly. Then, when their muscle finally catches up to their heads, they can start playing a little chess again.
That's a significant cost-effective move that won't cost them a dime.