Now's the time to get serious about what the Patriots need to change about themselves. It's time to be frank about some difficult truths and some alarming problems the Patriots absolutely need to conquer if they intend to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
Think of this as a laundry list of tough-love tips for getting over the proverbial hump. Because, after another season of coming within reaching distance of the crown and leaving their fans in a dizzying cloud of frustration, the Patriots need some no-nonsense advice to push them across the finish line.
Here are six things that must change for the Patriots in 2013.
Coach always talks about doing your job. ...so that everyone around you can do their job. When people trust each other, then you can play with anticipation and confidence and ultimately go out there and play aggressively.
Vince Wilfork echoes a similar sentiment, with a few valuable additions:
I learned a long time ago with Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour. ...you can’t be selfish playing here. It is not about you. It is about the team and if you buy into that you will be very successful.
Jerod Mayo sums it up best:
If you want to be a good football team, you'll never be stuck in rush-hour traffic. You are the first one here and the last one to leave.
This core philosophy runs deep.
Between 2001-04, the Patriots perfected the art and discipline of "the Patriot Way"and won three championships, which is an insane level of success.
Other teams in the league desired that prosperity, even a fraction of it, so they strived to model themselves after the Patriots. These other teams adopted their own variations of "the Patriot Way," borrowing threads from New England's sacred philosophy. They did this both intellectually and spiritually, but also in tangible manifestations of how to assemble a winning roster.
Now, the Patriots must slay the monsters they helped create.
In order for the Patriots to do that, nothing can remain on autopilot, not even "the Patriot Way." Everything about this team needs to improve, right down to their core philosophy of winning. They need to push everything about themselves to a level that we didn't even know existed.
The 2013 Patriots need to become the best Patriots team in the history of their franchise.
It's a tall order, but it's the only way to outsmart and outmuscle opposing franchises that have constructed themselves on the ambition of defeating the Patriots.
The Patriots are known for having a ridiculously potent offense, fueled by a lightning-quick pace that overwhelms opponents.
But let's be honest here: That offense falls apart in the playoffs. The evidence: 14 points in Super Bowl XLII, 17 points in Super Bowl XLVI and 13 points in the 2012 AFC Championship.
New England's lightning-quick pace gets stuck in postseason tar. The Giants have routinely slowed the Patriots' offense to the point where it seems to unfold in slow motion. The Ravens did the same thing in the 2012 postseason, preventing the Patriots from scoring a single point in the second half of the AFC title game.
It's easy to pawn all of the team's problems on the defense, but the defense is pretty true to their persona. It's an above-average group that plays as well as it can. There's nothing misleading there.
However, when it comes to the offense, things are not what they seem. This is not the high-powered offense we believe it to be. This is an offense that needs help.
The Patriots need to confront this situation and conquer it, once and for all.
The Patriots handle the media with the utmost respect while simultaneously offering absolutely no information that would satisfy any interested parties.
It's a splendid mixture of discipline and secrecy, which has propelled the Patriots to the heights of success and transformed them into one of the most respected franchises in the history of sports.
With the Patriots, it's all about the poker face. When you watch an interview with Tom Brady or Bill Belichick or Wes Welker or anybody else associated with the team, you'll see the look of a man who knows how to play cards. No leaks, no tells, no nothing.
For Patriots fans, this is a pleasure. It's nice when your team's laundry stays in the locker room. Consider the alternative: You could be a Lakers fan and watch the drama between Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard unfold in the media, or you could be a Jets fan and watch every private matter become public.
With the Patriots, you never get an embarrassing spill.
However, along with all the splendid fruits that come from such discipline and secrecy, there comes a downside. The team's ever-present poker face means you can never be really sure about what they're thinking.
At times, it can be annoying for fans who want to get on the same page as their team. This is especially true for Patriots fans, because they feel an extreme urgency to win right now. Occasionally, it would be nice to know the team feels the same urgency.
Knowing how competitive Tom Brady is, it's fair to say that he most likely feels that sense of urgency. But still, it's virtually impossible to read it in his face. Like his coach and his teammates, he's a cool customer who's impossible to decipher.
At times, one can't help but wonder if this incessant poker face is draining some raw energy from the team.
Mind you, I'm not suggesting that Brady and the Patriots drop the poker face altogether.
Still, some adjustment would be nice. When the 2013 season begins, it would be nice to see some fire in their eyes. It would be nice to see the immediacy in their faces and to hear the urgency in their words. It would be nice to know that the team considers this a "championship-or-nothing" season.
At this point, I'd prefer aggression over a blank poker face.
When it comes to Rob Gronkowski's antics, opinions are split down the middle.
Kirk Minihane, columnist for WEEI Boston, penned a recent article on the subject. Here's a snippet:
We've reached intervention stage with Rob Gronkowski. ...what [he] did on that stage was potentially damaging to the New England Patriots. Not the brand, not some image, not the Patriot Way, but the actual on-field product. Lifting a friend in the air and attempting wrestling moves. ...is inviting further damage to a left arm that has been broken twice in the last three months.
This isn’t taking a picture with a porn star or dancing a week before surgery, this is pure recklessness.
Minihane ended his article with this "message" to Gronkowski:
Don’t put yourself or the New England Patriots in danger. Enjoy being a single, famous and rich 23-year-old, but don’t cross the line again.
Minihane's perspective is bold and intriguing, yet there are others who see things in a wildly different light. Logan Mankins, Patriots guard, recently offered his contrasting views on Gronkowski's "partying" and "wrestling," via ESPN:
I think Gronk's having fun. ...The headlines might not be what a lot of people want, but at least he's not getting DUIs or doing things that are against the law. I don't think he's hurting anyone. ...Hopefully he doesn't hurt his arm because then that would be bad. You know Gronk, he is a big meathead that likes to party and play football.
So, there you have it: Dueling voices on a subject which Patriots fans across the country have been chewing on for a long time. So, which perspective do you align yourself with?
Personally, I don't align myself with either perspective.
I don't need Gronkowski to sit in a dusty, desolate room, contorted in the position of Rodin's "Thinker," laboring over the shortcomings of his last two seasons (which include, but are not limited to, being injured, ineffective and/or inactive for the two biggest games of his career).
Nor do I vehemently applaud or champion his antics as the harmless meandering of youth and ignorance.
For me, this is about one thing: reputation.
All of these antics, however harmless, feed into Gronkowski's reputation. This specific reputation makes him less intimidating as a warrior. That matters to me.
Reputation matters, not only in football, but in life. It's a sacred thing. There was a time when a man's word, along with his handshake, was more reliable than the thickest, wordiest legal document. Back then, men would work their whole lives to craft that kind of valuable reputation and they'd protect it at all costs.
Just some food for thought.
New England's relationship with Bernard Pollard has been violent, warped and mind-boggling for years. Michael Vega, writer for the Boston Globe, summed it up perfectly in his article, Bernard Pollard Delivers Another Dose of Pain. Here's a snippet:
Pollard's hit on [Stevan] Ridley [in the 2012 AFC Championship] was the latest in the safety's punishing blows against the Patriots.
Who could forget how he maimed Tom Brady in the 2008 season opener when he was with Kansas City? How his mere presence in the Texans secondary caused Welker’s knee to buckle while making a hard cut on Reliant Stadium's awful turf in the 2009 regular-season finale? Or how he rolled over Rob Gronkowski’s ankle in last year’s AFC Championship game?
When it comes to playing the Patriots, Pollard is a one-man wrecking crew.
It's disturbing (and aggravating) that this man has influenced New England's fate in such disastrous ways, so many times. It's gotten to the point where you say to yourself, "This can't happen again, no way, it's impossible." Then it happens again.
This has become a full-fledged situation. The situation is unacceptable and it must end now.
The Patriots need to use "the Pollard situation" as proper motivation to become the roughest, meanest team in the league in 2013.
The Patriots should make it a personal point of interest to make sure that no player ever has this much power over them again.
This is about more than strength, it's about pride.
Super Bowl XLVI was won by Eli Manning, a quarterback who was hungry to prove that his underdog victory in Super Bowl XLII wasn't a fluke.
Super Bowl XLV was won by Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback destined for the Hall of Fame, who was hungry to win his first ring.
Similarly, Super Bowl XLIV was won by Drew Brees, another quarterback destined for the Hall of Fame, who was hungry to win his first ring.
There's a common link between these quarterbacks and their teams: hunger.
Year after year, the Patriots look positively ravenous during the regular season. They hit the buffet like mad dogs during the 16-game slate, often going back for seconds and thirds. At times, they look so hungry, one wonders if they'll swallow the silver platters along with the food.
Then comes the postseason, also known as "dessert," also known as "the sugary reason why people eat dinner in the first place." The problem is, when that time comes, the Patriots are full. In the blink of an eye, another team swipes the strawberry shortcake and chocolate cookies from right under their nose.
For the Patriots to find real success next season, they'll need to correct this trend more than any other. They need to stay hungry in the postseason, even if they're full. That means staying healthy, focused and sharp. If they need to eat a little less dinner in order to make room for dessert, so be it.
When the cake and cookies come out in 2013, I want the Patriots to be starving.