Oftentimes, the more answers you come across, the more questions spring to mind. That's true in life and true in football. It's especially true for New England Patriots fans. We know this quarterback so well, we know this coach so well, everything about this franchise is second nature, yet so many questions keep arising.
It's a new offense composed mostly of unproven talent. The defense hinges on a handful of rookies and hypothetical second-year leaps. With Tom Brady leaving Wednesday's practice early to take care of a leg injury, via Mike Reiss and Adam Schefter of ESPN.com, it goes to show that the uncertainty never stops and the questions never cease.
As we head deeper into preseason and approach the regular season, here are five burning questions the Patriots still need to answer.
At this point, the health status of Rob Gronkowski is somewhat moot. Even if he wakes up tomorrow feeling perfectly healthy, totally back to normal, how much confidence would that really inspire?
He's had five surgeries since November. He was inconsequential or absent for the biggest playoff games of 2011 and 2012. He had back surgery in college. There's a trail here. Even if he comes back, he's given Patriot Nation enough reason to stay worried. In that sense, this is a true "it is what it is" scenario.
If he plays, then great. If he doesn't, he doesn't. If he gets back to his 2011 form, then great. If he doesn't, he doesn't. Que Sera, Sera. Whatever will be, will be.
Ultimately, whether he comes back full strength, half strength or not at all, the Patriots must always be prepared to win without him. In the pregame locker room, when they hear, "Gronkowski's a no-go," they need to look at each other with confidence and say, "We've got this."
Enter Zach Sudfeld.
Undrafted out of Nevada, this kid has become the story of the summer. He was extremely impressive during offseason workouts, leading ESPNBoston.com to name him as one of the top six momentum builders. He's been earning rave reviews ever since, continually building his reputation as a ball-catching machine.
Sudfeld had a nice debut against the Philadelphia Eagles during preseason, catching a terrific 22-yard reception from Ryan Mallett in the second quarter. He also laid a terrific block which allowed LeGarrette Blount to cap the last 10 yards of his triumphant 51-yard touchdown.
At this point, when Sudfeld makes a great play, it feels routine. That's how consistent he is. On August 14, during joint practice sessions with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss observed:
On one play, Tom Brady fired a high pass to Sudfeld in the back of the end zone during 7-on-7 drills, with Sudfeld reaching up outside of his frame to snare it.
Day after day, this buzz around this kid just keeps growing. He's showing flashes of magic and brilliance. If it isn't a mirage, then he could be absolutely huge for this team physically, mentally and emotionally.
The burning question is: Is Zach Sudfeld for real?
NFL Network has a wonderful series called, America's Game: The Super Bowl Champions. In the episode dedicated to the 2003 Patriots, former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis shared some insight into Bill Belichick's mindset:
Coach Belichick has always prided himself by having a sound fundamental defense that plays at a top level. Following 2002 [when the Patriots missed the playoffs], he was frustrated that the defense didn't play up to his expectations.
Now, there's a few things we can take away from that quote. For starters, it's comforting to know that New England's current defensive woes aren't new. The Patriots were struggling with this back during the dynasty years. Furthermore, after their dismal 2002 season, they won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004. In other words, the Patriots have had this problem before, and they've fixed it before.
They need to fix it again.
Defense is all about disruption. A good defense makes a confident quarterback look nervous. A perfect example was the 2003 AFC Championship Game. Patriots vs. Colts. In the Colts' first two postseason games of 2003, league MVP Peyton Manning had thrown eight touchdowns and no picks. He was red hot.
To throw Manning off his game, the Patriots brilliantly disrupted him. They refused to be intimidated by the way he controlled the line of scrimmage. They disguised and switched coverage like magicians. They intercepted Manning four times. He only threw one touchdown. In effect, the Patriots neutralized Manning's swagger. They threw a bucket of ice water on a very hot team.
That's what the Patriots have been missing lately.
In last season's AFC Championship, they let Baltimore's Joe Flacco throw three touchdowns without a single interception. More importantly, Flacco never really looked fazed at any point of the game, even during the few times he was sacked. New England's defense never affected his concentration or altered his game plan. The Patriots threw logs into another team's fire. The flame got hotter. The Patriots went home and the Ravens won a ring.
Heading into 2013, the Patriots must solve this problem. They will be playing an excellent quarterback in the AFC Championship and an even better one in the Super Bowl.
The burning question is: Will the defense finally rise up?
Tom Brady didn't begin his career as an offensive juggernaut.
In 2001, the year he won his first Super Bowl, he totaled only 2,843 yards and 18 touchdowns. In 2003, the year of his second Super Bowl victory, he totaled 3,620 yards and 23 touchdowns. In 2004, the year of his third ring, he notched 3,692 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Now, look what he did during the second half of his career.
In 2007, he accumulated 4,806 yards and an astounding 50 touchdowns. In 2011, he totaled 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns. In 2012, he notched 4,827 yards and 34 touchdowns (while also throwing a score to Wes Welker in Week 17 for his 48th straight regular-season game with a touchdown pass).
The second half of Brady's career has been a storybook ascension. He's continually rewritten the scope of his own greatness.
So, why hasn't he won a ring since 2004?
The answers vary from person to person. Some would cite a few fortunate Super Bowl catches for the New York Giants. Others would cite some unlucky drops and bounces for the Patriots. Others would cite the flimsy nature of New England's defense over the years, which has continually taken beatings and given up big plays.
For me, it's about swagger.
Teams like the Ravens and Giants view the Patriots as "the team of yesterday." For that reason, they haven't been intimidated to play the Patriots in the playoffs. The Ravens and Giants both approached the past few pivotal postseason games from a "this is our time" mentality. It gave them a nastier swagger with more venomous immediacy.
The Patriots need to steal that swagger back by making it "their time" right now.
To do that, they need new leaders to define this new era of Patriots football. Tom Brady is the top leader, of course, but we need to remember that he's a symbol of the old dynasty, which drives other teams nuts and makes them go berserk on the Patriots in the playoffs. We need other heroes, in addition to Brady, to define this era.
For me, the "new leadership" really comes down to nine candidates. The first five are the most obvious: Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Adrian Wilson, Danny Amendola and Aqib Talib. The next four are the dark-horse candidates: Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Harrison, Zach Sudfeld and Aaron Dobson.
Perhaps someone might throw Shane Vereen in there. Or Julian Edelman. In the long run, it doesn't matter who it is, just as long as some of these guys rise up. This team needs fresh leadership. It needs it now.
The burning question is: Will this new leadership actually emerge?
Undrafted rookie Kenbrell Thompkins has been one of the most staggering surprises of the offseason. He's been the absolute model of consistency. Back in June, ESPNBoston selected Thompkins as one of the top six momentum builders of the offseason. He's been impressive ever since, essentially becoming a regular for "play of the day" honors throughout training camp, along with fellow rookie Sudfeld.
Thompkins had a pleasant debut against the Eagles, catching four balls on five targets for 23 yards. Amazingly, all of those catches and yards came on New England's second drive of the game. It was great to see Brady connect with his rookie so intensely and so frequently. After all the head-scratching we've had about the offense throughout these dog days of summer, this was a gust of a nice cool breeze to ease the soul.
On August 13, during joint practice sessions with the Buccaneers, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss had this up-close observation:
[Thompkins] made one of the most remarkable catches of training camp, reaching around Buccaneers cornerback Rashaan Melvin and snaring a one-handed pass from Tom Brady by pinning it against Melvin's back.
At this point, Thompkins looks positively unstoppable. He's fast and he competes for balls in the air. He's a playmaker. He's showing glimmers of star quality. If this isn't a mirage, then this offense could be extremely scary. Also, his emergence would take a lot of weight and pressure off the shoulders of Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson, who currently have savior-type expectations. This spreads the wealth.
The burning question is: Is Kenbrell Thompkins for real?
Over the past few years, the Patriots have been flat in the postseason. They scored only 14 points in Super Bowl XLII. That's extremely disturbing, considering they had a legendary group of guys who averaged 36.8 points per game that season. It got even more disturbing when they blew their shot at vengeance in Super Bowl XLVI, only scoring 17 points and losing to the Giants again.
Last season, they only scored 13 points in the AFC Championship. They went scoreless in the second half. Alarming isn't even the right word. It was nauseating.
For me, this is an issue of coaching. The emotional and physical flatness of a team is a reflection on the coach. It's Bill Belichick's job to make sure his guys are in their best shape and their best "head space" for the most important games of the playoffs.
That hasn't happened in a long time.
In Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI and the 2012 AFC Championship, the Patriots looked flat, lifeless, uninspired and trite. They looked sleepy from start to finish. They got bullied by teams that were meaner, more physical and more unrelenting in their quest for victory.
That's unacceptable. This is a trend which demands correction.
Start with the culture. The Patriot Way is a great thing, a sacred system which I adore, but there's a point at which the control and the discipline of the system becomes slightly oppressive and robs players of their grittiness and their personality. That's what's happening to this team.
And really, what's the point of being so disciplined if they're just going to lose to less disciplined teams in the end?
It's Belichick's job to make sure the Patriot Way doesn't get stale. It's his responsibility to make sure the players stay sharp, hungry, individually strong and collectively stronger.
Give the Patriot Way a tune-up. If the players are wound too tight, give a little slack. Balance and reconcile an older philosophy with newer players who bring new things to the table. Manage the temperaments and the changing waves. It's a delicate art which requires genius and precision, but Belichick's good enough to do it. After all, he built a dynasty.
The burning question is: Can Belichick get his playoff mojo back?