It’s nearly June in New England. The Celtics' championship run has ended, as has the Bruins'.
The crack of the bat can be heard from Yawkey Way to Wellesley as Bostonians gear up for another pennant run.
But wandering the streets of Beantown these days, there is a noticeable hush concerning the upcoming Patriots season.
Now, in years past, I would have chalked this up to regular season boredom on the road to a near obvious coronation of another champion. Frankly, the team has been so good for so long that regular season games became something of an afterthought.
Ho-hum, the Dolphins are in town with their retread quarterback, "Dancing With the Stars" defensive lineman, and pot smoking running back.
Yawn…and so it went for many years.
But going into 2009 the usual swagger that emerges in Patriots fans is noticeably tame if not completely gone.
For the first time in years, there are question marks concerning the Patriots upcoming season that cannot be readily answered at this point and cast potential doubt on the upcoming season.
The four biggest questions for the upcoming 2009 Patriots campaign:
1. Tom Brady’s Knee
The first, and most obvious question mark for the upcoming Patriots campaign is whether their superstar quarterback’s left knee has healed.
When Brady went down in first quarter against Kansas City, a collective sigh of hope was heard around the NFL, while New England fans from Providence to Portland, Maine packed it in for what was expected to be a rough season.
While the Pats turned in an admirable 11-5 mark, there is no denying that the teams center, the teams identity even, rests squarely on the swaggering shoulders of No. 12.
Having traded away Matt Cassel to those same Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots have placed their bet that not only will Brady’s knee survive an entire season but that he will return to the Pro Bowl, all-world quarterback he was before.
With Matt Gutierrez and Kevin O’Connell as the primary backups on the roster, there will be lingering questions about the quarterback spot until Brady can prove he has returned to form.
Without Brady and the now departed Matt Cassel, this team will have difficulty reaching 11 wins again.
2. Brittle Running Backs
On paper, the Patriots have two well-known and at times spectacular running backs in Laurence Maroney and the newly acquired Fred Taylor.
Taylor was a savvy pick-up by the Patriots, typical of how this team has been built in the past: acquire a talented but under-appreciated veteran with an axe to grind and a desire to win.
It’s worked in the past, from Rodney Harrison to Randy Moss and may work again with Taylor. However there’s no getting around the fact that both Maroney and Taylor have had their fair share of injuries throughout their respective careers.
It’s hard not to root for Taylor, who has been under-appreciated throughout his career and was basically discarded by an underachieving Jacksonville Jaguars team. He will have payback on his mind and, if healthy, will create a very good combo with Maroney that may be the only thing that keeps both these backs healthy.
There are, however, lingering questions about Maroney’s health. Has his shoulder healed completely after missing nearly all of the 2008 season? Is he durable enough to ever be a featured back in the rugged AFC East?
With Taylor, the question becomes how much is left in the tank for a player drafted in 1998 entering his 11th year in the league?
Remember, Taylor ran for a respectable but hardly dominating 556 yards on 143 carries last season.
With a healthy Brady, teams won’t be able to stack eight men in the box and target the Pats running game which should allow these backs opportunities. However, their health is no guarantee.
3. An Aging Defense
While the introduction of young, stud linebacker Jerod Mayo brought a much needed burst of youth and explosiveness to the defense, there is no denying that this team is built around defensive veterans—Bruschi (14 years in the league), Adalius Thomas (10), Seymour (9), Jarvis Green (8).
While the defense, statistically, was decent—10th in yards allowed, 15th in rushing yards—they were at times exposed by younger, faster teams (lest we forget the 38-13 debacle against the Dolphins or the 30-10 loss to the Chargers).
In truth, the teams defensive performance was largely uneven, turning in dominating performances at times, going seven games holding their opponent to ten points or fewer. However, they looked over-matched in others, allowing 27 points or more in six games.
A closer examination reveals that the games in which the defense excelled were largely against teams that were clearly overmatched—Bills, Chiefs, Jets and the Broncos. They took their lumps against some of the leagues elite—Steelers, Dolphins, Bucs, and Eagles.
In short, the defense needs to get younger and faster in order to be competitive on a weekly basis, something the team looked to address with their first three selections from the 2009 Draft (Safety Patrick Chung, DT Ron Brace, and CB Darius Butler).
While the defense does not lack for talent or ability, the question remains whether there will be enough youth mixed in with the veterans for week to week success.
4. The Offensive Line
Nobody likes to discuss the offensive line. Why?
Because the O-Line is boring. It’s a bunch of fat guys who live in the trenches and get paid to block. How boring is that?
Now ask Tom Brady how boring the Super bowl against the Giants was, a Super Bowl in which he was sacked five times and knocked down 18 times.
That’s right, not a typo, 18 times.
Fast forward to Week One of the 2008 Patriots season. Once again, the offensive line is front and center, leaving an unprotected Brady to fend for himself against the Chiefs pass rush. We all know the result of that particular encounter (see Issue No. 1 above for a refresher).
No matter how you slice it, the Pats offensive line was exposed last season, allowing Matt Cassel to be sacked a league leading 47 times. With Brady coming back from multiple knee procedures and never being the most mobile quarterback to begin with, the health and success of the Patriots offensive line could hold the key to their 2009 success or failure.
Overall the Pats appear to have a bright future in 2009 and beyond. However, it is no secret that people in these parts can’t help but feel a little skittish about the upcoming campaign and the usual swagger that emerges right around training camp has stayed in hibernation longer than expected.
A healthy Brady and a Super Bowl ring in ’09 will go a long way to restoring order in New England.
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