What a difference a year can make.
Not even a year. In this case, it's half a year. It's the two seasons between the snows of December and the heat of June, aka Lockout Central.
That's all the time that's been needed for there to be an apparent 180-degree turn on the perception of the New England Patriots offense. Late last season, the theme was "Forget 2007," as in, the dominant offense that belonged to the most disappointing 18-1 team in history. Now, the theme might as well be "Forget 2010," as in, the offense that looked simply unstoppable entering the postseason.
That statement may be a little harsh, but it's not far off. Last week, the Felger and Mazz radio show on 98.5 The Sports Hub took its first few looks ahead at New England's 2011 season. During the show, co-host Mike Felger listed the Patriots wide receivers, starting with Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Brandon Tate and Taylor Price at the top.
Felger asked if that was enough. His co-host, esteemed sportswriter Tony Massarotti, was succinct in his response: "Nope."
That's not evidence that the region is looking for Branch and Welker, two of the team's most popular players, to be kicked to the curb. Far from it. It is, however, proof that the following question exists and has been considered.
Do the Patriots need more at the receiver position?
The answer is the same as Massarotti's. Nope.
The Patriots don't need a deep threat. They don't need a precise route-runner. They don't need a physical end zone presence. They don't need Randy Moss, Terrell Owens or Jerry Rice. They don't need any of them.
The argument that they do is based on Jan. 16. That's the day that the receivers had 60 minutes of difficulty getting open against Rex Ryan's New York Jets defense. That's also the day, not coincidentally, that the Patriots lost for the first time since November and were swiftly bounced from the playoffs.
That argument supposedly exposes an unsatisfactory receiving corps. It should do the opposite.
When the Patriots were unable to move the ball with ease, they had no secondary game to fall back on. They had a 1,000-yard rusher, but not enough faith in the running game. They didn't have a defense that could shoulder the load, even for one single game.
That night, defense met offense in the playoffs. Defense won. That's been the way it's gone, with few exceptions, over and over again and the Patriots had years of warning. They still didn't see it coming.
In the NFL, in the playoffs, in cold weather, outdoors, defense wins. The Patriots dared for the trend to continue by taking the field with a potent offense that was peaking at the right time. The trend continued.
And now some think the solution is to add more?
I'm not going to say the Patriots couldn't use another receiver. Couldn't hurt. It could never hinder the offense to add another weapon.
But the Patriots don't need one. They need defense. They need to be able to survive offensive letdowns because that's the way it always happens in the postseason. There are exceptions, but the Patriots can't afford to keep trying to fit themselves into the minority.
Solutions on defense could be in-house, especially if Jermaine Cunningham develops into a disruptive rusher or Ras-I Dowling emerges to make New England's secondary a scary unit. The solutions could also be outside Foxboro, and if there's a case to be made for New England to take a major risk in one area, that would be it.
Not wide receiver. Defenses win late in the season. New England has fought that trend since 2007. Now, it's time to embrace it.