New England Patriots: 10 Questions to Be Answered Once the NFL Lockout Is Over
The New England Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, which seems weird. It's odd that the Pats, who have essentially dominated regular season play since 2004 (going a combined 73-23), have been unable to put it together during postseason play—especially with Tom Brady running the offense.
What has plagued the Patriots these past few seasons has been the defense, although it hasn't been as bad as people think. New England's opponents scored just 313 points this past season, the eighth-best mark in the league.
But I suppose with the top-ranked offense in the league, the ESPN talking heads need to find something to nitpick.
With ESPN reporting that the lockout could be over sometime next week, it's time to start thinking about an actual season (I can't say the same for the NBA, unfortunately).
As usual, the talking heads will cite the same weaknesses as reasons why the Pats can't go all the way. And, as usual, the Patriots will dominate regular-season play.
Whether or not they can bring it home for the first time in nearly a decade remains to be seen.
About That Pass Rush...
The much maligned New England Patriots' pass rush finished right in the middle of the pack in terms of sacks in 2010. The sack number might be somewhat inflated because of teams passing more, trying to catch up to the Patriots' prolific offense.
In typical fashion, Bill Belichick ignored (or maybe just didn't pay attention to) the fans' mandates that he draft a pass rusher with a high pick, choosing instead to shore up the secondary, offensive line and running game.
The Pats signed veteran defensive end Marcus Stroud, but he's certainly on the downside of his career. It could be another early exit if the Patriots continue getting picked apart by the likes of Mark Sanchez. It's fine to be exploited by Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning, but when mediocre to good (at best) quarterbacks are owning you, it's time to apply some pressure.
Danny Woodhead: An Abberation?
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Who knew a little guy from a Division II school would have such an impact on the New England Patriots 2010 season? Danny Woodhead morphed into the Pats' most dynamic offensive threat this past season, not only rushing but also catching 34 passes out of the backfield in 14 games.
I have no problem saying that after Tom Brady, Woodhead will be the most important piece to the offense this season—and perhaps for years to come. He's a game changer, the type of dynamic offensive talent that the Pats have been missing for years.
But now that the expectations are so high, how will we judge him? Will anything short of spectacular be considered a failure? Or will we learn to accept that this undersized man has limitations. Maybe his great is only as good as a bigger players' good.
The (Presumed) Matt Light Void
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The New England Patriots, under Bill Belichick, have never been a team to overpay for aging players. Tackle Matt Light fits that bill, so he's probably gone.
The Pats drafted two possible incumbents in Colorado's Nate Solder and TCU's Marcus Cannon.
Solder is a huge body, listed at 6'8'', 319 lbs, but he's a converted tight end and therefore will be labeled a "work in progress."
Cannon was the Patriots' fifth-round selection, and he's currently working to gain back his weight as he battles cancer.
One of these rookies—probably Solder—will see playing time at the left tackle spot this year, which means Tom Brady's backside will be his responsibility. Don't mess it up.
Will BenJarvus Green-Ellis Continue to Improve?
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BenJarvus Green-Ellis joined the 1,000-yard rushing club this past season with 1,008 yards gained on 229 attempts. Because of Tom Brady's dazzling efficiency, Green-Ellis sees fewer touches than most running backs. But his 4.4-yards per carry was right on par with elite rushers like Maurice Jones-Drew and Adrian Peterson.
I won't say that the New England Patriots should change anything in their world-class offense. But perhaps a few more touches to "The Law Firm" would open up the passing game for Brady—even more than it already is.
Rookie Shane Vereen should get some touches too, but Green-Ellis will still be the primary back.
What Is Tom Brady's Next Endorsement?
Tom Brady's next endorsement odds:
Women's deodorant: +250.
Water Country: +150.
Herbal Essences: No Action.
Find Another Receiver
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Rumors abound that Chad Ochocinco may be headed to Foxboro to resurrect his career, a la Randy Moss. With their franchise quarterback out the door, the Cincinnati Bengals could be one of the league's worst teams—and Ochocinco wants out.
The artist formerly known as Mr. Jackson could potentially land in New England, where he'd be a possession-type receiver similar to Deion Branch, but with slightly more deep-threat potential.
The other name in the Patriots' rumor mill is Sidney Rice. He makes more sense as he's still a viable deep threat, but the Pats are reluctant to sign the big names in their primes, so I don't expect to see Rice in Foxboro.
How Good Can the Linebacking Corps Be?
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Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham are all young linebackers with loads of potential. Mayo has already realized some of it, while Spikes and Cunningham are just getting started.
The three could form quite the formidable starting lineup for years to come. If Spikes can stay on the field, Meyo continues his excellent production and Cunningham improves as much as expected, there's no reason to believe this corps couldn't be tops in the league soon.
Tom Brady's Expectations: Another MVP?
Could Tom Brady possibly top his 2010 performance, in which he became the first player ever selected as the unanimous MVP?
Chances are, no. But you'd be a fool to doubt him.
The New England Patriots lose nothing of significance from the receiving corps. In fact, the group can probably only get better during free agency with Sidney Rice and Chad Ochocinco (probably) up for grabs.
Footnote: During the Patriots' loss to the New York Jets in the playoffs last year, I got into an argument with a pseudo-friend from Wisconsin who argued that Tom Brady is not the best quarterback in football because he can't throw the deep ball. He claimed that my local bias prevented me from seeing the light (nevermind that epic 2007 season with Randy Moss), and that non-New-Englanders all agreed.
And who is the best quarterback in the NFL, I inquired.
"Aaron Rodgers." Of course he is.
This can't be right, right? People don't actually think there's a better quarterback than Tom Brady. They can't. America is smarter than that.
Have Opponents Figured out Wes Welker?
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I know I'm going to take heat for this one. "Wes Welker was recovering from an injury. How could other teams have 'figured him out?' You're an idiot."
But I'm not wrong, you're just trolling.
The fact is, Wes Welker's game is not that hard to figure out. He's never going deeper than 10 yards. He lives in the middle of the field.
Watching games last season, it didn't look like he was any slower—just that he wasn't open or finding the space that has been given to him in the past. Opponents are just cutting down on Welker's space, forcing Tom Brady to look longer (where he has no great target) or to his backfield.
Are the New England Patriots Still a Dynasty?
Or rather, can a team still be considered a dynasty without winning titles?
No one would argue that the Patriots haven't been the most consistent regular season team since 2004. Bill Belichick and crew haven't won fewer than 10 games since 2002, and they are perennial contenders and favorites in nearly every game they play. That still sounds like a dynasty to me.
In a league where parity rules (unlike the NBA, where the same teams win and will continue to win), the NFL allows for more upsets because of the increased significance of each game. After the Pats destroyed the New York Jets in Week 13, who would have thought the Jets could pull out the playoff victory?
The Patriots are still a dynasty and if they win a title soon, their legacy will be "four Super Bowls in 11 years," not "zero titles in six years."
They are, quite simply, the best franchise in the league.