Could the 2011 New England Patriots Be Better Than the '07 Squad?
The New England Patriots enjoyed a fairly successful year in 2010. After trading disgruntled superstar receiver Randy Moss, most fans thought Bill Belichick was sabotaging the offense as well as the season. But fans were quickly reminded of the term “in Belichick we trust” when the Patriots re-acquired old friend, Deion Branch, thus restoring the prolific dink-and-dunk offense from the early Super Bowl dynasty. Surprisingly, the Pats had one of their best statistical seasons under Bill Belichick leading the NFL with 518 points – just 71 points behind the most prolific offense ever (2007 Patriots) – and a +28 turnover differential, while winning the AFC East with a league-best 14-2 record.
A few days ago the Patriots made two significant moves, bringing in high-profile players Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco. Considering the success they had last year in what most dubbed a “transition year”, it raises the question; taking the entire team into account, could the 2011 Patriots rival their 2007 numbers? Following is a position-by-position analysis of how this year’s team could stack up (on paper) to the 2007 “super team”.
The Star Receiver
Randy Moss and Chad Ochocinco are two of the best receivers the NFL has seen this decade. In 2007, the New England Patriots acquired Moss from the Oakland Raiders, when he was 30 years old --- three years younger than Chad Ochocinco is now. Since Moss was in his ninth season when he joined the Pats, we will use that as the benchmark to compare the two.
- Moss first nine seasons: 676 REC, 10,700 YDS, 15.83 YPC, 101 TD
- Ochocinco first nine seasons: 684 REC, 9,952 YDS, 14.56 YPC, 62 TD
Clearly there are several similarities between Moss and Ochocinco, but they excel in different ways. While both served as flankers on their respective teams, Moss was a better deep-threat who could use his speed to stretch the field. His size and length allowed him to overpower cornerbacks on 50/50 balls. While Chad Ochocinco is capable of catching the long-ball, he is primarily known as a medium-depth route runner who can create space and get open underneath.
Although he is a damn good receiver, it is difficult to put him ahead of Randy Moss (in his prime) in terms of value to an offense. Moss is widely regarded as the greatest down-field receiver of all-time, and completely re-invigorated the Patriots offense when he teamed up with Tom Brady in 2007. Also, Moss was 30 years old when he joined the Pats, while Ochocinco is currently 33 in his first year in New England. Calling this a draw would be somewhat of a cop-out in my mind, so let us give the (slight) edge to the 2007 Patriots for this category.
Advantage: 2007 squad
The Supporting Cast
During the Patriots’ historic 16-0 run, Brady’s targets were Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Jabbar Gaffney, and tight end Benjamin Watson. This season, the receiving corps will include Ochocinco, Welker, Deion Branch and Brandon Tate.
While the talent level of the slot/split-ends is roughly the same, the Patriots aerial attack now features two new weapons – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The second-year tight ends both enjoyed standout seasons in 2010 taking the league by storm. The addition of both players completely revamped New England’s offense. In 2007 the tight end position was plagued by inconsistency with Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady occupying the position. Below are the combined stats between the 2007 and 2010 tight ends.
- 2007 – Watson/K. Brady: 45 REC, 459 YDS, 10.2 YPC, 8 TD
- 2010 – Gronkowski/Hernandez: 87 REC, 1,109 YDS, 12.75 YPC, 16 TD
It is a massive understatement to say the Patriots upgraded their tight end situation – just look at the difference. Aaron Hernandez alone had as many receptions, more yards, and nearly as many touchdowns as Benjamin Watson and Kyle Brady combined. Taking all this into account, there is no doubt, the 2011 Patriots have a better overall passing game.
Advantage: 2011 squad
The Running Game
In 2007 the Patriots running game was a major weakness. Corey Dillon was released in March of that year, and Laurence Maroney was named the starting running back ahead of Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk. With a pass-happy offense, production out of the Patriots backfield was minimal at best. However, last year Laurence Maroney was traded to the Denver Broncos, making Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis the primary tailback.
After Kevin Faulk was placed on injured reserve following a knee injury, and with Fred Taylor missing most of the year with health issues of his own, Green-Ellis was complemented by Danny Woodhead and Sammy Morris. Not only did Green-Ellis have a breakout season, rushing for over 1,000 yards, but Danny Woodhead emerged as an unlikely go-to guy in the backfield. Much like Kevin Faulk, Woodhead is a multi-threat running back who racked up 926 all-purpose yards last year.
Assuming New England’s ground game picks up where it left off in 2010, it’s a no-brainer this year’s running back corps will be superior to the one in 2007.
Advantage: 2011 squad
In 2007 the Patriots defense was stacked with veterans including Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison. At the time, the average age of these five players was 33.4. Now the Pats defense has gotten younger, boasting names like Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty, Leigh Bodden and Patrick Chung. The average age of these high-impact players is currently 24.6.
The new blood on defense showed they can live up to the high expectations that preceded them, allowing 313 points (8th) last year, compared to 272 (4th) in 2007. They were able to do this despite the loss of Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden for the year, as well as a shaky pass-rush. Rookie cornerback Devin McCourty, made an instant impact with 82 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and seven interceptions in 2010. With Bodden returning, and Patrick Chung continuing to grow as a player, the New England secondary should look as strong (if not stronger) than the 2007 squad which starting featured All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel, as well as Ellis Hobbs and veteran strong safety Rodney Harrison.
The Patriots also now have a fresher front seven with inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes forming a formidable duo last year. With rumors swirling that the Patriots will switch to a 4-3 defense in 2011, former Washington Redskins nose-tackle, Albert Haynesworth and Vince Wilfork could join forces up the middle, making New England a very difficult team to run on.
Advantage: 2011 squad
As mentioned earlier, the 2007 team featured many locker room leaders such as Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour and Junior Seau. Despite being seasoned veterans enjoying their final years in the league, these players brought unprecedented leadership to the organization. Because of them, troubled players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss embraced the so-called “Patriot way”. The 2011 team is still young and maybe slightly immature. They will need a few more seasons under Bill Belichick before they can come close to replicating the type of leadership that existed before them.
Advantage: 2007 squad
The 2011 New England Patriots certainly have the potential to eclipse the records set by the 2007 squad—whether they will is yet to be seen. As evidenced, they look stronger in most aspects of the game. But as good as they look on paper, only time will tell if this season will live up to the hype.
That being said, I would not expect the Pats to go 16-0 again. As remarkable a feat that was, it will be nearly impossible to do again. I will make a bold prediction: Tom Brady will challenge his all-time record for touchdowns. He will fall just short of 50, throwing 40-plus touchdowns with almost 4,500 yards.
My prediction is they will finish with a 14-2 mark for the fifth time in the Tom Brady and Bill Belichick era, en route to Super Bowl XLVI. With a team this good (on paper) and as long as Tom Brady is taking snaps under center, one cannot help but like their chances.