As the New England Patriots stand less than ten weeks away from their 2013 season opener, the offseason has strangely been a mixture of the “same old, same old”, and some worrisome new developments.
There’s no doubting the Patriots, under the leadership of the one of the best quarterback-head coach combinations in history, will cruise to the AFC East title. The lackluster division has retained the usual mediocrity on all fronts but Miami’s, as the Dolphins have made an uncharacteristically bold statement during this year’s free agency period.
Regardless of any newfound competition, Tom Brady remains one of the premier players in the NFL today, while Bill Belichick’s mastermind status on the sideline is not fading away anytime soon. In other words, the two franchise faces will engineer success with whatever tools they have at their disposal.
Yet however much their wisdom and experience with the game can yield triumph, the magnitude of what they can’t control—which has reached an apex in the past months—will unquestionably make its scarring mark in the upcoming 2013-14 campaign.
The brewing difficulties, yet to be fully experienced, first initiated with star tight end Rob Gronkowski’s endless string of injuries. The polarizing figure on and off the field first sustained injuries during the last season, forcing his absence from key New England games, and therefore playing a vital part in why the Patriots could not return to the Super Bowl while not actually playing at all.
While in the process of recovery, the amount of debilities his body has suffered only grew. The rehabilitation effort certainly had lapses in itself, but Gronkowski wasn’t making it any easier on his body to recuperate (roughhousing behavior is not necessarily the best medicine to someone who’s aching all over).
So as the scheduled surgery dates continued to mount, it seemed more and more definite that the league’s best tight end would miss time heading into next season. The exact total of time Gronkowski will stay put on the sideline is ambiguous at this point, as his healing is entirely dependent on how he conducts himself during this period—preferably in a non-abrasive, calm manner.
Then, as many New Englanders perceived it, the unthinkable occurred: the adored slot receiver Wes Welker, bypassed by the Pats to an extent, bolted westward to join forces with Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Along with the assured exit of the underwhelming Brandon Lloyd, the receiving corps was looking slim to say the least: passing options in general for Brady were essentially limited to Julian Edleman and Aaron Hernandez after Danny Woodhead’s departure.
Signing Danny Amendola (the analysis of which I’ll get to later) was of utmost necessity after Welker walked out of Foxboro: he filled the void the previous slot receiver left, as well as gave some comfort to an uneasy Patriots fanbase.
And when Belichick and the Pats stockpiled wide receivers during the NFL draft—Aaron Dobson from Marshall and Josh Boyce from TCU—the outlook on the approaching season did not look as grim.
Hernandez’s arrest left the Patriots disgraced.
Then came June 18th.
It was just part of an investigation pertaining to a crime that occurred less than a mile away from his house—that’s all. Nothing to worry about. It should resolve itself in a couple of days.
When reports surfaced that the other dynamic, Patriots tight end—Aaron Hernandez—was being simply asked questions about a dead body found nearby his North Attleboro mansion, the last thing anybody could think of was that he had a connection to a murder. Not that he was the perpetrator himself, but that he had any link whatsoever to the killing.
But the consensus belief and assumption towards this matter could not have been more erroneous.
Over the buildup of one lengthy, deflating, infuriating—from the perspective of a Pats’ fan specifically—week, the world gradually found the once-heralded football star Aaron Hernandez to be a criminal. Not only was he arrested for the murder of Odin Lloyd a few days ago, but along the path of the investigation regarding this case, plenty of other “dirty laundry” arose.
Dating back from his college days at the University of Florida, Hernandez had continually partaken in misdemeanors ranging from dangerous night club disputes to incidents involving guns. Whatever the crimes were—as well as those just being discovered now—cannot be pardoned or even diminished in any form due to his upbringing in a gang environment, or the brazen attitude he acquired after a luxurious contract. It’s as simple as that “he threw his life away”.
And this kind of string of ill-minded decisions, from a player he cooperated with and helped, is something Bill Belichick will not tolerate, even if a true verdict has not been handed down in this case yet.
So back to the gridiron aspect of this frustrating event. The Patriots will not start with either part of their (once) potent tight end duo, which would seem incomprehensible just half a year ago. Here are the passing attack pieces Brady will be forced to extract the most out of next year, in order of importance:
- Danny Amendola
- Julian Edelman
- Jake Ballard
- Shane Vereen
- Donald Jones
- Stevan Ridley
- Andre Holmes
- Brandon Bolden
In all candidness, it is not a stellar group by any calculations. Clearly, the Patriots brass must add more pieces to the passing mix, perhaps some veteran free agents that will attempt to sustain the passing game fluidity Tom Brady’s accustomed to orchestrating.
Before I weigh into how the current receivers/backfield options will perform this upcoming season, take a look at how statistics do not favor the Patriots transferring their passing efficiency into next year after losing so many pieces (at least in the early-going, while Gronkowski is still held out because of injury).
Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing yard totals that return for the start of 2013—9%
Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing TDs that return for the start of 2013—12%
Percent of Brady’s 2012 passing completions that return for the start of 2013—9%
It would not be nonsensical to think that Brady, a sure-bet hall-of-famer, will gradually assimilate to his new targets; because of the essential communication/chemistry he creates with his receivers, as well as his overall quarterbacking ability to make the most of his options and make his ball-recipients look great, such a premise would not be outlandish.
Brady must build good rapport with his new targets to ensure early-season success.
But as Brady and his Patriots progressed from one season to the next in their history, the common factor between each campaign was familiarity. Old faces stayed put for the most part, and if there were some alterations in the roster, they would never be as groundbreaking and numerous as those seen going into this next season.
Brady will undoubtedly require some time to familiarize himself with the new teammates running routes for him—players lesser in quality than the Welker’s, Gronkowski’s, and Hernandez’s he went to battle with last year.
So upon looking at New England’s first games of the 13’ season, don’t be surprised for a slight dropoff in stability, as well as times of uncertainty and difficulty.
Week 1 & 2: AFC East Intros
-as inconceivable as it may sound, the upstart, Manuel-led Bills may stun a disoriented Pats team still trying to settle down from being in limbo
vs. New York (J)
-a defeat at home against the despised Jets would be as shocking as it would be impossible
Week 3 & 4: The true test
With back-to-back road games against playoff contenders in the Atlanta Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals, the Patriots will without question find where they stand after losing so many integral offensive components. Coming away with just 1 win from this mini-road trip would be termed a success for New England, and perhaps hope that the team can stall just a little longer until Gronkowski returns.
Even though their opponents won’t present the fiercest of defensive challenges, these two road games (the 3rd and 4th game of the season) will truly serve as a checkpoint of sorts—a measuring stick that will foretell success or lack thereof for the remainder of the season.
Passing game options- analysis
I don’t think the Patriots could have better bounced back in the period following Welker’s departure. It was more of a panic move, but just based on Amendola’s thoughts coming into New England, he seems a tad more grateful and “devoted to the cause” than the Pats’ last slot receiver—excited to catch passes from Brady, be part of a great organization, and play in a sports-enthused area of the map. If you recall, following the Boston marathon bombings, Amendola pledged he’d give monetary donations to aid the victims for every one of his catches. Not to be meant as an insult, but do you think Welker would do something like that? A benevolent action such as this one—that immediately conveys one’s respect—is not part of a player contract or obligation at all. It’s just something done out of the heart, which means Amendola might—might—just have a stronger connection with the fanbase, and not nonchalantly cruise through his playing days.
Amendola is also significantly undervalued. A collarbone injury playing for the Rams cut short an efficient season, where he showed signs of promise as a dynamic, swift slot catcher. Obviously, he won’t completely fulfill or surpass Welker’s contributions while in New England, but don’t write off Amendola too easily.
Julian Edelman is another Welker prototype, whose impact stretches beyond the passing game, and into special teams. Most importantly, he serves as Brady’s most reliable link from last season to the start of the impending season. If he allows Brady to have comfort in him, and become a trustful weapon, that would only ease the process for the Patriots quarterback who’ll be in need of plenty more assistance this year.
Ridley’s role has increased tremendously headed into the 2013 season.
Rushing Attack: The Rise
The proficient rushing game was regarded as just a bonus last season: the corps amounted for an impressive 2184 total rushing yards, as there was one 1000+ yard-runner and three players that surpassed the 275-yard mark.
But this time around, the likes of Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden will be heavily counted on to keep the pressure off Brady’s back. Furthermore, if the trio builds upon their success from 2012, they will in fact carry this team through the regular season.
Health and discipline will be vital to any promising output this group provides. The former California Bear Shane Vereen, a speedy back looking to make up for the loss of Danny Woodhead this year, missed time last year due to injury. Assuming Vereen remains mostly in good condition in 2013, he could serve as a potent and electric compliment to Ridley’s style of running.
Brandon Bolden challenged number-one back Ridley for carries, but his 12’ campaign was hampered by a four-game suspension for taking performance-enhancing drugs. The chance that happens is slim to none, as Coach Belichick surely instilled in the youngster that it’s not the way to go, so expect Bolden’s bruising style to favorably impact the Patriots offense.
And of course, I can’t discuss the rise of a once-dormant New England rushing attack without mentioning the ascendency of Steven Ridley. Last year, the former LSU Tiger finally got his opportunity at the number-1 running back position—and he exceeded expectations by any measure. To run for 1263 yards in a pass-first offensive system, while occupying the RB 1 slot for that matter, is just mind-boggling. Ridley is certainly on course to be a top running back in this league, and if his development can efficiently coincide with Patriot success, there might not be anything else you could ask for outside of Tom Brady.