Pressure? What pressure?
OK, before we start, lets get something out of the way shall we? “Deflategate”. There. Said it. Right, enough of that nonsense, lets move on.
If you are part of the New England Patriots footballing franchise you are not unfamiliar with having to deal with the pressure of being defending champions at season start, and 2015 was no different. With the Patriots having made their eighth visit to the big dance back in February and coming away with possibly the best (and certainly most dramatic) victory of all their SuperBowl wins with that last gasp interception from Malcolm Butler, they sealed the deal on their fourth ring.
What perhaps wasn’t so familiar was having to deal with the departure of several key pieces of the defense all at once.
The one year deal that saw Darelle Revis stabilise the Patriot defense and allowed Belichick the freedom to bring a number of different pressure packages to opposing offenses left him a free agent at season end, and the lure of New York and the Jets’ $ meant he made the short trip to the capital on a 5 year deal with the AFC East rivals.
Brandon Browner, whose contribution to THAT play in the SuperBowl shouldn’t go unmentioned in my opinion, also moved on to pastures new after the Patriots declined the option on is contract. It left the secondary without two key figures from their SuperBowl season and was indicative of the faith Belichick had in Malcolm Brown to be able to step up and become something of a leader in that secondary unit.
Time was also called on Vince Wilfork’s time as the lynchpin at the centre of the line after 11 years with the franchise as the Patriots again declined to pick up the final year option on the veteran’s contract. He would ultimately take his services (and those dungarees) to Houston.
It all left a defense that could potentially have been cause for concern in a division that was seemingly starting to play catch up on the Patriots’ dominance of recent times, with some even suggesting it would be enough to see a different winner of the AFC East (we were also potentially looking at a Brady-less Patriots offense to start the season in fairness, but we don’t talk about that, do we?).
Of course, there’s one thing everyone has to bear in mind when looking at personnel changes and the Patriots franchise. They are the Patriots.
For more years than I can remember, Bill Belichick and his coaching staff have gone about assembling a roster of 53 in a way that does not necessarily conform to the general approach you might expect when trying to build a winning team.
Very rarely are they interested in the “big ticket” free agents or players with over inflated egos, rather electing to choose individuals who fit their schemes and philosophies for the campaign ahead (and beyond) irrespective of what the stat lines say or popular convention suggests they should do.
It’s an approach that has paid dividends time and time again and in my opinion has been a significant factor in the building of the Patriots dynasty. I mean, when was the last time you heard the Patriots mentioned in the same conversation as salary cap issues?
They are an incredibly well coached roster, and an even better run business, and it’s probably the reason they are one of the most disliked franchises in the NFL. Well, that and a few other reasons possibly, but we don’t talk about those, do we?
Same old, same old
So we’ve had the 2015 season, the Patriots decline was dramatic and the AFC East was turned on its head, right? Erm, no.
Brady didn’t miss any games after all and was clearly pumped to be playing, the rest of the AFC East either couldn’t keep pace (again) or were too busy shooting themselves in the foot and having their own meltdowns, and the Patriots did what they always seem to do and have done for some time – kept on winning.
They maintained their record of at least twelve wins in the regular season for the sixth straight year, and the thirteenth on the trot of double-figure wins as they made their way to 12-4 and their 13th Divisional title in the last 15 years.
In truth, the 12-4 record spoke more to opposition failings and the seemingly never-ending ability of the coaching staff to squeeze the very best from their roster than it did to the straight out dominance that we’ve seen in previous years.
The one constant this time around was injuries. Offense, defense, special teams, no one was safe as the treatment room was at times the busiest place in Foxbrough.
Brady found himself behind a different offensive line arrangement in all but two games last year as Belichick was repeatedly forced to reassign positions to cover for stricken linemen. At one point, they were even playing a tight end in the front 5!
In Week 9 against Washington they found themselves using a left tackle who had never played there before, a left guard who had missed the previous two games through injury, an undrafted rookie center, an undrafted former practice squad player at right guard and a right tackle who was actually drafted to play center. They won 27-10.
The offensive game plan was simplified again and again in an effort to mitigate the litany of injuries and, by the time both Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount found themselves on injured reserve, the Patriots offense had become almost one dimensional. Not that that mattered.
Tom Brady continued to lead the offense in every sense of the word and, even at the age of 39, continued to develop and adapt his own game to ensure the offense was still effective.
Whilst that offense was still managing to put points on the board, albeit with a heavily reduced play book and in lesser numbers than previously, it was the defense that stood up and played their part.
With the losses from their SuperBowl winning secondary and yet more injuries being a factor, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia did the typical Patriot thing and changed his defensive philosophy. Instead of relaying quite so much on being able to shut down receiving options and dominating in coverage, the onus was shifted to getting pressure up front and getting to opposing Quarterbacks quickly and repeatedly.
The net result was the Patriots ending the season second in the League with 49 sacks and also forcing 22 fumbles, as the likes of Chandler Jones and Jabaal Sheard rose to the challenge and posted excellent seasons. Not to be outdone, Malcolm Butler also demonstrated what Bill Belichick already appeared to know – he was capable of taking the lead in the secondary and had a stand out sophomore year.
It all resulted in the rest of the AFC East feeling deflated and the Patriots in the Playoffs yet again. Their run would be deep, but not as deep as is almost customary as that offense simply didn’t have the gusto to overcome the force that was the Broncos defense and the Patriots fell at the final hurdle this time around.
Don’t panic Mr Mainwaring
So, there’s this “thing”, right? I can’t remember what it is exactly, but it means Tom Brady has been grounded for a month and isn’t allowed out to play. I think he let down his dad’s tyres or something, I don’t know. Of course, that’s put some in a tailspin.
Newsflash: It won’t make the slightest bit of difference.
Jimmy Garopolopolopolo will take the reigns for Weeks 1 through 4 and then Brady will be back out to play in Week 5, at which point the rest of the League should be on notice – he’ll be fired up. Sorry Browns fans (who the Patriots play in Week 5), I’d start looking away already!
The Patriots historically don’t fire out of the blocks anyway and yes, whilst Brady being absent is bound to have a noticeable impact, I don’t think it’s going to be a chasm in terms of a downgrade. As I’ve already said several times, they are a well-coached team and you can be sure as a bouncy castle is bouncy the offensive plan is already tweaked to suit Jimmy G and still be effective.
He’ll be up against the Cardinals and Texans defenses as well as the division “rival” Dolphins and Bills, but at worst I can only see 1-3. If that sort of start will impact anything it may be home field advantage at the end of the season but their schedule isn’t vicious and I still don’t see enough of an improvement in the rest of the division to challenge their dominance.
The offense will be as potent as you would expect if they can avoid the sort of injury epidemic that blighted 2015 (when they “only” managed the Championship game!).
Gronk will be, well, Gronk and he’ll have a tag team buddy this time around in the form of Martellus Bennett. Edelman will be the quick release option as always, and Amendola likely effective as ever out of the slot, especially if the Patriots use two TE formations as effectively as they did when Gronk and Hernandez ran riot in 2011. Expect Brady to give it plenty of air.
The supporting cast receiver wise is an unknown, but you can be sure Belichick didn’t pick up Chris Hogan or select Devin Lucien without knowing exactly what he was getting and how they would fit.
Dion Lewis is possibly the most credible run game option the Patriots have had for a while and again, that will be dependent on health. If they can all stay healthy for the majority of the year, it’s going to be tough to slow down, with or without Brady.
Defensively there have been changes yet again, with Chandler Jones being traded to Week 1 opponents Arizona, but the likes of Terrence Knighton and Chris Long will show yet again how it’s the player in the scheme not the name on the jersey that makes for an effective unit. That defense will pressure the QB, stuff the run, and intercept passes. It’s a new approach the Patriots have pioneered, more commonly known as p-s-i.
If the Patriots do start the season 1-3, I still wouldn’t rule out another 12-4 finish, but everything will have to go their way injury wise. Even with a few pieces missing at some point along the journey, they are too good a team in my mind to not record yet another double-digit win season.
Home field might suffer. The Division win won’t.
I’ll write a complete breakdown of the Deflategate pantomime if it does.