BOSTON (CBS) – The Patriots offense ranked seventh in total offense in 2013 as future Hall of Famer Tom Brady was throwing passes to — when you think about it — really only one sure thing in Julian Edelman.
All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski missed the first six games, played the next six and was injured in his seventh game of action against the Browns on December 8th with a torn ACL. Danny Amendola was hobbled with injuries all season long and the rookie receivers in Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce were slow to get up to speed. Michael Hoomanawanui, James Develin, Matthew Mulligan and Austin Collie were also relied on heavily, which tells you something.
Taking all the struggles into account, finishing the season ranked no. 7 in total offense was a miracle. The last time they finished outside of the top five in that category was in 2010 when, ironically, Brady had limited weapons: Randy Moss was traded to Minnesota after Week 4 and Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Taylor Price were all rookies.
The general consensus among Patriots fans is that as long as Tom Brady is under center the offense will be fine, but there’s a lot of question marks heading into the 2014 season. Here’s five stories we’ve outlined that need to be kept close watch of in training camp.
Stories To Watch On Offense:
5. Will The Offensive Line, Tom Brady Miss Dante Scarnecchia?
Tom Brady was sacked 40 times last season — the second highest total of his decorated career and the most times going down since his first season under center in 2001. But Tom Brady is no longer 24. He’s turning 37 in just a few weeks and can ill-afford to spend any more time on the ground.
Longtime assistant and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired in the offseason after 32 seasons in the NFL, 30 of which came with the New England Patriots (1982-88, 1991-2013).
Scarnecchia coached in 18 of the franchise’s 21 playoff seasons, and he’s coached in 39 of the 43 playoff games in franchise history, including all seven Super Bowls. Guys like Scarnecchia don’t just grow on trees, and the newly-appointed Dave DeGuglielmo has big shoes to fill.
Every time the offensive line looked makeshift or porous in the preseason, or even early on in the regular season, Patriots fans could always hang their hat on “Scar” figuring it out – and they were usually right.
However, fans of the team will not be granted that same luxury this upcoming season.
DeGuglielmo and the Patriots offensive line will have their work cut out for them protecting Tom Brady and creating running lanes in 2014.
Will the team miss Scarnecchia? That’s something to keep an eye on.
4. Will Stevan Ridley Hold Onto The Ball?
Fourth-year running back Stevan Ridley is supremely talented and adds a nastiness to the running game not seen in these parts since Corey Dillon.
The knock on Ridley — and it’s a huge knock — is his protection of the football.
After a breakout season in 2012 that saw the former LSU Tiger gain 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns, the tailback started just six games in 2013 and was benched numerous times for fumbling the football.
Ridley is also entering a contract year and the team drafted James White (Wisconsin) in the fourth round, whose biggest strength is ball security. White fumbled the ball just twice in 754 touches during his four-year career at Wisconsin.
Tiki Barber and Adrian Peterson also had fumbling problems early in their careers and went on to be great players, so there’s still hope for the Riddler. But one slip up and you get the feeling he’s back in the Belichick doghouse, and this time he may not make it out.
3. Will The Second-Year Receivers Take a Step Forward?
Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce (not pictured) were all minor contributors to the AFC East-winning New England Patriots in 2013, each having their own moment of glory — most notably Kenbrell Thompkins catching the game-winning pass in Week 6 at home against New Orleans.
But in order for the offense to get where they need to go, at some point we’re going to have to stop referring to them as “the young receivers.” If 2013 was their introduction to the NFL, 2014 needs to be a year in which they hit the ground running.
Bad news right off the bat is Aaron Dobson (foot), who was unable to participate in organized team activities during the spring.
Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger, so his ability to trust and develop his receiving corps is paramount. Speaking of age, this leads us to our next story to watch…
2. Will Tom Brady’s Age Show?
In 2013, Tom Brady threw for the second-worst completion percentage of his career (60.5 pct) and his 25 touchdowns were his lowest since 2006, when he was throwing to Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney.
Is his age starting to show? Or do you chalk it up to the young receivers? Injured lineup? Maybe a combination of all three?
Brady turns 37 on August 3rd in an offseason in which the team is loading up for a championship, acquiring Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, etc. Besides John Elway (37 and 38) and Johnny Unitas (37), no starting quarterback has ever won a Super Bowl in that stage of his career.
Patriots fans are hoping Brady can be the exception and not the rule.
1. Will Rob Gronkowski Stay Healthy?
Last but certainly not least: Gronk.
Rob Gronkowski was well on his way to becoming the most prolific tight end in the history of the National Football League before a handful of injuries derailed his promising career. He’s still young, 25, and maybe he’s putting those concerns behind him.
In speaking to the media recently, Gronk expressed optimism and says he plans on playing the entire season.
Gronk underwent surgery on his knee in early January, and his optimism this summer is a complete 180 from his recovery last offseason, when he underwent a number of surgeries to repair his twice-broken forearm and a lingering back ailment.
Outside of Gronk the tight end depth is slim at best, so No. 87 staying healthy is key to the Patriots success in 2014.
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