By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no place in the football world like Foxboro.
It is a place where winning has become the culture, no matter what problems or challenges may present themselves over the course of any 12-month period. Through injuries, through depth chart weaknesses, through bad draft classes, through suspect free-agent additions, through talent drains, through coaching changes, through questionable decision-making, through early retirements and through midseason disasters, the Patriots just persist. That is what they do.
We know by now, obviously, that it’s a lot easier to do when you have arguably the greatest head coach and quarterback duo in the history of the sport steering the ship for two decades. (We are obliged to throw the “arguably” in there, but at some point, people will simply stop fighting it.) Finding even a competent head coach or quarterback in this league has proven to be an elusive task for most NFL teams, at a time when the Patriots have dominated the league with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. That much is not difficult to understand.
Still — still — those of us who are tasked with assessing the team from every possible angle have had plenty to work with in recent years. A nationally televised blowout loss in Kansas City, a suspension for the starting quarterback and an injury for the backup quarterback, messy contract situations, reports of unhappiness and behind-the-scenes tension, unexplained Super Bowl benchings, coaching defections, early-season no-shows … there’s been no shortage of reasons to have doubts about the Patriots’ championship aspirations over the past five years.
And yet, with three Super Bowl victories in the past five years, with a fourth Super Bowl appearance mixed in, and with an utterly absurd eight consecutive appearances in the conference title game, those concerns have all proven to be largely worthless. Literally each and every other NFL franchise would have happily traded their own problems for those of the Patriots over the past decade.
All of which is a long way of bringing us to the present day. Here, on the eve of players reporting to Gillette for the start of training camp, we have perhaps our deepest set of concerns, holes, problems, weaknesses, question marks or any other piece of terminology you hear around this time of year.
The overriding question on all of them, though, is will they matter?
That part, we can’t answer. If we rely on history, the answer will be a firm “Duh. Of course not.” But consider the following:
–After carrying an all-world tight end for nine years and getting seven healthy seasons and two Super Bowls out of Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots now come crashing down to earth with the rest of the league in terms of tight end talent. The ageless Ben Watson does indeed have an age (he’ll turn 39 in December) and is suspended for the first quarter of the season, and the remainder of the depth chart is filled by Matt LaCosse and a handful of others without much of an NFL resume to speak of.
Josh McDaniels is capable of reshaping his offense on the fly, but there’s just no way to flawlessly transition out of a system that featured Gronkowski as a centerpiece for so long.
–After having (on average) the seventh-best scoring defense in the NFL since 2012, the Patriots have now seen their highest-ranking defensive coach skip town for two straight years. Matt Patricia of course headed to Detroit a year ago to be their head coach, before Brian Flores flew south to Miami to take the Dolphins job this offseason. By all accounts, Flores was a beloved member of the coaching staff, and he was in charge of a defense that got better as the year went on. That culminated with allowing “just” 31 points to the Chiefs (they averaged over 35 points per game) in Kansas City for the AFC title game, and then holding the second-ranked scoring offense to just three measly points in the Super Bowl.
This year, Flores has been replaced by … nobody. Bill Belichick will assume a more direct role in the defensive play-calling, while Jerod Mayo — a complete newcomer to the coaching world — joins the defensive staff.
That Flores took Chad O’Shea, Josh Boyer and Jerry Schuplinski certainly doesn’t help the Patriots in terms of maintaining consistency on the coaching staff. That’s in addition to the defection of Brendan Daly to the Chiefs, and Jack Easterby to the Texans.
The hallmark of this Patriots run of success has been consistency, and it’s undeniably difficult to maintain the same sense of normalcy when so much change takes place in such a short time.
–The Patriots have an outstanding receiver in Julian Edelman atop their depth chart; behind him, nothing is a sure thing. First-round pick N’Keal Harry looks like a real player, but the history of rookie receivers working with Brady should curb any 1,000-yard expectations placed upon the 21-year-old’s shoulders. Josh Gordon’s status remains up in the air, a reality that doesn’t necessarily bode well for him or the team, considering the date on the calendar.
Demaryius Thomas is trying to come back from a torn Achilles. And you don’t really know what you’ll be getting from the likes of Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman, Jakobi Meyers, Braxton Berrios, Damoun Patterson and/or any other body who signs on to partake in training camp in the coming days.
If this sounds like a broken record, then, well, that’s because it is. The Patriots have entered seasons with perceived holes at receiver before. By and large, the presence of Brady has negated that weakness. Understandably, though, it’s not a logical conclusion to simply say that a great quarterback can make up for such deficiencies until the end of time. And so, what you have entering the 2019 season is a team whose receiving success depends almost entirely on a 21-year-old rookie and a 33-year-old who’s entering camp with an injury. Can it work? Sure. But most teams might prefer a bit more reliability on the depth chart at this point in the year.
–This does get mentioned from time to time, but Tom Brady *is* old. What he did at age 39 was remarkable and historic. Ditto for age 40. And 41. The quarterback’s now setting out to keep it rolling through age 42. As he said himself, he knows the answers to the test, and he’s showing it year in, year out, even as he advances through ages where no quarterbacks before him have ever thrived.
It is an incredible story, one that will be written about and discussed and respected and praised for decades to come.
But even fairy tales come to an end, you know?
Physically, we’ve yet to see the drop-off that bad football analysts have been forecasting for the better part of seven years or so. If anything, he’s gotten better and smarter with age, and some of his passes on a raw night in Kansas City in January showed that he’s still plenty capable of making every throw he needs to make.
Still, the numbers were down. His picks were up. You could argue that the statistical drop had to do with a combination of a successful running game and an ego-free approach by the quarterback. Given all of his handoffs in the red zone, you’d have a strong case.
Nevertheless, Brady is mortal. (We think.) And the backup plan behind him still appears to be unsettled. (Unless Belichick is brilliantly waiting for the 49ers to release Jimmy Garoppolo next spring.) While we’d never enter a season doubting Tom Brady, we must at least accept the reality that quarterbacks generally don’t even play football age 42, let alone thrive. Thus, depending on Brady to patch up leaks on the SS Patriot should at the very least be more difficult in 2019.
–Speaking of Brady, and speaking of the successful run game, there is the whole matter of a massive unknown stepping in to the most important position on the offensive line. Granted, the seamless transition a year ago from Nate Solder to Trent Brown does naturally alleviate some concerns at left tackle. But Brown as an experienced NFL player with 28 starts under his belt. He was also a uniquely massive human being.
Isaiah Wynn, an undersized tackle with just one preseason game of experience, is neither of those things.
Now, when you look at Belichick’s history of drafting offensive lineman in the first two rounds, he’s almost perfect. Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Logan Mankins and Matt Light are the successes, while Adrian Klemm back in 2000 is the lone miss. Add in the continued presence of Dante Scarnecchia, and again, there’s reason to exhale. Somewhat.
We saw in the 2015 AFC title game and in the early part of the 2014 season how even Brady can be rendered ineffective when a pass rush is consistently bearing down on him, so the pressure for Wynn to step in without any issue after missing all of his rookie season is immense.
And that’s only half of the matter at hand; the Patriots ran the ball 478 times last year, third-most in the NFL. In the playoffs, they ran the ball 114 times and scored nine touchdowns, averaging 161.7 yards per game. It was a lethally effective running game, best captured in the game-winning touchdown run by Sony Michel in the Super Bowl:
That is an absolute symphony.
And now, not only is Brown gone, but so is Gronkowski, and so is Dwayne Allen — two tight ends who were exceptional blockers in the run game. Even if Wynn can handle the responsibilities at left tackle, the losses at tight end figure to impact the team’s ability to rely on the running game when needed.
Those are, at least, the major areas of uncertainty here in late July, in addition to the things every team deals with. That would involve some new additions replacing some key departures, expectations for players progressing into years two and three of their careers, injury possibilities up and down the roster, and every other challenge that makes it so difficult for teams to compete on a year-in, year-out basis in the NFL.
The Patriots have, quite clearly, been able to weather all of that longer than any team ever has. No team has ever made the postseason 10 straight times, like the Patriots have. No team has ever reached a conference championship eight straight times, like the Patriots have. No team has ever won 10 straight division crowns, like the Patriots have.
In short, no team has ever tackled issues that seemingly presented problems and made them meaningless in forgotten by the end of December year after year.
As such, it’s difficult to report on the “concerns” in July with a straight face.
It’s a constant tug of war taking place between the logical part of one’s brain and the eyeballs. One knows that stating “it is what it is” is not an intellectually satisfying conclusion. The other knows what has taken place for a very long time and also sees the same principals in charge for 2019, and thus expects similar results to continue.
The trouble is we don’t know just how impactful these potential issues might be, and we won’t know for a while. Last year, after an absolute flop in Week 3 in Detroit, it appeared as though the walls were crumbling; the Patriots then won six straight games and eight of nine. Then, a miracle play in Miami and an uncharacteristically ugly showing in Pittsburgh led to losses in consecutive weeks. It seemed like a slap in the face. Reality was calling. Even with two legends at the helm, the end was inevitable.
From there, you surely know what happened. They rolled over the Bills and the Jets before blowing out the Chargers in the divisional round, outplaying the Chiefs in Kansas City in the conference championship, and suffocating the Rams over 60 minutes to bring the sixth Lombardi Trophy to Foxboro. Everything that mattered over the prior 12 months didn’t end up mattering at all. The Patriots — with Belichick and Brady — did what they always seem to do.
It would be naive, ignorant, and disingenuous, then, to try to say that the hurdles standing in front of the 2019 Patriots are certain to derail their title hopes. Obviously. But at the very least, we can say that if the Patriots are to continue this unprecedented run of dominance, it’s going to be as challenging as ever in 2019.