Some may argue that the Patriots have the greatest quarterback of all time. I'm not going to start that debate again, but I will say that we currently have the greatest quarterback this franchise has every seen. The question, then becomes do we need to strike while the iron's hot and do every thing we can to win the Super Bowl right now, while Brady is still in his prime? Is there, as everyone was reporting at the beginning of the 2010 season, a window that is closing on the Patriots?
The answer may seem simple, and some people will reply with a resounding, "Yes". To them, Tom Brady is the single most important piece of the Super Bowl puzzle. As long as we have Brady we have a shot. It's hard to argue that isn't true, but in Brady's early career (when he was winning Super Bowls), the running game and the defense were more dominant. The passing game featured short passes to no name receivers. Was Tom the final piece to the puzzle we were missing? Could we have won without him?
Starting in 2007, the Pats have tried to fill in the missing pieces. The perceived problem in 2006 was the lack of a quality receiving corps. Enter Moss, Stallworth, and Welker, and the highest scoring offense the league has ever seen, which was stopped one game short in its struggle for perfection. The most important game of all. We were just one or two defensive plays away from perfection, right? Or was it a lack of offense that stopped us short?
The offense, through tremendous pressure on the line, turned into the Brady - Welker show, with little input from Moss, Gaffney, Stallworth or the running game. The offense, which had scored 38 points in Week 17, put up an impotent 14 points. A drop of 24 points in output. The defense, which had given up 35 points to the Giants in Week 17, allowed only 17 points. An 18 point improvement. Was the defense really to blame for not improving more than the offense let off?
Of course, we lost Tom in 2008, and through a weak schedule Matt Cassel looked more than serviceable. He looked like a stud in his own right. In fact, he threw back to back 400+ yard games (against the Jets and the Dolphins). Brady has only cleared the 400 yard mark once. The perceived problem in 2008 was a lack of secondary, despite drafting CBs Wheatley and Wilhite that year. The front seven, which went unchanged from the year before, was unable to pressure opposing quarterbacks. The end result was an 11-5 record and a disappointing absence from the playoffs.
In 2009, we added Darius Butler and Patrick Chung to bolster the secondary, but lost Rodney Harrison to retirement. Bruschi retired, Vrabel and Seymour were traded, and the defense suddenly became younger. Tom struggled to regain his command of the offense, which many of us felt would be even better than the 2007 version, and in fact, Tom had his second best season (to that point) statistically. The season ended 10-6 with the division title, and a one and done in the post season as the defense fell apart. Hidden was the fact that the offense could no longer score at will.
In 2010, We picked up Devin McCourty to further help the secondary as Shawn Springs was shown the door. Four more draft picks were added to the defensive side of the field. In addition, we added two Tight End targets in Gronkowski and Hernandez. The result was the single most efficient offense the league has ever seen. In the end, though, even with a 14-2 regular season including victories over most of the post-season teams, the Patriots were once again one and done.
It's interesting that as we've featured the passing game more, we arguably done worse in the post season. Looking more like our rivals in Indianapolis, maybe. It's easy to say that giving Tom one more target or one blocker will make the difference. You can point to an aging line. You can point to the lack of a downfield threat. What you can't do, though is point to something that can't be defended. The single hardest thing to defend is the threat of everything, and at the biggest moments we lose that threat. We either can't or won't run the ball.
The defense could still improve. I won't argue that point. I will argue, though, that the defense is NOT the only problem. Sure we can bolster the line a bit, and add a pass rusher here or there, but that won't stop the offense from faltering in the playoffs. What we need, in my opinion, more than anything is to take the ball out of Brady's hands more and run the ball on our terms. That was one of the keys to winning the Super Bowls the first time around, and that is what is missing in the post-season now.
Does that mean we should drop everything and draft a stud running back? No. I'd say the line is far more important to the run. We need some guys that can dominate, and we need guys that can stay healthy. We also need guys that can keep Brady upright in the most important games. Tom has shown that he isn't the same "Iron Brady" if he gets hit in a game. Injuries can do that to a guy: torn ACL, broken ribs, and a foot injury add up over time. Self-preservation kicks in. Getting the ball out of his hands should also help the alleviate the pressure on him in games.
Is the window closing on our Super Bowl hopes? Yes, it is as long as we are relying solely on Tom Terrific to get us there. We've returned to the open receiver concept. We've returned to using tight ends. We also need to return to using a running game to remove pressure from our quarterback. That's how we got there in the first place, and that's how we'll get there again. Should we go all in to get there? I'll leave that for you to decide.