Hello, everybody. I'm sure everybody here is still suffering from the loss on Sunday, and rightfully so. There's nothing worse than losing the Super Bowl. The World Series is a best of 7, the NBA Finals is a best of 7 series, but the Super Bowl... it's just one game. One game to make or break your legacy. One game to become Santonio Holmes, catching the game winning touchdown in the back of the end zone in the final seconds, or to become Jackie Smith and drop a touchdown right between the numbers in the end zone, which would have been the deciding points in the big game. It's almost unfair that one game, a game of inches no less, can define or destroy a man and a team. It's an unforgettable day for some, an unforgiving day for most.
The Patriots can never get back Black Sunday or yesterday, but the Pats had a tremendous season, and we should at least acknowledge the fact that the Patriots were more successful than 30 other teams in the league. You see, one of my all time favorite players is Kurt Warner. He is as humble a man as you can find, a wonderful person in the community, and one of the great American success stories. Besides that, he threw a hell of a deep ball. That being said, in 2008, when he was with the Arizona Cardinals and led a 9-7 team all the way to a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl, he made certain that in the locker room the players didn't hang their heads, because they should acknowledge what they had accomplished. He said that in 2001, with the Rams, they treated it like the entire season was a failure, and that led to some discord. You see, the Patriots are becoming like the ultra-successful New York Yankees in the respect that every season they don't win the championship, it's a massive failure. That's how successful the Pats have become: every season that they're not the best out of 32 teams, they might as well have been the worst. The negativity surrounding the team (and Boston in general) is terrible. Two years in a row, they're the number 1 seed, with one of the top offenses, and yet it's like the Patriots are riding a 3 game losing streak every single game. I understand that it's been 7 (going on 8) seasons that the Patriots haven't won the Super Bowl, and I fully understand the fact that the Patriots have lost their last two Super Bowls, but the Patriots are amid a run of success that's completely unparalleled. In the last 12 seasons, the Patriots have been to 5 Super Bowls, won 3 of them, had a near undefeated season, were virtually unchallenged in the AFC almost every year, and rarely lose. Brady's record as a quarterback is 99 games over .500. That's how successful the Patriots have been: if they lose 98 straight games, they're still above .500 with Brady at quarterback.
My argument, much like a milking stool or a surveyor's total station, rests on three legs: The Pats as a whole are a young team; they have very easily filled needs; and will likely be better next year, due to the core remaining intact. Yes, I understand that history has not been kind to the Super Bowl loser in recent years, but it's not a sure thing that the Patriots will regress. In 2008, the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl, and next year likely would have won the NFC again had Kurt Warner not suffered a concussion in a Divisional Round loss to the Saints (if you recall, the week prior, the Cardinals won that magnificent overtime shootout with the Packers.) In 2008, had Brady not had a season ending injury in the first quarter of the first game of the season, the Pats probably would have stormed through the league once again, since they had the easiest schedule in football and were virtually the undefeated team, sans Rodney Harrison.) In fact, take a look at the 1971 Miami Dolphins: they played a great season, only lost three games, and lost the Super Bowl to the Dallas Cowboys. The next year? Well, naturally, they went undefeated. Now, I'm not saying the Pats are one player away from having the potential to go undefeated again, but considering they were just in the Super Bowl, they're a pretty damn good team. The offense will always be one of the best in the league as long as Brady is there, and the defense really picked up steam towards the end of the season. I mean, they forced three fumbles in the Super Bowl. And it wasn't just a muffed punt or a guy hitting the ball with his helmet, they ripped the ball out and shoved the guy to the ground! Sadly, they didn't recover two of the fumbles, and the one they actually did recover was called back due to a foolish 12 men on the field penalty. With a young, physical defense, I expect next year to be riddled with turnovers. Not just interceptions like this year and last year, but actually savagely forcing fumbles like they did on Sunday.
Barring Ras-I Dowling's impending return from injury, the Pats' defense looks to be shaping up pretty darn well. If he can come back and play the way he did the first couple games of the season, the Pats have a tall, athletic boundary corner. Sterling Moore seems like the real deal, and with a whole off season (the Pats only signed him December 14th, amazingly enough) he may become the Pats' #1 corner. That leaves Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington. Arrington, who shared the league lead with 7 interceptions this season, can be relegated to the third corner position, and McCourty (and/or draft pick) can play safety next to Chung. That leaves the Pats secondary in pretty darn good shape.
On to the D-line, Kyle Love looks like he's a legitimate Nose Tackle, Wilfork is still the All-Universe Defensive lineman, and Brandon Deaderick and Myron Pryor are pretty good depth. Add in any free agent acquisitions, the return of a veteran such as Gerard Warren, or any draft picks, and the D-line will be a potentially dominant force next year.
The linebackers may be the Patriots best squad. Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo are absolutely legitimate inside linebackers, and are playmakers to top it off. Mark Anderson showed that he's more than just a situational pass-rusher, he's a three down outside linebacker, who brings a lot to the table with the pass rush. And Rob Ninkovich is looking, and playing, more and more like Mike Vrabel every day. With another year in the system (and no more 3-4/4-3 changing of the base defense) he'll likely build on his 6.5 sack, 2 interception, 1 FF, 3 fumble recovery season. That leaves Dane Fletcher and Jermaine Cunningham (remember him?) as depth. Cunningham was pretty good his rookie year, but the lockout, lack of camps, and change to 4-3 really hurt his development. This offseason will be big towards seeing if he can build on his rookie campaign.
So on the defense, looking at the roster right now, the age is extremely young.
(all ages represent players age at start of next season, in September.)
Sterling Moore - just turned 22!
Ras-I Dowling - 24
Brandon Spikes - 25
Kyle Love - 25
Brandon Deaderick - 25
Dane Fletcher - 26
Jerod Mayo - 26
Kyle Arrington - 26
Rob Ninkovich - 28
Mark Anderson - 29
Vince Wilfork - 30
That looks like a heck of a defense going forward. This year, with all of the injuries in the secondary, they were basically playing with a new defense every week. If the Pats re-sign Love and Anderson, they'll (hopefully) have continuity from this year to next year, and that's how you build a defense. Just ask the Steelers or Ravens. Add in whatever free agents Bill Belichick decides to bring in, and any rookie draft picks he uses on the defense, and this defense may go from middle of the pack in points allowed and towards the bottom in yardage, to top 5-10 in points allowed, and middle of the pack in yardage. The Pats were already the only defense in the league to not give up more than 27 points in one game (offensive turnovers for TD's/safeties obviously don't count) so their stinginess is tremendous. With Spikes and Chung laying the wood, the rest of the defense will step up their aggressiveness and the Pats may very well become one of the top defenses, and a hard hitting, fear inducing one as well. So, on defense, there's plenty to look forward to.
Now take a look at the offense: regardless of what people say, Brady is still in his prime. There is no statistic, eye-test, or anything else that can say otherwise. He'll be at the top of his game for at least a few more years. Brian Hoyer has shown to be a more than serviceable back-up, and Ryan Mallett is still a relatively unknown commodity. He may turn out to be very good, or he may turn out to be terrible. His performance against 3rd string defenses in the preseason holds no sway in my mind as to whether or not he's the next big thing. Hopefully this preseason we'll see more of him and see what he's got. First we'll have to see what the Patriots do with Brian Hoyer.
At running back, the Patriots have impending free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who is a no-nonsense 4 yards and a cloud of dust type of runner. He'll break off the occasional 10-20 yarder, but anything more than that is a rarity. His real value comes in his goal-line prowess, and his phenomenal ball control. If the Patriots keep him, he'll always be Mr. Reliable. He'll never dazzle, but his consistency is a true gift. Behind him, there's 2nd year player Stevan Ridley, who has shown flashes of pure brilliance with power and agility, even if he fumbled a couple of times towards the end of the season. He has the potential to be a bell cow type of back, carrying the rock like " Clock Killin' " Corey Dillon. If the Patriots can instill in him a sense of "Don't go for the touchdown every single play" he has tremendous upside. Then there's little Danny Woodhead. He had a bit of an off year this year, but I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that the Patriots didn't use him to the best of his abilities. He came up big in the Super Bowl, and I think Josh McDaniels will utilize him in unique ways to create big mismatches. He was always a very creative offensive coordinator. Last, but certainly not least, is the relatively unknown commodity Shane Vereen. Vereen did virtually nothing all year (hampered with a hamstring injury, if I recall) but his potential is through the roof. He has receiving ability like a wide receiver, and can run fast and agile like a slightly smaller LeSean McCoy. He may be the Patriots feature back for years to come, if he gets healthy and gets on the field. So the Patriots have a gauntlet of runningbacks who all will likely get 500+ yards next season if they can remain healthy. Talk about a multiple threat backfield! And, on top of being multiple, the oldest of them is Danny Woodhead, who is only 27.
At offensive line, the Patriots have always been up towards the best in the league in pass protection and run blocking. Left tackle Matt Light is up in age, but had a phenomenal season, shutting out many Pro Bowl defensive ends. Logan Mankins struggled early in the year, but returned to his All-Pro manhandling towards the end. Dan Koppen may have played his last game in New England, and Dan Connolly is a serviceable Center, but not much more than that. Brian Waters had a renaissance at Right Guard (his first year ever playing the position, mind you!) and I'm sure Belichick will welcome him back if he so chooses to return, and Sebastian Vollmer missed the majority of the season, but came back and played very well for the most part in the Super Bowl. That leaves second year players Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon as the backup tackle/guards and extra blockers on short yardage situations. Solder had his rookie moments this year, but overall had a great rookie campaign. Marcus Cannon, who is listed at 360 but is so solid he looks like 290, has played both guard and tackle this year, and he is likely going to be Brian Waters replacement when he retires. Even Nick McDonald played pretty well at Center, so the starting O-line is solid, and the depth is full of starting caliber players. I think the offensive line will be a rock for years to come.
The Patriots greatest problem is clearly at the wide receiver position. Wes Welker, the resident slot machine, is a pending free agent, Deion Branch has clearly lost a step and is likely on his way out, and Ochocinco has yet to prove he's a starting fit in the Patriots offense. I'm not ready to give up on him just yet, but then again, I'm not paying the man. With the likely acquisition of Brandon Lloyd, any other free agents, and a mid round draft pick, the problem will be resolved. I'm 100% certain Welker will be back in New England, so that shouldn't be an issue. Kraft wants him back, Brady wants him back, and Welker has stated that he wants to be back. So, barring any catastrophic meltdowns in negotiations, he'll be back. At tight end, the Patriots have the best tight end in the league in Rob Gronkowski, one of the top 5 tight ends in the league in Aaron Hernandez, and hands down the greatest combination of all time between the two of them. I don't think Belichick will let either of them get anywhere near free agency in the next few years, but even if they do, I honestly think that they understand the fact that they complement each other so well that it elevates their talent, and will take less money to remain in New England. It may be wishful thinking, but I don't think either of them are greedy. It's not to say that they don't deserve all the money in the world, but they know where their best chance of success is, and that's together.
So the Pats are, other than a handful of pieces, a very young team. There's no better way to create sustained success than to have a multitude of players year in and year out playing together. The core of this team is young, strong, and hungry for success. They all seemingly buy into the Belichick system of "do your job" and the team first mentality, so there's no Brandon Meriweather or Adalius Thomas to speak of that's creating a rift in the locker room. The needs that the Patriots have (in my opinion: defensive end, free safety if McCourty doesn't stay there, and Wide receiver) are easily filled. There are defensive ends in the draft that are certainly worth taking a look at even if it means moving up, a multitude of very good wide receivers hitting the free agent market (Mario Manningham, Brandon Lloyd, Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Vincent Jackson, Stevie Johnson) and good wide receivers looking into for the draft, and there are good safeties (that would certainly be an upgrade over our safeties minus Chung) to look at it in the draft. All of which are options I'm certain Coach Belichick will look into thoroughly, and he will exhaust every opportunity to make the team better.
So I suppose what I'm saying is, the amount of negativity surrounding this team going forward from a lot of Patriots Nation is disturbing. We're living through one of the greatest eras of football that any team has ever had, and we should enjoy it while it lasts. There are a lot of knee jerk reactions going around that say such ridiculous things as "Cut Brady!" "Fire Belichick!" "Get Kraft to sell the team!" "The end is nigh!" among other things. To those that are hopeful but still mourning the loss, I offer you a quote that has gotten me through hard times, and it helped the Bills deal with their four consecutive Super Bowl losses. Hopefully the Patriots feel the same way:
"Fight on, my men!" Sir Andrew said. "A little I'm hurt, but not yet slain. I'll just lay down and bleed awhile, and then I'll rise, and fight again!"