For the sixth straight season, the offense has faltered and let down the team in the playoffs. For the sixth straight time, the Patriots have failed to reach their regular season average. For the five of the past six games, they've failed to crack a meager 17 points. For the sixth straight season, the chatter has been about surrounding Tom Brady with the correct weapons in order to succeed.
For the sixth straight season, this commentary is misguided.
Yes, the Patriots undeniably need help on the offensive line. Their interior has been a weak point ever since Dan Koppen lost himself at the end of the 2007 season. Their right guard has been a turnstile since Stephen Neal's retirement, with a part time fix with Brian Waters. New England must caulk up their front line.
But, apart from depth at tight end, most concerns surrounding the Patriots offensive talent are misplaced.
This is a unit that ranked third in points scored in 2013, one point behind the second place finisher. This was the 15th ranked offense of the past five years, and that was with injuries to Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins, Austin Collie, and Josh Boyce.
Actually, it might have been easier to say "Julian Edelman, Michael Hoomanawanui, and James Develin were the only healthy players." And that's not a fun statement for anyone to make.
Even if you don't believe that Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, and Danny Amendola are far overdue for some luck regarding their health (and you could have said that about Julian Edelman before he broke out this year), the odds that almost every single contributor would wind up injured for extended periods of time for a second season in a row are extremely unlikely.
In fact, if you were asked about the Patriots losing Gronk, Vereen, and Amendola for extended time prior to last season, you might have panicked. But that scenario would put the 3rd ranked offense in an even better position.
So, never fear. A more experienced Dobson, Thompkins, and Boyce, an additional year in the system for Amendola, and (fingers crossed) a healthier Gronk and Vereen puts the Pats in an undeniable better situation than last season, regardless of how their health plays out. If the players can find a way to stay on the field? Well, that just increases the success of one of the best offenses of the past five years.
Where people should be concerned is on defense. A lot of the same rules apply, where the loss of Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo, in conjunction with the nicks to Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Steve Gregory, and Brandon Spikes, put the team in an extremely difficult situation to succeed. And somehow they pulled together to compile an admirable 10th place finish in points allowed.
Of course, you can just draw that immediate line. 10th place defense in 2013. 15th ranked offense over the past five years.
The offense is still undeniably the strength of the team, even through all the injuries. It's the t-65th ranked defense over the past five years that needs the boost.
And that's already coming. Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Alfonzo Dennard, and Logan Ryan should continue to improve over the impressive starts to their careers. Devin McCourty emerged as one of the best safeties in the game and he'll have another season of experience to take his game to the next level. Jerod Mayo should return from injury, and Rob Ninkovich has been steady as ever. Maybe even Vince Wilfork can return to play at a high level, or at least have Sealver Siliga improve over his strong finish to the season. If Aqib Talib comes back, that's a huge boon for the squad.
That still leaves the defense with some holes. Similar to the offense, the Patriots are looking to shore up their trenches, by finding an elite interior defensive lineman. However, unlike the offense, where all the skills positions have starters (and yes, we're including Gronk at tight end), the Patriots still need to find a legitimate strong safety.
Steve Gregory is who he is. He's a competent safety who is a leader in the locker room, who will play his hardest every snap, but leave two or three plays out on the field every game. There remains hope that Duron Harmon, with greater natural ability than Gregory, can emerge in that role, while Tavon Wilson will have this off-season to prove that he deserves a roster spot.
"But wait!," you exclaim. "Doesn't that leave the Patriots in the same situation on both offense and defense?" And you'd be correct.
The Patriots have a tremendous infusion of youth on both offense and defense in their skill positions. Only looking at the key role players, Steve Gregory is the elder, at 31, and the Patriots already have the contingency plan on the roster in Harmon. Behind him, Amendola is 28. Kyle Arrington and Mayo are 27. So are the free agents Edelman and Talib. Hell, Devin McCourty is 26 and considered old with this team.
Everyone else is 25 or younger. This team is going to get better on both sides of the ball, purely due to experience.
The keys lie in the trenches, which is fitting due to the departures of Dante Scarnecchia, the long time offensive line coach, and Pepper Johnson, the long time defensive line coach (until Patrick Graham took over in 2012).
On seemingly both end positions, on both sides of the ball, the Patriots are all set. Tackles Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, and Marcus Cannon provide exceptional ability on offense, while Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones are a fierce tandem on defense (although a third name [Michael Buchanan?] would be wise).
The interiors, however, are less certain. Offensively, Logan Mankins has been wildly inconsistent, while Ryan Wendell (free agent) and Dan Connolly (high cap hit) have been less than successful. Defensively, Wilfork and Kelly are returning from season ending injuries at an age where defensive tackles stop being successful. Rising sophomores Joe Vellano and Chris Jones left plenty to be desired, while Armond Armstead is still a completely unknown entity. Sealver Siliga has been promising, but that comes with a small sample size.
And this is where the focus needs to turn to the defense. For all of the inconsistencies on offense, and for all the undeniable need for them to improve their offensive interior, they still were the third best offense in football. If the Patriots bring back Wendell (which I wouldn't be surprised by), and keep the same starting five as last season, this team would still challenge to be the top offense in the game.
On defense, there's little chance this unit can repeat a top 10 performance, never mind improve, with the current roster. Yes, they'll have Mayo back, but when they play their nickel defense as often as they do, there's generally only two linebackers on the field. They can try and bank on the improvement of Siliga for when (if?) Wilfork gets his sealegs back.
This team struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks for the upteenth season in a row, and they were more leaky than they would have liked against the run. Interior pressure is the future for defenses and it's an easy place for the Patriots to start with their improvement.
And as noted, the Patriots are young at almost every position. There are no glaring holes outside of the trenches (and at depth positions). This allows the Patriots to attack the draft to get the players they want. They can copy their 2012 strategy by going out and getting the Chandler Jones' and Dont'a Hightowers of the draft. This doesn't have to be the draft for depth, but instead for strength.
The Patriots will still be able to maneuver the draft board without mortgaging their future. If the front office believes they need to move up into the early 20s, they can use their mid rounders, while still holding on to their second round pick to grab another potential starter.
In reality, nothing will be clear until the dust of free agency settles. But for the mean time, the focus of team improvement should be on the defense, not the offense.