In a few hours (depending where you read this), 2016 will come to an end and a new year arrives upon us. This means that now is the perfect time to look back once again at what made 2016 an interesting, but unfortunately not as hardware-laden year for the New England Patriots.
So, without ado, our look back at the 16 most intriguing Patriots storylines of 2016 – and we start in a familiar place.
The Patriots squander number one AFC playoff seed
When a similar article was written last season, the Patriots – just like today – were preparing to face the Miami Dolphins on the road with the number one AFC playoff seed on the line. Unfortunately, the game turned out to arguably be the team’s least inspired of the year: Trying to rely on a struggling running game to take control of the contest, New England lost 20-10 and as a result the number one seed. It would come back to haunt them.
Mile High Dilemma: New England drops the AFC Championship Game
For the fifth straight year, the Patriots advanced to the conference title game. There, in Denver, they ran into a disaster. A missed extra point, questionable coaching decisions, a struggling offensive line; you name it. New England never got into a rhythm – tip of the cap to the Broncos’ defense and homefield advantage – and despite an epic comeback attempt sparked by Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the team ended up one point short.
The coaches they are a-changin’
Coming off the loss to Denver, change was needed in New England and as a result three coaches were let go: Dave DeGuglielmo (offensive line), Harold Nash (strength & conditioning) and Patrick Graham (linebackers). DeGuglielmo was replaced by his predecessor Dante Scarencchia, Nash by his assistant Moses Cabrera and Graham by former safeties coach Brian Flores (whose vacant spot was filled by Steve Belichick). So far, all changes seem to have paid dividends.
He was only 29 years old at the time, but in February, two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo announced his retirement. During his eight seasons with the Patriots, Mayo was a leader both on the field and in the locker room and one of the best linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, though, after ending three straight seasons on injured reserve, Mayo understandably decided to call it quits.
New England’s busy in free agency
Falling just short of another Super Bowl berth, the Patriots not only turned over their coaching staff, they did the same to their roster – and became a notable player in free agency. Chris Hogan, Shea McClellin and Chris Long are just three of the names New England brought on board. Add in trades for Martellus Bennett and later in the year Barkevious Mingo, Eric Rowe and Kyle Van Noy and it becomes clear that building adequate depth was a top priority for a team that was bitten hard by the injury bug in 2015.
Mr. Jones goes to Arizona
Edge defender Chandler Jones was coming off his first Pro Bowl nomination and seen as a key part of the Patriots’ defensive success. However, he also was inconsistent at times and only one year away from hitting free agency. This led the team to a controversial decision: to trade the 26-year old to the Arizona Cardinals in return for a second round pick and later-to-be released guard Jonathan Cooper. A trade, that ultimately seemed to work well for both parties involved.
Deflategate rears its ugly head again: Tom Brady’s suspension reinstated
The major storyline of 2016 was still a scandal from the 2014 season: Deflategate aka the NFL has no idea about science or basic principles of fairness. Yet, despite all that, the United States Court of Appeals decided to side with the league and reinstate Tom Brady’s four-game suspension on a 2:1 decision. With chances of escaping victorious now at an all-time low, the man who never did anything wrong decided to accept the result and sit out weeks one to four.
No first rounder, no(t that big of a) problem
Thanks to the aforementioned scandal, the Patriots entered the draft without a first round draft pick. The team was still able to select immediate contributors and building blocks for the future. Joe Thuney was the team’s starting left guard from day one. Jacoby Brissett started two games at quarterback, going 1-1. Vincent Valentine and Malcolm Mitchell have become productive rotational players at their respective positions. New England’s rookie class has played a vital role in the Patriots’ 2016 success.
Summer’s quarterback merry-go-round
With Brady unable to play the first four games of the year, all eyes were on the quarterbacks over the course of the summer: How will the team manage them? Will Brady play in the preseason? Will Garoppolo develop enough chemistry with the skill position players? While the situation was new to everyone involved, the team obviously handled it as well as it could and thus laid the foundation for going 3-1 without the league’s best quarterback.
Opening day fireworks
No Brady. No Gronkowski. No Solder. No Ninkovich. No Mason. The circumstances were far from ideal for the Patriots when they had to visit the Arizona Cardinals on opening day. However, despite all the adversity, the team was able to get a 23-21 win over one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites. Jimmy Garoppolo was not perfect but he led a successful fourth quarter comeback in what was a statement victory.
Garoppolo gets injured, in comes the rookie
While he looked good against the Cardinals, Garoppolo was spectacular the following week against the Miami Dolphins. He threw three touchdowns, completed almost 70 percent of his pass attempts and led the Patriots to a 21-0 lead. Unfortunately, late in the second quarter, he had to leave the game with a shoulder injury. In came rookie Jacoby Brissett, who did enough to help New England hold onto a 31-24 victory.
The return of the GOAT
After four weeks out of football, Tom Brady returned to the field on October 9 – and it was as if he had never been forced to take a leave of absence. The future Hall of Famer threw three touchdowns (all to Martellus Bennett), was in total command at all times and led his team to a 33-13 blowout of the Cleveland Browns. It became very clear very quickly that while New England’s offense was still good without Brady, it was on another level with him in the lineup.
The offensive line rebounds
A lot of things went wrong for the Patriots in the 2015 AFC Championship game. Among them was pass protection as the offensive line struggled all day long to slow the Broncos potent pass rush down. Consequently, entering 2016, the line was a major question mark. However, the return of Dante Scarnecchia brought stability to the unit and as a result the best out of the players. As a result Nate Solder, Joe Thuney, David Andrews, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon now form one of the better offensive lines in the NFL. Quite the turnaround.
Mr. Collins goes to Cleveland
While trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals was a shock, it was nothing compared to trading Jamie Collins to the Browns. In the middle of the season. For a third round pick. Collins was seen as a centerpiece of New England’s defense despite some up-and-down performances throughout the year. However, the team’s front office did not see him in the same light. As usual, it seems to have made the right decision as the Patriots defense improved substantially after the initial shock of the trade.
Not so special teams
Year in and year out, Stephen Gostkowski has been one of the most dependable kickers in the NFL. However, his 2016 season started sloppy and he missed five kicks in the first eight weeks. Throw in multiple fumbles in the return game and the Patriots’ special teams unit has not lived up to its high expectations early on. While Gostkowski was able to rebound after the bye week and currently plays his best football of the season, the fumbles have still been an issue as of late (looking your way, Cyrus Jones).
The Patriots exorcise some demons and win another AFC East title
No team has ever won as many consecutive division titles as the Patriots, who locked up their eighth straight after exorcising some demons and beating the Denver Broncos 16-3 on the road. This time, New England’s defense, which currently tops the league in points allowed per game and per drive, dominated its opponent. With the first goals reached, the AFC East title and a first-round playoff bye, the Patriots have now set their sights on the number one seed – and after that the conference title and the Super Bowl.
2016 has been an exciting year for the New England Patriots and us at Pats Pulpit. Hopefully, 2017 will be more of the same – but with another world championship to celebrate.
We’re on to 2017.
Happy new year.