As the old saying goes, an NFL season is a marathon and not a sprint. There is probably no team in the league that embodies this more than the New England Patriots, which is exactly why they are as well-prepared as any to embark into this new era of professional football.
The marathon-like character of the NFL season, after all, will be even more drastic following Tuesday’s announcement that the 16-game regular season is history: as decided in a virtual ownership meeting, the league will move to a 17-game format immediately. The 2021 season will therefore be the first non-strike campaign since 1977 to feature a different number of regular season games than 16.
On the surface, one additional game does not appear to make too much of a difference especially considering that the preseason was cut from four to three exhibition contests. However, its impact cannot be underestimated: whereas a a fourth preseason game will see a team’s starters see minimal to no playing time, a regular season game usually is approached quite differently.
Sure, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell argued on Tuesday that preseason injury numbers would be higher than their regular season counterpart, but the fact still remains: one more game counting in the standings will present one more opportunity for top-level players to get hurt.
This brings us back to a Patriots team that has always tried to build a deep roster across the board under head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick. Belichick and company have recognized quickly that depth is the most important commodity on an NFL team, even more so than having a starter-level group filled with star players.
Last season’s Super Bowl is a good example of that. One of the biggest problems for the Kansas City Chiefs’ high-flying offense against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was its inability to keep four-man pressure away from quarterback Patrick Mahomes after losing both starting tackles to injury. While some loss of quality always has to be expected in this scenario anyway, the Chiefs’ depth was ill-prepared to handle it.
The Patriots themselves have made similar experiences in the past (see: 2015’s AFC Championship loss in Denver), but generally have tried to not over-rely too much on one position or position group. It is what allowed them to go 3-1 during Tom Brady’s four-game absence in 2016, and put them in competition for the Super Bowl the following year despite losing cornerstone players such as Julian Edelman, Marcus Cannon and Dont’a Hightower to injury.
Last season may have been a perfect storm in the other direction — limited cap space, plus offseason departures, plus Covid-19 opt-outs, plus a non-traditional spring and summer preparation — but New England’s 2021 free agency was a move back to the traditional Patriot values: building a strong roster across the board by investing not just in starter-caliber talent but serviceable depth options as well.
The tight end and defensive tackle positions are prime examples of that. After being among the weakest position groups last year, they have now been bolstered by combining free agency additions with the talent already on the team. If one starting player was to go down on one of the 17 regular season occasions moving forward, the depth behind him would help soften the blow.
Time will tell whether or not the Patriots can truly rely on the depth options they have recently brought aboard either in free agency, via trade, or through the draft, but the idea remains on full display. It is one that should leave New England well-equipped to tackle the challenge that is playing one additional regular season contest.