It's been a while since we've posted on Foxboro Blog. You can blame part of that on the fact that the gap between the Super Bowl and the start of free-agency is the dullest time of the NFL calendar, unless you happen to be a combine nut. The other part is pure busyness as I've been working my tail off on a project that will redefine Foxboro Blog as well as the rest of the Bloguin Network. But enough on that topic, let's dive into the meat of what this post is truly about.
Looking back at the Patriots' past three seasons, in which they were legit Super Bowl contenders and managed to fall short of the goal, certain themes seem to be woven into the fabric of the team's shortcomings. For starters, the Patriots secondary continues to be a seive. The "bend but don't break" philosophy serves the team fairly well in the regular season, but hasn't translated to post-season success. Outside of the 2011 AFC Championship, there haven't been many times when the defense put their mark on a post-season game. Even then, the defense allowed the Ravens to march all the way down the field before coming up with a semi-miraculous touchdown strip. New England's defense needs to be strong enough to withstand a sub-par day by the offense. The Jets, Giants, and Ravens all slowed down Tom Brady just enough, and the defense has not been there to do the same to the Pats' opponent.
It's hard to believe I'm saying this given how many weapons the Patriots have, but the team's post-season losses can also be attributed to a lack of versatility by the offense. Granted, if the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski out there in Super Bowl XLVI and the 2012 AFC title game, things may have gone differently for them. However, as good as they are, Welker, Hernandez, and Gronk don't possess the type of "deadly" threat that Randy Moss brought to the team back in the day, or that Torrey Smith brings to Baltimore.
Finally, the lack of a pass-rush has also been a nagging problem for this team. Some of this may be scheme-related as you can't blame Belichick for being hesitant to send in the calvary and leave the team's weak secondary exposed. Chandler Jones' injury also didn't help the Patriots' cause when it came to pressuring the QB either. Still, in a league where passing is at an all-time high and defensive backs are already playing with one hand tied behind their back, disrupting the passing game at its source should be a top priority for teams.
Of course mistakes like turnovers and dropped passes have contributed heavily to New England's playoff woes, but there's little the team can do about that in March. With free-agency right on the horizon, and a boat-load of cap space in a buyer's market thanks to the ingenious Tom Brady contract extension, it's time for the Pats to patch these holes and position the team for a title run in 2013. The Patriots have three big unrestricted free-agents of their own, none of which received the franchise tag designation. The rebuilding process starts with them and then branches out to the players on other teams.
Priority #1 - Aqib Talib
It seems a bit strange to be putting Talib, with his character issues and lack of durability this post-season, ahead of Wes Welker, but that's how badly the Patriots' secondary needs a playmaker like him. The drop-off between Talib and his replacement is enormous. When Talib was on the field, the Patriots defense went from awful to above-average. It was no surprise to me that when he left the field in the conference title game, that Joe Flacco begain looking like a Super Bowl MVP. While not a "shut-down" corner, Talib is able to handle his own and allows the rest of the secondary to concentrate on plugging holes elsewhere.
I would say the outlook on his return is bright. The Patriots are high on him and he seemed to enjoy his brief time in New England. Hopefully his character and injury questions keep the market price for him reasonable, in which case I'd see his return as a slam dunk for both sides.