For the 2014 New England Patriots, Another Super Bowl Run is in the Offing
By Peter F. Stevens
When it comes to the 2014 New England Patriots, there is truth in cliches. For more than a decade, the winning formula for the Pats has been the following trio of adages: as Brady goes, so go the Pats. The second cliché, as evidenced by the bottom-line, corporate mindset of Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick is simple: It’s a business. Then, there’s “Bill knows best.”
The formula’s results are undeniable. Over the past 14 years, the Pats have hoisted three Super Bowl trophies, have lost two Super Bowls, and have won five AFC Championships and eleven division titles. Only in one campaign during that span did the team fail to make the playoffs – in 2008, when a devastating knee injury cost Brady the entire season.
Once the laughingstock of professional football, derided as the “Patsies,” the Patriots now stand as NFL royalty.
The Guy in the Gray Hoodie
No one can argue that Belichick is one of the greatest head coaches to prowl an NFL sideline – no matter how many fashionistas groan at his trademark gray hoodie. His ability to judge players’ abilities, both physical and mental, is manifested in the different incarnations of the team throughout his tenure. Belichick came to New England with a reputation as a defensive wizard, and his early squads – including the first Super Bowl victor – featured stingy, highly intelligent defenses built around such hardnosed stalwarts as Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and Ty Law. A clutch little kicker named Adam Vinatieri also did more than his bit.
Still, the player who most defines every season of the Belichick era plays on the offensive side of the ball. Number 12, Tom Brady, has not only flourished at the helm of Belichick’s teams, but has also proven that even in the bone-crunching NFL, it is not always the biggest, fastest, or strongest who dominate. Belichick saw the intangibles years ago when the young, underrated, overlooked University of Michigan quarterback was forced into action after a vicious sideline hit took out Drew Bledsoe. Akin to how Lou Gehrig stepped in for an ailing Yankee first baseman named Wally Pipp and never looked back on his way to the Hall of Fame, Brady took the opportunity and simply got better and better in every nuance of the position.
At the Throttle
Many in the media and hordes of Pats fans claim that there’s a sense of urgency driving the 2014 season. Brady is 37, the whispers go, and sooner or later his skills have to erode. He’s still one of the league’s best, but for how long? Barring injury, expect Brady to shut up any naysayers quickly, as he has throughout his magnificent career. Suffice it to say that with Rob Gronkowski back, with the sure-handed, elusive, and durable Julian Edelman in the slot, with a speedy weapon in Danny Amendola – if he can simply stay healthy – and solid running game, Brady will light up the scoreboard. If one of his young wide receivers, Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, can step up and stretch the field, Brady and company will torment even the league’s best defenses.
Offensively, especially with the recent acquisition of talented pass-catching tight end Tim Wright, the Pats 2014 outlook is potentially explosive.
Backfield in Motion
Bill Belichick has always preferred a balanced pass-run approach, but due in part to Brady’s facile football mind and the ability to throw any type of pass with deadly accuracy, the Pats have often been a pass-happy bunch, especially in 2007 when Brady compiled a record-shattering season throwing to the likes of Randy Moss and Wes Welker. There have been seasons in which an Antowain Smith, a Corey Dillon, or a BenJarvus Green-Ellis have lugged the ball frequently enough and effectively enough to take some of the load off Number 12. It’s no secret that Belichick favors that approach.
In 2014, it seems likely that the Pats will once again travel far better through the air than on the ground. The enigmatic Stevan Ridley, whose slashing running style could make him All-Pro back, has coughed up the ball enough times to earn Belichick’s distrust. Hopefully, the gifted runner can hang onto the ball in 2014. If he does, Brady has a formidable weapon in the backfield.
Shane Vereen has increasingly earned Brady’s trust as a hard, agile runner who can catch the ball out of the backfield and can run long patterns. For short-yardage situations, Brady can utilize Brandon Bolden’s bruising style.
The Tight Stuff
Two seasons ago, the Patriots’ two tight ends – Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez – proved a quarterback’s dream for Brady and a field of screams for the league’s defenses. In 2014, the Patriots are hoping that a healthy Gronk and newcomer Tim Wright can do the same damage to opponents. If Wright is as good as his early reviews from Brady and Gronk is, well, Gronk, there’s a strong possibility of another shot at the Super Bowl.
In 2013, the loss of Wes Welker to Denver, talented but inexperienced young wide receivers, and injuries to Amendola fueled the most frustrating and ragged start to a season in Brady’s career. His chief weapon was Julian Edelman, who caught 105 passes. Brady will find Edelman frequently in 2014, and if Dobson, Thompkins, Slater and former Carolina Panther Brandon LaFell, who has earned Brady’s attention in the preseason, step up, Brady will shred opposing defensive backfields.
In the Trenches
Two words – Vince Wilfork. With the welcome return of the Big Guy from a torn Achilles tendon that ended his 2013 season, the Pats defensive front improves immeasurably. His strength and his incredible quickness disrupt blocking schemes, often demand double-teams to contain him, and open up cracks for other defenders to nail opposing runner and quarterbacks.
Chandler Jones is strong, fast, and able to cause fumbles with his jarring tackles. In hopes of adding more explosiveness to the front line, Belichick drafted Florida Gator Dominique Easley in the first round of the draft. It’s a gamble, however. No one questions Easley’s tremendous talent, but he’s coming off a serious knee injury that caused several teams to shy away from him.
Rob Ninkovich has a knack for making big plays – fumble recoveries, interceptions, and timely tackles – and plays bigger than his size because of his quick thinking.
Behind Ninkovich, Wilfork, and company, linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower give the Pats strength and security at linebacker.
Protecting the Franchise
Protecting Tom Brady from rampaging linebackers and pass rushers is job number 1 for the Pats. With the trade of Logan Mankins, one of the best left guards in the league, the Pats have a huge hole to fill, literally so. Back-up tackle Marcus Cannon or a still-to-be-determined offensive lineman will have big shoes to fill at left guard. Help on the left side for Mankins’s replacement will come in the massive form and surprising speed of tackle Nate Solder.
On the right side, Brady can rely upon tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who will hopefully escape his injury woes of the past two seasons. Brady also knows he can always count the steady, savvy Dan Connolly.
Secondary to None
For several years, erratic play in the Pats’ secondary – especially a problem in allowing long completions – has sometimes cost the team dearly. Aquib Talib gave the Pats a first-rate, aggressive cornerback who could take on teams’ best receiver one on one. Talib, like Welker, has taken his estimable skills, but this time the Pats not only filled Talib’s spot, but have done so with perhaps the league’s best defensive back, Darrelle Revis, formerly a bane of Belichick’s existence when Revis wore the green and white of the New York Jets.
Augmenting Revis, the Pats signed another skilled defensive back, former Seahawk Brandon Browner, capable of defending with the best of them, especially when a player like Revis is paired up with him.
Devin McCourty, who has blossomed as a free safety since Belichick moved him from cornerback, is already a very good player whose game could soar to higher levels with Revis and Browner in the mix. Patrick Chung, Kyle Arrington, and the other defensive backs should all benefit from the addition of Revis and Browner. For the first time in recent memory, the 2014 Patriots could field a strong and consistent band of pass defenders.
Special K and Company
Even great teams can flounder without a solid placekicker and skilled punter. The Patriots take a backseat to no one in the field goal and kick-off departments. Stephen Gostkowski not only possesses one of the game’s strongest legs, but also one of its most accurate.
Punter Ryan Allen 2013 stats appear mediocre at first glance, but he displayed a genuine knack for pinning teams behind the 20-yard line.
Veteran Matthew Slater, one of the team’s captains, is one of the best in the kamikaze business of special-teams’ play, and the Pats look to be solid in that department for the upcoming season.
The Crystal Pigskin
So what is the overall prognostication for the 2014 Pats? To paraphrase the late, great Howard Cosell (many ESPN viewers erroneously think that Chris Berman coined the words), “[The Pats] could go all the way!”