It’s Day 4 of the Patriots postmortem, an annual act of inspection and introspection submitted by the Foxborough Faithful after the season ends without the hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy, as it will for the eighth straight time.
The winter of discontent kicked off the moment the final second ticked off the Gillette Stadium clock last Sunday. Every aspect of the Patriots’ 28-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, from the play of quarterback Tom Brady to the conservatism of coach Bill Belichick, has been debated, dissected, and lamented on sports radio, in bars, and around water coolers.
It is what it is, as a certain hooded coach would say. It’s time to stop looking back and to look ahead to 2013. To borrow a phrase from Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, the Patriots don’t need a brand new car; they just need to tweak what’s under the hood. An estimated $18 million-plus in cap space is plenty for a tune-up for Tom Terrific & Co.
In the AFC title game, the New England offense was harder to find than Manti Te’o’s girlfriend, but the biggest issue with the Patriots is still on the defensive side of the ball. The Patriots have repeatedly proven that the hypothesis of winning a Super Bowl by outscoring everybody is fatally flawed.
The old aphorism about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result applies to the Patriots.
So, the offseason wish list has to be separated into wants and needs.
I want the Patriots to go out and get either a physical receiver like Dwayne Bowe or a Usain Bolt burner like Mike Wallace. That is a want, not a need, especially if Rob Gronkowski comes back healthy and Wes Welker returns.
Bringing back cornerback Aqib Talib is a need on Belichick’s championship checklist.
Any debate about whether Talib was the catalyst for the marked improvement of the Patriots’ pass defense was ended emphatically by the defense’s performance without him after he tweaked his thigh on the Ravens’ second drive of the game.
If the Patriots don’t want to give long-term security to a player with a history of volatility and poor decision-making that would have made Irving Fryar blush, then slap the franchise tag on Talib. The number for cornerbacks next season is expected to be about $10.6 million.
Another must-have is an interior pass rusher.
There was a reason the team went hard after Seattle defensive tackle Red Bryant and eventually settled and signed Jonathan Fanene to a three-year, $9.85 million deal last offseason, with a $3.85 million signing bonus. Collapsing the pocket from inside makes quarterbacks skittish.
Fanene never played a down for the Patriots because of an arthritic left knee the team said he did not disclose. He was cut in August. I bet Mike Napoli wishes he had taken his physical in Foxborough.
New England should take a run at Miami defensive tackle Randy Starks, who replaced Vince Wilfork on the AFC Pro Bowl squad, or Raiders defensive tackle and Harvard man Desmond Bryant. A lower-cost option would be San Francisco lineman Ricky Jean-Francois.
Any discussion of the Patriots offseason would be remiss without a mention of Welker’s contract purgatory.
If the Patriots thought Welker was a true No. 1 receiver, then they would have paid him like one by now, and they wouldn’t have given some of his snaps to Julian Edelman in the first two games of the season. That happened. It’s easy to look back 118 catches later and make snide remarks about Welker being phased out, but Welker was receiver non grata to start the season. Period.
This is the second straight year in which Welker had a cringe-worthy postseason drop that cast a pall on an otherwise remarkable season of production. Still, Welker is Brady’s security blanket. It’s time the Patriots gave Wes a little security. Otherwise, just let him go.
He’s not worth franchising a second year in a row — it would cost $11.4 million this time — not when the tag could be used on Talib or right tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
As important as any personnel changes the Patriots make is the need to make a change in mentality and personality.
It was Belichick who said stats are for losers. His Patriots are proving his point.
The team has become too reliant on Brady, too content to pile up points, yards, first downs, and charred secondaries in the regular season only to be stopped cold on the big stage.
The most disconcerting part of the loss to the Ravens was that their commitment to be a more physical, more balanced team that spent more time under center waned.
After having the seventh-rated rushing attack in the NFL during the season, a 1,263-yard rusher in Stevan Ridley, and leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns, the Patriots forsook the run game in the AFC title game, throwing the ball 54 times and rushing it 28.
Their longest rush was just 9 yards.
Of the 11 third- or fourth-and-short situations they had (3 yards or less), the Patriots lined up in the shotgun nine times.
In the first 10 playoff games of Brady’s career — all wins — he threw the ball 40 or more times three times.
In the last 14 games — in which he has gone 7-7 — Brady has thrown the ball 40 or more times seven times. The Patriots are 2-5 in those games. The wins were this year against the Houston Texans and in 2006 over the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round.
The personnel can change, but if the personality and philosophy don’t, the Patriot Way will continue to be a championship dead end.