Bill Belichick stood at the podium last Sunday following the Patriots’ 26-16 loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship game and was ready to turn the page.
“Starting tomorrow, we are on to 2014,” he said.
Belichick was in Alabama this past week checking out 100 draft prospects at the Senior Bowl, and preparations for free agency in March will begin soon enough.
But before we move on to next season, let’s take one last look at 2013, high school superlative style:
Offensive MVP — QB Tom Brady. Brady didn’t have his sharpest season — his touchdown total (25) was his lowest for a full season since 2006, completion percentage (60.5) his lowest since 2003, and sack total his highest since 2001. But Brady willed the offense to a 5-1 start with a new cast of receivers that didn’t include Rob Gronkowski, and led incredible last-minute comeback drives against Buffalo, New Orleans, Houston, and Cleveland, plus big second-half comebacks over Miami and Denver.
Defensive MVP — DE Rob Ninkovich. In a year in which several important names went down early with injuries, Ninkovich was Mr. Dependable for the Patriots’ defense. A versatile piece who switched between end and outside linebacker, Ninkovich was second in sacks (8) and tackles (94), had two forced fumbles, recovered two more, and was consistently solid both as a pass rusher and run defender. He played 96 percent of snaps in 18 games (including postseason), and after missing 40 snaps because of an injury in Week 9, played 626 of the final 630 snaps of the season.
Special mention — K Stephen Gostkowski. His 93 percent success rate on field goals (38 of 41) tied for seventh in the NFL, he was 16 of 19 from 40-plus, he kicked winning field goals against Buffalo, Denver, and Houston (two 54-yarders in the fourth quarter), and was second in the NFL with 65 touchbacks.
Best player — WR Julian Edelman. What a year for Edelman, who returned to the Patriots at a minimum salary after receiving little interest on the free agent market. He scored two touchdowns in the season opener and quickly established himself as the only dependable receiving threat all season. Edelman was fourth in the NFL with 105 catches (for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns), had four 100-yard games, and his 53 catches (for 556 yards and four touchdowns) over the final six games led the league. He also finished with a solid 10.7-yard average on punt returns.
Rookie of the Year — CB Logan Ryan. The Patriots’ rookie class got some solid contributions from receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, defensive tackles Chris Jones and Joe Vellano, linebacker Jamie Collins, and safety Duron Harmon, but Ryan, a third-round pick out of Rutgers, was by far the best. He led the team with five interceptions (including a 79-yard return for a touchdown against the Jets), contributed 1½ sacks, defended 10 passes, forced a fumble, started seven games, and played 52 percent of the snaps in the regular season.
Ironman Award (offense) — QB Tom Brady and C Ryan Wendell. Both played all 1,197 offensive snaps, the first time Brady has accomplished the feat in his career. Guard Logan Mankins deserves honorable mention for playing 1,184 snaps (98.9 percent).
Ironman Award (defense) — DE Chandler Jones. The second-year player led the team with 11½ sacks and played a whopping 98.1 percent of the snaps, including playoffs (1,264 of 1,289). Then again, he had one sack over his final seven games, so maybe he should play fewer snaps next season.
Most Improved — LB Jamie Collins. The Patriots’ top draft pick (52d overall) barely got on the field for the first half of the season, but showed steady improvement and earned a role in the nickel package. When asked to fill in full time for Brandon Spikes in the playoffs, Collins showed tremendous potential in pass coverage (intercepting Andrew Luck), in pass rushing (one sack and several disruptions), and in run-stopping (13 tackles in two games).
Road Grader of the Year — G Logan Mankins. On a down year for the offensive line, Mankins struggled in pass protection (his nine sacks allowed were second most among NFL guards) but was a consistently nasty in the run game — pulling swiftly through the hole, getting to the second level, and finishing blocks well past the point when most linemen will stop on the play.
Biggest surprise — RB LeGarrette Blount. Acquired from Tampa Bay for a seventh-round pick and Jeff Demps, then given a minimum salary, Blount lost the team rushing title to Stevan Ridley by 1 yard — 773 to 772. Blount consistently churned out tough yards in a platoon role throughout the season, averaging 5 yards per carry, then exploded at the end of the year, rushing 64 times for 431 yards (6.7-yard average) and eight touchdowns in a three-game stretch. Blount also averaged 29.1 yards on 17 kickoff returns.
Backup of the Year (offense) — TE Michael Hoomanawanui. Supposed to be a sparsely used blocking tight end and special teams player, “Hooman” became the No. 1 tight end by default in the nine-plus games Rob Gronkowski was injured, playing 61 percent of the snaps. Hoomanawanui provided solid run blocking, and chipped in 12 catches for 136 yards with a touchdown, a ridiculous one-handed catch in Miami.
Backup of the Year (defense) — DT Chris Jones. The sixth-round rookie from Bowling Green was cut by Houston at the end of training camp, picked up and waived by Tampa Bay in the first week of the season, and claimed by New England in Week 2. He barely played until Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles’ in Week 4, but was plugged into the lineup and played 68 percent of the snaps this season while contributing six sacks, third most on the team.
Biggest disappointment (offense) — WR Danny Amendola. Signed a big contract last offseason to replace Wes Welker (five years, $28.4 million with $10 million guaranteed), and while he did have three 100-yard games, he didn’t have the impact that was expected. Amendola finished with 54 catches for 633 yards and two touchdowns while missing four games with groin and concussion injuries.
Biggest disappointment (defense) — LB Dont’a Hightower. He did play all 18 games, led the team with 113 tackles, and played the run well at the end of the season, but the first-round pick from 2012 didn’t make enough impact plays in his second season, finishing with one sack, no forced fumbles, and his first career interception in the playoffs. He also lost green dot responsibilities as the quarterback of the defense.
Play of the year — Tie, James Develin’s touchdown run vs. Houston; Kenbrell Thompkins’s touchdown catch vs. New Orleans. Develin simply would not be denied his first career touchdown run, ramming into the Texans’ defensive line six times before finally pile-driving his way into the end zone. And Thompkins’s 17-yard touchdown catch with five seconds was one of the most exciting and improbable plays of the NFL season.
Endangered species — S Tavon Wilson, DE Jake Bequette. The second- and third-round picks from 2012 might not be long for the team. Wilson played just 17 snaps all season and was leap-frogged by Harmon on the depth chart, while Bequette played only 14 snaps and still doesn’t have a tackle in two seasons.
Most indispensible — CB Aqib Talib, TE Rob Gronkowski. As evidenced in the playoff loss to Denver, the secondary took a big hit whenever Talib was out of the game, as he was the only cornerback physical and tall enough to matchup on big receivers such as A.J. Green, Demaryius Thomas, and Jimmy Graham. And Gronk’s value is obvious. They Patriots scored 32 points a game with him, 25.3 without him.
Blue collar — LB Brandon Spikes, FB James Develin. Spikes didn’t make many impact plays and was often taken off the field on obvious passing downs, but did yeoman’s work slamming into linemen repeatedly and making solid plays in the run game. Develin had four rushes for 10 yards and four catches for 62 yards all season, but was an excellent lead blocker and was the catalyst to the team’s improved run game at the end of the season.
Coaching Move of the Year — Taking the wind vs. the Broncos. In a moment of genius, Belichick went against convention and chose the wind instead of the ball in overtime. He willingly put the ball in Peyton Manning’s hands with the risk of losing the game on the first possession, but the trade-off was about 20 yards of field position because of the heavy wind. Sure enough, the Broncos weren’t able to attempt a long field goal in overtime, their passes and punts got knocked down by the wind, and the Patriots eventually won off a special teams fumble.
Coaching Blunder of the Year — Getting busted for pushing in the back on a field goal attempt vs. the Jets. Either Belichick needs to learn the rules better, after saying he didn’t know the new rule that states players cannot push teammates from behind during a field goal block, or he deliberately tried to get away with it after doing so the week before against the Saints. Either way, the Patriots lost the game because of this arcane penalty — the only time it was called in the NFL this season.