This Sunday marks exactly six months since the Patriots’ 2015 season dissolved in the AFC title game in Denver. It’s the final Sunday of silence for the Patriots. From here Sundays will be in season in Foxborough, whether it’s preseason, regular season or postseason.
Sundays will measure the Patriots’ pursuit of a Super Bowl ring for the thumb, the ability to thumb their nose at Deflategate-wielding detractors, and the raising of another digit as riposte for the indignity of the air pressure injustice.
Patriots veterans report to training camp on Wednesday, and the team will cut the ribbon on the 2016 season on Thursday with the first official practice. As the countdown to camp winds down here are six thoughts about the 2016 Patriots:
1. The Patriots’ drive for Super Bowl title No. 5 is going to begin with Tom Brady serving the four-game suspension meted out by NFL commissioner/disciplinary despot Roger Goodell for Deflategate. That means understudy Jimmy Garoppolo gets to take the stage. This is like replacing Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton.” But the burden of success is not Garoppolo’s alone to bear.
In 2008, when Matt Cassel took over after Brady tore his ACL in the season opener, Cassel was able to grow into the job because the bones of the 2007 record-setting offense were there to support him.
The chances of Jimmy G succeeding will increase significantly if he has a healthy Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Edelman had surgery in May to reinsert a screw into the left foot he broke against the Giants last season. Amendola had offseason surgery on the sprained left knee that bothered him down the stretch. If those two are unavailable or compromised for parts of the Brady ban, that makes it tougher for Garoppolo and tougher to evaluate him as a potential NFL starter.
2. Now that Brady’s status is settled, the biggest question mark for the Patriots entering camp is the composition of the offensive line. When last seen in Denver, the line was letting Von Miller and the Broncos fertilize the field with Brady. Offensive line alchemist and demanding doyen Dante Scarnecchia has been coaxed out of retirement to whip the line into shape.
The real curiosity is what interior offensive line combination Scarnecchia settles on this season. The team used a third-round pick on guard Joe Thuney. In 2015, coach Bill Belichick drafted guards Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason, who combined for 19 starts last season. The Patriots received Jonathan Cooper in the Chandler Jones trade. Josh Kline remains an option. If Bryan Stork loses his center spot to David Andrews, then Stork could slide to guard. The inexperience and shuffling on the line rattled Brady during the first four games in 2014. Such indecision and ineffectiveness up front would spell doom for Garoppolo.
3. New Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett is this year’s version of Darrelle Revis. He is a rental, headed for greener pastures. The latest of the Hoodie’s Hessians, Bennett should be the complement to Rob Gronkowski the Patriots have lacked since Aaron Hernandez went from football player to convicted felon. But Bennett’s not long for Fort Foxborough. He was open about his desire for a lucrative new deal in Chicago and his unhappiness about not receiving one motivated the Bears to trade him. Let’s hope the sides use each other as well as Revis and the Patriots did in 2014.
4. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots are able to come to terms with some of their high-profile free agents before the season opener in Arizona on Sept. 11. If not, will free agency be a distraction or serve as a source of motivation for linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins; defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Rob Ninkovich; and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (restricted free agent) and Logan Ryan?
Hightower, Collins, and Sheard all made ESPN’s list of the top 25 pending free agents.
Nose tackle import Terrance Knighton and safety Duron Harmon are also ticketed for free agency. That’s a high number of key defensive players who aren’t sure who will be providing their paychecks next season. These guys are football players, but they’re also human beings. Job uncertainty and anxiety affect everyone.
5. The Patriots learned the hard way that you can’t wait until Week 17 to establish a running game, which was their strategy in a confounding loss to the Dolphins that cost them home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. The Patriots finished 30th in the NFL in rushing in 2015, and you can’t blame it all on the November knee injury to Dion Lewis. The highest the Patriots ranked in rushing offense last season was 21st, after Week 6.
The plan is for Lewis, who tore his ACL, to be ready to start the season, but at what percentage? Lewis is a player who relies on sudden changes of direction worthy of both prevaricating presidential nominees. He is also not built to be a bell cow. The Patriots traditionally take a running back-by-committee approach. Someone else is going to have to rise up as Lewis’s running mate from the stable of eight other backs on the team.
6. For all the efforts by the NFL to ensure parity, including trying to rig the league for it by dubiously suspending its best player for a quarter of the season, the AFC still looks like the Patriots’ domain. Who is a real threat to stop them?
The Steelers have the offensive firepower, but they must play the whole season without wideout Martavis Bryant and possibly four games without running back Le’Veon Bell. The Ravens have a roster with too many players at the beginning or end of their careers. The Bengals are recidivist underachievers. The defending Super Bowl champion Broncos now have (Off the) Mark Sanchez as their quarterback. Cue the laugh track.
The biggest threat to the Patriots might be the Indianapolis Colts, primed to return to AFC finalist form. But the Patriots have dispensed their own brand of industrial justice on the Colts in the Andrew Luck-Chuck Pagano era. The path to a record sixth straight AFC Championship game looks clear, even with Brady starting the season as pro football’s political prisoner.
On the final Sunday where football isn’t omnipresent, let visions of Super Bowl Sunday dance in your head.