CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
FILE/CHRIS O’MEARA/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Does Patriots season ever really end anymore? The Patriots are the never-ending story of the Boston sports scene. It has been three weeks since the Patriots went from Not Done to done in by their defense and the mysterious decision to mothball Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl LII against the Philadelphia Eagles. They’re still the most talked about team in town.
Fans remain eager to debate and dissect their past, their present, and their future, to fuel the noise, instead of ignoring it. Like their offense against the Eagles, there is a lot up in the air for the Patriots. Here are six pent-up Patriots thoughts:
1. Butler’s defensive benching in the Super Bowl remains baffling. No Patriot played a higher percentage of the defensive snaps during the regular-season (97.8) than Butler, and he played every defensive snap in the playoffs up to that point. But at least one interested party defended Patriots coach Bill Belichick and dismissed the notion that Belichick put his ego before the best interests of the team in sitting Butler.
“He is going to put out the people he thought could win the game for him,” said Tom Brady Sr., father of the Patriots franchise quarterback. “I don’t have any questions about Belichick’s loyalty to the Patriots and desire to win the game. It’s the only way I could look at it. I don’t think he would do anything less; it doesn’t serve his purpose to do anything less than try to go all out to win.”
Brady Sr. scoffed at the sports talk radio conspiracy theory that after tension in the organization arose between Belichick and his son during the season Belichick wanted to prove a point to the players — that he was still in control. “I don’t give that much credence. I think Belichick has the best interest of the team at heart,” said Brady Sr. “I don’t know that he would hold a grudge, one that would needlessly cost the Patriots a Super Bowl. It just doesn’t make sense.”
2. One thing that’s obvious after Super Bowl LII is that we have to stop propagating the notion that having two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl is an advantage for Belichick and the Patriots. The extra preparation time is actually a disadvantage that levels the playing field between the game’s best coach and lesser coaches. It allows Patriots’ opponents time to unmask the personnel deficiencies that Belichick has so deftly disguised and limited during the season. It provides the other team time to even the odds from a preparation standpoint.
It’s not a coincidence that the only one of the Patriots’ eight Super Bowls where you could say they clearly had the superior game plan was the upset win over the then-St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, which due to the Sept. 11 attacks featured only one week of preparation time. The additional time diminishes, not enhances, one of the Patriots’ greatest advantages — Belichick’s brilliance.
3. Are we going to have to spend the whole offseason trying to decipher Rob Gronkowski’s motivation to keep playing and his cryptic tweets about his future? We will if the Patriots don’t give him a new contract. There is no questioning the sincerity or seriousness of Gronk’s concern about what his future after football will look like given the pounding his body has absorbed and the number of surgeries he has undergone. It is fair for him to consider if continuing to play in the NFL is worth it. The Patriots have to make it worth it.
Gronkowski is on the books for $8 million this year and can make another million between per-game roster bonuses ($750,000 in total if he plays in all 16 games) and a $250,000 workout bonus. But he could do that this year only to have the Patriots walk away in 2019, when he has those same bonuses and his base salary goes to $9 million. He lacks long-term security or significant up-front money.
The Patriots shouldn’t even bother looking at tight end comps. There are none for Gronk. The highest-paid tight end by average annual value is Washington’s Jordan Reed at $9.35 million. The average annual value on the deal of Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (remember him?) is $13 million. That puts Gronk’s worth in perspective.
4. The 2018 NFL Draft is a critical one for the Patriots to get right. They need impact players, not cogs. They need to replenish an aging roster and inject athleticism into their defense. They’re masters at unearthing finds in the middle and late rounds, but they haven’t hit on their first pick of a draft with a Pro Bowl-caliber player since they traded down to the second round to take Jamie Collins in 2013.
New England has to factor in 2019 as well. Players who can be free agents after the 2018 season include Shaq Mason, arguably the team’s best offensive lineman and defensive end Trey Flowers, the team’s best pass rusher. Cornerback Eric Rowe and safety Patrick Chung can also become free agents. Chung and safety Devin McCourty will be 31 at the start of this season. There are also long-term questions at wide receiver, as Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan are slated for free agency after this season.
5. The biggest takeaway of the Patriots’ season — other than Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Brady — is that this is Brady’s team. Heir apparent Jimmy Garoppolo is gone and TB12’s trusted confidant and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stayed put. Brady got his way over the Patriot Way.
Brady should prevail again when it comes to a contract extension. He has two years left on his current deal, each with base salaries of $14 million and an additional $1 million in per game roster bonuses. If the Jets shell out megabucks for Kirk Cousins, as expected, then Brady could be the lowest-paid starting quarterback in the AFC East based on average annual value. The $15 million AAV on the extension he signed in 2016 leaves him behind Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor ($15.25 million) and Miami’s Ryan Tannehill ($19.25 million). That’s a bad look, but do the Krafts have to draw the line for Brady influencing the franchise somewhere?
6. It’s not a surprise, but Brady has something in common with Patriots fans. He can’t let these Super Bowl losses go. We saw him reliving and lamenting the Super Bowl XLII loss in the “Tom vs. Time” docuseries. He was nearly catatonic when friends and family tried to speak to him after Super Bowl XLVI. Brady’s father said Brady had a similar mien after failing to earn a sixth Super Bowl ring. “He was [nearly catatonic] this time. He got out of there pretty fast,” said Brady Sr. “He will never get over the Giants losses, and I don’t think he’ll ever get over this Eagles loss either.” Judging by the last three weeks, he has plenty of company.
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