It has been some time since the Patriots entered a season with less buzz
One of Bill Belichick’s biggest responsibilities as Patriots coach is to serve as the Humbler-in-Chief.
It can be easy for the players, coaches, and executives to get bedazzled by the five Lombardi trophies in the lobby at Gillette Stadium. Belichick makes sure he keeps everyone grounded.
“He would put up a lowlight clip every once in a while, and it was always your worst throws from practice,” Jimmy Garoppolo said in a new profile from Bleacher Report. “There are so many people on the outside hyping you up and saying good things, that everyone needs to be brought back down.”
Belichick doesn’t have that issue with the 2018 Patriots.
Remember all that hype just one year ago about the Patriots going 16-0? The Patriots don’t have to worry about tuning it out this year. As training camp opens this week, with the first practice scheduled for Thursday, the Patriots aren’t quite the darlings of the NFL they have been in the past.
Oh, sure, most prognosticators still have the Patriots winning the AFC East and advancing far in the playoffs. We have yet to find anyone predicting the Patriots will fall off a cliff in 2018.
But it has been awhile, perhaps back in 2014, since the Patriots entered a season with less buzz.
The 2018 NFL predictions are starting to pour in, and they aren’t pumping up the Patriots. Nate Davis of USA Today has the Patriots finishing 11-5, and losing at home to the Chargers in the AFC Championship game. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports has the Patriots finishing 13-3, but losing at Jacksonville in the AFC title game.
The gambling website Bovada has the Patriots’ over/under total at 11 — the highest in the NFL by half a game, but a big step back from the 12.5 number entering last year.
An 11-5 season and a trip to the conference title game would be great for 31 other NFL teams, of course. But for the Patriots, it would be their worst season since 2009.
Why are the Patriots suddenly not everyone’s darlings? An offseason full of drama didn’t help. With quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski skipping the entire offseason program except mandatory minicamp, and dropping vague hints about their dissatisfaction with the team, it certainly left a negative impression in most minds.
But there are several football reasons why the Patriots are perceived to be on the downswing this season.
If the Patriots “won” the offseason last year by adding receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stephon Gilmore to a team that had just won Super Bowl LI, they decidedly “lost” it this year. They let cornerback Malcolm Butler, left tackle Nate Solder, receiver Danny Amendola, and running back Dion Lewis all leave during free agency, and made few, if any, impact additions.
Unlike last year, the Patriots have significant question marks on both sides of the ball — much more so than usual.
Who is going to catch the football?
Not only is the clutch Amendola now gone, but Julian Edelman will miss the first four games due to a suspension. At receiver, Chris Hogan is the only one to have significant experience with Brady. Other than Malcolm Mitchell, who might not be with the Patriots for long thanks to a bad knee, and Phillip Dorsett, who couldn’t earn Brady’s trust last year, everyone else is a newcomer battling for a roster spot — an underwhelming list that includes Jordan Matthews, Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson, Braxton Berrios, and Riley McCarron.
Brady still has Gronkowski, of course, but no established No. 2 tight end, with Dwayne Allen, Troy Niklas, and four practice-squad types battling for roster spots. The Patriots’ deepest receiving position is probably running back, where James White, Rex Burkhead, and Sony Michel are all above-average pass catchers.
But at receiver and tight end, the Patriots have significant question marks.
Can Brady return to MVP form? Will Gronkowski and Edelman be ready to roll?
Brady will be a good litmus test for the importance of offseason workouts. Is six weeks of training camp enough time to make up for the two months he missed in the spring? Will he be able to get on the same page with some of his new receivers in short time? And did he work out hard enough on his own?
Brady will face several tough defenses to start the season — Houston, Jacksonville, and Detroit, with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia — and he won’t have Edelman or Amendola.
By the same token, is Gronkowski going to be ready to go after working out on his own all offseason? Can Edelman return to form? Their play is even more crucial this year, given the losses of Amendola and Cooks. And the Patriots’ depth behind them looks worse than it did a year ago.
Who is going to protect Brady’s blindside?
Left tackle is an important position, and the Patriots don’t have anyone on the roster with much experience. Trent Brown, a massive man at 6 feet 8 inches, 355 pounds, is the early favorite to win the job. He played right tackle for the 49ers for three years, and has little experience at left tackle at the NFL level.
Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Matt Tobin, and Ulrick John also will be in the mix, but none is an accomplished left tackle.
Did the Patriots do enough to fix a leaky defense?
The last time we watched the Patriots play football, the defense surrendered 41 points and 538 yards to Nick Foles and the Eagles in Super Bowl LII. But they didn’t do much to fix the defense in the offseason.
Adrian Clayborn will bolster the pass rush, but he’s not exactly Khalil Mack, with just 30 sacks in seven NFL seasons. Danny Shelton will replace Alan Branch; Jason McCourty might replace Malcolm Butler; and Donta Hightower and Derek Rivers are coming back from injuries. But these seem like lateral moves at best, and Hightower, always banged up, remains an injury risk this season.
The good news for the Patriots is they tend to do well when expectations are lower. They have had 13 seasons under Belichick in which they lost their last game (or didn’t make the playoffs) — and six of those 13 times, the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl the next season, with four championships.
But Belichick doesn’t have to worry about keeping his team grounded this year. The media and prognosticators are doing it for him.