Friday, January 29, 2010

Patriots 2010: Dynasty or Decline?

The Patriots worst playoff loss in 24 years shouldn't cloud the fact that the team stands on the cusp of re-establishing its dynasty for the next five seasons. There are several historical factors that play in their favor. And if they make the right moves this off-season, they could compete for Super Bowl berths through the 2015 season.

They already possess the two most important pieces of the puzzle: a championship quarterback and head coach. They also boast a young defense that allowed the fifth-fewest points in the NFL, and they have 4 of the top 53 draft picks in this year's draft (plus 2 first round picks in 2011), so they can restock their talent pool quickly.

But perhaps most important of all, if the current labor-negotiation situation stays the same, there will be no salary cap for the 2010 season. That means the Patriots can re-sign their high-profile players to favorable contracts, cut loose veterans who aren't working out, and pay free agents as much as they want with no negative impact on their salary cap going forward.

Additionally, some of their AFC rivals will be hurt by the uncapped year. The Colts, Chargers, Ravens, and Jets were among the last eight teams in the playoffs. And under an uncapped off-season, they won't be able to sign new free agents until they lose free agents of their own. So this is an historic chance to add talent while your main rivals can only re-sign their own players.

There will be other teams trying to use the uncapped year to their benefit, so it won't be easy. And the Patriots will have to change some of their philosophy about the draft, free agency, and player contracts to fully take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But if they think outside the box and go full bore, they have a chance to re-build their dynasty on the fly and end up with at least 15 years of greatness that will be considered among the best ever.

The Patriots should be bold in the next four months, aggressively pursuing free agents, re-signing the players they want and cutting those they don't, and using their many draft picks to set themselves up to contend for another five years.

Here are the steps they should take.

1. No More Draft Dodging

First off, the Patriots haven't drafted as badly as some in the media characterize it. A lot of the consternation about the Patriots recent drafts hasn't taken into account draft picks they traded to get veteran players. If you include those trades, the Pats have had very good or great drafts every year except one (2006) since Belichick took over the operation. For example, the only 2007 draft pick still on the roster is Brandon Meriweather; however, they traded three draft picks to get Randy Moss and Wes Welker. So when you add them to the mix the draft looks a lot more productive.

But in recent years they have traded down a lot and also traded picks from one year for higher picks the next year. That is fine when the draft doesn't have a lot of talent or you don't have significant areas of need. However, according to the experts, the 2010 draft is one of the deepest and most talented classes in years. And anyone who saw the Ravens pummel the Pats knows the local team needs a significant talent upgrade. So 2010 is not the year to trade for future picks or trade down for better value for the money.

2010 is the year to trade up and get the most talent at your positions of need. The team could even trade future picks to get young players this year, though that isn't essential. But what is essential is that they hit on as many of their picks as they can. It would be great if they contribute right away, but for the Pats to compete for the next five championships, they will need a draft more like 2003 (Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, Tully Banta-Cain, and Eugene Wilson) than 2006 (Stephen Gostkowski, Laurence Maroney, and just about no one else).

The Patriots greatest areas of need are as follows:
  • Defensive linemen who can collapse the pocket
  • Outside linebackers who can play pass and run
  • Tight ends who can create separation in the passing game
  • Cornerbacks with size, speed, and good ball skills
  • Offensive linemen
  • Running backs who can... well, run the ball
They could also use a punter but should pursue one in free agency instead.

2. Use Cap-less to Avoid Hap-less

The only silver lining to the Patriots playoff loss is that they weren't one of the last eight teams in the playoffs. Those teams have severe restrictions on their 2010 free agent activity. But the Patriots are free to sign as many players as they want, while the top eight playoff teams will have to wait for one of their free agents to leave before bringing in new ones.

And given that this is an uncapped year, there is virtually no limit on how much the Patriots can pay the players. And that is true for re-signing their own guys as well as free agents from other teams. For example, the Patriots can match any offer that Vince Wilfork gets, and with a dearth of talented nose tackles on the market, there is no real excuse not to bring him back. Even if the Patriots think Mike Wright or Myron Pryor can replace Wilfork, why take the chance? Re-sign Vince and let 'em all play for you next year -- it will help the team win more games, and the young guys would get a few more years learning under a Pro Bowl nose tackle.

The Pats can also sign their own players to contract extensions, and if they play it right, they can leave themselves plenty of salary cap room in the future. Tom Brady is the best example of this. His contract runs out after next year. So why not redo his contract and pay him $60 million this year and $1 million a year for each of the next four years? That puts 94% of the contract money on the 2010 uncapped ledger and allows them lots of salary cap flexibility for 2011 - 2015.

And as for bringing in free agents, not only are teams free to pay whatever they can afford, but they are not even limited by the 53-man roster. That only applies during the regular season; so the Patriots could bring in virtually as many players as they want at any salary level the player is willing to accept, and then only keep the players who work out well. So it also benefits the Patriots to bring in lots of talent and let the players compete for playing time and roster spots. For example, if they think they're thin at linebacker, they can sign Julius Peppers. And Shawne Merriman. And DeMeco Ryans. And... well, you get the idea.

Note: they should not bring in lots of mid-level free agents, as they have done in the past. That is a strategy to pursue in years when you are limited by the cap, not this year. At the end of the day they can only keep 53 players, so they should spend this particular off-season concentrating on quality, not quantity. If they want to go back to signing mid-level free agents in 2011, that's fine -- but 2010 is not the year to concentrate on players who might not even make the team.

The last thing to consider is how best to hurt your competition while helping yourself. Signing players from the Colts, Steelers, Chargers, Jets, Dolphins, and Bills, does double duty, as it helps your team and hurts your main conference and division rivals. So for example, getting Antoine Bethea helps you and hurts the Colts, which is a lot more valuable than signing Nick Collins from Green Bay, since the Packers play in the NFC.

3. Wallet, Meet Crowbar

In the past, the Patriots have paid top dollar for players who they believed were worth the money. They paid Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas more than anyone else offered. And they re-signed Randy Moss for more than any other team would have paid. But some years they left salary cap money on the table. It wasn't always their fault -- Deion Branch, for example, wouldn't resign, so some of the money they set aside for that purpose was never spent.

It's possible that their current building boom in Foxboro (Patriots Place, The CBS Scene, etc.) might have cut into money they had for bonus payments the past few years. But now is the time to make a full commitment to use all revenue streams, any money they have socked away, and any other resources they can bring to bear to get the players they need. With two major pieces in place (coaching and quarterbacking), this off-season -- and only this off-season -- offers them the ability to fix their problems quickly.

So put the construction on hold, pay your debts as slowly as you can, and use all your resources to rebuild the team this year. After all, if the Patriots decline into mediocrity, the stadium and everything around it will look a lot emptier in the future. And empty seats and parking lots are bad business; owner Bob Kraft knows that better than anyone.

4. Coach's Decision

The 2010 labor situation doesn't specifically impact this, but if the Patriots want to be Super Bowl contenders, they have to change how they hire and treat coaches.

The team has experienced a slow erosion of coaching talent since they started winning Super Bowls. Offensive and defensive coordinators Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel left in 2005, followed by Eric Mangini the next year, and Josh McDaniels in 2008. Dean Pees already left this year, and the team lost several other lower-level coaches along the way.

This is to be expected. When you win in the NFL other teams sign away your coaches to strengthen their team while weakening yours. But the Patriots rarely bring in coaches from outside the organization, and don't use them to their full potential when they do (e.g. Dom Capers). And the coaches they promote through the ranks take too long to grow into their new jobs (Josh McDaniels), are not fully trusted by Belichick (Bill O'Brien), or leave too quickly (Eric Mangini).

So starting this off-season, they should change two things:

A. They should hire the best coaches available, whether that is a promotion from inside or someone from another team.

The Saints hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from outside the organization last year, and the defensive improvement helped propel them to the Super Bowl. So sometimes it is best to hire from outside your team, and the 2009 Saints showed what the right hire can do.

If the Patriots expect to compete with teams that will hire the best available coaching talent, they have to do the same. Without input from outside coaches, the offense and defense have gotten stale, and the team wastes too many years grooming coordinators who aren't ready for the job. And inevitably those coordinators either flame out (Dean Pees) or are signed away from the Patriots before they can benefit from the years spent teaching them (Mangini).

B. They should not hire coaches in whom Bill Belichick has less than 100% confidence about their ability to do the job.

Once coaches are in place, they must be trusted to implement the game plan and communicate adjustments on game day. In recent years, Belichick has spent too much time making in-game adjustments on defense while his offense suffered. It probably cost them the a championship in 2007, and last year the offense needed help but the head coach was busy doing Dean Pees' job for him.

It is incredible that the coach who made "do your job" an organizational mantra would think it doesn't apply to him. But it is about time he took his own advice. So two simple rules to follow for hiring coaches: (1) get the best coach available, and (2) once they are in place, let them do their job.

As for which coaches they should consider replacing, here is my list:
  • Defensive coordinator, because they don't currently have one
  • Offensive coordinator, because they don't currently have one
  • Tight ends, they never get enough production from that position
  • Cornerbacks, they haven't played well since Mangini left
  • Quarterbacks, because they don't currently have one
  • Strength and conditioning, because they annually suffer more injuries than other teams

So here the Patriots stand, on verge of becoming one of the great NFL dynasties ever. And with an uncapped 2010 falling into their lap when they need it most, it is all there in front of them. Belichick can be considered perhaps the greatest coach in history; Brady the greatest quarterback; Kraft the greatest owner; and the New England Patriots the greatest team of the Super Bowl era.

Bob Kraft modeled the Patriots after the San Francisco 49ers. Well, those Niners won 5 Super Bowls in a 14-year span. So if he wants to emulate them, Kraft will have to win it all twice in the next five years. And the uncapped 2010 off-season and the 2010 draft are his best chance at immortality.

Will he go for that brass ring? We won't know until free agency starts on February 27th. So stay tuned.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!


  1. My priorities for this off season:

    1) Sign Vince Wilfork
    2) Get a stud outer linebacker
    3) Get a shut-down corner
    4) Get a GOOD primary running back (committee isn't working)

    Also, they need to either get a serviceable fullback or move the 'Law Firm' to fullback. I think with some work Maroney might make a serviceable replacement for Kevin Faulk - he can't play forever, although we all wish he could.

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