Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Top 5 Patriots Stories of 2011

It was a tumultuous 2011 in the NFL. The Detroit Lions in the playoffs for the first time this century, the Green Bay Packers drive for immortality derailed by a non-playoff team with an interim coach (Kansas City), the San Francisco 49ers improved by at least six wins while the Indianapolis Colts dropped by at least seven, and the once-mighty NFC East stumbled to the finish with no better than 9-7 taking the crown.

No surprise that the New England Patriots provided a beacon of consistency in a league gone mad. Despite finally losing a game to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots wrapped up another division title early. And with a come-from-behind win over the Miami Dolphins last weekend, they nailed down a first-round playoff bye and can lock up the #1 AFC seed with a victory over the Bills this weekend.

However, 2011 was not all sunshine and adulation in New England. Head Coach Bill Belichick’s personnel decisions were questioned like never before, the defense has given up more yards than any other team, and some commentators wondered if there were too many “Yes Men” on the coaching staff.

With both naughty and nice things in mind, here are the top Patriots stories of 2011.

Story #1: Jets Beat Patriots in Playoffs

The Patriots rolled into the 2010 post-season. A 14-2 record gave them the #1 AFC seed; they won their last eight games, and beat six consecutive playoff teams (including a 45-3 dismantling of the New York Jets). Quarterback Tom Brady was on an NFL record streak of 348 passes without an interception, and his receiving corps rounded into shape nicely after the departure of Randy Moss.

None of that mattered. The Jets picked off Brady early and played mistake-free football in a 28-21 win that bounced the Patriots out of the playoffs. The teams appeared to reverse roles. New England turned the ball over, blew a crucial fake punt, and refused to run for three quarters against a defense that dared them to run.

After the regular-season loss, Jets head coach Rex Ryan had told Belichick that he’d see him in the playoffs. The Patriots' head coach reportedly just stared at him, dumbfounded. And “dumb” is how Belichick coached when Ryan’s prediction came true and they met in January.

The sting of that loss informed multiple off-season changes and decisions about how to improve the team. In fact, it led directly to the second Patriots second-biggest story of 2011...

Story #2: Robert Kraft Helps End Lockout

After seeing another year of Brady’s career end without a championship, Patriots owner Robert Kraft was clearly determined to have a complete season and a shot at another Super Bowl. And with labor negotiations breaking down, we now know that Kraft stepped in to restart them and see them through to a successful end. Both DeMaurice Smith (head of the Players Association) and Jeff Saturday (player representative of the rival Indianapolis Colts) said that without Kraft the season would have been lost.

The players respect Kraft as one of the few who view the owner-player relationship as a partnership. He built his franchise around high-profile stars and serviceable role-players groomed from within the organization, and Kraft has always worked with players on their personal charitable endeavors. And despite recent claims that he holds too firm a line on salaries, the players know that at least ten times Kraft paid players the top salary for their positions.*

Even though Kraft deflected praise after the the agreement was ratified, it’s clear the 2011 season would have been shortened or canceled outright without his work behind the scenes. And the fact that he did it all while shuttling back-and-forth from a wife who was dying makes it all the more impressive.

3. Big-name Busts, Little-known Gems

Once the lockout ended, the football world was abuzz over the Patriots' big-name acquisitions. They traded for defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth and receiver Chad Ochocinco, the former a reclamation project and the latter a player long coveted by Belichick. Unfortunately, the Patriots' head man couldn’t work his magic with either player.

Haynesworth played better in the pre-season than he did once the real games started. He missed several weeks with a lingering back injury, and though he showed flashes of his pocket-crushing past, he finished with a disappointing three tackles and was cut after dogging it in the Patriots' 24-20 loss to the Giants. Reportedly he argued with defensive coaches and was sent to the showers early.

Ochocinco never learned the offensive terminology well enough to be a factor. He continues to miss routes and barely gets any playing time. He also caused at least one Brady interception and has had words with the Patriots quarterback in most every game. All reports are that Ochocinco works extremely hard, staying after practice every day to learn more. But aside from a few first down curls or longer fly routes, he can’t master the intricacies of the Patriots' quick-hit offense.

On the other side of the ledger, the Patriots got great value from mid-tier trades and signings. Defensive end Andre Carter was a high-motor player, who not only got to the passer (10 sacks) but held the edge well against the run and reportedly played almost 80% of the defensive snaps. (Unfortunately, he is injured and out for the playoffs.)

And offensive lineman Brian Waters was a late addition to the roster. He stepped right in on opening day, no doubt helped by working in a similar system for the Kansas City Chiefs, and he has been the team’s second-best lineman all year. Waters is great at run blocking, and learned the protection schemes well enough to help cover for the four centers the Patriots have used this year. And no surprise: Waters is on his way to his sixth Pro Bowl after an outstanding season.

Story #4: Rob Gronkowski Achieves Superstardom

Tight end Rob Gronkowski’s historic 2011 season can’t be overplayed. He showed flashes of brilliance last year, but this season he tore up NFL defenses in ways no tight end ever has.

Gronkowski’s size and strength make him a match-up nightmare and allow him to get separation before catch and shed tacklers after. He is far and away Brady’s favorite target in the red zone, as evidenced by his 15 touchdown catches, an NFL record for tight ends. And ranks Gronkowski as the best run-blocking tight end in the game. To borrow a phrase, he is the total package.

In addition to the touchdown record, Gronkowski’s 1,219 yards rank seventh in the NFL -- and he’s just 72 yards short of setting the record for tight ends. Also, his 82 receptions are fifth in the league this year -- all the more impressive given that he shares the field with NFL leader Wes Welker (116 catches).

Gronkowski possesses acute football instincts, learning the offense right away (obviously not easy -- just ask Ochocino). And he and Aaron Hernandez (in concert with new tight ends coach Brian Ferentz) turned this once lackluster position into one of immense strength. Gronkowski is headed for his first Pro Bowl this year, and if he stays healthy, it will be an annual pilgrimage he will make for years to come.

Story #5: Belichick Under Fire

The fact that about 25 of the 32 teams would drop their head coach in a minute to hire Belichick did not insulate him from criticism this year. In fact, he survived more venom this year than any since Spygate, owing to the yearlong struggle in pass defense and some of the cuts made to start the year. Once an untouchable icon in New England, some rust started to show on his legacy.

Media pundits assailed Belichick for drafting poorly and for too many free agent misses. They faulted him for sticking with a “value signing” system in the face of supposed evidence that it hasn’t worked in years. And as evidence of poor drafting they cited the pre-season release of safeties Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders, corner Jonathan Wilhite, and receiver Brandon Tate.

Maybe more shocking were rumblings that the coaching staff had too many Belichick clones and that the man himself had begun to lose his touch on defense. Exhibit A was the team’s 32nd ranking in passing and overall defense, and Exhibit B was their poor offensive performances to start games (thought to show a lack of innovative preparation). It was theorized that his staff didn’t have the football knowledge or the guts to say “No” to the man who taught them everything they knew about the game.

The truth, of course, is more complex than those oversimplifications. Every upper-echelon team cuts the majority of their draft picks; there isn’t enough room on a talented roster for every young talent.. And at least the Patriots don’t overpay free agents, so if they don’t work out they can cut them without impacting the salary cap.

As for the defense, it is true the team ranks 32nd in yards allowed (note: the Packers rank 31st) and 24th in opponent passer rating (88.1). But the team is 14th in scoring defense (21.4 points per game), outperforming the Bears, Broncos, Jets and the Lions. Also, the Patriots are 3rd in turnover differential (+14), and they excel at stopping teams in the red zone.

But no matter where you fall on the pro- or anti-Belichick scale, the once unquestioned head coach caught a lot more heat this season than he has in years.

Underplayed Story: Continued Dominance

One underplayed story of 2011 is the Patriots somehow remaining dominant in the AFC. The Colts lost their quarterback and the season fell apart. The Baltimore Ravens looked unbeatable one week and unfathomable the next. The Houston Texans won their division but enter the playoffs with uncertainty at quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Patriots handily but look like long shots to win their own division. And the Jets, who knocked New England out of last year’s playoffs, are even longer shots to make the post-season.

Meanwhile, the Patriots chugged along -- winning the AFC East for the ninth time in eleven years. They can secure the #1 seed with a win over Buffalo this weekend, and since  Belichick came to town, only once has any AFC East team won more games than the Patriots.

The team no longer plays the kind of defense it did in 2003-2004. But despite all the personnel miscues, the drain of coaching talent, and the pressure of being the team everyone wants to beat, the Patriots are in position to make another deep run in the playoffs. Their record speaks for itself, and it is especially underplayed when a 12-4 or 13-3 season and a first-round playoff bye registers barely 5% of the local sports coverage.


In a nutshell, those are the five biggest (and the one underplayed) New England Patriots stories of 2011. Stay glued to your television this January, you are bound to see the first of the “Top 5” for 2012 one weekend coming up. It might even happen in February, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

A safe and happy New Year to you all, and thank you for stopping by.

- Scott

* For those of you scoring at home, here is the list of players Kraft signed to the richest deals (at the time) for their positions: Drew Bledsoe, Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Tom Brady (twice), Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas, Vince Wilfork, and Logan Mankins.

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