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Patriots need a change in philosophy

Monday, January 20, 2014

 

It’s time to change the formula in New England, because this one doesn’t work anymore. And it hasn’t worked for quite some time.

Surrounding a Neiman Marcus quarterback like Tom Brady with Walmart talent is not only an insult to the player and the fans who spend their hard-earned money at Bob Kraft’s Pleasure Palace on Route 1, it’s also a foolproof way to guarantee you’ll look sharp enough to score a dance with the prom queen, but not nearly suave enough to get her alone in your limo at midnight.

Year in, year out, the rallying cry in Foxboro is the Patriots’ ability to do so much with so little, or sustain multiple injuries, as if no one else gets banged up playing the world’s most violent sport. After a while, aren’t you tired of having so little? Why not set the bar higher and have, I don’t know, a lot?

Why not be Denver, which had Wes Welker, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas and Demaryius Thomas catching passes in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game? Asking Brady to beat Denver and win a Super Bowl with Tin Man Danny Amendola, rookie Aaron Dobson and the oft-injured Austin Collie, who’s had more head trauma than Evander Holyfield, is like handing him a pocketknife and expecting him to conquer Syria. The two-time Super Bowl MVP didn’t take a pay cut for this.

Whether you believe the Patriots are too cheap to retain or acquire top-flight talent, or not smart enough to develop it through the draft, the fact remains this team has been way too top-heavy in recent years, relying on cast-offs, reclamation projects and undrafted rookies to complement the remnants of their decaying Super Bowl dynasty, which is now down to Brady and Vince Wilfork. Unless, of course, you really thought the clock wouldn’t strike midnight on LeGarrette Blount, who didn’t do anything noteworthy for three and a half months before turning into Walter Payton and was so bad last year the Buccaneers will willing to take a seventh-round pick just to get rid of him.

The old rallying cry in Foxboro used to be that player No. 1 on the 53-man roster wasn’t that much better than player No. 53, a testament to their depth. Now it’s five, maybe 10, legit playmakers and a bunch of not-ready-for-primetime players. That might be good enough to win a historically-bad division year in, year out, but when the you-know-what hits the fan in the postseason and it’s time to play the upper crust, the Patriots don’t stack up.

Excuse-mongers say it’s hard to win in the postseason. They’re right. It’s even harder when you pluck 75 percent of your roster from the clearance bin at Job Lot and have all the flaws that were previously covered up by playing in an awful division exposed under the bright lights of playoff football.

Where’s the help? The Patriots let Welker walk during the offseason and sign with the team that just bashed its face in on Sunday over a few million dollars and then overreacted by throwing $31 million at Amendola, who still hasn’t played a full season in four years, when they already had their Welker replacement in Julian Edelman. With attractive free agents like Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings on the market, New England stood pat, hoping a pair of unproven rookie receivers and their tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez would be enough reinforcement for a 36-year-old quarterback whose window of opportunity closes with each playoff failure.

No one could’ve predicted Hernandez getting arrested and charged with murder, even if he was a risky bet coming out of college, but banking on Gronkowski, who had undergone surgery seven times entering this year, to play a full season was wishful thinking. The Patriots needed real reinforcements and instead dropped the ball. Even with lousy quarterbacks throwing to them, Wallace and Jennings hauled in more yards than anyone on New England’s roster not named Edelman. One of those two might’ve given Brady a fighting chance Sunday in Denver against Peyton Manning and all of his weapons.

Rebuilding through the draft when Brady was still in his prime at 29, 30 years old with enough time left to let his new talent develop would’ve made sense, not when he’s 36 with one, maybe two, effective seasons left on his tired right arm. He might not even be around anymore if and when Dobson and fellow rookie Kenbrell Thompkins develop into legitimate starters. The Patriots actually got it backward, reloading in 2007 with Welker, Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth when Brady was still 30, and then passing on equally-attractive free agents this year in lieu of two rookie wideouts knowing their 36-year-old quarterback is quickly approaching the back nine.

Lord knows they’ve tried to fight the inevitable retirements and player defections over the years by rebuilding through the draft, but of their 26 selections between 2005 and 2007, only two are still around (Stephen Gostkowski and Logan Mankins). And while it’s gotten better in recent years with the defensive acquisitions of Jerod Mayo, Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower, why does it still feel like we’re singing the same old tired refrain of being depleted and undermanned defensively when it’s time to strap up?

Playing the injury card doesn’t work anymore. The Broncos entered Sunday’s game without their top defensive back (Chris Harris) and top pass rusher (Von Miller), both of whom suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back weeks, and they still figured out a why to stifle Brady until he padded his numbers during garbage time. Why don’t the Patriots have enough depth to do the same? More importantly, where’s the outrage over being so overmatched or simply not stacking up with the Seattles, Denvers and San Franciscos of the world?

The Patriots work well enough with what they have, but the finished product lacks flavor when the cupboard’s bare. Whether it’s shuffling the player personnel department or revisiting their draft philosophy, something’s got to give. Year in, year out, the Patriots find themselves in the same position in January lamenting what they didn’t have and patting themselves on the back for giving it the old college try. The ragtag, patchwork shtick has run its course. It’s time for a new formula.

Why not strive for more?
 

 

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