32 teams in 32 days: New England
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 23, 2008
We continue our team-by-team early off-season look at the NFL with the ...
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Well, who knew at the time that this would be as good as it would get for the Patriots last year?
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2007 record: 16-0 (589-274)
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 7-0
Expected W-L (based on PF/PA): 13.8-2.2
All-time franchise record: 366-349-9 (.512)
Playoff record: 21-13 (.618)
Last five seasons: 66-14 (.825)
Best Quality Stat in 2007: Scoreability (1st), Offensive Hog Index (t1st), Passing Yards Per Attempt (1st)
Best game of 2007: 52-7 at home vs. Washington (Week 8). It's hard to pick a greatest game from a season in which almost every week brought either a profound pummeling or an improbable comeback. But we'll settle on this mid-year destruction of the playoff-bound Redskins as the most dominant single game of New England's 16-0 season and the game which marked the zenith of its power.
The Patriots had laid 48 points on the inept Dolphins and 49 on the powerful Cowboys in the two previous weeks before hosting (and hosing) the Redskins. They scored virtually at will for the third straight week and held a 52-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter, with the final TD a 15-yard run by back-up QB Matt Cassell. Tom Brady tossed three TD passes to boast a mind-blowing 30 through the first eight games of the season and to become the first QB in history with 3 or more TD passes in the first eight games of the year. He also topped a 100 passer rating for the eighth straight game. One of his TD tosses went to Mike Vrabel, marking the 10th TD in 10 career receptions for the fulltime linebacker and part-time tight end. The Patriots set a franchise record with 32 first downs, while the Redskins did not get on the board until there was 2:53 to play.
Strength: Passing offense. Duh! The Patriots were clearly the top passing attack of 2007, and Tom Brady had one of the most productive passing seasons in history: most passing TDs (50), second highest passer rating (117.2), third most passing yards (4,806), and one of the lowest INT rates in history (1.4%). And as long as Brady is in the line-up they'll continue to be one of the league's elite passing teams – critical in a league where passing productivity means everything. But the 2007 Patriots were hardly one of the most efficient passing attacks in NFL history when you look at them through the most telling measure: passing yards per attempt. The Patriots averaged 8.3 yards per pass attempt in 2007 (and 7.8 Passing Yards Per Attempt using our adjusted formula, which takes into consideration sacks). The 8.3 YPA was good enough to be No. 1 in 2007, but hardly among the most efficient passing attacks in history.
Weakness: Secondary. The Patriots were merely mediocre in most major pass defense categories last year, allowing opposing passers a 78.1 rating and an average of 6.43 yards per pass attempt. It's particularly disconcerting for a club that was among the best in the league at forcing opponents into Negative Pass Plays, doing so on 11.52 percent of dropbacks.
Most underrated player: DE Ty Warren. On a defensive line loaded with first-round blue-chippers, Warren, a 2003 first-round pick out of Texas A&M, has evolved into the toughest, most consistent and most productive player in the group, even surpassing perennial Pro Bowler Richard Seymour in the eyes of many observers. Look for him to get more Pro Bowl attention in 2008.
Unit on the rise: Running backs. This is kind of a default honor. The Patriots have earned heaping amounts of praise at QB, WR, OL and DL, so it's hard to consider any of those elite units "on the rise." The linebackers have noticeably aged and certainly are not on the rise. The secondary, as noted above, is facing some issues. That leaves running back.
But there are legitimate reasons to consider it a unit on the rise: Kevin Faulk should have a couple years left in him as a playmaker and Laurence Maroney was certainly under-appreciated last year, his second in the NFL. With few things to bitch about, worry-wart Patriots fans fretted needlessly over Maroney. Yet in a pass-first offense, he rushed 185 times for 835 yards, a healthy 4.5 YPA – one of the highest averages in franchise history. And he came on strong at the end of the season, with four of his five 100-yard-plus games from Week 15 on, including two in the playoffs.
Oh, and lest we forget, Sammy Morris was impressive as New England's primary ball-carrier through the first five games, averaging 4.5 YPA with two 100-yard performances and clearly on pace for the best season of his career. He was injured (chest) in a Week 6 win over the Cowboys and placed on injured reserve, but he's still under contract for the next two seasons. He just turned 30 – not good for a RB – but has only 459 carries under his belt in the NFL.
Silly-season activity: The big news in New England has been the defections in the secondary, primarily the loss of top cornerback Asante Samuel, who was signed by the Eagles. Safety Eugene Wilson, a once promising DB who suffered numerous injuries, went to Tampa, and CB Randall Gay was signed by New Orleans. Among other name players, the Patriots released LB Rosevelt Colvin and TE Kyle Brady, an aging player used mostly as a blocker last year.
As for players they kept, the biggest, of course, was WR Randy Moss, who inked a three-year deal after his record-setting 2007 season. In addition to a slew of minor signings, New England re-upped LB Tedy Bruschi. Considered the team's spiritual leader, Bruschi's also led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons.
On the sidelines, the Patriots have already made one major move to shore up a secondary that's been raided by free agency: veteran NFL coach Dom Capers, who has nine years of head coaching experience, was recently brought in to be a special assistant working with the secondary.
Youth/experience: The Patriots look like they'll remain one of the older clubs in the league in 2008, with virtually the entire team boasting five or more years of NFL experience. The need to get younger at linebacker is well-tread territory around the seedy underworld of online pigskin analysis. But, other than Maroney, the Patriots have virtually no promising young prospects at the offensive skill positions, either. Even Tom Brady, once the NFL's boy wonder just a few short years ago, will be 31 when the 2008 season kicks off. He's still in that short sweet spot when elite NFL quarterbacks are at their peak (late 20s and early 30s), but Father Time marches quickly through pro football.
2007 Draft grade: F. Perhaps it's a testament to the deep pool of talent found on a 16-0 team, but the Patriots got about as close to nothing out of their 2007 draft class as is humanly possible. Contributions were made more difficult by the fact that New England selected just one player in the first three rounds, Miami safety Brandon Meriweather. And he was a bona fide under-achiever, stepping on the field in a handful of role-playing situations all season.
Of the eight other selections, only two players even made the roster, Notre Dame DB Mike Richardson and USC LB Oscar Lua, and neither one made a single appearance all year. Lua, in fact, was just released by New England – by a team desperate for young linebackers.
A single poor draft class can have serious effects on a team's future. And two piss-poor draft classes can be devastating. So anyone who thinks New England wasn't punished harshly over "SpyGate" – they lost their No. 1 draft pick – has a serious case of head-up-the-rectus. Scott Pioli & Co. are under extreme pressure to find productive young contributors at a number of positions in the 2008 draft.
2008 Draft power: 1st (7), 2nd (62), 3rd (69), 3rd (94), 4th (126), 5th (158), 6th (190), 7th (222)
General Draft strategies: The Patriots are so long in the tooth at linebacker that they get clubbed on remote Arctic islands for their tusks and blubber.
Bill Belichick, meanwhile, is known for his love affair with linebackers. He sits in on their positional meetings, for example, and has basically admitted it's his favorite position on the field. Yet in his eight drafts with the Patriots, he's never taken a linebacker in the first five rounds and has selected just five overall. Only one, Tully Banta-Cain (7th round in 2003), now with San Francisco, made any kind of impact on the NFL.
Based upon the current state of the linebacking corps, the dearth of young prospects, and Belichick's passion for the position, it seems from any outside observation that this trend must change in the 2008 draft.
Coaching: Bill Belichick remains the best coach in the NFL by any empirical measure: the best playoff record, the most rings, the only 16-0 season in history. Certainly, he lost some of the luster with the Super Bowl loss to the Giants. The fact that his team tanked it in the biggest game of the season – hell, perhaps in the biggest game ever – certainly comes with a cost to his reputation in a league in which one game can mean so much. Still, his resume outshines that of any contemporary coach.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees never coached in the NFL until joining the Patriots in 2004. He became DC in 2005 and, though his defense struggled that season, it has returned to what you expect from a Belichick team and has been among the league's best each of the past two seasons. Pees, however, has a big black mark on his resume: it's his defense that has surrendered long, last-minute, season-ending touchdown drives each of the past two seasons. In each case, his defense needed to limit the opponents (Colts and Giants) to a field goal and failed to do so.
But the great question mark on the coaching staff heading into 2008 – and the man whose reputation suffered the most with the Super Bowl loss – is offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. He's held the position for the last two seasons and last year oversaw the most prolific offense in modern NFL history. Naturally, he became a hot head coaching prospect. Pretty remarkable for a guy who won't turn 32 until April. But his offense looked lost in the Super Bowl and it remains one of the great mysteries in football history: how could a team that was literally unstoppable for much of 2007, a team loaded with offensive playmakers, simply have no answers for a mediocre Giants team (the defense surrendered 351 points) in the biggest game of the year?
McDaniels needs to prove he can answer that question if he's to regain his own boy wonder status.
McDaniels needs to prove he can answer that question if he's to regain his own boy wonder status.
Overview: The Patriots should once again be among the league's best offenses in 2008, if not the undisputed best as it was in 2007. The defense certainly looks like it couuld have issues. But it's hard to envision a scenario in which Belichick enters the new season without addressing these issues in painstaking detail. In fact, bringing in Dom Capers as an assistant to work with the secondary shows a concerted organizational effort to attack one of these potential weaknesses. Worst case, the Patriots field a top 10 defense.
Consider, too, that this organization has won an utterly remarkable (and NFL record) 66 regular-season games over the past five seasons, with a 77-17 (.819) mark including playoffs. And they've won many of those games with teams less talented than the one the Patriots will put on the field in 2008.
In other words, even with the devastating loss to the Giants, this remains one of the great victory-producing machines in sports history. Unless the Super Bowl loss eats away at their psyche and renders the team impotent in 2008, it's hard to envision anything worse than a 12-4 season and another deep run into the playoffs. Vegas, meanwhile, has already installed the Patriots as prohibitive favorites to win Super Bowl XLIII.
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