New England's statistical free fall

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 01, 2008



The political talk out of Washington is filled with warnings of an economic free fall.
 
But when talk turns to the politics of pigskin in New England, the warnings are of a team in a statistical free fall.
 
The Patriots are dropping faster than your 401(k), and it goes beyond the loss of quarterback Tom Brady. The Patriots have also drafted poorly in recent years, and bad drafts drag down teams faster than ACORN mortgages drag down lenders.
 
New England, in other words, might have been in trouble this year, even if Brady was playing. But certainly the loss of the most important individual player in NFL history has illuminated the structural flaws in the New England dynasty for all to see.
 
Sure, it's just three games into the season, but the trend is so clear that even a dirty Congressman on the take (all of 'em in other words) could figure it out: the Patriots are just a shadow of the 16-0 juggernaut that was so dominant in 2007 that it was routinely criticized for running up the score.
 
The Importance of Being Brady
There was no doubt the loss of Brady would have an immediate impact on New England's fortunes this year. After all, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts, and others, have noted many times, Brady is the single most important player in NFL history.
 
More so than any other individual performer, Brady sparked a change in fortunes for the organization, his coach and even the NFL in general unlike any seen before.
 
Don't just take our word for it. Consider the findings of Coach T.J. Troup, a native of Tustin, California, and one off the nation's preeminent pro football historians.
 
Back in April 2007, Troup invited the Cold, Hard Football Facts crew down to Charlotte to be on the set of "Leatherheads," the George Clooney football flick that was released early this year. Troup was hired by Clooney as a technical advisor for the film. He's also provided research for NFL Films and a number of NFL teams.
 
After filming was done for the day, the crew and the Coach sat down in a Charlotte bar for two of our favorite activities: pounding frosties and talking the Great American Game. 
 
Troup was asked if he could name a single player in NFL history who had a greater impact on his team, his coach or the league itself than Brady.
 
He couldn't. The eminent historian did come up with one possibility: Steve Van Buren, the Hall of Fame running back who led the Eagles to their glory years – in the 1940s!
 
That's a long way to go to find a comparison, and a pale one at that.
 
Long story short: the loss of an unprecedented player in Brady was destined to have an unprecedented impact on the Patriots.
 
The Brady Fallout
The evidence of the post-Brady fallout so far is evident in the Cold, Hard Football Facts and in our Quality Stats – stats that have a direct correlation to winning football games
  • The Patriots last year ranked No. 1 in our Offensive Hog Index, our measure of each team's offensive line. This year they rank 22nd.
  • The Patriots last year ranked No. 1 in passing yards per attempt, probably the single most important statistical indicator of success in all of sports. This year they rank 25th.
  • The Patriots last year ranked No. 1 in Scoreability, our measure of offensive efficiency. This year they rank 25th.
  • The Patriots last year ranked No. 1 in Relativity, our measure of how each team performs relative to the quality of their opposition. This year they rank 28th, ahead of only the dregs of the NFL (Texans, Chiefs, Lions, Rams).
The defense has not been immune either, folks.
  • The Patriots last year ranked 11th in defensive passer rating, one of the key indicators of defensive success. This year they rank 26th.
The evidence is scant at this point in the season. After all, the Patriots have played just three games. But the trends are fairly obvious: the Patriots are in a world of hurt – especially when you consider the poor quality of their opposition so far in 2008.
 
The Patriots last year were 7-0 against teams with winning records – and crushed almost all of them. This year they can barely beat the pathetic Chiefs and were smoked like a Cuban robusto against the sickly Dolphins.
 
The Draft Fallout
There is another critical problem with the Patriots, and it's their poor draft classes in recent years.
 
This problem doesn't generate nearly as much talk or interest as the Brady impact. After all, draft classes don't jet-set around the world with super models or appear on the cover of Esquire magazine.
 
Yet it might be an even bigger tissue than the loss of the Hall of Fame quarterback.
 
If there is one irrefutable fact of life in the NFL, it's that teams – for better and for worse – are built through the draft.
 
Great drafts lead to great teams, and do so almost immediately. Bad drafts lead to bad teams. And, again, they do so almost immediately.
 
Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain dynasty of the 1970s is the classic example. The Steelers grabbed a franchise quarterback (Terry Bradshaw) in 1970 and a franchise running back (Franco Harris) in 1972.
 
Then they pulled off the coup of the century (in the non-Third-World-dictatorship division), landing four Hall of Famers in the 1974 draft: John Stallworth, Lynn Swann, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert. It's no coincidence that the Steelers won their first NFL championship the following season and would become the first and only team to win four Super Bowls in six seasons over the next six years.
 
The 49ers of the 1980s, the Cowboys of the 1990s and the Patriots of the 21st century all provide perfect examples of great champions forged through great draft classes.
 
In recent years, though, New England's productive classes of early in the decade have taken a turn for the worse.
 
The jury's still out (way out) on the Class of 2008. But only top pick Jerod Mayo looks like an impact player of some merit at this point.
 
New England's top pick in 2007 was Brandon Meriweather, who has yet to live up to the impact of a No. 1 pick.
 
Even die-hard Patriots fans have probably forgotten the rest of the Class of 2007: Kareem Brown, Clint Oldenburg, Justin Rogers, Mike Richardson, Justise Hairston, Corey Hilliard, Oscar Lua and Mike Elgin. Not one of them is on New England's roster today.
 
We haven't felt a draft that bad since we slept under our bridge during the Blizzard of '78.
 
The top two picks in 2006 were Laurence Maroney and Chad Jackson. Maroney remains a potentially explosive player, but when the word "potential" is still attached to the name of a No. 1 pick in his third season, it's trouble. No potential surrounding Jackson: He was a bust. Contributors did come later in the draft in David Thomas, Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan O'Callaghan and Le Kevin Smith. But that's hardly the kind of impact draft you need to sustain a dynasty.
 
You have to go back to 2005 to find an impact draft class selected by Bill Belichick & Co. Five members of that class are (or have been) starters: Logan Mankins, Ellis Hobbs, Nick Kaczur, James Sanders and Matt Cassell.
 
But after two poor draft classes in 2006 and 2007, and few signs yet that the most recent class will be anything special, a possible free fall here in 2008 his hardly a surprise.
 
The loss of the most important player in NFL history merely means there's nobody around to provide the costly bailout.

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