By Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan, Bruce Allen and Bill Barnwell
1 more day to the Senior Bowl.
26 more days to the NFL Scouting Combine.
35 more days to the start of the league’s free agency period.
92 more days to the draft.
About 105 days before the first mini-camps for rookies.
About 140 days before the veterans report for theirs.
About 185 days before training camp begins again.
About 225 days before the Patriots start a 2007 regular season schedule that includes the Indianapolis Colts, the San Diego Chargers, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants.
One more Roundtable before we can leave 2006 behind. Panel, it’s time to close the books. By the way, Tim packed a grip and split for the coast of Mexico after the game, so our friend Bill Barnwell from Football Outsiders is sitting in.
Let’s clear out any lingering thoughts from last weekend’s championship round loss to Indy.
Greg: The Colts deserved the game. It was close, a few yards here or there or a changed decision here or there and the result could have been a lot different. There were a couple points in the first half where the Colts were literally at a point of no return and could not have come back from if things had just gone slightly differently. Yet, they hung in there and thoroughly outplayed the Patriots in the second half. It was enough.
Bruce: I was shocked when Addai ran into the end zone with a minute left. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have been, given how things had been going for the second half, but it was still a slap in the face. I guess I never considered the possibility that the Colts would actually get a touchdown there, I had such faith that the Patriots would make the big play and stop them short, and force them to the field goal. When Addai went in, I was just unprepared for that moment. I knew a minute wasn’t enough time to get a touchdown, though it would’ve been enough for a field goal attempt, and that’s where I thought the game was headed. This game was almost a mirror image of the last time the two team met in the Dome…Patriots out to a big lead, Colts come charging back, big goal line sequence at the end, even the same score at the end of the game…just reversed. This time the Colts got the job done.
Bill: You’re the New England Patriots. You have the ball, up 34-31, with 3:22 left. You’re on your own 40 yard line. The Colts have punted to you after scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives, so you’re doing a far from admirable job of stopping them. Indianapolis has two timeouts left. Indianapolis is the owner of the second-worst run defense in football over the course of the regular season. How can you possibly throw three passes? Why do you think Heath Evans was in the huddle on first down when he shouldn’tve been? If you run the ball three times into the ground, you take 82 seconds off the clock and then hand the ball off to your punter, who’s been fantastic all day, to drive the Colts back. Alternately, the Colts get the ball back before the two minute warning with one or no timeouts. Either way, it’s to your advantage. Instead, the Patriots threw the ball twice and then nearly gave away the game on an interception with the third throw. Maddening. And I don’t mean an old fat guy, either; he would’ve run the ball down the Colts’ throats.
Scott: Just this. There’s 9:25 left in the second quarter, and Asante Samuel has just done his best Ty Law imitation on Peyton Manning. The Patriots lead 21-3 in a damn-near silent RCA Dome. The stunned Colts offense, their long-desired home matchup with their mortal enemies slipping away before it’s even begun, trudge back out for their next series, just trying to get off the field without inflicting any more damage to themselves. The Patriots, on the other hand, have an 18 point lead with just 40 minutes to play before Super Bowl 41. First down, Eric Alexander traps Peyton Manning before he can scramble away from pressure. Second down, the Patriots come again and blast Manning for an 11 yard loss. Third down, a Manning prayer for Marvin Harrison falls incomplete. The Colts punt from their own end zone, and Troy Brown returns the ball to midfield. Taking their time, they get one first down. Within seconds, Ben Watson is racing for another at the Indy 21. I turn to look at my wife, totally missing the flag on the play, and discover that she’s already looking at me. She’s smiling. I’m smiling back. We both shake our heads in amazement. They’re doing it again, I say. Again! Another Super Bowl! We just laughed. Neither one of us even imagined that at that minute we were watching the beginning of the biggest blown lead in the history of conference championship games. Neither one of us – especially then, at that giddy moment – could have ever believed such a thing possible.
Was this season a success?
Bruce: Given the standards that the team has set for themselves this decade, you have to say the end result was a disappointment. In a vacuum, I think it was a success. There was a lot of doubt in the minds of observers of this club heading into the season. That doubt continued all season. They stayed the course and did things their way and ended up 12-4 and in the AFC title game. For many franchises, that kind of season would make their decade. This year it is a disappointment.
Bill: Overall, I don’t think you can say it is. Beating the Chargers in one of the great fluke victories of all playoff time is nice, but the bloom is coming off the Patriots playoff rose. Winning the AFC East should have been expected. Laurence Maroney was broken in well and showed signs of being a future star, but the Deion Branch situation was mismanaged and led to an outcome that didn’t help the Patriots, a veteran team at the peak of their success cycle, head towards winning a Super Bowl. This isn’t the end of the Patriots dynasty, but I’m not sure if you can or will be able to associate the team the Patriots will put on the field in 2007 with the teams they put on the field in ’01, ’03, and ’04.
Scott: First blush, yeah. They made the conference championship with a chance for another Super Bowl. Obviously, they set higher standards for themselves, ones they didn’t reach, but as a fan, it’s extremely hard to call that a failure. I will say that I think its legit to question whether, in the end, they took a step ahead this year, or even maintained. They lost a lot of players and finished the season with as many, and perhaps even more, holes than they started with. There are some vital core players – such as the linebackers, and even the safeties – that are simply not the players they were, nor is it likely they will be again. There isn’t a raft of guys ready to take their place. Areas that were alleged to be thin arguably still are. The Felgerites think they they can solve all this by throwing around money, reaching out there to grab another Harrison or Colvin, but rational adults should understand by now that free agency has never been an NFL panacea. For every Rodney Harrison there are twenty Adam Archuletas. Signing someone to a fat contract doesn’t guarantee a thing. Signing the right someone may, but evidence overwhelmingly suggests that’s no easy chore. Nevertheless, you don’t want to be the kind of contender that finishes every season by plugging holes and gambling on first-time starters like Eric Alexander, either. There’s a lot of work to be done here, I think. Maybe even more than last year. And now they’re the team that blew a huge lead in the championship, a year after handing away another playoff game, two results that run counter to everything they have built over the last six years. Looking at things that way, I can’t argue for ‘success’.
Greg: Absolutely. Not the ultimate success, obviously. But hey, they were better than expected, developed some players who’ll contribue in their system down the road and the coaching seemed to improve after 2005 being somewhat of a transition year. I think you can look at it this way, a lot of changes occurred after the 2004 Super Bowl. These included big changes on the coaching staff and among the personnel. Since that time they have integrated critical guys like Ben Watson, Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, Ellis Hobbs, Stephen Gostkowski, Laurence Maroney and others. Dean Pees and Josh McDaniel have gained experience as coordinators. In some ways, they took a step back after 2004, but what caught people off guard is they didn’t go as far back as a lot of championship teams do. Some fall off the map. The Patriots stayed a playoff team. This year they went a step further. They have an offensive and defensive line full of guys in their twenties. They are on their way back up as I see it and took another step in that direction this season with a better year than they had in 2005, any way you look at it.
Which Patriots players exceeded your expectations this season? Which ones fell short?
Bill: I thought Vinny Testaverde had a much better year than anyone could’ve expected him to have. Kevin Faulk, amazingly, still produces despite being the poor man’s Tiki Barber. If you told me he’d have a longer career than Barber after last season, I’d have bet $100 against you. I think Ellis Hobbs took a big step forward this year, too — he’s not on the same level as Samuel, but he’s not a Fred Thomas or someone you’re afraid about whenever the opposing quarterback throws in his direction. Stephen Gostkowski was everything the Patriots could have hoped for: competent on field goals, fantastic on kickoffs. Considering the research FO’s done this year that points out how field goal percentage has absolutely no year-to-year consistency, I’m pretty confident Gostowski’s going to be useful for the next several seasons. On the flip side, well, I’ll talk about the linebacking crew in a minute. I’m also down on Ben Watson’s year, partly because of injury, but I think a lot of people expected more out of him.
Scott: I think we’ll all name the same guys for the ‘exceeded’ category, like Gaffney, or Gostkowski, and I’ll go ahead and throw in the name of Antwain Spann, just for that one hit on Eric Parker. As far as the ‘fell short’ guys, I might as well be the one to say it – Tom Brady. This is a classic case of the high bar, but he was badly off at times. Once considered perhaps the NFL’s most accurate short to intermediate passer, he threw a bunch of wayward curveballs and knuckleballs this year. Once considered an unimpeachable and unperturbable decision-maker, he was a little harried now and again, and even took to forcing some balls into coverage. He looked almost human. It was terrifying.
Greg: I think Ty Warren exceeded my expectations. I thought he was a good player. I did not know he could be a dominant player, but he was. As far as disappointments, I’d go with Chad Jackson. He has so much talent, but just didn’t really have it come together this year. He had moments, but far from enough. But there is still hope there, quite a bit in fact. Lets see where he is a year from now.
Bruce: Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney came on strong as the season went along, and proved to be at the very least a good second and third receivers. Gaffney even showed signed in the postseason of being a go-to guy for Brady in the future. What can we say about Stephen Gostkowski? Do you think any NFL rookie was under more scrutiny than this guy? Yet when the pressure was on, he was almost flawless late in the season. I think James Sanders made some good strides as well. On the downside, the linebackers outside of Colvin were a disappointment.
How would you describe the year that Bill Belichick just had?
Scott: It’s presumptuous, of course, but I would have to guess that it was probably one of the worst years of his life. The football stuff, you could write a book about. Somebody probably is. The personal stuff, I’ll leave to you to sum up. Any way the guy turned he was facing torment of some sort. I figure it was pretty miserable, as years go. The way it ended up was probably the fitting capper. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t concern me a little. I much prefer the Lombardi-hoisting Belichick to the fraught and fatigued Belichick.
Greg: I mean, the guy is a great coach. He makes mistakes, but I’d prefer him to any other coach in the league. I didn’t see any noticeable change in his excellent performance this year.
Bruce: For the first time in his tenure here, I’m beginning to worry that the end of the Belichick era might be on the horizon. I’ve always thought that he would be here as long as Brady is, but I just have no idea right now. I would like to think that he doesn’t let all the negative media attention get to him, but regardless of what guys like Borges say, he IS human. This stuff has to bother him after a while. The most recent loss has really brought out the worst in many of the media types, and the onslaught doesn’t appear to be ending soon. I feel for the guy.
Bill: If I had to guess which coach would’ve unexpectedly retired a week or two after the playoffs ended, I would’ve guessed Belichick before I did Parcells. What’s his motivation for coaching this team at this point?
As Mike Reiss wrote on Tuesday the Patriots have as many as 14 players now approaching unrestricted free agency. Most noteable are corner Asante Samuel, tight end Daniel Graham, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and key veterans like Troy Brown, Heath Evans and Larry Izzo. What are your thoughts about another challenging off-season of free agency for the Patriots?
Greg: To me, Graham is the key. Samuel and Banta-Cain are guys you’d want back, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost them. The rest are veterans who you’ll invite back, but its pretty much in their court. I’d actually like them to retain Todd Sauerbraun. I was very impressed with his punting after the first week he was here.
Bruce: I don’t see a scenario in which both Samuel and Graham are gone. I don’t know if both will be back, but I do think at least one will be here next year. Whether it is under the “duress” of the Franchise tag remains to be seen, but I think one will get that slapped on them. Graham would be my gut guess, as his number would only be about four and half million. I think Troy Brown has another year left in him, but it is up to him whether he wants to keep going. I think the team will be more active players than they were last offseason in bringing new blood in, and there are also two first round draft picks to think about.
Bill: It’s one thing to understand how freely available talent like a Heath Evans doesn’t need a long-term deal, and can be grabbed out of the market whenever you want. It’s another to assume that you can replace anyone you want whenever you want. The former’s economics, but the latter’s arrogance. That came up with the Branch situation. I’d hate to see it happen again with Samuel.
Scott: Oh, I can hardly wait. Hopefully, it will be every bit as enjoyable and entertaining as last off-season was. Maybe we’ll be so intrigued by their machinations that we’ll be moved to debate them all effing season long. Oh, I hope so. It’s what made this year extra-special. In short, I have no idea what they’ll do. Daniel Graham’s great, and I think he’s an important part of their offense, WHEN HE’S ON THE FIELD. So what do you do about that? Especially if he’s getting other offers. Do you just plow ahead and pay more than you were willing to pay? I’m just saying I can see how this stuff can get pretty dicey pretty quick. As far as Samuel, I don’t like the way this one feels at all. His agent complaining that the Pats didn’t push hard enough for a pro bowl slot two days after they spit the bit in Indy just doesn’t sound good to me. Let me ask you – are you sure that from here on out, Asante Samuel will play the way he did over the last two months of this season? Because he’s going to be getting paid like it, isn’t he? Something like eight million to franchise him? Before you whip out the debit card, ask yourself: was that a maturing player, or a salary drive? That’s a legitimate question, I think. A year ago at this time, how many people thought Asante Samuel was a must sign? How many people would have said ‘don’t pay Deion Branch six, but pay Samuel eight?’ You tell me.
Of course, those free agent decisions only represent a portion of the Patriots efforts to build their team for 2007. Naturally, they can recruit free agents from around the league, and they are well stocked with draft picks. They’ve also proven to be quite adept with street free agents and undrafted players. With this in mind, what areas of the team would you like to see the team focus on over the next six months?
Bruce: Linebackers is an obvious area, there are some candidates out there that might fit. I also wouldn’t mind seeing the team sign every possible body out there for the secondary as we’ve discussed the annual injuries in that area. Those would seem to be the most pressing needs, as well as seeing if there are any upgrades at receiver available.
Bill: I’m going to make a list of the Patriots linebackers who can still play at a championship-caliber level. Roosevelt Colvin. Hey look, I’m finished! Which, coincidentally, brings me to Mike Vrabel. His struggles this year really stood out to me — in coverage, getting to the point of attack, he was a step slower than he has been. The media hasn’t caught up with it yet, which is why it would be a good idea to hop on Tedy Bruschi’s bandwagon and retire this offseason. I love the guy, but he was a cypher this season. Junior Seau wasn’t much better. As for Banta-Cain, I just don’t see it. Not flashes of it, not weeks where he’ll turn it on, I just don’t see his development into a starting NFL linebacker beyond simply having the players in front of him disappear. Bruschi was the best the Patriots had outside of Colvin, but he’s also a step slower than he used to be — remember that lob Addai dropped early last week? He beat Bruschi by about two and a half steps. Bruschi would have been with him or at least closer a year ago. Again, he’s won three titles, he came back from a stroke; like Belichick, what does he have to prove? This team should be opening up the vault and its arms for Lance Briggs.
Scott: Defense, defense, defense. Obviously linebackers (middle first, then outside) and secondary (everybody talks about corners, but I’ll put in a word here for safety – how much longer can they depend on Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson?). I wouldn’t be averse to them finding another lineman either, somebody to push the Wrights and Greens. The offense got all the attention in last year’s draft, so as Vince McMahon Sr. used to say, turnabout is fair play. As far as free agency, the linebackers are probably the best group available. As far as wide receivers or defensive backs, the options don’t seem as apparent.
Greg: Linebacker. They have gotten a bit long in the tooth there, though they did integrate some young guys in Corey Mays, Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander. Still, they need more here and need to sign a top guy or spend a high draft pick here. The secondary needs work as well, particularly if Samuel leaves. A wide receiver or two, good ones, should be a priority as well.
Any early takes on the Super Bowl matchup between the Colts and the Chicago Bears?
Bill: My heart says Colts so that I never have to read another “Manning can’t do it in the playoffs” story again. Actually, I guess that would be my eyes. My head says Bears because their secondary is deep enough to guard all the Colts receivers, and they have linebackers that can shut down Dallas Clark. It would be a gimme if Tommie Harris was still around. As for Rex? He’s up against the Colts defense. They’ve been awful for sixteen weeks, great for two, and mediocre for one. It’s not as if he’s up against a juggernaut. Bears 23, Colts 13.
Scott: I have no idea what to expect, but I am sure hoping the Colts don’t turn into pumpkins a week from Sunday. That would make last week even worse. Plus, I think I’d enjoy Bill Polian’s Super Bowl hangover. That ‘Katrina’ sign at Soldier Field last week was enough to make me root against the Bears for another hundred years anyway.
Greg: I think the Bears can hang in there. They showed they are physical and tough and can run the ball against the Patriots. The Colts have too many weapons, though. I’ll go Colts 27-17.
Bruce: I find myself rooting for the underdog Bears, while knowing that that Colts are likely to win this game, possibly by a large margin. My only hope is that the physical Bears defense can knock the Colts around, cause some turnovers and miscues. It’s unfortunate that I find myself actually rooting against Tony Dungy because of a guy like Ron Borges. Dungy does seem like a nice man, but having Borges in his corner really does him no favors at all. With friends and supporters like him, who needs enemies?
Okay, men, you get one last parting shot. Mediot of the Week, or whatever you want. Last one out gets the lights.
Bruce: Well, since it’s a season wrap, I’ve got to give the season nod to Michael Felger, who completely sold his soul to media Satan this season. In order to generate attention for his radio show and TV program on FSN, Felger reversed himself on just about every stand he had made prior to this season and turned into what he had openly mocked in the past. It was embarrassing.
Greg: It’s a new season. All sins are forgotten. Until after the Super Bowl anyways, when I start paying attention again.
Bill: Remember when I was talking about freely available talent earlier? I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew I wasn’t talking about Ken Walter. Thanks.
Scott: First, thanks again to Greg, Bruce, Tim and Bill for a great season. Thanks as well to the folks who clicked on the page, and those who wrote us with their thoughts, or just encouragement. In the end, the chance to meet other fans who share our passion is reason enough to put the work in on the page. In the next week or so, we’re going to knock around some ideas for where to take BSMW Patriots Game Day from here. One thing we already know is that we’re going to stay active throughout the off-season, with periodic commentary on the the activities of the Pats, from free-agency to the mini-camps right up through the start of another training camp. We’ll also be focusing heavily on the draft and will probably be posting frequently on that subject through the months of March and April. We’re already looking forward to it. Check back here in a week or so and we’ll be posting our off-season schedule. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, we’d love to hear them. Just toss me an e-mail with your thoughts. Thanks, as always, for your continuing support. Have a safe – and quick – off-season.