More than a week after the Pats' second late-game championship loss to the New York Giants in four years, it isn't so much a matter of New England players getting back to the drawing board as it is perhaps imperative that team officials hit the negotiating table. The Pats have barely assigned the latest Super Bowl loss to the rearview mirror of history and it is already time to navigate the road ahead.
And the future, while hardly a minefield of potholes, looks something like this: The window of opportunity isn't exactly closing on the Pats, not as long as Tom Brady, his Super Bowl foibles aside, is still the quarterback. But New England's ability to legitimately contend for another title might be as dependent on what transpires leading up to free agency as it does anything that occurs on the field.
Free agency begins in exactly a month and, while that is an eternity in the NFL, particularly with a franchise for whom so many want to play, the Patriots have considerable work to do. The Pats currently have 17 unrestricted free agents. Some teams have more, and a few actually have as many, or more, starters.
But there aren't a lot of franchises with as many critical players as the Pats.
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Both of the starting wide receivers, Wes Welker and Deion Branch, are among the unrestricted free agents. Welker has 111 or more receptions in four of his five seasons in a New England uniform, and Branch is the team's best outside receiver. The pair combined for nearly 90 percent of the catches in 2011 by New England wide receivers. No other wideout on the team had more than 15 receptions, and the clearly flawed Chad Ochocinco/Johnson was the only wide receiver not named Welker or Branch to score a touchdown. And he scored one.
The roster of unrestricted players also includes tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who isn't a wow-factor back, but is serviceable in the New England offense, and has never fumbled. He is selfless fit in the locker room, a trait always important to coach Bill Belichick. And after Green-Ellis, no Patriots running back had more than one touchdown in 2011.
The team's two leading sackers, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson, both of whom notched 10 sacks after being imported as free agents to help transition to a 4-3 base front, are unrestricted. Ditto, centers Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly, along with ace special-teamer Matthew Slater and starting safety James Ihedigbo.
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Not all that long ago, there existed in the league a feeling that Belichick could take just about anybody, initiate him into the Patriots' fraternity, and win. But the Pats haven't won a Super Bowl title in seven seasons, the disasters with defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and a few other veterans has demonstrated that a player can't be instantly inculcated into the "Patriots Way," and roster turnover of the kind of Patriots have had the last couple seasons isn't conducive to sustained success.
Of the 53 players on the New England Super Bowl roster, 17 were new to the team in 2011. Sure, free agency is about churning rosters every season, as history has demonstrated. But the two constants of the Patriots' brilliant run, Belichick and Brady, haven't been enough to land New England a Super Bowl championship since the 2004 season.
Time for the New England front office to put the Super Bowl XLVI loss behind it and follow Mayo's advice to get "back to the drawing board."
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.
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