2006 Patriots: A Look Into The Crystal Ball

The New England Patriots are the anomaly in the NFL's pantheon of rise and fall dynasties. When everyone expects the team to take its inevitable plunge to the depths of the league of 32, it looks ever more probable that instead they will compete for another shot at the Lombardi Trophy. The annual quest has the Patriots and their fans thinking this may be the year, again.

Despite the fervent hopes of gamblers, stockbrokers and obsessive compulsives, things don't always proceed in neat, orderly lines.

A doesn't always lead to B, conventional wisdom frequently falls short, and the best political science cant tell you a winner until all the votes are counted.

This is all good news for NFL fans, who would be bored to tears on Sundays if everything went to plan.

There is the sense, though, that team success flows in a predictable fashion. From 5-11 to 7-9 to 9-7 to dreams of glory. And from glory, to mediocrity, to rebuilding.

After two straight titles for the Foxboro faithful, everything on the 2005 Patriots was out of whack. The pass defense, so steady throughout the Patriot reign, was horrible, close to the worst in the league in every meaningful category. The running game, so alive in 2004, was also among the worst in the league.

They played their worst football against the good teams, snuck into the playoffs with a second-half surge against also-rans, and

Sounds for all the world like a team on a straight line downward, right in the middle of that natural arc back to the pack.

So the question is this: was 2005 a fluke, or a sign of things to come?

Perhaps the answer is both.

When Tedy Bruschi sat out the first eight games and Rodney Harrison got injured in Week 3, the Patriots were like a baseball team without a catcher, letting the ball go to the backstop on every pitch and trying to figure out how to win anyway. The secondary didn't know what the heck it was doing, and it showed if you have a weakness in the NFL, other teams are going to pound it relentlessly. No sympathy on the football field.

On offense, the line was putting together different combinations every week, and Corey Dillon was limping to whatever holes were created. It wasn't a pretty picture. The Patriots were still a great team, but you can only take so much. A year later, with everyone healthy (and wealthy, at least on a scale that involves real life), it seems that the off year was just that: one year, and not so bad anyway.

But if you extend 2005 through the postseason and offseason, you could definitely make a case that the struggles were a sign of things to come.

Much has made of the Patriots' shrewd frugality, their unwillingness to overpay players regardless of emotional ties. But is it starting to backfire?

The Deion Branch holdout, which has been scored a TKO for the Patriots in the world of public opinion, still points out a growing problem: the Patriots are not viewed as a team that takes care of players. Does that mean that they wont get players? Not necessarily. But consider that they enter the 2006 season more than $15 million under the salary cap, and with some holes that need filling. Are they open because of some larger plan, or because they couldn't lure the players they wanted to New England in the offseason?

Willie McGinest is leading the charge in Cleveland, and the Patriots are starting Tully Banta-Cain in his place. Rookie Stephen Gostkowski is learning on the job while Adam Vinatieri kicks in Indy. David Givens got a lot of money from Tennessee (and is on the injury list), but the Patriots have the unimpressive Reche Caldwell in his place.

In the secondary, Harrison is back, but so are the rest of the key players that found themselves chasing renegade receivers all around the field. The development of Ellis Hobbs, Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel will be a deciding factor for this team as it assesses its chance for another Super Bowl.

Ah, but there's still Tom Brady, a lot of talent on both sides of the trench, and a three-headed running back monster. And there's still Bill Belichick, the man with the plan. In Bill they still trust, and for good reason even during a lost 2005 season, they still made it to the NFL's final eight. The Patriots' 2006 team has some growing pains to get through, but even if it's a bit of a transition year it doesn't seem to be just another dot on a line chart.

The Patriots have gone from an old team to a young one while retaining the core, and with money to spend in the offseason have a solid future & assuming that they haven't made New England an unpopular destination for free-agent tourism.

As for 2006, its tough to see how it'll all shake out.

But then again, if we knew that, there'd be no reason to watch it all happen. At the very least, things are going to be interesting on the way to Point B.

Jonathan Comey is a special contributor to Patriots Insider. A former sports editor and Patriots beat writer, he lends his experience and wealth of football knowledge to Patriots Insider readers. Jonathan's articles can be found regularly on PatriotsInsider.com or you can read past articles by searching for "Jonathan Comey" in the archives. His book "The Poker Trip," about his cross-country travels playing poker, is available on his website www.jonathancomey.com


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