Patriots Postmortem

It was a season of high hopes and even higher expectations, but the New England Patriots fell victim to the great neutralizer of the NFL: Parity.

A remarkable overtime victory against Miami that capped a 9 - 7 campaign was not enough to propel the Patriots into the playoffs when the New York Jets stole the AFC East title right out from under their noses.

The season opened with a new stadium, a thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, and eventually a 3 - 0 record. Media pundits all over the country began to sing the chorus that sparked the probable over-expectations that plagued this team all year.

This season epitomized how difficult it is for a team to repeat the playoff accomplishments of a previous season, much less even make the playoffs. Both St. Louis and New England, last year's representatives in the Super Bowl, failed to make the playoffs. The Rams were out of it by Week 5, while the Patriots flirted all season with the prospect of greatness only to return to the world of mediocrity. Such is life in the parity-plagued NFL.

But, the big question is: Why? Why, after the wonderful start to the season, did the defending champs seem to lose momentum quicker than a wheel in sand?

The most important position on the team gets the initial review. Tom Brady endured what can only be considered an erratic season. At times he looked like the Super Bowl MVP that Tara Reid could love and other times he felt the cold of a sophomoric slump. Brady lead the league in touchdown passes with 28. However, he threw only 7 touchdowns in the final 7 games. For the season he completed 373-of-601 (62.1 percent) of his passes for 3,764 yards with 14 interceptions but failed to complete the above 60 percent of his passes in the final 4 games of the season. It's quite obvious his arm and mind hit a wall. So the question becomes, will Brady hit that wall next season?

Offensive Line:
The line allowed only 31 sacks this season. That's down from the 46 posted a season before. But, that's about all the line succeeded in accomplishing. The left side accounted for 15 penalties. LT Matt Light will continue to improve as he grows older. C Damian Woody is the star of the bunch; he's very quick and pulls quite well. He has the ability to get out ahead of screens with relative ease and he's quick to pancake. Belicheck will need to replace RT Kenyatta Jones, based on Jones' inability to grasp technique. Oft-injured RG John Andruzzi could fill in if needed, but he's much better at RG. The best option would be to pick up a free agent LT and move Light to RT. An interesting move here would be picking up LT Wayne Gandy from the Steelers and drafting a young LT to groom for upcoming seasons. Regardless, the line needs more depth because injuries took their toll all year.

Running Backs:
What can be said about Antowain Smith? Well, he reverted back to his Buffalo form. After a breakthrough season last year, Smith repaid a 5-year contract with a poor, uninspired season. It was so poor that the Patriots almost worked out a deal to bring in "Kneeless" Jamal Anderson. Smith only rushed for 980 yards this season after gaining 1,157 last year. It's true that Anderson suffered from below standard line play, but he didn't show any of the brilliance of last year's campaign. Is Smith still worth that money? Some may doubt it, but he did have a major part in taking pressure off of Brady last year. He'll be given another year to pull some more magic, but if he doesn't hit the holes as quickly as he did during the Super Bowl campaign, he won't be effective. He doesn't have breakout speed or quick feet, just good instincts and toughness. But, he'll be pushed by a Kevin Faulk. Faulk had a breakout season giving the Patriots 650 yards of total offense from scrimmage and 5 touchdowns. His blocking ability is still a question mark.

Wide Receivers and Tight End:
This unit suffered from not enough Troy Brown. Injured throughout most of the season, Brown turned up a solid 97 catches for 890 yards in 14 games. Perhaps his injury began the downfall of the season. He injured his knee during the Week 3 win over Kansas City and missed the next two games, both Patriot losses. What's most telling is that he only scored 3 touchdowns this season. He doesn't have deep speed so he normally goes over the middle. David Patten has the deep speed, but he rarely makes big plays. Do you see the problem here? The Patriots didn't have the big play receiver of a year ago. They also need a legitimate deep threat. Both receivers were clutch, but didn't post the touchdown numbers needed. Deion Branch started out scorching opposing defenses, catching 37 passes for 408 yards and two touchdowns in the first six weeks of the season. But he also hit wall and caught only 6 passes for 81 yards over the next 7 games before an injury against Buffalo in week 14 ended his season.

The Patriots continue to look for a Tight End of the Ben Coates caliber. Cam Cleeland had a strong beginning of the season with 10 catches in September, but he tailed off the rest of the season. He finished with 16 catches. Christian Fauria was a huge red-zone threat with 7 touchdowns, but Brady couldn't get him the ball between the 20's. That has something to do with Fauria's lack of speed. First round pick Daniel Graham had a forgettable season battling injuries. The Patriots should have looked for the best available athlete with that first pick, because Graham won't be the future.

Defensive Line:
The defensive line had a horrible season. Although Richard Seymour made the Pro Bowl, he was consistently double-teamed. Willie McGinest makes too much money for only 5.5 sacks. DE Anthony Pleasant makes too few plays for his high cap number. The Patriots will need to do some restructuring to keep both Pleasant and McGinest. But who says they want too? The Patriots may use their #1 pick on a lineman. And it would be a smart move. The 4th horseman in this group is Bobby Hamilton. Hamilton played out of position for part of the year. He was used on the inside, but he's better outside. He also hit a wall due to the lack of depth on the line. Most importantly, this group was unable to stop opposing offensive lines from getting blockers on the linebackers. This caused the Patriots to allow over 2000 yards of rushing, over 300 hundred more than the year before.

It's an often-repeated complaint, and this group, like others, lacked big plays. Mike Vrabel, Ted Brushi, and Roman Phifer all lack speed, yet they have also made up for it in tenacious energy. But, only Bruschi showed that energy this season. Phifer played uninspired but solid with 109 tackles. This group didn't get much help depth-wise and ILB Ted Johnson spent much of the pre-season contemplating his desire to play for the Patriots. They especially were hurt by the lack of defensive push and were often thrust into mismatches with offensive linemen. Johnson looks to be gone and Phifer could be replaced with youth. The off-season moves need to bring in a young run-stopper and more speed as a unit.

The group that helped shut down the Rams had a rough season. SS Lawyer Milloy played off the line more than in previous seasons, trying to take away the big plays that ancient Otis Smith gave up. Smith continues to lose a step, but his heart would make any head coach proud and he's the best tackler in the group. Ty Law continues to be the best CB on the team and one of the best in the NFL. Victor Green is a free agent who got burned often in coverage, but the Patriots will be hard-pressed to find another safety to fit their 3-safety defense. Antwan Harris could replace him, but his size is a huge question mark. Tebucky Jones is an unrestricted free agent and the Patriots may not be able to meet his market value. Regardless, the Patriots will need Jones or Green to return or Milloy will be left to anchor an unproven group.

Special Teams:
Adam Vinatieri is the best kicker in football. It's hard to believe anyone questioned that $1 million per year contract a few years ago. He hit a career-long 57-yarder in Chicago and made 27-of-30 kicks (90 percent). He may be the best clutch-kicker in recent history. P Ken Walter is a different story. He'll be tested during pre-season because that 33.3 average is totally unacceptable.

Vital Stats:

2002-2001 Stats Comparison Patriots 2002 Opponents 2002 Patriots 2001 Opponents 2001
Final Score 381 345 371 272
First Down Rushing 98 129 101 98
First Down Passing 185 158 163 172
First Down Penalty 21 28 28 33
First Down Total 304 315 292 303
Rushing Attempts 395 467 473 428
Rushing Yards 1508 2198 1793 1842
Rushing Average 3.8 4.7 3.8 4.3
Rushing Touchdowns 8 17 15 7
Rushing Tackles for Loss 34 31 46 40
Rushing Yards Lost -75 -58 -110 -89
Passing Attempts 605 531 482 548
Passing Completions 374 314 306 300
Passing Percentage 61.8 59.1 63.5 54.7
Passing Yards 3577 3179 3089 3503
Passing Yards Per Pass Att. 34 6 6.4 6.4
Passing Sacks 31 34 46 40
Passing Sack Yardage Lost 190 199 237 240
Passing Touchdowns 28 23 21 15
Passing Interceptions 14 18 15 22
Penalties 108 99 92 93
Penalty Yards 895 928 802 839
Penalty First Downs 20 28 28 33
Returns for Touchdowns 6 1 7 2
Fumbles Lost 10 11 13 13
Interceptions 14 18 15 22
Turnovers 24 29 28 35
Total Yards 5085 5377 4882 5345
Total First Downs 303 315 292 303
Total Touchdowns 43 41 43 26
Total Plays 1031 1032 1001 1016
Time of Possession 29:19 31:11 31:60 29:30
Average Gain 4.9 5.2 4.9 5.3
FG Attempts 32 34 30 41
FG Made 28 20 24 30
Punt Number 71 68 74 73
Punt Yards 2723 2680 3040 2885
Punt Average 38.4 39.4 41.1 39.5
Net Punting Average 36.4 35.4 40.1 33.5
Third down Attempts 219 221 221 215
Third down Made 94 95 91 80
Fourth down Attempts 18 16 17 15
Fourth down Made 8 10 7 5

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