With the number of questions that the Patriots face in the wake of their Super Bowl loss to the Giants, I'm amazed people are still even bothering with...what should we call it? Belichick Left the Field a Second Too Early-Gate?
Here are a few that have occurred to me when football finally wormed its way back into my brain after a good week or so of trying to block it out.
Please note: none of these questions will address all the Congress / NFL investigation stuff, which I'm not going to get into any more until more information comes out.
1. What's the game plan for next season, Coach? After the Patriots lost to the Colts in the 2007 AFC Championship Game, Belichick went on the warpath with his players about conditioning, endurance, and staying mentally committed through 60 minutes of football. These improvements created a perfect regular season, but the Patriots looked flat and the offensive line completely physically overmatched in the Super Bowl. Was the idea sound, and the execution not up to par in the end? Or did the perfect regular season take a toll? How do the Patriots regroup strategically and what can they learn from this experience, similar to the way they learned from the loss to the Colts?
2. How do we fill the holes? As Jamie already wrote, the Patriots have a slew of players eligible for free agency now that the season's over. Some of them are also eligible for retirement, and it's hard to ignore how the median age of the defense has crept up. The Patriots have traditionally shunned building through the draft for the short-term; will that philosophy be modified this year to get a youth movement going? At this juncture the Patriots would do well to follow the example of the Red Sox, and focus on developing more young talent for the next generation of Patriots football. In the meantime, the most crucial free agent question: does Asante stay or go?
3. What's the future for Tom Brady? It's clear opponents have determined that eliminating Brady is the key to defeating the Patriots. It's also clear that given the unanimous enmity the league seems to feel toward the Patriots, most teams will have no problem at least attempting to re-enact the Giants' blitzing performance when next they line up against the Pats.
Meanwhile, Brady has already racked up nagging injuries including shoulder separation, knee sprains, ankle sprains and a sports hernia. He's mobile in the pocket but not a scrambling quarterback; it's easy to say the Patriots should just get some better offensive linemen, but that unit already has veterans, Pro Bowlers and Super Bowlers alike--it's tough to figure how it could be built better. Rather, rebalancing the offensive strategy to focus a little less on the pass might take some of the heat off Brady and improve his longevity in the league, but it's easy to see why the Patriots had no time for that idea this year with the way Brady was playing earlier in the season. So do they clip Brady's wings a bit or do they risk losing him too early, and for good?
Brady's also up for a contract extension and bump in pay, though he is signed through 2010, and the Globe points out his contract situation, regardless of which way the Patriots decide to go, "would affect all other offseason planning."
4. Where can we find the next Adam Vinatieri? There were, in retrospect, a number of questionable coaching decisions that affected the outcome of the Super Bowl, but none stands out more than the decision to go for the end zone rather than a field goal kick on 4th and 13. Mike Reiss points out that this decision in turn may have been influenced by a lack of confidence in Stephen Gostkowski:
Belichick explained that there was thought given to the field goal, but he ultimately felt the kick was too long. In making that decision, he likely was factoring in Gostkowski's body of work this season, that his season-long field goal was 45 yards. Gostkowski had just one attempt from 48 yards or longer this season, a miss against the Steelers.
At the time Vinatieri was let go, the thought was that the Patriots shouldn't have so much of a dependency on the kicker; that they wouldn't get too far relying on clutch three-pointers and instead should push for a more solid lead.
But with the exception of the first part of this past regular season, the Patriots have succeeded by focusing on each opponent without looking ahead, and by doing just enough to win; this was also true of the Patriots throughout the latter half of this season. When you're playing a finesse game, three-pointers add up: the Patriots had won each of their Super Bowls by three points and lost this one by three.
5. What's the post-mortem on the Randy Moss experiment? He behaved like a model prisoner this year...except for that little restraining-order debacle leading up to the AFC Championship Game. He broke records as a wide receiver during the regular season...and was a moping non-factor in the Super Bowl. Versatile targets like Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker proved just as valuable for Brady this year, and they're going to want vastly less money. Which way do the Patriots go?
We're in uncharted territory as Patriots fans; it feels like the upward trajectory of the last five or so years is tapering off, and now the age of the team's best players, what proved to be a fallible game-planning / coaching strategy somewhere along the line, SpyGate and Handshake-Gate and Ankle-Gate (Pats Edition), leave the Patriots at possibly the most crucial impasse of the decade. How the team regroups from this loss, what kind of 'humble pie' the coaching and personnel staffs will be feeding themselves this spring, and how the team is built this year will play a big part in the future of the franchise for years to come.