By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 22, 2007

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Ancient Chinese proverb: "When you finish the last page, close the book."

If the book is entitled "New England Patriot Dynasty" (ask the Chinese if they know anything about the word "dynasty"), this is not yet the right thing to do. Why close the book when the team fell four points short of the Super Bowl? Are the Patriots really done with this golden era of their existence? The smart answer is no, but the Patriots have to proceed to another chapter rather than "closing the book".

If you dig deep down and analyze what went wrong in their 38-34 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday night, some of it is related to the game itself and not necessarily to the big picture. That is not to say that there are big picture issues. It merely means that the Patriots once again had to deal with short-term personnel issues (translation: injuries) like they did last year. What might form a part of the solution is how the Patriots deal with long-term personnel issues (translation: salary cap management and what role "cheaping out" plays in this philosophy) and how they plan to retool for 2007.

That said, let's explore some items Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli will want to look into, assuming that come August, they aren't employed by the G-Men. By the way, if the term "cheaping out" comes up frequently, it is totally intentional, and it is with the new salary cap in mind.

Are Tom Brady's best days behind him? Perish the thought, you say. On August 3, Brady turns (we aren't kidding) 30 years old. Brady can still play at levels most quarterbacks only dream about. But this was a strange year for Brady at times.

He finished with 3,529 passing yards, his lowest for a full season and his lowest since 2001. In two games he had a passer rating under 60, both losses and one by shutout (Miami). For the first time in his career, he failed to produce a win following a four-pick loss (Jets). If not for a great play by Troy Brown, Brady's postseason would have ended with a three-interception dud at San Diego instead of at Indianapolis.

So what to make of this? Brady may have to be approached differently over the next few years. No longer should he be expected to make receivers like Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney look good. The Patriots need to stop cheaping out on wide receivers, plain and simple. The philosophy regarding Brady from here on out should be nothing but quality receivers for this guy. The clothes have to make the man instead of vice versa.

Is Laurence Maroney overrated? First, let's ask this question: Did Ivan Fears (running backs coach) fail here in properly developing Maroney? Why, when the most important games came at hand, did Maroney look more like Dancing Harry at the line of scrimmage? Maroney did show flashes of brilliance during the season, and when he is on, he is as dangerous as any back out there. But it was only flashes. Maroney had no consistency at all this season.

They say that he's not ready for the full load. When will he be? Can he ever be the complete workload back like his peers are without needing this other guy to provide power? Corey Dillon (who may be thinking about calling it a career) is no longer this kind of complete workload guy, and many of his hallmark skills may be in full decline. Maroney has to be the back of the future, but he may need some more development and some guidance on how to hit the line of scrimmage. And don't forget that Kevin Faulk is going to be 31 in June.

Will the Patriots ever value the wide receiver position with more respect than they give it? How Brown has lasted 14 seasons with this team is mind-boggling. It actually is more of a testimonial to Brown and his selfless professionalism than anything else. Brown has played with Vincent Brisby, Michael Timpson, Shawn Jefferson, Terry Glenn, David Patten, Deion Branch and David Givens. Not counting Glenn and his manchild tendencies and Timpson's indiscretions, these are players the Patriots have seen come and go over the years who were capable of putting up great numbers, but did a lot of that (or will do) elsewhere.

The latest such wideouts to leave the team, Branch and Givens, weren't earth shattering losses, but both could have made a difference in 2006. Branch had a nice time in Seattle, but he cost both himself and the team he left another Super Bowl by kicking up such a contract fuss. Givens was a washout in 2006, his season ending early due to injury. The Patriots cast these two stars aside and relied on Brady to adapt to anyone they would throw out there. If any team ascribed to the philosophy "wide receivers are a dime a dozen", the Patriots are that team.

In hindsight, the Patriots could have spent a little bit of money to at least keep Branch. Givens was going to get overpaid by someone. Instead, they cheaped out on Doug Gabriel and Caldwell, and Gaffney came along later. Gabriel flunked, but Caldwell and Gaffney were nice for a while. If Branch were still here, the Patriots probably get a higher playoff seed and might be packing their bags for Miami right now.

Is there salary cap room for Daniel Graham? Probably not. All the Patriots will do is slide David Thomas into Graham's slot. Belichick and Pioli salivate over tight ends and may draft two or three more in April. Thomas was drafted for this eventuality. If they want to cheap out on Thomas, maybe this is one time they can get away with it. Thomas can catch and block pretty well, so perhaps this is actually prudent.

Is Tedy Bruschi done? This question has come up on some talk shows. Bruschi won't say for a while. That said, his play in 2006 declined somewhat, and he showed that he cannot make all the plays he used to. He was getting pushed around more easily on run plays. His penchant for the big interception was a distant memory in 2006. When Junior Seau went down with his season-ending injury, the Patriots were lucky to get what they got from Tully Banta-Cain when Mike Vrabel had to move inside. But if the Patriots are going to rely on Bruschi and Seau (who could return in 2007) as their inside backers, the Patriots are looking at trouble.

Assuming Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin are allowed to play outside, the Patriots have to do something in the offseason to address this area. Belichick never likes to draft linebackers, so trying to guess who he will upgrade the inside with is anyone's guess. But this is an area which absolutely must be looked at in the offseason, especially if Bruschi and Seau both decide to head for football's Valhalla.

Are Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison through as Patriots? Samuel is the highest profile free agent on the Patriots. Reports are that, following the loss to the Colts, he was saying his goodbyes around the locker room. Someone will overpay for the co-interception leader of the NFL. The Patriots could franchise the guy, but that won't likely happen. The Patriots could try and resign him anyway, but Samuel may be too torqued off at Patriot management to want to sign. The smart money here says that he is a goner.

As for Harrison, one must start to look at this guy's penchant for injury. This makes two seasons in a row he has lost significant playing time due to injury. The Patriots need him in there to help quarterback the secondary as well as for his hard hits. But he will turn 35 in December. The Patriots have him signed through 2008. The thought of him retiring seems remote. But how much longer can the Patriots depend on this guy to be there and perform at his 2003-04 levels?

The Patriots will have cap room in 2007 to address all their needs. Given the two playoff losses in the past two years, and given both the injury situations as well as the ages of some key players, the Patriots need to spend close to the cap and stop this "cheaping out" which they have done over the last few years. They have reached the point where, despite the fact that good cap management is still a must, not spending to the cap is not in the best interests of this team.

No, we weren't kidding. The next time you'll see Brady, he will be 30. They don't stay young forever.


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