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A Thorough Look at DeflateGate – How Did We Get To This Point?


The league came down far too hard on one of its biggest stars without any definitive proof. (USA TODAY Images)

On July 4, 1983, Kansas City Royals’ third baseman George Brett was ejected from a game in which he hit a home run, because the umpire determined, at the behest of New York Yankee manager Billy Martin, that Brett had applied pine tar too high up the bat, in violation of rule 1.10(b), which says that it may be on the first 18 inches of the bat, but no higher.  When Tim McClelland threw Brett out of the game, he exploded out of the dugout in a fiery rage, which became legendary in the annals of the sport.

The questions that emerged from that incident typically looked like these:

  • What rule did Brett break, and why was that rule even in place?
  • Did breaking the rule make Brett a ‚Äúcheater‚ÄĚ?
  • What should the punishment have been?

WFAN talk radio host Mike Francesa has argued that rules are there for a reason, and to break the rules constitutes trying to gain a competitive advantage.  The impression people like Francesca give is that every rule has specific purpose that is germane to the competitive spirit of the game.  But the pine tar rule defies this sort of thinking.  Peter Gammons, a hall-of-fame baseball journalist, attributes the origin of the pine tar rule to former Washington Senators (and later, Minnesota Twins) owner Calvin Griffith.  Many players used to use (and many still do, in fact) pine tar on the bat to improve grip and to act as a preservative on the wood of the bat.  But in the early days of baseball, there were only a small number of baseballs used in any given game.  Every time a baseball came into contact with a bat coated with pine tar, it discolored the baseball and eventually made it too difficult to see and use.  The higher up the bat the coating was, the more likely the ball would come into contact with the pine tar.  Thus, teams had to use more baseballs in a given game if pine tar was allowed to be used higher up the bat.

Griffith was one of the few owners whose sole business interest was the baseball club, and he watched his money spent by the organization very carefully.  He avoided paying competitive salaries, and had a disdain for modern marketing techniques.  It is therefore no surprise that he did not like spending extra money on baseballs simply because they were getting covered by pine tar.  Therefore, as the story goes, he convinced baseball to enact the rule in 1955 that limited pine tar to the first 18 inches of the bat.

George Brett was ejected from a baseball game in 1983 because Calvin Griffith was a stingy owner.

Brett‚Äôs violation had nothing whatsoever to do with the integrity of the game, or with trying to gain a competitive advantage, or with ‚Äúcheating‚ÄĚ.¬† Yes, he broke a rule.¬† But the rule existed for a silly reason.¬† Eventually the American League overturned his ejection, the rest of the game between the Yankees and Royals had to be replayed from that point forward, and the rule was amended after the incident.¬† The league realized the silliness of the incident and of the rule.¬† Now, if a player has too much pine tar on the bat, the bat is removed, but the result of the play still stands, and the player remains in the game.¬† There needs to be some sort of consistency in the equipment used (generally speaking, a range), but not every violation of an equipment rule represents a threat to the integrity of the game or a desire to gain a competitive advantage.

For example, consider the NFL rule requiring players to wear thigh pads, enacted in 2013.¬† The rule was not put in place to ensure equality in competitiveness, but rather to protect the players.¬† Players often do not like to wear thigh pads, because they feel restrictive, and players believe it makes them slower.¬† Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said, ‚ÄúI was convinced they slowed me down.¬† And I am sure guys today will be sure of the same.‚Ä̬† An unnamed veteran player told cbssports.com, ‚ÄúThis rule is dumb, and now the game is going to slow down dramatically.‚Ä̬† Any player not wearing thigh pads is not allowed to play until he gets his equipment up to code, and the NFL could even levy a fine against noncompliant players.¬† The NFL has a rule regarding the equipment, and the rulebook attaches certain penalties to people not abiding by the rule.¬† Breaking the rule does not necessarily mean a player is a ‚Äúcheater‚ÄĚ or is illegally trying to gain an unfair competitive advantage.

Some rules DO get to the heart of competitive play.¬† For example, PED usage is illegal in all major sports because they give athletes that use them a significant competitive advantage over those that don‚Äôt.¬† Rightly, leagues like the NFL hand down harsh penalties to players caught using PEDs.¬† Such players are considered ‚Äúcheaters‚ÄĚ due to the nature of the rule violation.

So with that in the background, let us take a serious look at the ‚ÄúDeflate-gate‚ÄĚ incident involving the New England Patriots.¬† Amidst the cacophony of disparate voices that have turned this event into one of the biggest scandals in NFL history, we will attempt to wade through the issue in a thoughtful, clear-headed manner.¬† No small task, this.

There are four primary questions that need to be asked.  Within these three questions are many other questions, of course.  Those four questions are as follows:

  • Is illegally tampering with a football a serious offense ‚Äď does it constitute ‚Äúcheating‚ÄĚ?
  • Did anyone in the Patriots‚Äô organization illegally tamper with the footballs?
  • If so, were Tom Brady or Bill Belichick specifically involved in any way?
  • If so, what penalty should Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots receive?

Is illegally tampering with a football a serious offense ‚Äď does it constitute ‚Äúcheating‚ÄĚ?

Let‚Äôs begin by talking about the NFL rules regarding the football.¬† Here is the relevant section from the NFL rule book, rule 2, titled, ‚ÄúThe Ball‚ÄĚ.

Section 1

BALL DIMENSIONS

  • The Ball must be a ‚ÄúWilson,‚ÄĚ hand selected, bearing the signature of the Commissioner of the League, Roger Goodell.
  • The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind. It shall have the form of a prolate spheroid and the size and weight shall be: long axis, 11 to 11 1/4 inches; long circumference, 28 to 28 1/2 inches; short circumference, 21 to 21 1/4 inches; weight, 14 to 15 ounces.
  • The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.

Section 2

BALL SUPPLY

  • Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements. The home team will also make 12 backup balls available for testing in all stadiums. In addition, the visitors, at their discretion, may bring 12 backup balls to be tested by the Referee for games held in outdoor stadiums. For all games, eight new footballs, sealed in a special box and shipped by the manufacturer to the Referee, will be opened in the officials‚Äô locker room two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game. These balls are to be specially marked by the Referee and used exclusively for the kicking game.
  • In the event a home team ball does not conform to specifications, or its supply is exhausted, the Referee shall secure a proper ball from the visitors and, failing that, use the best available ball. Any such circumstances must be reported to the Commissioner.
  • In case of rain or a wet, muddy, or slippery field, a playable ball shall be used at the request of the offensive team‚Äôs center. The Game Clock shall not stop for such action (unless undue delay occurs).
  • Note: It is the responsibility of the home team to furnish playable balls at all times by attendants from either side of the playing field.

First, notice the range of acceptability within the ball itself.¬† Just as thigh pads can be of different sizes and weights, the football can be within certain parameters, but not every football needs to be the same.¬† The smallest, lightest football within these parameters is 11 inches long, 28 inches in long circumference, 21 inches in short circumference, 14 ounces in weight, and 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure.¬† The largest, heaviest football is 11 ¬ľ inches long, 28 ¬Ĺ inches in long circumference, 21 ¬ľ inches in short circumference, 15 ounces in weight, and 13.5 pounds per square inch of pressure.¬† Each must be a Wilson brand ‚Äď obviously a Nike ball would not represent a competitive advantage; here is a rule that‚Äôs all about marketing.¬† Imagine if one were to use a Nike ball?¬† Would such a player be considered a ‚Äúcheater‚ÄĚ?

These ball parameters were put in the rulebook 75 years ago.¬† Nobody knows why they are what they are.¬† They are slightly different from the college football, which can be, for example, as short as 10 ¬Ĺ inches long, with a long circumference as small as 27 ¬ĺ inches.¬† So obviously it is quite possible to play football at a very high level with measurements that are outside the NFL regulations.¬† In other words, there is nothing ‚Äúmagical‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúright‚ÄĚ about the NFL regulations.¬† If the NFL decided today to change the inflation level of the football from 12.5-13.5psi down to 11.5psi-12.5psi, it would not have any tangible impact on the game.

For most of the league’s history, the NFL has been in charge of the footballs.  But in 2006, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning led a bit of a revolution, convincing the NFL to adopt some changes to how the footballs are handled.  Since then, each team has been allowed to prepare the footballs to their own quarterback’s preferences.  The degree to which each quarterback prepares his footballs is astounding.  A November 23, 2013 New York Times article detailed Eli Manning’s incredible football preparation, which is months and months in the making.[1]  Each quarterback prefers the footballs a certain way, each to his own specifications.  CBS’ Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, on the November 30, 2014 broadcast of the Patriots-Packers game in Green Bay, made a note that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers likes his footballs on the high end of the inflation regulations.  Here were Simms’ words, citing Rodgers’ comments to him:

‚ÄúHe (Rodgers) said something [that] was unique: ‘I like to push the limit to how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take air out of it.‚ÄĚ

Later in the conversation, Simms said, ‚ÄúYou know, the officials do check those footballs and sometimes maybe even get lucky and put an extra half pound of air in there to help Aaron Rodgers out.‚ÄĚ[2]

At the time Simms made those comments, nobody paid much attention, because the NFL was ok with each quarterback having the ball according to his own preferences.  This was, in many ways, part of the NFL’s move towards more offense in the game.  Partly to appease a rapidly growing segment of the NFL fan base that plays fantasy football, the NFL was hoping to make the game more entertaining.  Rules regarding pass defense and hitting the quarterback (and receivers, for that matter) were instituted to increase offense and scoring.  Allowing the quarterbacks to prepare the balls in a way that made them more comfortable to throw was part of this move.  Thus, nobody thought twice when Rodgers’ comments were mentioned by Simms on the air.

In fact, nobody thought twice when Tom Brady himself, in November of 2011, commented on WEEI radio that teammate Rob Gronkowski‚Äôs vicious spikes deflated the footballs, but that he was ok with it.¬† Brady said, ‚ÄúI love that, because I like the deflated ball.¬† But I feel bad for that football, because he puts everything he can into those spikes.‚ÄĚ[3]

Aaron Rodgers prefers football pressure on the high end, and doesn’t mind if they are overinflated.  In fact, sometimes the officials will end up approving footballs that are above the regulated psi.  Tom Brady prefers football pressure on the low end, and doesn’t mind if they are underinflated.  Until the 2015 AFC Championship Game, nobody thought twice about this.  Not even the officials, apparently, as Simms pointed out that sometimes they would inflate the footballs above the regulation pressure.

That the game officials and the NFL itself have never cared much about this issue is evident from many different pieces of information.  Consider the text exchanges between Jim McNally, the Patriots’ locker room attendant, and John Jastremski, an equipment assistant for the Patriots, as cited in the Wells report.

On October 16, the Patriots played the New York Jets (a 27-25 Patriots‚Äô victory).¬† The next day, the two men swapped texts, talking about the footballs in the Jets‚Äô game and how they would prepare the balls for the following game.¬† Apparently, Brady was complaining about the inflation of the footballs from that game, and gave them grief about it afterward.¬† Jastremski told McNally, ‚ÄúHe was right though…I checked some of the balls this morn‚ĶThe refs f***** us‚Ķa few of them were at almost 16.¬† They didn‚Äôt recheck them after they put air in them.‚ÄĚ[4]

This fits with what Simms pointed out.  If Brady prefers the footballs at the low end of the spectrum, no wonder he was unhappy with footballs that were at 16 psi.  That’s 2.5 psi above the legal limit, and 3.5 psi above what Brady prefers.

If the officials routinely put extra air into the footballs, why would they hand the Patriots footballs at 16 psi?  Either they were being devious and crooked, and trying to cheat the Patriots (unlikely), or they were simply cavalier about the measurements, not worrying about the precise pressure of each football.  It will not do to simply dismiss Jastremski’s texts as exaggerations, for these text messages form key evidence for Wells’ conclusion that these men were involved in illegally deflating footballs.  If we dismiss this piece of evidence as being exaggeration, then we should also dismiss the rest of the texts as well.  Wells treats these texts as truth, and as proof that the Patriots illegally deflated footballs, and therefore we should take Jastremski’s claim seriously.

There is more.¬† In the Wells report, the officials measured the pressure of the footballs before the game, as was standard protocol.¬† Walt Anderson recalls that the Patriots‚Äô footballs measured at 12.5 while the Colts‚Äô measured at 13.0 or 13.1.¬† But Anderson did not write down the measurements.¬† This is interesting, because before the game, the NFL was alerted to possible shenanigans by the Patriots, and yet did not take the necessary precautions to ensure that the footballs were indeed correct.¬† The Wells report cited a note from the Colts‚Äô equipment manager that was passed on to the NFL office by email by Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson that said, ‚ÄúAs far as the gameballs are concerned it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better, it would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don’t get an illegal advantage.‚ÄĚ[5]

However, Wells, in a May 12 conference call, said, ‚ÄúNo one took the complaint that seriously.¬† The complaint wasn‚Äôt supported by any evidence.‚ÄĚ[6]

Clearly.  If the psi of footballs was germane to the game, and if the Patriots were rumored to be tampering with the footballs, how would anyone actually know unless the footballs were measured?  And measurements mean nothing in this context if they are not recorded.  In fact, NFL referees never record the psi of footballs.  Why?  Because they do not care that much about it.  It has never been an issue worth getting worked up over in the entire history of the NFL, until now.

In 2012 the Patriots traveled to Seattle to play the Seahawks in week 6 of the regular season.  Many of the faces have changed from that game (for example, the Patriots’ starting skill position players were:  Gronkowski, Hernandez, Welker, Lloyd, and Ridley), and Seattle had not yet become Seattle, but the game might still be somewhat instructive for us as we head towards this Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup.

Seattle’s defense hadn’t had three years’ worth of stats and reputation to back up the claim to being the best defense in football, but we need to remember that in 2012, they were the best defense in the NFL.  In 2010, their defense in Pete Carroll’s first year was awful, finishing 25th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed.  But in 2011 they showed remarkable improvement, ranking #7 in points allowed and #9 in yards allowed.  In 2012, the rise to the top was complete, as they finished #1 in points allowed, and #4 in yards allowed.  In their first five games of the 2012 season, here’s what they had allowed:

  • Ari:¬† 20 points, 253 yards
  • Dal:¬† 7 points, 296 yards
  • GB:¬† 12 points, 268 yards
  • StL:¬† 19 points, 286 yards
  • Car: ¬†12 points, 190 yards

On average, they had given up just 14.0 points and 258.6 yards per game.  That’s very, very impressive.  The Patriots, of course, had one of the most explosive offenses in football, but traveling to Seattle and playing in the loudest stadium in the league against the #1 defense in football would be a stiff test.

How did the Patriots’ offense fare?


They may have lost, but Tom Brady likely learned a lot from their previous match-up against Seattle.
(USA TODAY Images)

First, the raw numbers:

  • The Patriots put up 475 total yards of offense.¬† That‚Äôs 216 more than Seattle was yielding on average.
  • The Patriots had 388 yards passing.¬† That‚Äôs by far the most Seattle allowed all season.
  • The Patriots had 26 first downs.¬† That‚Äôs tied for the most Seattle would give up all season.
  • The Patriots controlled the ball for 34 minutes.

In other words, New England simply did not have much difficulty moving the ball.¬† But they ‚Äúonly‚ÄĚ had 23 points against Seattle.¬† While that may not seem like a ton, consider that in their 8 home games that year (where Seattle had, and continues to have, a decided advantage), Seattle gave up the following number of points:¬† 7, 12, 23, 20, 7, 0, 13, 13, for an average of 11.9 per game.¬† If you remove the NE-Sea game, the Seahawks gave up, on average, just 10.3 points per game at home.¬† The Patriots, therefore, scored just under 13 points more than Seattle would allow at home on average for the rest of the season.

Moreover, on average, eliminating the Patriots’ game, the Seahawks allowed, at home, an average of 262 yards per game.  The Patriots racked up 213 more yards than that.  Opponents averaged 16 first downs a game in Seattle, but the Patriots got ten more than that.

The long story short is that Seattle‚Äôs defense ‚Äď especially at home ‚Äď was beyond dominant.¬† It was historically great.¬† And yet New England came in and put up the biggest numbers against Seattle in their stadium that any team did all season long.¬† It truly was an impressive performance by the Patriots‚Äô offense.

How did they do it?  Let’s first look at the running game, which wasn’t dominant, but it wasn’t terrible either, putting up 87 yards on 26 carries (3.3 average).

  • Left outside (LE, LT):¬† 8 rushes, 23 yards (2.9)
  • Middle (LG, C, RG):¬† 9 rushes, 39 yards (4.3)
  • Right outside (RT, RE):¬† 9 rushes, 25 yards (2.8)

Clearly, the most success was up the middle, from guard to guard.  This season, the Patriots ran the ball with greater effectiveness to either side.  Here’s a breakdown of their rushes in these three areas:

  • Left outside:¬† 114 rushes, 550 yards (4.8)
  • Middle:¬† 256 rushes, 889 yards (3.5)
  • Right outside:¬† 94 rushes, 480 yards (5.1)

Clearly, most kneel downs or QB sneaks are going to be up the middle as well, so we know that the Patriots’ real rushing average is better than 3.5 ypc up the middle.  But it appears that the Patriots’ strength rushing is out wide, while in their matchup two years ago they had the most success running inside.

How did Seattle handle the run game this year?

  • Left outside:¬† 100 rushes, 466 yards (4.7)
  • Middle:¬† 217 rushes, 765 yards (3.5)
  • Right outside:¬† 101 rushes, 301 yards (3.0)

It would seem that Seattle is most vulnerable in the running game to their right (offense’s left).  That coincides nicely with New England’s 4.8 average running to the left.  So we may see a lot of middle and left power runs by the Patriots.  With Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount, and a healthy Brian Stork back at C, the Patriots have the hammers to pound Seattle inside, and Solder does a nice job run-blocking to the left.  At least, enough to keep Seattle honest.  That could open up play-action for seam patterns and quick-hitters to the receivers and tight ends.

Which brings us to the passing game.  How did New England attack Seattle’s secondary last time they played?

The Patriots had a tremendous amount of success throwing the ball short on Seattle’s secondary.  The three short zones combined for 32-47 (68.1%), 271 yards.  The deeper middle and deeper right patterns were highly unsuccessful (1-6, 23 yards), but the deeper left area was perfect (3-3, 101 yards).  If you break it down to left, middle, and right, here’s how the Patriots attacked them:

  • Deep left:¬† 3-3 (100.0%), 101 yards
  • Deep middle:¬† 0-1 (0.0%), 0 yards
  • Deep right:¬† 1-5 (20.0%), 23 yards
  • Short left:¬† 16-21 (76.2%), 109 yards
  • Short middle:¬† 7-12 (58.3%), 79 yards
  • Short right:¬† 9-14 (64.3%), 83 yards

Totals, by direction:

  • Left:¬† 19-24 (79.2%), 210 yards
  • Middle:¬† 7-13 (53.8%), 79 yards
  • Right:¬† 10-19 (52.6%), 106 yards

Now, why is this instructive?  Because the Seattle secondary is almost identical now to what it was in 2012.  Sherman patrolling the defense’s left side (the offense’s right), Thomas and Chancellor as the last level, and then a good, but lesser, cornerback on the other side.  Sherman stays on one side, so it is wise to go away from him.  As we see from the numbers, attacking the side opposite Sherman paid huge dividends for New England.  Ironically, the CB on that side that day was Brandon Browner, who now starts at CB for the Patriots.  Now, it’s Byron Maxwell, who is a solid defender, but not remotely in the class of Richard Sherman.

This season, opponents had much more success on the left side vs. Maxwell than on the right vs. Sherman.  This should be obvious, I suppose.  Here are the numbers by zone:

  • Deep left:¬† 13-46 (28.3%), 367 yards, 8.0 yards per attempt
  • Deep middle:¬† 6-12 (50.0%), 163 yards, 13.6 yards per attempt
  • Deep right:¬† 11-42 (26.2%), 346 yards, 8.2 yards per attempt
  • Short left:¬† 134-183 (73.2%), 1071 yards, 5.9 yards per attempt
  • Short middle:¬† 91-130 (70.0%), 839 yards, 6.5 yards per attempt
  • Short right:¬† 100-157 (63.7%), 837 yards, 5.3 yards per attempt

Attacking Seattle with short passes appears to be the way to go.  Deep balls are not a recipe for success, but the Patriots should try at least once or twice, just to open things up.  Either Edelman or LaFell could give Maxwell problems in coverage.

The wild cards are the injuries to Sherman and Thomas.  It remains to be seen how effective either will be with their arm and shoulder injuries.  Can Thomas hit like he normally can?  Can Sherman cover as well (and be as big of a threat to intercept passes) with one arm at far less than 100%?

Now, with all these yards and first downs, how did the Patriots only manage to score 23 points in the 2012 matchup?

The Patriots had 12 possessions.  Of those 12 possessions, they scored on five of them (2 TD, 3 FG), had two turnovers, and one drive where time ran out at the end of the half (more on this in a moment).  They were in the red zone six times and came away with one touchdown and three field goals (just 16 points).  From an expected points perspective, those trips to the red zone should have yielded at least 30 points.  Coming away with just 16 was obviously a wildly unsuccessful performance from an otherwise stellar offense.  Here are their red zone trips broken down.

Red Zone Trip #1

The Patriots marched down the field starting at the end of the 1st quarter, beginning from their own 20.  They faced two big third downs and converted both before having another one from Seattle’s 1-yard line.  Brady hit Hernandez for a touchdown.  Expected points:  7.  Actual points:  7

Red Zone Trip #2

Midway through the 2nd quarter the Patriots forced a fumble by Wilson and got the ball at the Seattle 47.  A Brady-to-Welker conversion on 3rd and 10 kept the drive going.  Eventually they had a 1st and 10 from the 15, at which point their expected points were 4.58.  On 3rd and 10 from the 15, Brady hit Welker but he could only get 9 yards, and they were forced to kick a field goal.  Expected points:  4.58.  Actual points:  3

Red Zone Trip #3

Late in the 2nd quarter Jon Ryan, Seattle’s punter, turned the ball over and New England got the ball at the Seattle 24 with just 40 seconds left in the half.  Brady quickly hit Welker for 15 yards and then Danny Woodhead for 6 to make it 2nd and 3 from Seattle’s 3 with just 12 seconds left and no timeouts.  At that point the expected points for NE was 5.53.  On the next play, Brady faced a fairly stiff rush and threw the ball out of the back of the end zone.  The refs called Brady for intentional grounding and the ten second runoff ended the half.  Expected points:  5.53.  Actual points:  0

Red Zone Trip #4

Early in the 3rd quarter with New England up 17-10, Brady hit Daniel Fells for a 35-yard gain, and the Patriots ultimately faced a 2nd and 4 from the Seattle 13.  At that point the expected points were 4.72.  Ridley was stuffed for a loss and the Patriots were forced to kick a short field goal.  Expected points:  4.72.  Actual points:  3

Red Zone Trip #5

With the score 20-10 late in the 3rd quarter, New England moved the ball down the field again, converting two key third down plays.  A personal foul penalty on Seattle put New England into the red zone, and they ultimately got to a 3rd and 1 from the 6-yard line.  Brady hit Welker in the hands but Welker couldn’t squeeze it and the tipped pass went right to Earl Thomas for the interception.  Expected points:  4.9.  Actual points:  0

Red Zone Trip #6

The Patriots forced another Seattle turnover following the Brady interception, and they moved down into the red zone again.  The big play on the drive was a Brady-to-Woodhead completion for 22 yards.  Facing a 3rd and 2 from the 17, Ridley was stuffed for no gain and the Patriots were forced to kick another field goal.  Expected points:  3.85.  Actual points:  3

Total Expected Points:  30.58

Total Actual Points:  16

In other words, the Patriots came away with just over half the total number of points they should have had with all those trips to the red zone.  It was not unlike the playoff game they would play later that season against Baltimore in the AFC Championship Game, where so many trips to the red zone yielded so few points.

The long story made shorter is this:  The Patriots should have blown out the Seahawks in this game.  They outgained them 475-368.  They controlled the ball for eight more minutes.  They converted 8-18 on third downs, compared to 4-12 for Seattle.  They ran with modest effectiveness, but destroyed Seattle through the air.  With just a couple of exceptions, they had no trouble moving the ball at all.  But when they got into the red zone, the wheels came off and the Seattle defense came up big.

Can the Patriots reproduce the kind of yardage and possession output from two years ago?  If they can, they are unlikely to lose the game, because they typically do not struggle in the red zone like they did in this game.  Seattle seems to match up well against the Patriots’ offense (as well as you can, anyway), but if this game from 2012 teaches us anything, it’s that New England has the ability, if they are on their game, to move the ball against anyone.  Seattle included.

This Super Bowl Will Hinge on the Patriots Defense

The Patriots under Bill Belichick have had one of the greatest playoff runs in the history of the sport. They are 20-8, having made it to nine AFC Championship Games and six Super Bowls. That is, by far, the best playoff portfolio in the salary cap era, and perhaps only the great run by the San Francisco 49ers in the 80s and 90s rivals it for long-term, sustained success.


The Patriots under Bill Belichick have had one of the greatest playoff runs in the history of the sport.
(USA TODAY Images)

During the first three seasons’ of playoffs (2001-02, 2003-04, and 2004-05), the Patriots went 9-0, winning three Lombardi trophies. They won high-scoring games (32-29 over Carolina in Super Bowl 38; 41-27 over Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship game two weeks before Super Bowl 39). And they won low-scoring games (17-14 over Tennessee in 2004; 16-13 over Oakland in 2002). Those teams were versatile enough to win no matter what kind of game was being played.

But since their last Super Bowl victory, the Patriots are an astonishing 0-6 when they scoring fewer than 21 points in the playoffs. Here are these six losses:

1-14-06 at Den: L, 27-13
2-3-08 vs NYG: L, 17-14
1-10-10 vs Bal: L, 33-14
2-5-12 vs NYG: L, 21-17
1-20-13 vs Bal: L, 28-13
1-19-14 at Den: L, 26-16

So they are 0-6 in the playoffs when scoring 21 or fewer points since their last Super Bowl victory, but they are 11-1 when scoring 21 or more points (the lone loss was to the Jets, 28-21, in 2011).

Why is the number 21 significant? In the Patriots’ five most recent Super Bowl appearances, they’ve averaged 21.4 points per game. They’ve scored 32, 24, 20, 17, and 14 points. Those outputs represent huge declines from their regular season performances. And none of those games were against defenses as good as what they will face this coming Sunday.

Seattle’s defense this year underperformed early, as they had numerous players out due to injury. But the last 13 games (including playoffs) for the Seahawks produced some truly frightening numbers. Over those 13 games, they allowed an average of just 13.8 points per game, and just 251.5 yards per game. In today’s NFL, those are paltry.

It is true that the Seahawks have not exactly played a Murderer’s Row of offenses during that time. They faced only 3 teams with top 16 offenses (if you combine the yards and points rankings, then divide by two):

– NY Giants (#13 points, #10 yards): 17 points, 324 yards

– Philadelphia (#3 points, #5 yards): 14 points, 139 yards

– Green Bay (#1 points, #6 yards): 22 points, 306 yards

That’s an average of 17.7 points and 256.3 yards allowed against the best offenses they faced over the last 13 weeks. Very, very impressive.

The Patriots represent perhaps the best offense the Seahawks will face all season long. But it is probably fair to say that Seattle will not allow New England to move the ball at will or put a lot of points on the board. Two key players to keep in mind: Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman are both dealing with significant injuries. They are very tough players and will be in the lineup on Sunday, but it might not take much to put them out of the game. If they are forced to leave, the Seahawks’ defense looks very different. But let’s assume they play and play well. Points will be at a premium.

If points are going to be hard to come by for the offense, the onus falls on the defense to step up. For the last nine years, the Patriots have had a dynamic, pinball-style offense that has put up huge numbers of points and yards. It’s been electric. It’s been fun. It’s been incredibly productive and even record-setting. But they haven’t been able to see it through to the end.

Defensively, they’ve put together patchwork units at times and during the playoffs, they simply have not been able to win low-scoring games. If we assume the Patriots will score between 17-20 points, the defense will have to put up a tremendous performance for the Patriots to win.

Many fans have been clamoring for New England to revert back to the style that won them three Super Bowl championships in the early 2000s: Smart, efficient offense that can beat you through the air or on the ground, and a tough, hard-hitting defense that is capable of shutting down even the best offenses in the game (see Super Bowl 36 against the Rams).

This defense is capable of just that. They won several games this year when the offense was not clicking (16-9 over the Raiders and 17-16 over the Jets), giving us a glimpse that this team has the ability to win even if the offense isn’t playing up to snuff.

The Seahawks do not have a dynamic offense. They finished 10th in the league in points scored and 9th in yards gained. So they are good, but not electric. They pound the ball with Marshawn Lynch, and had the league’s best rushing attack overall. Russell Wilson is a tremendous runner, and the Patriots are not particularly adept at defending the read option, which is something Seattle will probably employ this Sunday. The passing game is solid, but not spectacular, so the Patriots should have the edge there with their secondary.

If this game is going to be played in the teens, the defense needs to play its best game of the season. The offseason seemed to be all about getting the Patriots back to their championship roots: built around a knockout defense.

This week will be the ultimate test of that. Can they win a low-scoring game against one of the best teams in the league, when the Lombardi Trophy is at stake?

Every Patriots’ fan in the world hopes the answer is yes.

Tom Brady: The Greatest Playoff-Winning QB Ever

Tom Brady did not win the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.  Nor did he win it following the 2012 season.  Or the 2011 season.  Or in any of the last 9 seasons.  This Super Bowl-winning drought has led some to criticize Brady for not being a great playoff performer or winner.  Mike Francesca of WFAN gleefully pointed out recently that Brady has barely been a .500 QB since their last Super Bowl title.

Francesca’s point, such as it is, exists because Brady’s three Super Bowl championships were won during his first three trips to the playoffs, and the Patriots went 9-0 during that time. ¬†And it is true that since then, Brady is just 9-8 in the playoffs. ¬†So are the critics right? ¬†Is Brady mediocre in terms of winning playoff games?

Well, first off, it is disingenuous to discount all the winning Brady did early in his career. ¬†After all, he actually did go 9-0 in the playoffs to start his career, and he actually did win three Super Bowls. ¬†Those things count on his resume. ¬†They shouldn’t be tossed aside as if they never happened. ¬†It would be like saying that, apart from all the great playoff games Pedro Martinez pitched, he really wasn’t very good in the playoffs. ¬†The great performances do count.

Moreover, the way Brady’s playoff success breaks down is sort of freakish in nature. ¬†Recall that he won three Super Bowls, each by three points. ¬†And he lost two Super Bowls, by three and four points, when one play in any of those games could have changed the outcome. ¬†If Carolina converts a two-point conversion and beats New England after the 2003 season, but Wes Welker comes down with a huge incompletion late in Super Bowl 46, we aren’t even having this discussion, as Brady’s Super Bowl wins thus become adequately spaced out. ¬†Winning really is that fragile in today’s NFL.

Nevertheless, I thought it would be interesting to examine this narrative.  Has Brady been just mediocre in terms of winning playoff games since his last Super Bowl title?  In order to evaluate this, I compared Brady to 13 other all-time great quarterbacks:  Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Roger Staubach, Brett Favre, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman.  How does Brady stack up against these great players in terms of winning playoff games?

First I looked at each of these QBs’ playoff wins and playoff winning percentage in total. ¬†As a caveat, I did not include games by these QBs when they were backups and played just a few snaps (for example, Steve Young during the Joe Montana days in San Francisco). ¬†Now, Brady has the most playoff wins of any QB in history with 18. ¬†Montana is second with 16, and Bradshaw and Elway are tied for third at 14. ¬†Here’s the complete list:

Playoff Wins

  1. Brady – 18
  2. Montana – 16
  3. Bradshaw – 14
  4. Elway – 14
  5. Favre – 13
  6. Staubach – 12
  7. P. Manning – 11
  8. Aikman – 11
  9. Roethlisberger – 10
  10. Marino – 8
  11. E. Manning – 8
  12. Young – 8
  13. Brees – 6
  14. Rodgers – 5

I then looked at their playoff winning percentage. ¬†Here’s how that list looks:

  1. Bradshaw – 14-5, .737
  2. E. Manning – 8-3, .727
  3. Roethlisberger – 10-4, .714
  4. Montana – 16-7, .696
  5. Brady – 18-8, .692
  6. Aikman – 11-5, .688
  7. Elway – 14-8, .636
  8. Staubach – 12-7, .632
  9. Rodgers – 5-4, .556
  10. Brees – 6-5, .545
  11. Favre – 13-11, .542
  12. Young – 8-7, .533
  13. P. Manning – 11-12, .478
  14. Marino – 8-10, .444

Brady’s winning percentage isn’t as good as the four above him on the list, but it’s still top 5.

So Brady is right up there among the elite in NFL history in terms of winning playoff games, and winning percentage. ¬†He has also been to the most Super Bowls in history, tied with Elway at 5. ¬†His 3 wins are tied for second place with Aikman behind Bradshaw and Montana, at 4. ¬†He has also been to more Conference Championship games than any QB in history, with 8 appearances. ¬†Peyton Manning said after this year’s AFCCG that they should name the game after Tom Brady because he’s been there so many times.

But all this brings us to the question of whether Brady, since his last Super Bowl victory, has been simply mediocre in the playoffs. ¬†In order to truly understand this, I asked the same essential question of every single QB in this group: ¬†If you remove the years when they won the Super Bowl, what’s their playoff record? ¬†The numbers may surprise you.

At this point, Brett Favre has the most number of playoff wins in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons, with 10.  However, he has 11 losses as well, giving him a winning percentage of .476.  That makes Favre the most accomplished playoff winner in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons in NFL history.

Except for one person:  Tom Brady.

Here is the list, based on winning percentage:

  1. Brady – 9-8, .529
  2. Favre – 10-11, .476
  3. Elway – 7-8, .467
  4. Staubach – 6-7, .462
  5. Marino – 8-10, .444
  6. Roethlisberger – 3-4, .429
  7. Young – 5-7, .417
  8. Brees – 3-5, .375
  9. P. Manning – 7-12, .368
  10. Montana – 4-7, .364
  11. Bradshaw – 2-5, .286
  12. Aikman – 2-5, .286
  13. Rodgers – 1-4, .200
  14. E. Manning – 0-3, .000

In other words, if you take away their Super Bowl-winning seasons, every single one of these quarterbacks looks much, much worse. ¬†And that is a patently obvious statement, yet apparently it needs to be mentioned. ¬†Tom Brady is the only QB in NFL history that has a winning record in the playoffs in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†That is remarkable. ¬†The average QB in this group wins 41.4% of his playoff games in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†Brady is at 52.9%. ¬†No QB in the NFL has ever won a higher percentage of his playoff games in years where he did not win a Super Bowl. ¬†Tom Brady is not only the greatest winner in playoff history, he has taken his team deeper more often than anyone, and he’s even been the best in history when his team hasn’t won the Super Bowl. ¬†That’s remarkable.

There is one more item to consider:  How often have these quarterbacks been one-and-done?  Here is the list again, this time by the number of one-and-dones:

  • 8 – P. Manning
  • 4 – Elway, Montana
  • 3 – Favre, Staubach, Marino, Bradshaw, Aikman, Rodgers
  • 2 – Roethlisberger, Young, Brees, Brady

So for all his playoff success, rarely has Brady simply been a complete dud.  If you take that number and divide it by the total number of playoff games they have played, Brady looks even more impressive.

  1. Brady – 2 out of 26, .077
  2. Favre – 3 out of 24, .125
  3. Young – 2 out of 15, .133
  4. Roethlisberger – 2 out of 14, .143
  5. Staubach – 3 out of 19, .158
  6. Bradshaw – 3 out of 19, .158
  7. Marino – 3 out of 18, .167
  8. Montana – 4 out of 23, .174
  9. Elway – 4 out of 22, .182
  10. Brees – 2 out of 11, .182
  11. Aikman – 3 out of 16, .188
  12. E. Manning – 3 out of 11, .273
  13. Rodgers – 3 out of 9, .333
  14. P. Manning – 8 out of 23, .348

The rarity with which Brady goes one-and-done, combined with the regularity with which he goes deep into the playoffs, have combined to make him the greatest playoff-winning QB in the history of the NFL. ¬†These numbers show that the narrative that Brady is mediocre in the playoffs is false. ¬†It is true that since his last Super Bowl win he is just 9-8, but that percentage is higher than any other QB’s playoff winning percentage in non-Super Bowl-winning seasons. ¬†Brady is criticized for this simply because the three championships came early in his career, and none have come since then. ¬†That’s an unfair burden to place on any QB for comparison’s sake.

The bottom line is this:  Tom Brady is the greatest playoff-winning quarterback in NFL history.  Period.

2000-2012 Patriots Draft Analysis

We are a day away from the 2013 NFL draft, and as we get excited about the prospects of who might end up where, it’s as good a time as any to ask whether the Patriots under Bill Belichick have been good at this drafting business. ¬†Well, I’ll give you the conclusion at the outset: ¬†Yes, they are. ¬†Very good, in fact.

Using pro-football-reference.com’s expansive database, I’ve taken time the past few months to put every draft pick from 2000-2012 into a spread sheet, along with numerous categories to analyze. ¬†The Patriots haven’t been the best in every possible way, but they are an elite NFL team when it comes to drafting, when the entire package is analyzed.

Let’s start with the basic truth that must be understood. ¬†The Patriots are a very good team and, by and large, draft late in each round. ¬†Of course, trades impact their draft position, but on average, the Patriots have had the third-worst draft position in the NFL. ¬†Here’s every team’s average draft pick #.

Rank – Team – Avg. Pick #

  1. Ari – 114.274
  2. Det – 117.928
  3. NYJ – 118.464
  4. Den – 118.619
  5. Cle – 119.140
  6. Cin – 121.109
  7. Min – 122.570
  8. SD – 123.408
  9. Hou – 123.615
  10. NO – 124.299
  11. KC – 125.471
  12. Oak – 126.020
  13. Car – 126.200
  14. StL – 126.739
  15. Chi – 127.165
  16. Buf – 127.703
  17. NYG – 129.309
  18. Bal – 129.990
  19. Phi – 130.157
  20. Dal – 130.693
  21. SF – 131.053
  22. Sea – 131.420
  23. Jax – 131.695
  24. Mia – 131.753
  25. Ten – 131.810
  26. Atl – 132.110
  27. Pit – 132.740
  28. Ind – 133.638
  29. GB – 134.026
  30. NE – 134.111
  31. Was – 139.589
  32. TB – 142.238

The Patriots, therefore start off every draft at a disadvantage compared to most other teams in the league.  This is no small matter, as over a 13-year period one would expect teams with such a draft disadvantage to perform significantly worse both in terms of the draft itself, and on the field as well.

Next, let’s look at the number of picks each team has actually taken since 2000. ¬†Again, keep in mind that teams trade picks (like the Pats’ dealing a 4th rounder for Randy Moss). ¬†I am only talking about actual draft picks, not players acquired in trades involving draft picks.

Rank – Team – # of picks from 2000-2012

  1. Ten – 121
  2. NE – 117
  3. StL – 115
  4. Phi – 115
  5. GB – 115
  6. SF – 113
  7. Sea – 112
  8. Buf – 111
  9. Cin – 110
  10. Cle – 107
  11. Den – 105
  12. Car – 105
  13. Jax – 105
  14. Ind – 105
  15. TB – 105
  16. KC – 104
  17. Bal – 104
  18. Pit – 104
  19. Chi – 103
  20. Dal – 101
  21. Min – 100
  22. Oak – 100
  23. Atl – 100
  24. SD – 98
  25. Det – 97
  26. NYG – 97
  27. Mia – 97
  28. Ari – 95
  29. Hou – 91
  30. Was – 90
  31. NO – 87
  32. NYJ – 84

So you see the difference between, say, New England and the NY Jets.  The Jets have a much higher average draft position, but a lot fewer picks, than the Patriots.  So we see the strategy here employed by both teams.  The Jets have traded a lot of picks to move up in the draft, hoping that the smaller quantity is made up for by improved quality.  The Patriots have adopted a different approach, on the whole, using picks to trade down and add future picks.  They have taken a longer-term approach, hoping that an increased volume would give them better odds at landing quality players.

Now, let’s see how these approaches have worked. ¬†Let’s look at the number of total years played in the NFL by these draft picks:

Rank – Team – Total Yrs Played

  1. Ten – 501
  2. SF – 492
  3. GB – 480
  4. Sea – 472
  5. Car – 464
  6. Buf – 463
  7. Phi – 462
  8. Bal – 449
  9. NE – 449
  10. NYG – 437
  11. SD – 436
  12. Ind – 435
  13. StL – 435
  14. Cle – 434
  15. Pit – 434
  16. Cin – 431
  17. Chi – 426
  18. Ari – 417
  19. Dal – 417
  20. Oak – 414
  21. Jax – 413
  22. NYJ – 412
  23. Den – 407
  24. Atl – 403
  25. KC – 394
  26. Det – 393
  27. Min – 386
  28. NO – 385
  29. Mia – 384
  30. TB – 375
  31. Hou – 349
  32. Was – 308

Those 117 draft picks have managed to play 449 years combined in the NFL. ¬†That comes to an average of 3.8 years per draft pick, which would rank the Patriots 27th in the NFL. ¬†So it’s pretty clear that¬†most of their draft picks don’t achieve a whole lot in the league. ¬†The Jets, conversely, have gotten 412 years out of their 84 draft picks, for an average of 4.9 years per pick. ¬†That’s much better.

But now let’s talk about quality. ¬†It’s one thing to have players stick in the league for a while. ¬†It’s another to have them be of high quality. ¬†So we’ll look at three levels of quality. ¬†The first is the number of years as a starter.

Rank – Team – # of Years as Starter

  1. SF – 203
  2. Ari – 199
  3. Jax – 194
  4. SD – 192
  5. Bal – 192
  6. NYJ – 183
  7. Ind – 180
  8. Car – 176
  9. GB – 173
  10. Cin – 173
  11. Ten – 171
  12. Chi – 170
  13. Sea – 169
  14. Pit – 165
  15. NE – 164
  16. Oak – 163
  17. NYG – 161
  18. StL – 159
  19. Atl – 157
  20. Phi – 156
  21. Buf – 154
  22. NO – 152
  23. Den – 151
  24. Cle – 151
  25. Dal – 149
  26. Det – 145
  27. Mia – 145
  28. Min – 139
  29. KC – 135
  30. Hou – 124
  31. TB – 113
  32. Was – 96

Here we see the Patriots in the middle of the pack in terms of starting seasons their draft picks have produced.

This next list shows each team’s number of player-years as an All-Pro 1st teamer, and years as a Pro Bowler.

Rank – Team – All-Pro Seasons – Pro Bowl Seasons – TOT AP+PB

  1. NE – 12 – 44 – 56
  2. SF – 14 – 30 – 44
  3. Bal – 11 – 33 – 44
  4. SD – 9 – 34 – 43
  5. Dal – 8 – 34 – 42
  6. Chi – 10 – 29 – 39
  7. Car – 9 – 27 – 36
  8. NYJ – 8 – 26 – 34
  9. Ind – 7 – 26 – 33
  10. Ari – 3 – 30 – 33
  11. Sea – 10 – 22 – 32
  12. Pit – 5 – 26 – 31
  13. Cin – 5 – 25 – 30
  14. NYG – 5 – 24 – 29
  15. Min – 9 – 19 – 28
  16. KC – 8 – 19 – 27
  17. NO – 6 – 21 – 27
  18. Den – 6 – 20 – 26
  19. Hou – 6 – 19 – 25
  20. GB – 2 – 23 – 25
  21. Atl – 1 – 20 – 21
  22. Oak – 8 – 12 – 20
  23. Ten – 6 – 13 – 19
  24. Phi – 4 – 15 – 19
  25. Was – 0 – 19 – 19
  26. Cle – 3 – 11 – 14
  27. Buf – 1 – 13 – 14
  28. Jax – 2 – 11 – 13
  29. Det – 3 – 9 – 12
  30. Mia – 1 – 9 – 10
  31. StL – 0 – 3 – 3
  32. TB – 0 – 3 – 3

The Patriots have produced by far the highest number of elite seasons from their draft picks than any other team in the league.  And lest we think this is just Tom Brady, consider that Brady accounts for 2 All-Pros and 8 Pro Bowls.  If we remove him from the mix, the Patriots still have the highest combined number in the league.  But of course, removing Tom Brady is silly, since he represents the single greatest single draft pick in this entire 13-year period, and he has had the single greatest influence in the success of the Patriots, from a player perspective.

And finally, we will look at pro-football-reference’s AV stat. ¬†They have a formula for determining the value of a player, and they apply it to every position – including linemen. ¬†If you take all the draft picks and total up their entire career AV numbers, we’ll see the total value each team’s draft picks have produced.

Rank – Team – Total AV

  1. SD – 1571
  2. NE – 1560
  3. GB – 1524
  4. NYJ – 1498
  5. SF – 1493
  6. Car – 1490
  7. Bal – 1486
  8. Ind – 1464
  9. Ari – 1461
  10. Chi – 1443
  11. Pit – 1436
  12. Ten – 1424
  13. Jax – 1403
  14. Atl – 1397
  15. NYG – 1392
  16. Sea – 1375
  17. Cin – 1363
  18. Phi – 1337
  19. Dal – 1293
  20. Buf – 1286
  21. Den – 1262
  22. NO – 1220
  23. Cle – 1188
  24. Min – 1188
  25. StL – 1145
  26. Det – 1092
  27. Hou – 1083
  28. KC – 1060
  29. Mia – 1045
  30. Oak – 1039
  31. TB – 885
  32. Was – 851

So let’s sum up what the Patriots have been able to do in the draft from 2000-2012. ¬†Starting from one of the worst average draft positions in the league, the Patriots have accumulated the highest number of draft picks in the NFL. ¬†They’ve used these picks to draft a better-than-average amount of player years, an average amount of player years as a starter, but, most importantly, by far the most amount of stars. ¬†The only teams that have drafted at the same level as New England are San Diego, San Francisco, Baltimore, and, somewhat surprisingly, Carolina. ¬†But when draft position is taken into consideration, the top two teams turn out to be New England and San Francisco.

Every team has significant misses in the draft, as well as significant hits.  The Patriots will likely draft a player or two this year that is a total bust, but also a player or two that ends up being very good.  What we do know is that, on the whole, the Patriots are one of the very best teams in the entire league at drafting, and the 13-year drafting record under Belichick is a testimony to that.

Making Sense of Wes Welker and Danny Amendola

So Wes Welker is a Denver Bronco, and we will watch him catch 100+ passes from Peyton Manning.  And Danny Amendola is a New England Patriot, and we hope we will watch him catch a ton of passes from Tom Brady.  How did we get here?

The Patriots acquired Welker before the 2007 season for their 2nd and 7th round picks.  They then signed him to a 5-year, $18.1 million contract, making him a Patriot through the 2011 season.  Over those 5 years, Welker played in 77 out of a possible 80 regular season games, averaging 111 receptions, 1221 yards, and 6 td a year.

Last year, the Patriots offered Welker a 2-year, $16 million contract (all $16 million guaranteed). ¬†Welker refused and ended up playing for $9.5 million in 2012 under the franchise tag. ¬†As soon as he signed that, he tweeted, “I signed my tender today. I love the game and I love my teammates! Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results. #leapoffaith”. ¬†The “#leapoffaith” hashtag indicated that he was hoping he would be able to sign a longer-term deal under favorable conditions, but the Patriots came back with an even lower offer. ¬†Naturally, he did not sign that either.

Playing for that $9.5 million, Welker opened the season in a strange situation. ¬†Having played an average of 90%, and never less than 75%, of the Patriots’ offensive snaps during his tenure with the Patriots, he played just 64% of their offensive snaps in the season opener against Tennessee, catching 3 passes for 14 yards. ¬†Speculation ran rampant as to what was going on (see, for example, this article here: ¬†http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/blog/nfl-rapidreports/20139713/patriots-notebook-is-wes-welker-being-phased-out).

As this piece points out (http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-network-total-access/0ap1000000064168/Is-Wes-Welker-being-phased-out), the Patriots were making a philosophical shift in their offensive scheme, using the two TE, two outside WR set, and Julian Edelman’s skill set suited that philosophy better. ¬†But then Aaron Hernandez went down with an ankle injury, and the Patriots made an adjustment. ¬†Welker was back in his slot role and he ended up with his usual eye-popping stats (118 rec, 1354 yds, 6 td).

Fast-forward to the end of the 2012 season. ¬†Welker put up big numbers in the playoffs (2 games, 16 rec, 248 yds, 1 td), but the Patriots lost to the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. ¬†The discussion in New England turned to their roster for 2013, and first and foremost was talk about Wes Welker. ¬†Did the Patriots want Welker back, and did Welker want to come back? ¬†Well, it’s hard to say. ¬†It would seem crazy to think that the Patriots would not want one of the greatest receivers in their franchise history back, and it would also seem crazy to think that Welker would not want to return. ¬†But the final numbers suggest that each side prioritized their own economics over wanting the marriage to last.


Wes Welker’s departure makes you wonder how we got to this point? (FILE:USPresswire)

The Patriots did not apply the franchise tag to him, and no agreement was reached prior to free agency, so Welker was free to negotiate with other teams. ¬†Reports surfaced that the Patriots had sent him a “lowball” or “laughable” offer. ¬†He ended up receiving from the Broncos a 2 year, $12 million deal. ¬†Welker thus took a serious pay cut to play for Denver, just as he would have taken a serious pay cut to play for the Patriots. ¬†We found out that the Patriots had offered Welker a 2-year, $10 million deal with incentives that could take the deal up to $18 million. ¬†Welker apparently felt that those incentives were unattainable, so let’s pretend that the incentives were not in there. ¬†Was a 2-year, $10 million offer “laughable”? ¬†If you had asked most fans and experts during the middle of the season, the answer probably would have said yes. ¬†But the fact is, on the open market, the best offer Welker could get was 2 years, $12 million. ¬†So 2 years, $10 million was hardly “laughable”. ¬†In fact, as things turned out, it was a pretty accurate assessment of the market.

Why didn’t the Patriots go a little higher for Welker? ¬†This is where we get back to the whole “did they want him” conversation. ¬†Sure they wanted him. ¬†But they wanted him for $5 million a year, not $6 million a year. ¬†Could they have gone higher? ¬†Yes, of course. ¬†But they tend to place a value on a player and hold to it, so they wanted him, but not for more money than they were willing to spend on him. ¬†It goes the other way too, of course. ¬†Did Welker want to remain a Patriot? ¬†Well, yes he did, but just to a degree. ¬†He could have taken just $1 million less per year to remain in a situation he knew was good for him. ¬†But he didn’t. ¬†In fact, Ron Borges has reported that Welker never even gave the Patriots a chance to match Denver’s offer (which may have been a condition Denver placed on the offer in the first place). ¬†So just as New England preferred to remain at 2/10 rather than spend more to keep Welker, Welker preferred 2/12 rather than remain with the Patriots. ¬†So each side may have wanted the marriage to last, but only at their terms.

With Welker gone, the Patriots had a huge hole to fill at WR. ¬†Rumors had circulated for weeks about Danny Amendola as a possible fit, so it wasn’t too surprising to find out later in the day yesterday that they had indeed signed him. ¬†What was surprising was the contract: ¬†5 years, $31 million. ¬†Doing the math, that comes to $6.2 million a year, which is $100,000 a year more per year than Welker got from Denver. ¬†It has long been agreed by most experts that Amendola would be a good fit for the Patriots, so it is understandable why they would want to acquire him. ¬†But why were they willing to pay Amendola more money than they offered Welker? ¬†That was the shocking part.

Let’s try to see this from New England’s perspective. ¬†What does Amendola bring that Welker may not? ¬†Well, Amendola is 5 years younger, two inches taller, and is both quicker (measured by the 3-cone drill) and faster. ¬†He’s a bigger, faster, and younger version of Welker. ¬†Those factors alone may be sufficient for Belichick to feel that the money spent on Amendola represented a better investment moving forward than it would be with Welker.

But Welker is someone we know can be tremendously productive in this offense.  We do not know that about Amendola.  Are there football skills that Amendola brings to the table that Welker could not match?  Welker is one of the toughest and most consistent receivers Рslot or otherwise Рin the NFL.  Amendola has never put up the kind of numbers Welker has.  But that is a bit of an unfair comparison.  Welker has spent the last 5 years catching passes from the greatest QB of all-time in Tom Brady, while Amendola has been catching passes from Sam Bradford.  A better comparison would be Welker before he came to New England versus Amendola.

Welker’s best season before arriving in New England was in 2006, when Welker was 25. ¬†He played in Miami, catching passes from Cleo Lemon, Joey Harrington, and Daunte Culpepper. ¬†He had 67 receptions for 687 yards and 1 td. ¬†Amendola’s best season was in 2010, at age 25, catching passes from Bradford. ¬†He had 85 receptions for 689 yards and 3 td. ¬†This does not mean that Amendola is destined to catch 111 passes a season. ¬†But it does mean that Amendola has plenty of ability to be a successful NFL receiver.

Amendola, being bigger and faster, is a better outside receiver than Welker is, and that is the direction the Patriots appear to be wanting to move with the position.  He can also play the slot, so he brings the Patriots more flexibility.  And he may have a better set of hands than Welker has, which may come as a surprise to people.  Consider these numbers from the last 3 seasons:

  • Welker – 326 receptions, 28 drops, 8.6% drop rate
  • Amendola – 153 receptions, 9 drops, 5.9% drop rate

So Welker, even though he’s been an amazing receiver for the Patriots, drops the ball at a significantly higher rate than Amendola does. ¬†So Amendola is bigger, faster, younger, and has better hands.

The remaining two issues, though, are: ¬†(1) Is Amendola as durable as Welker, and (2) Will he thrive in New England’s offense? ¬†The second one is a guess, but a reasonable guess is yes. ¬†He’s a terrific player with a lot of ability, and terrific receivers tend to do well with Tom Brady throwing the football. ¬†He might not put up Welker’s numbers (possibly because a change in philosophy will spread the ball out more) but he should be good.

The first issue, however, is the big one.  Welker is as tough and durable as they come, and Amendola has missed a lot of time with injuries.  Of a possible 64 games over the past 4 seasons, Amendola has played in just 42 of them.  He has suffered three serious injuries that have forced him to miss 22 games over that time period.  Welker, meanwhile, has played in just about every regular season game during his time in New England.

One question related to this is whether Amendola is “injury prone” or if those injuries are of the more “freakish” variety. ¬†He suffered a dislocated elbow that cost him almost the entire 2011 season, and he had a serious shoulder injury in 2012 that, according to this report (http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/nfl-shutdown-corner/danny-amendola-injury-could-life-threatening-173715914–nfl.html), could have been life-threatening. ¬†Jay Glazer of foxsports.net wrote that, “the Rams called around the league to find a case of another player suffering a similar injury, but they could not find one”, so obviously that injury was a very rare thing. ¬†And lest we forget, Wes Welker did suffer his own enormous freak injury when he tore his ACL in the last game of the 2009 regular season on a play where he wasn’t even hit by anyone. ¬†If that freak injury – which certainly could have happened at any time – had occurred at the start of the 2010 season instead of the end of 2009, Welker’s games played per season average would look a lot different today.

The bottom line is that the Patriots no longer have Wes Welker and instead they have Danny Amendola.  They are one of the best-run franchises in all of sports, not just the NFL.  Generally, they make correct decisions with respect to personnel.  It is difficult to see how losing Welker and replacing him with Amendola for the same amount of money is a wise move, but it is equally difficult to make the case that the Patriots will be anything less than a very good team in 2013.

The Incomparable Tom Brady

Yesterday we learned that Tom Brady and the Patriots worked out a deal extending Brady’s contract with the club for what is, by NFL standards, a pittance: ¬†3 years, $27 million for a franchise quarterback. ¬†The move frees up millions of dollars in cap space for the Patriots, giving them the financial flexibility that few teams enjoy. ¬†It allows them to retain their own key free agents with money left over to improve the team elsewhere. ¬†By any measure, it was a team-first move by Brady that ensures they have the best chance possible of winning as he enters his final years in the league.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/nfl/news/20130225/tom-brady-new-england-patriots-contract/#ixzz2M0goIX6s)said of the deal, “For the second time in his illustrious career, Brady is doing something players in this day and age simply do not do: As he did in 2005, Brady, a league source told SI.com, is signing a contract with New England that will pay him significantly less money than the market will bear, in large part to help the Patriots stay competitive for the next five seasons. ¬†Amazingly, according to the source, the deal is for an eye-poppingly conservative $27 million, which is less than half his worth by any measure.”

It’s a good time to think about just what Tom Brady has meant to the New England Patriots, and, really, New England sports in general. ¬†The answer: ¬†His impact has been nearly unparalleled in the history of New England sports. ¬†Let’s look at the personal statistical resume:

  • 2-time NFL MVP (2007, 2011)
  • 2-time Super Bowl MVP (2002, 2004)
  • Currently #5 all-time in passing TDs (projects to 486 by career’s end, which would be just 22 short of #1)
  • Currently #9 all-time in passing yards (projects to 65,172 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Currently #8 all-time in completions (projects to 5,524 by career’s end, which would be #2 of all-time)
  • Holds numerous NFL records, including (but not limited to): ¬†Most TDs in a season (50), Most career playoff attempts and completions (887 and 553, respectively), Highest completion % in a postseason game (92.9% vs. Jax in 2007)

His resume when it comes to team success is also off the charts:

  • Most playoff wins as a QB (17)
  • Fastest player ever to 100 wins
  • Most consecutive wins as a team, counting playoffs (21, in 2003-04)
  • Only QB to start in five Super Bowls
  • 3 Super Bowl titles
  • Average season with Brady as starter: ¬†12-4 (actually a little better than that: ¬†12.3 wins, 3.7 losses)

There are other quarterbacks in league history who have done more in individual categories than Brady. ¬†For example, Brett Favre has more TDs, yards, and MVPs. ¬†But he has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Peyton Manning has a higher career passer rating and has won more league MVPs, but he too has won just one Super Bowl. ¬†Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw, conversely, have won more Super Bowls, but never put up the kind of regular season statistics that Brady has. ¬†Other players may have had better individual seasons than Brady’s best, but very few players have excelled at his level for as long.

I looked at a number of objective factors in determining the greatest QB of all time. ¬†I only included seven players in this conversation – all played in the Super Bowl era – because to my knowledge nobody else in this era has been considered in the running for greatest of all time. ¬†The seven are: ¬†Brady, Montana, Elway, Bradshaw, Favre, Marino, and Peyton Manning. ¬†I then used individual statistical measurements, personal achievements (regular season and SB MVP awards), pro-football-reference.com’s AV metric, and team achievements, like regular season and postseason winning percentages, and championships won. ¬†I also looked at both the peak (the best 3 year period in each player’s careers) and the total, long-haul, performance. ¬†I then ranked all seven players in seven categories that sum all this up: ¬†career AV, AV per game, regular season winning percentage, postseason wins, postseason winning percentage, conference championships, Super Bowl titles, MVP awards (either regular season or SB), and 3-year peak determined by AV. ¬†After ranking all the players in these, I came up with an average ranking for all 9 categories. ¬†Here were the final results:

  1. Brady – 2.1
  2. Montana – 3.1
  3. P. Manning – 3.6
  4. Elway – 4.0
  5. Bradshaw – 4.1
  6. Favre – 4.6
  7. Marino – 4.9

Brady excels everywhere. ¬†He has by far the biggest 3-year peak in NFL history, as measured by AV. ¬†He has won lots of awards, and his team success is off the charts in terms of winning percentage and playoff success. ¬†Manning has lots of awards and his AV numbers are excellent, but he is not helped by his poor playoff performance. ¬†Montana has the awards and team success, but his AV numbers pale in comparison to Brady’s. ¬†Bradshaw has excellent playoff success, but his overall individual statistical profile is weak. ¬†Elway has a little bit of everything, but not as much as Brady anywhere except in terms of longevity.

So we can see that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history and the greatest New England Patriot of all time. ¬†But to New England sports fans, he’s not just that; he’s perhaps the greatest athlete in any sport in New England sports history. ¬†The short list of all-time New England greats would include:

  • Baseball: ¬†Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Cy Young
  • Basketball: ¬†Bill Russell, Larry Bird, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek
  • Hockey: ¬†Bobby Orr, Eddie Shore, Ray Borque, Phil Esposito, Johnny Bucyk
  • Football: ¬†Tom Brady, Gino Cappelletti, John Hannah, Steve Nelson, Mike Haynes

Of this list, we can ask the question of which athlete was the most dominant in his or her sport, which one led to the most team success, and which one transcended their sport and perhaps impacted other sports.  This, as we all know, is not easy to sort out.

A first run through this list of amazing athletes would shave it down considerably.  Of the hockey players, only Orr makes the cut.  In football, only Brady makes the cut.  In baseball, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Pedro Martinez, and Cy Young all qualify.  And all four basketball players make the cut.  That leaves us with this list of candidates:

  • Ted Williams
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Cy Young
  • Bill Russell
  • Larry Bird
  • Bob Cousy
  • John Havlicek
  • Bobby Orr
  • Tom Brady

That’s the list of the 10 greatest athletes in New England sports history. ¬†Now let’s look at each of these players with the three criteria in mind (individual dominance, team success, and transcendence).

Ted Williams – Statistically, he was one of the greatest players in baseball history, which is amazing considering he lost four years to two wars. ¬†He transcends baseball in that people who don’t even follow baseball know who Teddy Ballgame was. ¬†But where he falls short is in the category of team success. ¬†The Red Sox were at times pretty good during his career, but they only went to one World Series, with no World Series championships.

Carl Yastrzemski – His best year (1967) was one of the all-time great seasons in baseball history. ¬†He is known all over as “Yaz” and in that way he transcends baseball. ¬†But, like Williams, he never saw the ultimate team success. ¬†He played in two World Series (1967, 1975), but the Sox could never win it all.

Pedro Martinez – One of the most electrifying players of all-time, Pedro Martinez’ peak seasons from 1997-2003 was the greatest run of pitching the sport has ever seen. ¬†That is not an exaggeration. ¬†When you factor in the era in which he played (look at the offensive numbers put up during that time), it is astounding what he accomplished. ¬†He also helped lead the Red Sox to their first World Series championship in 86 years in 2004. ¬†The only thing Pedro does not have going for him is that his career in Boston was not that long.

Cy Young – I included him in this list because (a) he was obviously an all-time great, (b) the Red Sox won several World Series titles with him, and (c) there is a major league baseball award named after him. ¬†Not many guys can boast that resume. ¬†The issue with Young was that it happened so long ago, and he played the majority of his career for other franchises (just 8 of his 22 years were in Boston) that I don’t think he can be given the title of greatest New England athlete.

Bill Russell – He is everything that’s good in sports. ¬†He was a tremendous individual player (5 MVP awards) but also the ultimate team player and winner. ¬†His Celtics won 11 titles in 13 seasons, a mind-boggling number. ¬†He did not put up the statistical profile that other great players did, but he was so good at the little things that it more than made up for it. ¬†He is as elite as they come.

Larry Bird – A 3-time MVP, Bird led the great Celtic resurgence in the 1980’s. ¬†He had eye-popping stats and the Celtics won three NBA championships during his time. ¬†Boston sports was energized by his arrival, and he is one of the most well-known sports names in the country, even long after he’s retired.

Bob Cousy¬†– A great player in his own right that was part of numerous Celtic championship teams, he arrived before Russell and was the engine that made them go. ¬†But I don’t think he ranks quite as highly as these other players.

John Havlicek – Similar to Cousy in that he was an all-time great player and his teams enjoyed success, but I don’t think he quite measures up to some of the others on this list.

Bobby Orr РOrr was the Boston Bruins for many years.  He is among the very best players in NHL history and revolutionized the defenseman position.  He also won the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972.  His iconic leap after scoring the Cup-winning goal in 1970 is one of the most well-known images in all of sports photography.

Tom Brady РI have made the case above for Brady.  He is the greatest QB in NFL history and has unparalleled individual and team success.

Now, this list boils down to three athletes:  Russell, Orr, and Brady.  The others are great (and Pedro may be my favorite among them all), but the combination of individual dominance, team success, and transcendence puts these three at the top.  A case can be made for all three athletes.  But when you factor everything in, I believe that Tom Brady is at the top of the heap.  Here is why.

First, the individual dominance. ¬†All three players win big here. ¬†Russell’s stats weren’t as impressive as Brady’s or Orr’s, but he did win five league MVP awards in an era when Wilt Chamberlain, the greatest statistical machine in NBA history, played (and won 2 titles, people forget). ¬†Orr was one of the most dominant hockey players of all-time and put up crazy numbers for a defenseman. ¬†And Brady, as we know, holds many NFL records. ¬†It’s very difficult to separate one athlete from the other in this category.

Second, the team success. ¬†Orr won two titles, and Brady has won three. ¬†The Patriots as a whole have been better than the Bruins were during Orr’s time. ¬†But Russell blows them both away in this category. ¬†11 titles in 13 years is beyond phenomenal. ¬†It’s the greatest team run in the history of professional sports. ¬†That said, it was easier to win back then, for a few major reasons: ¬†(1) There was no free agency or salary cap. ¬†Once you had a dominant team, you could run with it for a long time. ¬†(2) The NBA wasn’t a large league at the time, so you didn’t have as much competition. ¬†And (3) By playing in series instead of a one-and-done playoff format, it affords the better teams an opportunity to have a bad game or two and still win. ¬†The Patriots, if they played playoff series instead of a one-and-done format, would almost certainly have won more titles in Brady’s era. ¬†But that’s not how football is played. ¬†Brady also has had to play in an era of free agency and salary caps, which makes it harder for a dominant team to stay together. ¬†Nonetheless, Russell wins here.

Third, transcending the sport.  This is where I believe Tom Brady rises above the other two.  Russell was an iconic figure, and Orr was legendary in hockey.  But neither played in a time where the New England sports psyche was at a low point.  Neither played in an era where every play you made ended up on television.  When Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game, there was a newspaper article about it, but there is no actual footage of that game in existence today.  Everything Brady does these days (vacations with Giselle, shouting at teammates on the sidelines, you name it) is covered by the media.  He is one of the most well-known athletes on the planet, which is amazing considering that NFL football is hardly a global sport.

But consider the New England sports psyche in 2001. ¬†The Celtics hadn’t won a title in 15 years. ¬†The Bruins hadn’t won one in 29 years. ¬†The Red Sox hadn’t won one in 83 years. ¬†And the Patriots had never won one. ¬†This area was in desperate need of a hero, of a champion. ¬†When Bob Kraft bought the team, the Patriots came out of the doldrums of the previous regime and made the Super Bowl in 1996 under Bill Parcells and a hotshot quarterback named Drew Bledsoe. ¬†Things were looking up. ¬†Then Parcells jilted the Patriots for the Jets and took Curtis Martin with him, and the Patriots began a slow decline under Pete Carroll. ¬†The Celtics were enduring their 8th consecutive losing season. ¬†The Red Sox had had moderate success, but suffered some recent heartbreak at the hands of the hated Yankees (1999 ALCS). ¬†The Bruins in 1999-00 and 2000-01 missed the playoffs and there was little hope for the future.

Moreover, the Patriots themselves were in a funk.  They hired Bill Belichick from the Jets, which turned out to be a tremendous move but was not exactly an inspiring hire for most Patriots fans, who only remembered his mediocre record in Cleveland.  In 2000 the Patriots went 5-11 and the Belichick era was not off to a rousing start.

But then Mo Lewis changed everything.

He drilled Bledsoe, knocking him out of the second game of the season, and Tom Brady became the starting QB for the Patriots. ¬†He might have overtaken Bledsoe anyway, but nobody figured it would happen that soon, if at all. ¬†Yet there he was, leading the Patriots to a game-winning field goal to win the Super Bowl over the mighty Rams. ¬†The New England Patriots, as Gil Santos said, are Super Bowl Champions! ¬†He – and the rest of us too – couldn’t believe it. ¬†What in the world was this franchise doing winning a Super Bowl?? ¬†It seemed to open up the possibilities for everyone else. ¬†They won it again in 2003 and then in 2004. ¬†And in 2004, when the Red Sox were down 3 games to 0 against the Yankees, and all hope seemed lost, what did most New England sports fans think? ¬†If the Patriots could beat the Rams, the Red Sox can pull this off.

Now, I’m not saying that Tom Brady led the Red Sox to that dramatic comeback against the Yankees. ¬†But the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Rams changed how New England sports fans thought about their teams. ¬†The impossible suddenly became possible. ¬†There was always hope. ¬†And in an 11-year span, the Patriots won 3 titles, the Red Sox won 2, and the Celtics and Bruins each won a championship. ¬†Seven championships in 11 years for New England sports teams, all starting with the 2001 Patriots.

Now Tom Brady is entering the final phase of his career, and to kick start it, he has decided to sign a contract for less than half his value on the open market, so that the team will have more money to spend on other players that will make the team better.  It is a bold act of a true leader, one who personifies winning.

He is a remarkable athlete, one who was not highly thought of in college or entering the NFL draft, and yet he rose above it all, leading a woebegone franchise to an unlikely championship, ushering in one of the great eras of dominance in football history, uplifting an entire region that was begging for a champion, and transcending the world of sports into global icon status.

One day he will retire, and the golden era of Patriots football will end.  There will be other excellent players that play football or baseball or basketball or hockey in New England.  But there will never be another player like Tom Brady.  We are lucky to have witnessed this first-hand, and we should never forget what this has been like.

How to Improve the Pass Defense

Here are the Patriots’ league ranks in pass defense the last four seasons:

Pass Yds Allowed Per Game
– 2009: 210 (#12)
– 2010: 259 (#30)
– 2011: 294 (#31)
– 2012: 271 (#29)

Pass Yds Per Attempt Allowed
– 2009: 7.0 (#19)
– 2010: 7.1 (#21)
– 2011: 8.0 (#29)
– 2012: 7.7 (#28)

Pass Comp % Allowed
– 2009: 58.6% (#11)
– 2010: 63.5% (#24)
– 2011: 62.4% (#23)
– 2012: 62.1% (#20)

Pass TD Allowed
– 2009: 25 (#20)
– 2010: 25 (#21)
– 2011: 26 (#22)
– 2012: 27 (#21)

Opp Passer Rating
– 2009: 81.7 (#13)
– 2010: 81.2 (#13)
– 2011: 86.1 (#20)
– 2012: 86.9 (#17)

QB Sacks
– 2009: 31 (#23)
– 2010: 36 (#14)
– 2011: 40 (#14)
– 2012: 37 (#15)

Interceptions
– 2009: 18 (#11)
– 2010: 25 (#1)
– 2011: 23 (#2)
– 2012: 20 (#5)

On the whole, the numbers are pretty gruesome. The Pats are mediocre in sacking the QB, terrible in passing yards per attempt and pass yards allowed, poor in completion percentage, opponents’ passer rating, and passing TDs allowed. The only area where they excel is in interceptions. They do a really good job picking off the opposing QB.

So how do they make improve the pass defense? I would like to offer a few ideas, in no particular order.

Improve the Pass Rush
The Patriots do not generate a lot of pressure on the QB, and over the course of time that shows itself in the number of sacks they get. Sacks, of course, aren’t the end-all statistic that reveals QB pressure, but over time, the more pressure you get, generally the more sacks you’ll get. They are middle-of-the-pack in sacks.

An improved pass rush will improve the coverage. If a QB takes a five or seven step drop, looking for a longer-developing pattern, a good pass rush will make him throw it sooner than he wants. DBs need only cover for a few moments. But if there is no pressure, the QB can work through all his progressions, receivers have time to run longer patterns, and DBs have to cover for a longer period of time. That is a formula for a lot of quality completions, and bad news for the pass defense.

There are a few interesting players that could be available in free agency this year:

– DE Freeney, Ind. Down year in the sack department, but he was playing on a bum ankle and out of position in a 3-4 defense. As a situational pass rusher, he still has excellent athleticism and could potentially deliver double-digit sacks.

– DE Avril, Det. The Lions are looking to shed payroll in order to keep him, but I don’t think they’ll franchise him. The last three seasons he’s had 8.5, 11.5, and 9.5 sacks. He’ll be 27 for the 2013 season, just entering his prime.

– DE Umenyiora, NYG. He is 30 and coming off an injury-plagued season. But he has big-sack ability, with sack totals of 14.5, 13.0, and 11.5 at points in his career. A motivated Osi could be a real asset to any defense in need of big play dynamics.

– DE Johnson, Cin. He is a stud, both as a run-stopper and as a pass rusher. His sack totals have improved since 2010: 2.5, 6.0, 11.5. If he was on Billboard’s Top 100 chart, he’d be rising with a bullet. However, Cincinnati has plenty of money, and they will almost certainly retain his services.

– DE Bennett, TB. Coming off a 9-sack season, he clearly can get to the QB. But Tampa is like Cincy, in that they have plenty of money available, and there’s not a high likelihood that Bennett will be moving on.

– LB Spencer, Dal. He had 6.0 sacks in 2011, and 11.0 in 2012. Not a down lineman, he rushes from the SLB position.

– LB Barwin, Hou. He had 11.5 sacks in 2011, but just 3.0 in 2012, so at first glance, he might not seem like a guy you want to help your pass rush. But he’s young, and he might not cost a lot, which is a major factor the Patriots have to consider.

The draft also has some interesting players that can put heat on the opposing QB. Here’s a list of potential players the Pats could draft. Keep in mind that most of them will likely be gone by the time New England picks, but Belichick has been known to trade up to get a player he wants, so that’s not out of the question. And players (like Vince Wilfork) have occasionally slipped to New England’s draft slot, so you never know.

– Jarvis Jones, Georgia
– Barkevious Mingo, LSU
– Dion Jordan, Oregon
– Bjoern Werner, Florida St.
– Prince Shembo, Notre Dame
– Alex Okafor, Texas
– Ezekiel Ansah, BYU
– Trevardo Williams, UConn
– Sam Montgomery, LSU
– Quanterus Smith, WKU

Like with Chandler Jones, the Patriots might be able to snag one of these players that could help their pass rush.

Better Coverage Linebackers
The other side of the pass defense coin from QB pressure is coverage. Their current crop of linebackers are below average, as a group, in pass coverage. Spikes and Hightower are terrific run-stoppers, and there’s real value in that, but they are not quick enough to cover good tight ends or running backs. This gives opposing QBs relatively easy completions in the short-range area, which helps keep drives alive or get drives off to good starts with 5-7 yard gains. Mayo is adequate in coverage, and the return of Dane Fletcher could help in this area.

Daryl Smith of Jacksonville is a good coverage linebacker and could be a nice FA target for the Patriots, should they choose to invest money shoring up this need.

Better Cornerbacks
This is going to be a major headache for the Patriots. First off, what is going to happen to Alfonzo Dennard after he was found guilty this week? It would be a big help to the Patriots if they knew now what his fate would be. He could face several years in jail, or he could walk away with probation. We have no idea what is coming his way. So they might be all set at one corner position or they might have a gaping hole there. They just don’t know, but prudence dictates that they plan for the worst. With Aqib Talib as a free agent, it means their two best coverage corners are likely gone.

The uncertainty surrounding Dennard probably means that the Patriots will apply the franchise tag to Talib. It makes sense. In the AFCCG, he easily covered Anquan Boldin until he got hurt. After that, Boldin abused the smaller Patriots’ DBs and had a monster game. Talib gives them speed, size, and ball-hawking ability. The question is whether he can stay on the field, and that’s been a problem for him. Nonetheless, the smart play here may be to franchise him to make sure that one CB spot is in good shape.

That means that there’s another CB slot that needs help. McCourty could move back there until Dennard returns. Re-signing Arrington and asking him to play the other corner position is a bad idea. There are some interesting names out there in free agency:

– Asomugha, Phi. Almost certain to be cut, he struggled in Philadelphia, but for years he was a proven stud cover corner in Oakland. He might be worth an effort at rehabilitation.

– Rodgers-Cromartie, Phi. The Patriots a few years ago lost Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel to the Eagles. Maybe it’s time to return the favor and snag both Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie? Rodgers-Cromartie is a big, strong corner with good speed. He brings his own issues, of course, and isn’t as good as his natural talent would suggest he could be. But he would be an upgrade over Arrington at the outside CB spot.

– Cox, Jax. He has struggled to stay on the field, but that may serve to depress his market. He had 4 interceptions and 11 passes defended in 2012 in just 12 games, so he can be productive around the ball.

In the draft, the Patriots might look at some of the following prospects:

– Milliner, Alabama
– Rhodes, Florida St
– Trufant, Washington
– Banks, Mississippi St
– Ryan, Rutgers
– Poyer, Oregon St
– Taylor, Boise St
– Slay, Mississippi St
– Alford, SE Louisiana
– Amerson, NC State

Coverage Safeties
Moving McCourty to safety was a terrific move for New England. He has corner skills and track star speed, and he’s a surprisingly good hitter. As a free safety, he has the ability to cover a lot of ground. But if they choose to move him back to corner, it opens up a major hole in the safety spot. Gregory is a somewhat useful player that occasionally makes nice plays, but an upgrade could be used there.

Free agency provides many interesting options, including future hall-of-famers Charles Woodson and Ed Reed. Younger, and talented, options include Goldson (SF), Byrd (Buf), and Moore (Atl).

The draft features a number of intriguing safety prospects:

– Vaccaro, Texas
– Elam, Florida
– McDonald, USC
– Wilcox, Ga Southern
– Rambo, Georgia
– Thomas, Fresno St
– Lester, Alabama
The biggest issue with revamping the pass defense is going to be money. The Patriots have some room under the cap, but it is not a ton. The Wes Welker situation might have a direct bearing on what the Patriots will be able to do with respect to defensive improvement. A new contract for Welker could be structured in a way to free up money for 2013, but in the end, more money would be available if they simply chose to not re-sign him. It is going to be a very difficult call for Belichick to make, because losing Welker will almost certainly mean a significant reduction in offensive production for the Pats. But perhaps that money could be used to add an impact pass rusher or cover man that will end up helping the team more than losing Welker will hurt.

I would like to see the Patriots keep Welker, because I believe he is a perfect fit for this offense. But the fact of the matter is that the Patriots have had effective offenses and won Super Bowls without Welker, and now they have two of the best TEs in football in Gronkowski and Hernandez, plus a capable WR in Lloyd. While I am not advocating letting Welker go, I can see the argument that says they will still be very good on offense without him, and that the money that would be freed up would be put to better use on the defensive side of the ball.

I could see the Patriots employing a game plan like this:

  1. Sign Freeney as a situation pass-rusher.
  2. Franchise Talib.
  3. Move McCourty back to CB for the time being, until Dennard is back with the team.
  4. Sign a safety like Woodson or (preferably) Reed. I doubt they’d have the $$ to get a Goldson or Byrd. Keep Gregory along with the new safety, and when Dennard returns, Gregory becomes a reserve, and the backfield ends up being Dennard/Talib/McCourty/Reed (or equivalent). That’s a pretty nice defensive backfield.
  5. Draft pass rushers, CBs, and safeties, almost exclusively, hoping to find another young stud like Chandler Jones or Dennard.
  6. Hope for continued natural improvement from Jones, Ninkovich, Francis, and Bequette in terms of pass-rushing, and Fletcher, Hightower, Mayo, McCourty, and Dennard (when he returns) in coverage.

Whatever they do, this offseason is full of interesting decisions for Belichick and the Patriots.

The Career Arc of Tom Brady

The vast majority of athletes in any sport experience similar patterns for their careers.  It resembles a bell curve, as their performance starts off at a low level, progresses upward to a peak, then declines down to a low level again.  The rate of improvement or decline varies, as does the height of the peak or the depths of the valleys, and for some the peak comes a little earlier or later, but the pattern is roughly the same from athlete to athlete, and from sport to sport.

Tom Brady’s career arc is not likely to be very different from most other players. ¬†Here is Joe Montana’s career arc, measured by passer rating:

  • first four years: ¬†88.0
  • middle seven years: ¬†96.3
  • last four years: ¬†87.1

Here’s Tom Brady’s arc:

  • first seven years: ¬†88.4
  • middle six years: ¬†105.4
  • last X years? ¬†we’ll find out

He is in the midst of an historic run of greatness, and his 2012 season was exceptional.  But, while he has been phenomenal, he has seen a bit of a decline the past three years.

  • 2010: ¬†65.9%, 7.3 td%, 7.9 y/a, 111.0 rating
  • 2011: ¬†65.6%, 6.4 td%, 8.6 y/a, 105.6 rating
  • 2012: ¬†63.0%, 5.3 td%, 7.6 y/a, 98.7 rating

In 2012, the Patriots ran for more touchdowns than anyone else in the NFL, so Brady’s touchdown percentage would be higher if they had thrown the ball more deep in the red zone. ¬†Nonetheless, his completion percentage, while still good, has declined, as has his yards per attempt, and his overall passer rating. ¬†And if you gave Brady 5 more touchdowns and no interceptions (giving him 39 td and 8 int total), his rating goes from 98.7 up to 101.2, which is still worse than it was in 2011, so the trend is still the same. ¬†So relative to Brady’s own exceptional standards, it appears that his career arc has started its descent phase.

But it’s not just that. ¬†It’s relative to other quarterbacks in the NFL too. ¬†Here’s Brady compared with other QBs in the league, by passer rating:

  • 2010: ¬†111.0, #1 in the NFL
  • 2011: ¬†105.6, #3 in the NFL
  • 2012: ¬†98.7, #6 in the NFL

So relative to other QBs around the league, Brady is no longer performing as the undisputed king. ¬†Now, bear in mind that we’re still talking about a quarterback playing at an extremely high level. ¬†Brady is still great. ¬†He’s just not performing at quite the same immortal level he has been.

The question is not if or whether Brady will decline. ¬†That is inevitable, and it has apparently already begun. ¬†The question is whether the Patriots can win with Brady in the decline phase of his career arc. ¬†To answer that, let’s look at what Brady was like at the ascent phase of his career.

Not counting 2000, where he threw 3 passes, the first four years of his career were 2001-2004.  During that time, the Patriots won three Super Bowls.  Brady was terrific in those years, but he did not carry the team.  Consider where Brady ranked by passer rating those seasons:

  • 2001: ¬†86.5, #6 in the NFL, won Super Bowl
  • 2002: ¬†85.7, #9 in the NFL, missed playoffs
  • 2003: ¬†85.9, #10 in the NFL, won Super Bowl
  • 2004: ¬†92.6, #9 in the NFL, won Super Bowl

Brady was a top-tier QB during those four seasons, but he was not putting up the insane numbers he would starting in 2007. ¬†Here’s another way to look at it. ¬†Consider the Patriots’ yards, touchdowns, and offensive plays, and compare how much of this production Tom Brady’s passing accounted for (I calculate pass plays as passing attempts + sacks; it’s too much to figure out how many of Brady’s runs were scrambles). ¬†Note: ¬†the “epic” Tom Brady era refers to Brady from 2007-2012, where he has put up insane numbers.

  • SB-winning seasons: ¬†64.9% of the yards, 52.7% of the TDs, 49.2% of the plays
  • non-SB-winning seasons: ¬†71.2% of the yards, 58.6% of the TDs, 55.6% of the plays
  • “epic” Tom Brady era: ¬†71.4% of the yards, 59.0% of the TDs, 55.7% of the plays

When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, Tom Brady’s passing, while excellent (as seen in his regular top-10 finishes in the league’s passer ratings), was a much smaller percent of the offensive production pie than it has been when they have not won Super Bowls. ¬†When we look at the percentage of offensive plays were Brady’s passing, three of the lowest five seasons since he’s been on the team (not counting 2000 and 2008, for obvious reasons) came in their SB-winning years. Now, it is true that as Brady has shouldered a larger burden of the offense, the overall offensive production has increased. ¬†For example, compare Brady’s role in 2004 with 2011, along with the Patriots’ offensive production in those two years:

  • 2004: ¬†64.5% of the yards, 57.1% of the TDs, 48.3% of the plays, Pats scored 44 offensive TDs
  • 2011: ¬†76.4% of the yards, 63.9% of the TDs, 59.4% of the plays, Pats scored 56 offensive TDs

So while it’s true that the offense has been more productive on the whole as Brady’s role has increased, the point here is that the Patriots have proven that they can win with Brady not having to shoulder as big a burden of the offense. ¬†They can probably do it again, but there are a couple of other things to consider.

First, the other parts of the team need to step up.  The running game, which was much improved in 2012, needs to continue that improvement.  The defense, which was ranked 6th, 1st, and 2nd (3.0 average rank) in scoring during their three SB-winning seasons, has  ranked 9.4 on average in scoring defense in their non-SB-winning years.  And the special teams need to see more production.

Second, and this is a major factor, it is going to be harder for the ¬†Patriots to build a team similar to what it was in Brady’s ascent phase. ¬†Why? ¬†Simple: ¬†money. ¬†When he arrived as a 6th round pick, he was making minimal money, and the rest of the team’s salary cap could be used to fill out the rest of the team. ¬†Now, Brady’s cap hit is $21.8 million, meaning there’s less money available to upgrade the team elsewhere.

The Patriots are consistently excellent, and Brady gives them a terrific chance to win any game.  As he enters the decline phase of his career, we need to remember that the Patriots do have pieces in place that give them the ability to win another Super Bowl, even if Brady is not playing at his accustomed immortal level.

The Patriots’ Offensive Breakdown

Super Bowl 42. ¬†The Patriots’ historic offense musters only 14 points against the Giants in a crushing loss, ending the dream of a perfect season. ¬†Wild Card round, 2009. ¬†The Patriots score just 14 points against the Ravens in a humiliating defeat at home. ¬†Divisional Playoff round, 2010. ¬†The Jets come into town and limit the Patriots to 14 points before a garbage time TD at the end gives a dominating offensive team 21 points in a loss. ¬†Super Bowl 46, rematch against the Giants. ¬†The Patriots’ dynamic offense can score just 17 against a far weaker Big Blue defense than the one they played four years earlier. ¬†Another tough loss in the sport’s biggest game. ¬†And then this year, in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots offense – the 3rd highest scoring unit in history – scored just 13 points in another discouraging defeat to the Ravens.

Just what is going on here? ¬†What happens to the Patriots’ offense?

First, let’s go back and see what happened to the Patriots during the 2001, 2003, and 2004 seasons.

2001

  • Regular season: ¬†23.2 ppg, 305.1 ypg, 1.8 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†20.0 ppg, 297.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.2 ppg, -8.1 ypg, -1.5 to/g

2003

  • Regular season: ¬†21.8 ppg, 314.9 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†24.3 ppg, 375.7 ypg, 1.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+2.5 ppg, +60.8 ypg, -0.2 to/g

2004

  • Regular season: ¬†27.3 ppg, 357.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†28.3 ppg, 326.0 ypg, 0.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+1.0 ppg, -31.6 ypg, -1.4 to/g

AVERAGES

  • Regular season: ¬†24.1 ppg, 325.9 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†24.2 ppg, 332.9 ypg, 0.7 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+0.1 ppg, +7.0 ypg, -1.0 to/g

From these numbers, what we see is that the offense, during these three playoff runs, performed at pretty much the same level it had during the regular season.  The points and yards per game were very similar.  But the one big difference was that these Patriots limited their turnovers.  During these three championship seasons, they only committed six turnovers in nine playoff games.  That was a major reduction in turnovers allowed compared to the regular season.

Now we know that turnovers hurt on so many levels. ¬†At worst, it produces immediate points for the opposition. ¬†Kurt Warner experienced that first-hand when Ty Law snagged his pick-six in the Rams-Pats Super Bowl. ¬†But even if it doesn’t produce immediate points for the opposition, turnovers can either kill scoring opportunities or create excellent scoring opportunities for the other team, or just change the momentum and field position of a game. ¬†Turnovers are the single biggest factor in winning and losing a game.

So what has happened during their non-SB-winning seasons?

2005

  • Regular season: ¬†23.7 ppg, 352.0 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†20.5 ppg, 363.5 ypg, 2.5 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.2 ppg, +11.5 ypg, +1.0 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to

2006

  • Regular season: ¬†24.1 ppg, 335.6 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†31.7 ppg, 334.7 ypg, 1.7 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†+7.6 ppg, -0.9 ypg, 0.0 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to

2007

  • Regular season: ¬†36.8 ppg, 411.3 ypg, 0.9 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†22.0 ppg, 341.3 ypg, 1.3 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-14.8 ppg, -69.9 ypg, +0.4 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to

2009

  • Regular season: ¬†26.7 ppg, 397.3 ypg, 1.4 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†14.0 ppg, 196.0 ypg, 4.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-12.7 ppg, -201.3 ypg, +2.6 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to

2010

  • Regular season: ¬†32.4 ppg, 363.8 ypg, 0.6 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†21.0 ppg, 372.0 ypg, 1.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-11.4 ppg, +8.3 ypg, +0.4 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to

2011

  • Regular season: ¬†32.1 ppg, 428.0 ypg, 1.1 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†28.3 ppg, 396.0 ypg, 2.0 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-3.7 ppg, -32.0 ypg, +0.9 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to

2012

  • Regular season: ¬†34.8 ppg, 427.9 ypg, 1.0 to/g
  • Playoffs: ¬†27.0 ppg, 442.5 ypg, 1.5 to/g
  • Difference: ¬†-7.8 ppg, +14.6 ypg, +0.5 to/g
  • Playoff Loss: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

The more seasons’ worth of data we examine, the more the pattern emerges: ¬†the #1 key to the Patriots’ offensive failures in the playoffs has been the marked increase in turnovers. ¬†In their three Super Bowl winning seasons, the Patriots were +0.1 pts, +7.0 yds, and -1.0 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. ¬†In their seven non-SB-winning seasons, the Patriots were -5.0 pts, -28.2 yds, and +0.7 to in the playoffs compared with the regular season. ¬†Notice the difference in turnovers. ¬†They went from -1.0 in their championship seasons all the way to +0.7. ¬†That’s nearly two full turnovers per game difference! ¬†In other words, the Patriots went from being extra careful with the football in the playoffs (and they won) to being extra sloppy with the football in the playoffs (and they haven’t won).

The Patriots’ offense is phenomenal, but it is predicated on moving the ball efficiently down the field, using runs and short-to-mid range passes. ¬†They do not stretch the field like some other teams do, but they rack up more first downs than anyone else because they are so efficient. ¬†In order to achieve this level of success with this strategy, however, the Patriots need to take care of the football. ¬†They are a low-risk, death by a thousand paper cuts kind of offense. ¬†But that requires them to keep possession of the ball. ¬†Against lesser teams, the Patriots can survive a few more turnovers because they will still score so many points. ¬†But against quality teams in the playoffs, lots of turnovers are crippling.

Why do the Patriots tend to turn the ball over more in the playoffs?  Part of it is they play defenses that are hard-hitting.

  • 2005 Den: ¬†34 takeaways
  • 2006 Ind: ¬†26 takeaways
  • 2007 NYG: ¬†25 takeaways
  • 2009 Bal: ¬†32 takeaways
  • 2010 NYJ: ¬†30 takeaways
  • 2011 NYG: ¬†31 takeaways
  • 2012 Bal: ¬†25 takeaways

Those defenses averaged 1.7 takeaways per game.  From 2005-12, the Patriots averaged 1.2 giveaways.  So which would prevail: those takeaway-heavy defenses or the giveaway-free offense of the Patriots?  Well, as it turns out, during those playoff losses, the Patriots had 16 turnovers, or 2.3 per game Рtwice their normal rate.

In other words, the Patriots, in each of the past seven playoff seasons, have had major problems with ball security.

But is that the whole story? ¬†As usual, stats can shed light on many different things. ¬†Yes, the above is all true. ¬†The Patriots have turned the ball over at a far higher rate in the playoffs (and especially their playoff losses) than during the regular season since their last Super Bowl title. ¬†But let’s look more closely at their last seven playoff losses. ¬†Here are their game stats in each of those contests:

  • 2005 vs. Den: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
  • 2006 vs. Ind: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
  • 2007 vs. NYG: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
  • 2009 vs. Bal: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
  • 2010 vs. NYJ: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
  • 2011 vs. NYG: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
  • 2012 vs. Bal: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

So in four of the seven playoff losses, the Patriots only had one turnover apiece. ¬†And yet in those games they averaged just 21.5 points and 328.5 yards per game, well under their normal averages. ¬†So it’s more than just turnovers, though turnovers obviously have been a very important factor.

It would be tempting to say that the Patriots are not built to handle physical, turnover-causing defenses, but that is just not the case. ¬†During the regular seasons against these defenses, here’s what they did:

  • 2005 vs. Den – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 388 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†13 pts, 420 yds, 5 to
  • 2006 vs. Ind – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 349 yds, 5 to; Playoffs: ¬†34 pts, 319 yds, 1 to
  • 2007 vs. NYG – Reg Season: ¬†38 pts, 390 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†14 pts, 274 yds, 1 to
  • 2009 vs. Bal – Reg Season: ¬†27 pts, 319 yds, 1 to; Playoffs: ¬†14 pts, 196 yds, 4 to
  • 2010 vs. NYJ – Reg Season: ¬†14 pts, 291 yds, 3 to; 45 pts, 405 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†21 pts, 372 yds, 1 to
  • 2011 vs. NYG – Reg Season: ¬†20 pts, 438 yds, 4 to; Playoffs: ¬†17 pts, 349 yds, 1 to
  • 2012 vs. Bal – Reg Season: ¬†30 pts, 396 yds, 0 to; Playoffs: ¬†13 pts, 428 yds, 3 to

So compare their regular season performance against these same teams with their postseason performance:

  • Regular Season: ¬†26.8 pts, 372.0 yds, 1.6 to
  • Playoffs: ¬†18.0 pts, 336.9 yds, 2.3 to

They performed significantly better against the very same teams during the regular season than they did in the playoffs, in all three metrics.

Here are a handful of games they’ve played in recent years against similarly tough and hard-hitting defenses:

  • 2012 vs. SF: ¬†34 pts, 520 yds, 4 to
  • 2012 vs. Hou: ¬†42 pts, 419 yds, 1 to; 41 pts, 457 yds, 0 to
  • 2011 vs. NYJ: ¬†30 pts, 446 yds, 1 to; 37 pts, 389 yds, 0 to
  • 2010 vs. Pit: ¬†39 pts, 453 yds, 0 to
  • 2010 vs. Chi: ¬†36 pts, 475 yds, 0 to
  • 2009 vs. NYJ: ¬†31 pts, 410 yds, 1 to

They also struggled in some games vs. top defenses, but these games show that the Patriots are more than capable of big-time production against defenses that are tough, hard-hitting, and like to create turnovers.

So why does the offense suddenly have problems in the playoffs?  Well, here are a few conclusions:

  1. The reason is not that these opponents necessarily represent bad matchups for the Patriots.  After all, the Pats have proven that they can move the ball and score against these very defenses.
  2. The reason is not that there is a particular style of defense that gives them fits.  The Patriots can move the ball and score against any scheme and any type of defense.
  3. A big reason is a marked increase in turnovers, though it is unclear as to why the Patriots turn the ball over more in the playoffs.  But it is not the only reason.
  4. Key injuries have played a major role. ¬†In 2007, they had injuries along the offensive line and Brady’s shoulder was injured. ¬†In 2009, they lost Wes Welker the week before the playoffs started. ¬†In 2011, Gronkowski was a shell of his normal self thanks to the ankle injury he suffered in the AFCCG, and Logan Mankins was playing on a torn ACL. ¬†In 2012 they lost Gronkowski in the Divisional Round of the playoffs and played the Ravens in the AFCCG without him (and without Julian Edelman, a loss that should not go unmentioned).

The long story shorter is that there is no one factor as to why the Patriots’ defense has underperformed in the playoffs compared to the regular season. ¬†But it is nonetheless a clear fact that the offense¬†has¬†underperformed in the playoffs, against opponents that they have had success against in the past.

If you read this post (http://www.patsfans.com/blogs/vampatella/2013/01/28/big-challenges-come-in-threes/), you will see that the challenge of winning three (or four) straight games against quality opponents is very difficult indeed.  In fact, in only 3 of 35 total possible scenarios have the Patriots won 3 straight games against elite opposition, while Brady played a quality game.  In the regular season, if you have one off game, you probably lose, but you shrug it off and move on, just like the Patriots did this regular season.  But in the playoffs, if you have one off game and you lose, your season is over, and every aspect is examined with a fine-toothed comb.

This is not to suggest that there is nothing wrong with the Patriots’ offense. ¬†Maybe it is just the kind of rhythm and timing and precision offense that can be frustrated. ¬†Maybe they lack other ways to win. ¬†In 2001, they had three playoff games where the offense scored 16 points or less:

  • 16-13 win over Oakland – all 16 points were scored by the offense, but it took overtime to get them
  • 24-17 win over Pittsburgh – 2 TDs were by the special teams; 10 points were scored by the offense
  • 20-17 win over St. Louis – 1 TD was Law’s pick-six; 13 points were scored by the offense

So in those three games, the offense averaged just 13 points a game.  And yet they won the Super Bowl.  In 2011, the offense averaged 28.3 points a game and they lost one of them.  And in that one loss they scored 17 points Рone more than the offense scored in any of the three games during their 2001 SB-winning season!

The Patriots can get back to winning the Super Bowl by:

  1. Reducing their turnovers in the playoffs, or
  2. Diversifying their offense even more, allowing it to play better in different circumstances, or
  3. Being healthier, or
  4. Having the defense and/or special teams step up if the offense is struggling.

Those were the keys when they won Super Bowls.  Time to go back to that winning formula.