For my money, the 2004 Patriots remain the best team in franchise history. Better than the other Bill Belichick Super Bowl winners or any other Pats team you want to throw at me (go check out the rosters from 1976 and 1996; both amazing).
That '04 squad lost just twice, and one of those losses (at Miami late in the year on a Monday night) was basically a throwaway. They scored the fourth-most points in the league and allowed the second fewest. Not even a foot injury to Ty Law against the Steelers in Week 7 slowed them down; they went back into Pittsburgh for the AFC title game and dominated. They were excellent on both the offensive and defensive lines, and they were physical at nearly every position, from safety Rodney Harrison on down. They could air you out with Tom Brady, Deion Branch and David Givens, or grind you down with Corey Dillon. Even the coaching staff (Charlie Weis on offense, Josh McDaniels on quarterbacks, Romeo Crennel on defense, Dean Pees and Eric Mangini underneath him) was amazing. You name it; that team had it all.
So when I say the 2016 Patriots have a chance (that's a chance) to be that kind of team, I don't enter into the conversation lightly. This team is really good. Yes, the offensive line has questions and there's not quite the quality at running back you'd like to see beyond Dion Lewis, but there aren't really any holes other than that. The current Pats have good young players at every level of the defense and budding stars in Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Malcolm Butler. They are fast and athletic on that side of the ball, experienced and explosive on the other. Brady has somehow stopped aging. Rob Gronkowski is the most unstoppable player the team has ever seen (sorry, John Hannah). Belichick has the best staff he's had since that 2004 season.
Of course, this guarantees nothing. The Pats found that out the hard way last year, when injuries and a bizarre, partially self-inflicted, late-season slump conspired to put them in Denver for the AFC title game. It was enough to keep them from repeating as champions.
But providing they stay healthy, avoid mortar kicks and refrain from JV game plans with home-field advantage on the line, it's hard to imagine this team not being right there at the end again this season. And with good health they should be a lot more than that.
I say all of that as a backdrop to what has emerged as the major storyline with the Pats this spring -- their 13-odd pending free agents. I think we've allowed ourselves to believe this is a story of immediate import, when it's probably not. Everyone has more or less shown up for mini-camp, and I figure most everyone will show up for training camp and the season. I don't see any mass holdouts on the horizon.
But this is a story for 2017 and beyond. Keeping together what has become a special roster is going to take a lot of skill and a lot of money. It will be hard to do.
Yes, the salary cap space is there (over $60 million in reserve for next season), but the question is how much bonus money and guaranteed dollars the Pats would be willing to dole out in one calendar year. Those are the limits that should concern you. Hightower and Collins are going to command major, major dollars. And even if the Pats franchise one of them, that tag will still represent over $14 million in guaranteed, up-front money. They can delay Butler's payout a year if they want, but the longer they wait the more the price goes up. And while Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon don't feel like big-money considerations to us, they could be just the kind of guys who get overpaid on the market. Will the Pats be willing to match those prices?
Certainly, not all of the Patriots' pending free agents are crucial to the future (Terrance Knighton and Chris Long are considered rentals, for example), but the point remains: Not everyone is coming back.
And that's the last comparison to 2004. That team splintered following the Super Bowl against Philly. Guys retired (Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer). Others got hurt (Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison). Law left over money and Branch and Givens followed a year later. Dillon regressed emotionally and the coaching staff broke apart. It took a while for the Pats to compile that kind of top-to-bottom roster again.
In other words, things happen. Sometimes it's about contracts, sometimes it's about other stuff. Either way, the Pats need to make this season count. Teams like this don't come around every year. Even here, where it feels like they do.
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