Five biggest Patriots surprises of 2015
Five biggest Patriots surprises of 2015
Is it still a surprise when a team makes the AFC Championship Game for the fifth consecutive season? Probably not. But that doesn't mean there weren't a few unexpected developments for the Patriots as they made their way through 2015. Here were five.
1. Strength at corner
The Patriots position group that saw the most shakeup before the season -- and the position group for which most observers had the lowest expectations coming into the year -- was cornerback. Very few, if any, outside of those taking up residence at One Patriot Place saw both Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan turning into dependable, play-making cover men. Butler, determined to be anything but a one-pick wonder, went from Super Bowl hero to Pro Bowler after showcasing his athleticism and football instincts against some of the top wideouts in the game. Ryan took a detective's approach to his weekly assignments, studying film on his iPad whenever possible, and held targets like Damaryius Thomas and DeAndre Hopkins in check. Both players spent most of the year as every-down defenders and eventually proved themselves to be no-brainer answers at a position that seemed to have none after Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington departed in the offseason.
2. Offensive imbalance
For years now, the Patriots have deployed a pass-happy offense. And why not? By throwing as often as they have, they've allowed the ball to stay in the hands of their best player. Far more often than not, he makes the decisions that help them win football games. But in the handful of cases when the Patriots have been better off leaning on their running game, they've been able to do that too. In both contests against the Colts during the 2014 season, for example, they designed game-plans to take advantage of Indy's porous run defense. They won both handily, and the second of those paved the way to Super Bowl XLIX. This season, in times when it may have benefited the Patriots to be more balanced, that wasn't always an option. Against the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, when any kind of established running game may have slowed down Denver's pass-rush, they couldn't muster one. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has not been shy in explaining that he could not care less about offensive balance. The goal is to score points, he says, not to evenly distribute passing and rushing attempts. But when the Patriots are at their best, they are versatile. Even with significant injuries to their offensive line and running back group, it was a surprise that they couldn't pull the rip cord on their running attack when needed in 2015.
3. Special teams letdowns
Given Belichick's background as a special teams coach, it should come as no surprise that the Patriots often have one of the most effective kicking-game units in the NFL. It helps that during Belichick's tenure in New England, he's employed to of the most successful kickers in the history of the game in Adam Vinatieri and Stephen Gostkowski. But across the board, "teams" are often one of the organization's strengths. In 2014 -- according to rankings compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, which Belichick has referenced in the past -- the Patriots ranked third in the league in special teams. In 2015, though, they fell to 11th. It was a solid showing, but still a relatively steep drop-off from the year prior. Under new special teams coordinator Joe Judge, the first real wave of breakdowns came against the Eagles in Week 13. One week after reserve receiver Chris Harper muffed a punt that helped the Broncos hand the Patriots their first loss of the season, New England allowed a punt block for a touchdown and a punt returned for a touchdown in a loss to Philly. Though not the game-changing event some made it out to be, this was also the contest when the Patriots utilized a drop-kick that resulted in giving the Eagles favorable field position as the began their first touchdown drive of the game. Then, in the AFC title game, Gostkowski missed an extra point for the first time since his rookie season. To look back at some of the low points of the Patriots year and find special teams miscues comes as somewhat of a surprise since their kicking game is typically one of the team's strengths.
4. Healthy Brady, Gronkowski not enough
The popular refrain in New England has long been some version of, "As long as Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are healthy, they'll be OK." That's rarely a given since Gronkowski's frame, playing style and injury history make him a threat to miss time at any time. But for the first time since his rookie year, Gronkowski finished the season strong, and the Patriots didn't win the Super Bowl. Belichick has said in the past that had his big tight end been healthy in 2011, 2012 and 2013, the outcomes of those seasons may have been different. Gronkowski was healthy enough to catch eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown in the AFC Championship, but it was a confluence of other injuries that seemed to hold the Patriots back. Sebastian Vollmer's banged-up ankle made it hard for him to hold his ground against defensive end DeMarcus Ware. Nate Solder was out for the season with a biceps injury. Julian Edelman was still dealing with the lingering effects of a Jones fracture he suffered in November. Danny Amendola dealt with a knee injury for weeks leading into the rematch with Denver, and the team's top two running backs (LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis) both ended the year on season-ending injured reserve. With that may issues surrounding them, having Brady and Gronkowski on the field and (mostly) healthy, was not enough.
5. Open disdain for detractors
This was more of an off-the-field surprise. For a team that would generally rather be seen than heard, players were particularly open about defending their quarterback against Deflategate allegations, especially in the lead-up to the season. Brady's teammates came into the year unified in their support of their quarterback. Then over the course of the season -- especially after the Steelers accused the team of screwing with headsets during the Week 1 opener -- players would, in frustration, wonder what their detractors would come up with next. After the AFC Championship Game, one of the team's captains, Matthew Slater, admitted that the Patriots were motivated to prove its critics wrong this season in light of Deflategate and subsequent allegations of rule-bending. It's not at all surprising that the Patriots would use the events of the offseason as fuel. But that they would even so much as hint at those feelings publicly was worth an eyebrow raise, and served as an indication of just how miffed this typically tight-lipped team was.