Patriots

A decade later, are the Patriots poised to refuel and reload for another run?

A decade later, are the Patriots poised to refuel and reload for another run?

Editor's Note: For the first time since the 2010 offseason, the Patriots are looking at a "full" offseason, without a trip at least as far as the AFC Championship Game. Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry are detailing the challenges facing the team going forward. Read Phil's column here and click here to listen to the latest episode of Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast.

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The 2007 Patriots were among the greatest NFL teams ever assembled.

A machine. Nearly perfect.

So how, in just two seasons, did the Patriots go from the precipice of perfection to getting run off the field by the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs?

For some franchises, the 10-6 record the ’09 Patriots posted would spark a parade. Not here. Not after five AFC Championship Game appearances, four Super Bowl appearances and three Super Bowl wins in the previous eight years. The Patriots’ first decade of dominance ended with them limping to a 1-6 road record and that 33-14 loss to Baltimore in which it took the Ravens 13 minutes to build a 24-0 lead. At Gillette.

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That happened with an in-his-prime Tom Brady at the controls of an offense that still had Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen. On defense, there was Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren and Jerod Mayo and, of course, Bill Belichick was overseeing all of it.

What led to the rapid decline? How did the Patriots pull themselves so quickly from the morass so that, in 2010, they were the No. 1 seed in the AFC and in 2011 were back in the Super Bowl?

What does ’09 have in common with ’19? What’s different? Are the elements in place for a start-of-decade reboot in 2020 similar to the one in 2010? Can the Patriots embark on a third consecutive decade of dominance?  

LOST SOULS

It was November 30, 2009, in the Louisiana Superdome. Belichick and Brady stood side-by-side on the Patriots sideline watching the Saints put the finishing touches on a 38-17 Sunday Night Football bludgeoning of the Patriots that dropped them to 7-4.

“Boy, I tell ya, we got a long way to go,” Belichick said to Brady with a resigned sigh. “We got a long way to go. We just have no mental toughness. We go on the road, no mental toughness.

“We can’t play the game the way we need to play it,” Belichick continued as Brady nodded agreement. “I just can’t get this team to play the way we need to play. I just can’t do it. So frustrating.”

Were it not for Belichick agreeing to let NFL Films go behind-the-scenes with him in 2009 for the incredible two-part “A Football Life” documentary, we’d be left to guess at the agitations Belichick was experiencing that season.

Thankfully, he did agree. And as a result, we see Belichick’s season-long effort to get that team to have the same kind of focus, resilience and maturity his teams had been known for.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why those Patriots were so drastically different than their predecessors. Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison retired after the 2008 season. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded. Those four players weren’t just the brains and brawn of the defense for a decade; they were in many ways the soul and conscience of the team.

With Scott Pioli leaving the personnel department to become the Chiefs’ GM, the yin to Belichick’s team-building yang was gone. Established veterans who’d done well with teams that didn’t run their business with the same authoritarian bent the Patriots did — Shawn Springs and Derrick Burgess — were brought aboard.

They joined a defense that — with Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison and Seymour gone — suddenly had Adalius Thomas as its de facto alpha dog. Thomas, the team’s most highly-paid defender. had no qualms rolling his eyes at the way Belichick did things and younger players like Brandon McGowan, Darius Butler and Jonathan Wilhite seemed to follow his lead.

Jerod Mayo, in his second season, was the player Belichick hoped would grab the leadership reins and he was made captain. But there was a learning curve for him. Meanwhile, the locker room seemed uncharacteristically immature.

“I remember in 2009 during preseason I was the only captain and Bill was talking about leadership, leadership, leadership,” Mayo said on "Quick Slants The Podcast" in 2016. “Then the players brought it up [during the season] and the media was like, ‘Well maybe there is a leadership problem.’ When things aren’t going well, you start to question the leadership.

“But leadership is a funny thing,” he added. “You have the team and that’s 100 percent of the players. You have 10 percent here, who are good leaders. And there’s 10 percent who are bad leaders. And your job as a leader is to grab as many of the 80 percent left as possible.”

Mayo didn’t grab enough of the 80 percent that year.

An example? After a 31-14 win over the Jets in November — the week before the loss to New Orleans — McGowan, a safety from the University of Maine, spotted offensive lineman Mark Levoir passing by in the locker room. During the game, Levoir delivered a devastating block on a Jets defensive back. McGowan, in full voice, began loudly upbraiding Levoir for the block, complaining the Patriots defensive backs would have to deal with retaliation. Butler joined in, laughing.

“Are they yelling at you for blocking?” I asked Levoir.

“I guess so,” he said shaking his head.

Brady, who’d missed almost the entire 2008 season with his torn ACL, was getting back in the swing of things himself. At one point that season, I approached him in the locker room and mentioned to him how different the team seemed. Immature.

“We’re very, very young,” he said diplomatically.

PAPER TIGERS

The 2009 Patriots led the NFL in scoring, putting up 26.3 points per game. Included in there was the 59-0 snow-blown beatdown of the Titans and a pair of 35-7 wins over the Jaguars and Buccaneers (in London).

Their best performance against an objectively “good” team all season was the “Fourth-and-2 Game,” a 35-34 SNF loss to Indy. They could handle the bad teams with ease but up against talented, physical or well-coached teams the fight wasn’t so lopsided. Competency and incompetency came in spurts. Especially on defense.

Meanwhile, the offense was becoming overly reliant on Moss and Welker. The two combined for 2,612 receiving yards and 206 catches. The tight end position, manned by Ben Watson and Chris Baker, contributed 43 catches. Rookie Julian Edelman and Kevin Faulk had 37 catches each.

The Donté Stallworth-Jabar Gaffney complementary pieces of 2007 were absent in 2009. And the running game was tepid behind lead back Laurence Maroney (194 carries, 757 yards and nine touchdowns). Faulk, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor were also in the mix, but none of them carried more than 73 times.

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With Josh McDaniels having departed for the head coaching job in Denver, Bill O’Brien was in charge. The Patriots weren’t “easy” to defend with Brady, Moss and Welker involved, but a defense that could match those two left Brady looking to Faulk but with few other reliable options.

The day after the season ended, Belichick explained the exhaustive process the team would embark on to be better for 2010.

“The first thing we do is try to evaluate our team in all the things that we do — how much motion do we use, how each player played, what type of progress was made or wasn’t made, if there was a direction — whichever way the progress was going, whether going forward or if it was declining, and take a look at the team going forward in terms of what players we have, what players we don’t have and then gradually make determinations on how to improve those things,” Belichick explained.

“We’ll take a look at all of our practices, all of our mini camps, training camp schedules, all those things,” he continued. “We’ve done that a little bit along the way, but then we put all that together and discuss it, whether it’s as a coaching staff, or an organization, or sometimes in consultation with different players, whether it’s a specific situation or a group situation, whatever it happens to be.

“All that is put together, we talk about it and eventually we make decisions on players, on system, on scheme and how we do things. Some things stay the same and some things change. It’s inevitable there will be change next year.”

There was change. Culture change, personnel change and scheme change.

THE REBUILD

Players that would be indispensable in the retooling of the Patriots were in place before and during 2009. They just weren’t in prominent roles yet. Players needed to be cleared out in order for them to find their voices.

When 2010 began, Adalius Thomas was gone. So were Burgess, Springs, McGowan and Maroney. After the Patriots beat the Bengals in the season opener, Moss spent his postgame press conference complaining he hadn’t gotten a new contract. He was gone before Columbus Day.

Suddenly, young, recently-drafted players had a little elbow room — Mayo and Matthew Slater from 2008. Patrick Chung, Butler, Sebastian Vollmer and Edelman from 2009.

In 2010, the Patriots went rogue in the first round with Devin McCourty. They took a gamble in the second round on oft-injured Rob Gronkowski. They then dipped into the University of Florida pool of talent and came out with Aaron Hernandez, Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes who were, respectively, a great player/horrible human, an OK player and a pretty good player who was a bit of a handful.

Suddenly, a team without a tight end had two phenoms. The creeping reliance on vertical routes with Moss was reeled back in when the team brought Deion Branch back aboard. Brady sharing a brain with both Welker and Branch meant the offense was back to getting it out quickly again. Gronkowski and Hernandez became seam, middle-of-the-field and red-zone threats that couldn’t be handled. Maroney was replaced by the steady BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Danny Woodhead became Faulk’s understudy.

The defense was still a bit understaffed, especially on the back end, but offensively, the team was morphing. In 2011, the offense got even better through the draft with Nate Solder, Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Marcus Cannon. And in 2012, Belichick spent first-round picks on Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.

Five players from the 2008-2012 draft classes were still Patriots in 2019. Obviously, the draft isn’t the only way to import talent. The best free-agent signing of the Belichick Era, Stephon Gilmore, came aboard in 2017. The team got a lot from Brandin Cooks in 2017, a player they traded for. Malcolm Butler made some plays. So too have Jonathan Jones, David Andrews and J.C. Jackson. All were undrafted.

But the foundational pieces of the team that won Super Bowls 49, 51 and 53 came aboard mainly through the draft. There’s something to be said for hitting on homegrown talent.

A decade ago, the Patriots were in the midst of a harvest even if we didn’t realize it while it was going on. They got younger, better and more professional thanks in part to scraping relative bottom in 2009.

Now, after having been whisked from the postseason in the Wild Card round for the first time since that infamous Ravens loss, they find themselves retooling at the dawn of a decade.
 

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Hindsight 2020: What if Patriots had traded Jimmy Garoppolo sooner?

Moving on from Drew Bledsoe in favor of Tom Brady. Bringing in Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison. Cutting ties with Lawyer Milloy. Taking shots on Randy Moss and Corey Dillon. Drafting Rob Gronkowski, back problems and all.

The Patriots have maintained their level for the better part of the last 20 years in large part because of Bill Belichick's foresight as the team's general manager.

Still, in two decades, as there would be with any personnel czar with that kind of tenure, there are of course moves (or non-moves) that in hindsight prompt us to wonder what might've been.

In this edition of our Hindsight 2020 series, we're focused on the Patriots front office — Belichick's office — to pick out the decision that stands above the rest as the one that could've drastically altered the post-Brady course of the franchise: Not trading Jimmy Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season.

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At the NFL's annual meeting in Phoenix that year, Browns head coach Hue Jackson wasn't evasive. He wasn't playing coy. His team had the No. 1 and 12 overall picks in the draft. The top choice — earmarked for defensive end Myles Garrett — was not up for grabs. No. 12, though? Different story.

"We'll exhaust every opportunity" to find a quarterback, Jackson told a horde of reporters at the AFC coaches breakfast. Though he would not comment on Garoppolo specifically, citing tampering rules, the message was clear: If the Patriots wanted that No. 12 overall selection in exchange for Brady's backup, there was a conversation to be had.

On its face, making that move made sense for both sides. The Browns were desperate for a competent quarterback. They were flush with picks. The Patriots, meanwhile, didn't have a first or a second-rounder that spring. For them, trading Garoppolo with a year left on his contract represented an opportunity to bolster their 2017 rookie haul with a top-15 talent.

The decision wasn't that simple, of course. 

To pull the trigger, the Patriots would have to be willing to bail on Brady's insurance plan for that season — he hadn't missed significant time since 2008, but he was going into his 40-year-old season — as well as his long-term successor.

If Garoppolo remained on the roster, the benefit was that he would provide the Patriots a capable break-glass-in-case-of-emergency passer for a Super Bowl contender. Plus, it gave Belichick and Garoppolo's representatives time to try to finagle a long-term deal to keep Garoppolo in New England for the foreseeable future. 

If they could iron something out contractually, Belichick would be pulling off the near-impossible — something only the Niners and Packers had pulled off in the modern era. Riding into life after a Hall of Fame quarterback almost seamlessly, with a legitimate franchise guy ready to step in.

How likely was it, though, that holding onto Garoppolo for as long as possible would yield the Patriots the maximum possible benefit?

For that to happen, it seems, Brady would have either had to drop off the proverbial "cliff" performance-wise or suffer a serious injury. Again, we have the benefit of hindsight here, but there's an argument to be made that neither seemed imminent at the time. 

Brady was coming off of his fifth Super Bowl win and an MVP-caliber season in 2016. (The MVP went to Matt Ryan, in part, because Brady missed the first four games of that year suspended for Deflategate). Then, at 40, Brady went on to win the award for the third time in his career, and he threw for over 500 yards in a Super Bowl loss to the Eagles. It was unprecedented stuff for a quarterback his age, and yet not at all shocking given his performance the previous year.

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Garoppolo remained on the sidelines for the first eight weeks of 2017 as Brady played some of the best football of his career. There was no Bledsoevian moment where Garoppolo was able step in because of injury. And there was no reason for him to bite on a long-term contract extension if it meant sitting for another season (or more) behind a guy who at the time was playing better than anyone else on the planet.

We know what happened at that point: At the trade deadline, opting to get something for Garoppolo rather than holding onto him and letting him hit free agency after the season, Belichick dealt his No. 2 to the Niners in exchange for a second-round pick in 2018.

You can point to the team's unwillingness to invest real capital in a young tight end toward the end of Gronkowski's career — how did George Kittle slip to the fifth round in 2017, again? — as a front-office "what if?" 

You can point to any number of swings-and-misses in the draft's first couple of rounds — Dominique Easley, Jordan Richards, Cyrus Jones, Duke Dawson, Aaron Dobson, Ras-I Dowling, Ron Brace — as easy fixes in hindsight.

But deciding to keep Garoppolo prior to the 2017 season is fascinating to revisit precisely because of where the Patriots stand at the moment, without a clear-and-obvious long-term solution at the game's most important position. And because of what happened with that No. 12 overall selection.

The Browns did end up trading their second first-rounder three years ago, you might remember. It landed in Houston. 

That's right. In an alternate universe, a universe in which the Browns and Patriots had been willing and able to work out a deal for Garoppolo, the Patriots are rolling into next season with a seasoned backup oozing with talent, the No. 12 pick in the 2017 draft: Deshaun Watson.

2020 NFL Draft: Searching for Gronk's replacement in Patriots 7-round mock

2020 NFL Draft: Searching for Gronk's replacement in Patriots 7-round mock

Let's get this out of the way: It's not a great time to need a tight end in the draft. Relative to other years, at least.

Last spring there were two surefire first-rounders, both out of Iowa: T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. In 2018, only one tight end went in the first (Hayden Hurst), but two taken in later rounds (Dallas Goedert, Mark Andrews) are among the game's best young players at the position. O.J. Howard, Evan Engram and David Njoku all went in the first in 2017.

This year there's a "massive drop" in terms of tight end talent available, one league source told me this week.

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Not ideal for the Patriots, who could use an infusion of tight end talent perhaps more so than any other team in the NFL. And yet we have them selecting two in this year's class. Reach much? How does that make sense?

Well, just because this class doesn't have multiple high-end talents at that spot, that doesn't mean it's completely devoid of players who fit the New England mold. You'll see how it all comes together in our latest seven-round Patriots-specific mock.

Click here for Phil Perry's 7-round Patriots mock draft, Version 2.0.