Since second-year unknown Tom Brady was forced into the starting lineup via an injury that made Drew Bledsoe the Wally Pipp of the new millenium, the New England Patriots have been the most dominant franchise in football. In a dozen seasons they've missed the playoffs twice. In both those years they failed to win the AFCE on a tiebreaker. In the remaining ten seasons they have gone to seven AFC championship games and five Super Bowls. They've won three rings, missing two others on miraculous pass plays. Their cumulative winning percentage for the era is staggering. Bill Belichick's Patriots have been a lock to win their division for as long as the Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics were a lock to win the NBA East, Casey Stengel's Yankees a lock to win the AL pennant, Paul Brown's namesakes a lock to win their conference (AAFC or NFL), or Toe Blake's Canadiens a lock to finish first among the Original Six. That's heady company.
It's not supposed to work that way anymore. Those teams were unshackled by free agency, salary caps and the like and had control over their rosters. Once you were good you stayed good unless or until somebody else got better. Yet since 2000 the Patriots, Ravens, Giants and Steelers have accounted for nine of the thirteen NFL championships.
It has to do with beating a system designed to create parity, and teams blessed with strong organizations have done it well, New England being the creamiest of the crop.
The Giants, of course, always have money and glamor on their side. The Steelers have had a Rooney at the helm for ages. New England's Kraft era has been a watershed. The Ravens and the Patriots both have some Paul Brown DNA in their systems --- New England has Bill Belichick, not only an ex-Browns head coach but also an ardent admirer and student of Paul Brown, and the Ravens are the team Paul Brown built.
But even the mighty have their limits. With New England, almost every season begs the question of how they intend to do it this time around. And this year, suddenly the mystery has deepened.
The Patriots went into the offseason stung by their loss to the Ravens, but clearly confident. They had a bunch of money to throw at free agents. Their draft slate was depleted by old trades, but you could almost smell them dealing their first-round pick for lower spots. Amazingly, they scored four of them.
It's a team that has transitioned from a defense-first grinder to an offensive powerhouse over the years. The defense has been lacking lately. This past season the rebuild was supposed to be just about done, and they looked the part all the way up to Aqib Talib's hamstring injury. But most observers thought they still needed DB help and a better pass rush. They have taken steps in that direction so far, but they haven't made a big splash. That's their style, and it isn't likely to change.
But suddenly the defense has taken a back burner. New England has won lately on the back of its offense. That offense suddenly looks a bit different.
Wes Welker is gone, and worse, gone for cheap money. Even worse than that, gone to a huge conference rival. Acrimony seems to have been involved. While Danny Amendola has been acquired, many Patriot fans were looking forward to the unleashing of Julian Edelman, the versatile ex-QB who seemed on the verge of stardom last season when several uncharacteristic injuries struck. Without him the kick return game fell apart, the kick defense suffered, and the offense became Welker-centric again. Now we hear that he's 'reinjured' his ankle in the offseason. And to make matters worse, Rob Gronkowski has apparently partied his way into a fourth surgery on his forearm. That may lead to a fifth. New England essentially has to write him off for 2013. Jake Ballard, picked off the Giants' IR in 2012, might be ready to fill the slot, but he's coming off an injury too, one that sidelined him a full season. And Brandon Lloyd is gone. One assumes Deion Branch is more suited for coaching material than for receiver material at this point.
Who exactly is going to catch the ball for an offense that seemingly must produce big numbers? Right now names like Hernandez, Ballard and Amendola jump out, but what else? Like Giselle said, Tom can't catch the ball too. And Tom is a bit picky. Even of those guys, two are complete newbies. New receivers are always a question mark in the Patriots' system. Joey Galloway? Chad Ochocinco? These were superstars elsewhere, no-shows in New England. A number of high-profile wideouts were available in the offseason. None were aggressively pursued. Anquan Boldin? Mike Wallace? Nope. Lloyd and Josh Cribbs are still out there. Are they on the radar? New England may regret not having signed at least one of them prior to the latest injury reports.
Certainly the setbacks to Gronkowski and Edelman were probably not foreseen, but New England's plan for its indispensable passing game was somewhat mysterious prior to that spate of bad news. Now it has become nearly incomprehensible, as has the general strategy for the upcoming season.