Same Old New England

As they tend to do periodically, the non-believers are circling the Brady and Belichick joint venture in Foxborough. Tom Brady should take as much offense as possible from the comments of the skeptics because it does not look as though he will find any from his receivers. But then, we have been here before. When the Patriots begin their season at Buffalo, they will be without Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Lloyd, Danny Woodhead and Rob Gronkowski. To put it another way, they will be missing the players that accounted for 88.8% of completed passes last season (356 out of 401).

The offseason and Hernandez

It has been an eventful offseason for the Patriots. In retrospect, Bill Belichick would have loved for the main distraction to have been the arrival of the Tim Tebow circus to town. Instead, the unfathomable Aaron Hernandez saga engulfed our attention. It was cataclysmic. Unheard of. Even the O.J. Simpson trial is incomparable. It can easily be distinguished because it involved an alleged crime of passion. The Hernandez allegations take our imagination into an entirely different realm: the 23 year-old millionaire professional footballer who, on the side, was living the life of, (again, allegedly), a cold-blooded, murderous gangster.

A story like that disorientates us and leads to irrational indignation at inappropriate targets. Talking heads at ESPN and Fox were quick to demand apologies and explanations from the Patriots organization. Then began the ‘they should have seen this coming’ nonsense. The logic runs that, of course, it was clear from scouting reports going into the 2010 draft that Hernandez had an issue with marijuana as well as other nondescript ‘character issues’. Therefore, it was natural to conclude from this that one day he would be embroiled in a murder trial the likes of which is simply unprecedented within the league.

The Patriots have absolutely no reason to apologize. The NFL traffics in the inner cities; targeting hungry, desperate athletes that often come from troubled backgrounds. New England is usually seen as the exception to the rule. They are portrayed as a team that possesses the ability to corral immature and volatile characters so that they blend into an amorphous blue and white entity that is the faceless Patriots (with the Tom Brady face). But the likes of Corey Dillon, Albert Haynesworth and Chad Johnson dispel this myth. Aqib Talib is a current Patriot and he was once accused of being involved in a shootout that included his mother allegedly firing shots with him at his sister’s boyfriend. This is the NFL, where if you can play, someone will play you. But to suggest that the Patriots had any control over the Hernandez situation and so, consequently, should take some responsibility for it, is seriously misguided.

Impact on the field

Back to the on-the-field impact, Hernandez’s absence will be noticeable. In his 3 seasons he had close to 2,000 receiving yards, averaging 11.2 yards per catch from 175 receptions and, crucially, only 1 fumble. He could even rush the football when necessary, achieving an average of 10.8 yards per carry on an admittedly small sample size of 9 rushing attempts. It is important to note that, despite being largely overshadowed by Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez was targeted more by Brady on his passes in 2012 (13.3% v 11%, although yards per target was less: 6.4 yards compared to 9.9).

Where Gronkowski excels is in the endzone. 38 touchdowns in his 3 seasons with the Patriots and 2,663 yards at a cost of only 2 fumbles. Then there is Wes Welker, targeted on 27.6% of Brady’s passes last season. Since 2010, Welker has had 326 catches resulting in 196 first downs and 22 touchdowns. The trade-off? 2 fumbles. Together, Hernandez, Gronkowski and Welker account for 51.9% of targets by Brady last season.


2010 was an important year, because it was the last time that we seriously questioned the Patriots’ offense. It was in 2007 that New England set the points record for a regular season with 589, in conjunction with the highest points differential of +315. That year, Randy Moss was targeted on 26.8% of passes and he accounted for half of the team’s touchdowns. Dante Stallworth was an important contributor too, targeted 11.5% of the time. But in 2010, both were gone. With Moss in particular, analysts were quick to lament the lack of any deep threat for Brady to exploit. Accordingly, the Patriots’ offense was destined to struggle.

However, this was not the case. 2010 was the year that Gronkowski and Hernandez were drafted and Welker’s importance heightened. The Patriots ceased running the football and instead began the tight-end revolution with quick, short passes over the middle that terrorised the league. It was a complete transformation. In 2007, the only notable tight-end on the Patriots’ roster was Ben Watson, who was targeted 8% of the time, achieving a mere 389 yards. It all seems so obvious now. But who was Welker before Tom Brady? An average receiver in Miami with 1, (that’s one), touchdown to his name. Who were Gronkowski and Hernandez before Brady? Gronkowski was drafted 10th in the second round while Hernandez was the 113th pick overall, selected in the 4th round. Now these players are irreplaceable?

New era

It is easy to have blind faith in Belichick, but there is seemingly no one on the current roster that is capable of filling the offensive void. But then, that is the point. The next ‘irreplaceable’ player is the player you have never heard of. Danny Amendola has the skill-set to be the next Welker. He is what Welker would have looked like had he spent the last few seasons in St Louis with Sam Bradford. The Patriots are still collecting tight-ends. Zach Sudfeld is undrafted out of Nevada but he has looked serviceable in preseason. Perhaps Michael Hoomanawanui can have a breakout year in his fourth season in the league (the likes of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will be hoping otherwise). Jake Ballard adds strength and is an effective blocker. And then there is the wildcard of Tim Tebow.

Add to this list the rookie Aaron Dobson, a tall and speedy wide receiver in the mold of an Anquan Boldin. The Patriots also drafted Josh Boyce and picked up the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins. These three names are enveloped by uncertainty, but no more so than the Patriots’ selections in 2010. The important constant in the equation is the evergreen quarterback. Furthermore, while the duration of his recovery is unclear, Gronkowski will return at some point this season.

Also, do not underestimate Belichick’s ability to stay ahead of the curve. The trend in the league is to rely on the running game less and less. It was a trend started by Belichick himself. But he seems to be shying away from that. You may not have noticed it last season, but the Patriots had the second-most rushing attempts in the league with 523. Ridley and Vereen return and they could be supported by names such as LeGarrette Blount and Leon Washington.

No challenge

Ultimately, the Patriots’ offense will benefit from a relative lack of pressure during the regular season. Their division is so weak that it affords them the time needed to find their rhythm. Even at half-speed, the Patriots will have enough to secure 11 wins and a playoff birth. It would be the 10th time in 11 seasons that they achieved that feat. And, while the Broncos and Texans appear to be a cut above the rest, the Patriots will fancy their chances to make a run in the weaker AFC conference. The result will be a familiar one. But the manner in which it will be achieved, and the players that will become instrumental, is where the real intrigue lies.

By Ognjen Miletic