Three days later, it still hurts.
Which is fine. When you get kicked in the gut, the bruise will last for a while. The Patriots may have only lost by 10 points on Sunday, but that was a decisive beatdown. After a week of buildup, in which the narrative had somehow transformed into the New England Patriots being the perfect David to beat up the Denver Goliaths, Peyton Manning, satisfied smirk intact, decimated a bruised New England defense, putting up the best postseason game in his long and celebrated career.
But its disappointing ending shouldn’t completely overshadow what a truly special season this was. A season that started off tumultuous (the Aaron Hernandez case, the Tim Tebow signing) became worse (Vince Wilfork lost for the season), and worse (Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer lost), and worse (the horrifying Rob Gronkowski injury). And yet somehow the Patriots prevailed, winning the (admittedly flimsy) AFC East, and making their way to the semifinals. But in the end, brute force and talent overcame New England’s pluck underdog narrative.
But as bad as things feel now, they’re undoubtedly going to get better. This 12-win Pats team will improve immensely just by getting its fallen starters back healthy. If you’re like me, you’re devouring every piece written by Jackie MacMullan, Mike Reiss, Jeff Howe, Chad Finn, and countless others, feeding off of every glimmer of hope, like a bug scrambling on the outside of a lamp, feverishly trying to reassure ourselves that by September, the Pats will be Super Bowl contenders once again. And they almost certainly will be.
Yet, we should still look back, and appreciate the 13/14 season for what it was. It’s tough to write a report card, and I found it difficult to decide between grading this Pats team off of their actual performances or their performances based off of expectation. What you’ll read is leaning more towards the latter, so keep that in mind when I start maniacally praising Duron Harmon.
Let’s get to it.
And of course there’s no better place to start then with the captain, the Golden Child, the Terrific, Ares the God of War, Mr. Bundchen himself, Tom Brady, and also the trickiest position to grade in the performance vs. expectation argument.
There are a few things to consider:
1) This was undoubtedly the thinnest receiving corps in terms of talent and experience that Brady’s ever had to pass to (not to mention going for most of the season without Gronk and Vereen).
2) Brady had one of his least impressive statistical seasons of his career (his QB rating, per PFR, of 87.3 was his lowest since 2003).
3) Tom Brady came through several times in the clutch in spectacular fashion, including his instant classic game winning touchdown against New Orleans.
4) While a lot of his struggles, especially early in the season, could be attributed to the inexperience (and drops) of his young receivers, he was noticeably less invincible than usual, sometimes overthrowing on deep passes and missing in tight windows.
5) He’s still Tom Brady. How dare you ever doubt him.
I vacillated more in my feeling for Tom Brady this season than any other, wondering if he was washed up one week to clamoring that he should be the MVP over Peyton Manning. Without Brady, this team would most likely fail (and if you put Brady on the Broncos, he’d put up the same numbers as Manning, but would be 300% more furious whenever Welker dropped passes), but his experience and mojo couldn’t lift the team in their final game.
I’ll put him at a B+. Not his best season, but impressive nonetheless.
Another weird group to grade. The Patriots, partially because of their offensive-scheme-by-week approach to their games and partially because of fumble concerns, never utilized a bell-cow running back, until LeGarrette “Winnebago” Blount somehow turned into Corey Dillon 2.0 over a three-game stretch.
But especially without Vereen, this was a wildly inconsistent group. Both Ridley and Blount would be great one week, disappear the next, and turn the ball over at an unforgivable rate.
Their grade is a B, however. Without Blount’s late-season explosion it would be a B-/C+, but as is, Vereen’s versatility, Ridley’s occasional explosiveness, and Blount’s potency make them an above average crew. And even if Blount leaves this summer, this is a group with a lot of upside next season.
James Develin. Brown man, AFL/UFL veteran, and absolute scrapper. Develin had some marvelous blocks throughout the season, showed promise as an occasional receiver, and was steady in short-yardage gains. Total Belichick player, and he gets an A- from me.
This group requires player-by-player grades.
Julian Edelman: A
Danny Amendola: C
Aaron Dobson: B-
Kenbrell Thompkins: C+
Josh Boyce/Austin Collie: INC
An injury plagued, underachieving group, with the exception of Julian Edelman, who shall hence-forth be known as MiniTron and will almost certainly be looking at a max contract this offseason. Dobson struggled to become the deep threat that the team so desperately needed, Thompkins at first struggled to be consistent and then to stay on the field. Amendola doesn’t deserve the amount of vitriol that’s been directed at him, and he played hurt all year, but he barely registered on the field at times and his style of play makes you worry about his health long-term.
If I’m the Patriots, I would try to lock up Edelman no matter the cost. He was dependable, fearless, and by far Brady’s favorite target. If they do bring him back, this is a group that still needs improvement (drafting a player taller than 6’1 would help) but that should be better. For the season, they get a C.
Hooman and Mulligan were fine blockers, but didn’t add much to the passing game. Gronkowski showed flashes of why he’s considered a Top-3 tight end, but missed more than half the season.
Nate Solder and Logan Mankins were very dependable on the left side of the line. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendall were not very dependable on the inside. Sebastian Vollmer can be a superb tackle, but suffered a gruesome leg injury. He was ably replaced by Marcus Cannon, whose versatility has been a godsend in his time in New England.
The group should be commended for how they fared in the running game, especially late in the season. The group should be penalized for allowing Tom Brady to be sacked 40 times, the most for him since 2001.
For an NFL offensive line, they were an above average group. For a Dante Scarnecchia-coached squad they were disappointing. Give them a C+.
Again, with a healthy Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork, this is a top group. Without them, they were gashed by high-power running opponents. Considering the circumstances, Seaver Siliga, Chris Jones, and Joe Vellano performed quite admirably, and should stick as rotational players for years to come in New England. Isaac Sopoaga was pretty much a bust, and was a healthy scratch for much of the season, which is a shame.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich came on strong early in the season, but faltered late. Both should be staples on the line, without question. Michael Buchanan and Andre Carter traded spots as a sub-end, and the former should be brought along to be a sub-rusher for furutre seasons.
Overall, the d-line is responsible for the miserable run defense this season. But considering the circumstances….they deserve a B-, but should be a strength of the team next year.
I don’t know what to make of the Brandon Spikes situation, and I don’t want to cast aspersions based on reported off-the-field issues. On the field, he was a terrific run defender and played with energy and fire. That being said, he’s almost certainly played his last snap for New England.
Losing Jerod Mayo was a back breaker, as he’s one of the top linebackers in the AFC, and a team leader. But, especially late in the season, Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins showed immense improvement, and I can’t wait to see how the group fares next season. Dane Fletcher was also a solid injury replacement and a terrific special teams player.
I’ll give them a B+.
Devin McCourty and Aqib Talib again proved that they’re top defenders in the NFL, and showed heart and leadership on a very young team. Rookies Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan were both impressive by season’s end, even while being thrust into big roles so early in their careers. Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were both solid (though the latter should only be playing in the slot from now on). Steve Gregory, when healthy, was a dependable veteran presence.
And yet….it’s hard to get over how easily Peyton Manning ripped this group apart as soon as Talib went down with an injury. Obviously he was helming one of the greatest offenses in NFL history, but it was too easy. The Patriots have had a hell of a time drafting cornerbacks (Ras-I Dowling, come on down!), but should look to add at least one more steady d-back to really solidify this group.
Ghost put up one of the greatest seasons in Patriots kickers’ history, and that history had one Adam Vinatieri in it. He scored a league high 158 points, was perfect under 40 yards, was 16-19 from 40+, and perfectly performed the greatest onside kick I’ve ever seen.
Ryan Allen had a very solid rookie season, and got better and better as the season went along, as well as being a dependable holder for Gostkowski. The way to judge a long-snapper is the less you hear about them the better, and Danny Aiken was only noticeable in his botched snap against Indianapolis. Matthew Slater, Dane Fletcher, Nate Ebner, and others were all terrific on special teams, and the former absolutely deserves his Pro-Bowl berth.
Great group, deserving of an A-.
I’ve been occasionally critical of Josh McDaniels for his play-calling, but he’s smart, Belichick trusts him, and Brady loves him. So in other words, he’s a great Patriot coach. Despite being questioned regularly, I like Matt Patricia a lot, and he should stick with New England for years.
Meanwhile, this is almost certainly Bill Belichick’s greatest coaching job, and it would be tragic (though, because of his reputation, not exactly shocking) if he didn’t win Coach of the Year. No coach did a better job taking a group of castoffs and rookies and making them starters, no coach found a way to win even with injuries and off-the-field issues decimating the roster. There are a handful of NFL coaches who can truly change the fortunes of a team for the better single-handedly, and Belichick may be at the top of the class. As long as they’re in his hands, the Patriots will always be contenders in the AFC.
Obviously, some of you will disagree, so leave your grades in the comments section below! In the coming weeks, I’ll be obsessively going over draft prospects and free-agent targets, so let me know who you want in a Pats uniform next season. And as always you can reach me @isportsPeters on Twitter, or send me stuff at email@example.com.