The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 10. Today, the New England Patriots.
2014 record: 12-4
Head coach: Bill Belichick
Core players: Tom Brady (QB), Rob Gronkowski (TE), Devin McCourty (S), Chandler Jones (DE)
2015 is about… Getting past Deflate-gate. As much as Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots won’t want to talk about it, Deflate-gate is undoubtedly going to be the major storyline surrounding their season.
The ramifications from the silliest saga in NFL history affect New England right from the get-go. Starting quarterback Tom Brady is suspended and will miss the first four games of the season (pending the result of legal action by Tom Brady against the league…), so right now the team will open the year with Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-year quarterback who has never started an NFL game.
Along with Belichick, Brady is the primary reason why the Patriots have been such a dominant franchise over the past 15 years, winning four Super Bowls and six AFC titles over that span. It’ll be fascinating to see how New England adjusts with an unknown quantity starting under centre.
They lost… Darelle Revis (CB), who signed a five-year, $70-million deal with the rival New York Jets as a free agent. Revis was a game-changer in the defensive backfield and his lockdown coverage allowed Belichick to get more creative with his pressure packages. The club also lost physical defensive back Brandon Browner, whose team option was declined after he made nine regular-season starts and three playoff starts opposite of Revis. Browner’s jam at the line of scrimmage on Jermaine Kearse played a huge role in Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl-winning interception against Russell Wilson.
The Patriots also saw long-time nose tackle Vince Wilfork depart after a 11-year run with the club. The big man played over 700 snaps last season and was a fixture in the middle of their defensive line. He signed with the Houston Texans after his 2015 option was declined.
On offence, the Patriots’ only significant loss was versatile running back Shane Vereen, who landed a four-year deal with the New York Giants as a free agent. Vereen, the team’s third-down back, was Brady’s best pass catcher out of the backfield as evidenced by his 12 catches in Super Bowl XLIX. He had 99 catches over the last two regular seasons and a career-best 838 yards from scrimmage in 2014.
Yeah, but they got… To counteract the loss of their two starting cornerbacks, the Patriots added another pass-rushing threat in former Cleveland Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard. The 25-year-old accumulated 23 sacks over four years in Cleveland and his versatility will appeal to Belichick. The team also made a couple of depth additions to the secondary, including veteran cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Bradley Fletcher. Both were underwhelming players last season that the Patriots hope will turn around in their system.
Growing from within: Barring any changes to Brady’s suspension, the Patriots will need Garoppolo to step up big-time for four games. The Eastern Illionois product made six appearances during his rookie season, but those mostly came in garbage time. We profiled Garoppolo after news of Brady’s suspension broke in May.
Otherwise, New England is counting on some young players to step up on defence. One of those includes Butler, the second-year cornerback who made the defining play against the Seattle Seahawks last February. His athleticism and ability to diagnose plays have impressed coaches and teammates during training camp.
Why this team? Nothing is more important in the NFL than having a franchise quarterback and a great coach, and the Patriots get A-plus grades in both departments. Brady, despite turning 38 in early August, is still among the best players in the sport and no team in the AFC East has a quarterback near Brady’s calibre. Plus, the Patriots are getting much better on the defensive side of the ball thanks to a group of young core players that really started to improve throughout 2014, including safety Devin McCourty, pass rusher Jamie Collins and linebacker Dont’a Hightower.
Why not? Well, there’s the Brady suspension. That’s big for the other three AFC East teams, including Buffalo, who plays New England during that stretch. Plus, there’s a possibility that Garoppolo completely flops and New England could struggle to recover from an early-season hole. Outside of that, New England’s biggest concern has to be in the secondary after losing Revis and Browner. Those two were both difference-makers and their production will be very difficult to replace.
Perfect for fans of… The San Antonio Spurs. It’s a natural match. Brady and Belichick are the NFL’s version of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan—only with more scandals. The two have dominated their respective leagues for over a decade and have created a culture of winning that has gone unmatched. Both Brady and Duncan are getting up there in age, so the windows could be closing for these two great organizations.
How much hope? 8/10. No Brady, no problem. The Patriots are still the best team in the division and should continue their run of division titles.
Will you be mocked for front-running? If you’re joining the bandwagon now, you probably missed out.
Meme to remember: As my man Larry David says, “Pretty… pretty… pretty good.”