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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Month

January 2016

Protecting Brady

As Tom Brady’s pass found its way into Rob Gronkowski’s hands in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship game, Tony Burton’s voice was in my head.

I saw you beat that man like I never saw no man get beat before, and the man kept coming after you.

That sentence, uttered by the actor while pleading with Apollo Creed to avoid a rematch with Rocky Balboa in Rocky II epitomized Tom Brady’s day against the Denver Broncos.

Hit 20 times and harassed countless others by the Broncos’ elite pass rushers, the Greatest Of All Time still managed to put together one last drive and had the Patriots within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime. It was an admirable performance and one that proves a level of grit that those outside of New England rarely give Brady credit for. It was also a scenario that can never be allowed to happen again.

Tom Brady dropped back and was hit 16 times, sacked four, hurried somewhere around 20 others. It’s an unacceptable stat line for any quarterback, but especially a 38-year-old.

Yes, injuries had a lot to do with it. A lot.

Entering the season, the Patriots figured to return the majority of its line from a year earlier that had allowed Brady to get hit just 14 times in three games on its way to winning the Super Bowl. Projected to start we (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork, Tre’ Jackson and Sebastian Vollmer. The unit that started the AFC Championship game? Vollmer, Josh Kline, Stork, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon.

This was nothing new for the Patriots, who used more starting line combinations than any other team in the league and, in fact, more than any in a couple decades. In the past, the Patriots have had some fluid situations along their line, but the depth of the unit was tested in a way maybe never seen before. Stork was on the short-term injured reserve list with a severe concussion, then Solder tore his biceps in early October and Wendell barely played at all between a mystery illness and a leg injury, putting Brady’s blindside in peril early on and Jackson suffered a significant knee injury in late October.

Eventually the “next man up” way of doing business doesn’t work when you, well, run out of men. By Week 9, Stork, fresh off of IR, had to play four different positions, including tackle. Yes, the center who started for the Super Bowl champions a year ago was playing tackle on the right side. On the left side was Cameron Fleming, a practice squad player protecting Brady’s back because on top of Solder’s injury, Vollmer left the game with a head injury and Cannon was out with a foot issue.

(When you roll it all out in such a manner, it almost seems unfair that offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo lost his job.)

Then let’s not forget about the loss of Julian Edelman in Week 10 and Danny Amendola, who sprained his knee Week 11, missed Week 12 against Denver, then also missed a critical game against the Jets in Week 15. Also, the offense lost both of its top running backs, which left a ragtag bunch that failed to take pressure off the passing game.

As the injuries mounted, so did the hits on Brady. The offensive line needed more than ever Brady’s quick release and the receivers (such as they were) more than ever needed the line to hold on just that second or two longer as they tried to get open.

It was reflective in the numbers. Brady threw for three or more touchdowns in four of his first eight games, for more than 300 yards in six and had just two interceptions. His lowest passer rating in any game was 94.3 and he was over 100 six times. From Week 10 on, he managed three touchdowns twice, the same number of one-touchdown games, passed for more than 300 yards just twice and had five interceptions, including his first multi-pick game in more than a year. He had just two plus-100 passer ratings and four sub-90 ratings.

Now, let’s keep things in perspective. This is an exercise to illustrate a clear difference in ability to execute, and for some of it, it was more probable than not to be a result of Brady’s body breaking down as he was repeatedly pummeled. Still, most of the league’s quarterbacks would have killed to have Brady’s numbers this year and comparative to last year’s, 2015 was a better season overall, at least on paper. Brady threw just one touchdown in five games last season, but four of those were early in the season.

Timing is everything.

And in 2015, by Week 17 against the Dolphins, the Patriots were trying to win a game with a prevent offense – as in prevent Brady from getting hurt. They did that, barely, but it cost them in the long run as it lost them home field advantage through the playoffs.

As good as Brady is at taking care of his body and keeping himself in prime playing condition, he needs help to keep it that way.

Up the middle, the Patriots have spent a fair bit of equity. Stork has proven to be a solid starter at the position in his short time in the league and backup David Andrews performed admirably in his stead in his rookie year. Mason and Jackson project as good young guards picked up in the 2015 draft. The roster also figures to have the benefit of healthy bookends with Solder on the left, which would allow Vollmer – a good right tackle, but iffy on the left side – the ability to move back to his natural position, assuming he isn’t a cap casualty.

It’s a solid starting lineup, but a heap of work needs to be done behind them. Tackle needs a complete overhaul. Cannon and Fleming have played themselves out of jobs most likely and LaAdrian Waddle probably lost his by not playing. The draft is deep at the tackle position, which might figure to be the most cost-effective way for the Patriots to address their need, given their cap situation and probable desire to lock up some impact players on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. On the inside Wendell doesn’t figure to be back and Kline is a reserve at best, so there is need for improvement there as well. Stork’s versatility helps, but his best position is center and it would probably behoove Bill Belichick and Co. to keep him there unless things start going wrong again the way they did this year. Guard is a position where some quality, especially a veteran looking for a shot at a ring, could be had for reasonable dollars on the free agent market.

Whatever the maneuver, while it doesn’t have to be drastic, it does have to be meaningful. Standing pat just won’t do. Too much, namely Tom Brady’s health, rides on it.

 

Breaking down the Patriots’ free agents

There aren’t very many of them, but the Patriots do have some members of the 2015 squad who may be playing elsewhere in 2016.

Much of the talk of the future has revolved around the fact that nearly all of the team is at least under contract next season, which obviously doesn’t mean they’ll be on the roster come Week 1, but let’s take a look at some of the notable players whose contract situation specifically is up in the air.

This list is compiled in order of impact on the 2015 team, starting with the most and ending with the least significant.

  1. Akiem Hicks, DT, Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA): Hicks came over in a trade from New Orleans and asserted himself as a key member of a strong interior defensive line rotation. Expected to be a key interior pass rusher for the Saints, he never really found a rhythm and lost playing time before shifting to New England where he flashed a strong all-around game. His three sacks and eight QB pressures (tied for fourth on the team) and three QB hits were expected, but he also had six run stuffs. Not bad for someone who was acquired for a journeyman tight end. At 26 years old, the solid season signals a pay day for Hicks. He’s almost certainly going to test the market seeking not only cash, but the opportunity for more playing time.
  2. Justin Coleman, CB, Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA): Coleman had some injury issues, most notably his hand injury that kept him out for several weeks, but when on the field, he had his moments, especially when lined up in the slot. Opposing quarterbacks threw for 51.1 percent, 301 yards and two touchdowns (anĀ 85.5 passer rating) in 10 games against Coleman, who also recorded seven pass break-ups and 21 tackles. As an ERFA, the Patriots have until March 9 to extend him a minimum salary tender, which for a player with one year’s experience works out to $525,000, which the Patriots will surely pay.
  3. Nate Ebner, S, UFA: Ebner’s contributions to the Patriots have almost exclusively been on special teams units that historically have been good, thanks to key pieces like Ebner, Matthew Slater and Brandon Bolden. That, and his seemingly low salary demands would make it likely that he could return, but there is the possibility of a shakeup on a unit that had some gaffes uncharacteristic of a Patriots team in 2015.
  4. LeGarrette Blount, RB, UFA: When Blount went down with a hip injury, many lamented the loss of a much-needed impact runner with Dion Lewis also on the shelf. The only thing is Blount didn’t offer much in the way of impact. His 2015 season yielded maybe the quietest 700 yards ever, a number ballooned by one big game against a bad Redskins defense. The only reason he looked so good to Patriots fans when he went down was because of how bare the cupboard was behind him. While the injury won’t require surgery, Blount might end up back in New England on a short money, incentive-laden deal, a result of a weak market for him simply because he hasn’t proven to be able to do much elsewhere. Otherwise, the Patriots will surely move on.
  5. Tavon Wilson, S, UFA: A second-round draft pick in 2012, Wilson became a special teamer and depth safety who struggled in coverage. He offers more versatility than a guy like Ebner, but it’s likely the Patriots could find a better option and he could find a better fit elsewhere.
  6. Sealver Siliga, DT, Restricted Free Agent (RFA): After proving to be a pretty solid value signing in 2013, Siliga saw a significant drop-off in playing time in 2015, getting supplanted as the big body in the Patriots’ middle of the line rotation by Alan Branch and he fell even further back when New England traded for Hicks. He’s 26 and still has a place in the league, but it probably won’t be with the Patriots. He likely won’t be tendered a qualifying offer by March 9 and will become an unrestricted free agent.
  7. James Develin, FB, RFA: After breaking his leg in August, Develin’s presence was missed both in the run game and in pass protection as the offensive line got more and more beat up. The cost to keep him would be steep for the position at $1.6 million, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be back. It really depends on what Belichick identifies as priorities for the backfield in 2016.
  8. Cameron Fleming, T/G, RFA: The Patriots drafted Fleming in the fourth round in 2014, but by September 2015, he was cut. After time on the practice squad, he returned to the Patriots as depth when Nate Solder went down. He plays both tackle and guard and Bill Belichick likes versatility, but Fleming’s poor performance on the field probably outweighs that. It would be surprising if he gets a qualifying offer by the March 9 deadline.
  9. Tarell Brown, CB, UFA: Before Logan Ryan asserted himself as the No. 2 corner in New England, Brown appeared to have that spot, but a foot injury cost him the season. Coming off that kind of injury at 31 years old, he’s probably going to have to settle for a “show me” one-year deal with a lot of incentives tied in. He could get that in New England, but it might depend more on what he’s looking for. While he might have a shot to play for a ring in New England, he might want to pursue more playing time elsewhere.
  10. Ryan Wendell, C, UFA: Wendell played all of 13 snaps between illness and injury in 2015. A couple years ago, he surprised and showed some prowess, especially in the run game, but he had regressed and between the injury and his age with the current youth movement underway in the middle of the New England offensive line, it seems as if his time is done. Always more valuable to the Patriots than anyone else, his career might even be coming to a close.
  11. LaAdrian Waddle, T, RFA: This season proved the need for depth at the tackle position, but Waddle didn’t perform well for the Lions (which is why the Patriots were able to get him via a waiver claim) and then basically spent his entire tenure with the Patriots on the injured list, only appearing in New England’s Week 15 loss to the Jets. There’s almost no way he returns.
  12. Steven Jackson, RB, RFA: He’s not coming back and, after proving he has no juice left, will probably retire.

Megatron meets Minitron?

 

Admit it, many of you are still at least mentally sitting in your man cave in the dark staring a television you turned off as soon as Tom Brady’s forced pass to Julian Edelman on that two-point conversion got batted up in the air.

How did this happen? How did this happen to a team with this kind of offense … To a team with Tom Brady?

And after a period of anger in which you blame everyone from Bill Belichick not taking the three points with six minutes left in the game to Marcus Cannon for attempting to block Pro Bowl edge rushers seemingly with a spin move to that damn waterboy for not keeping Rob Gronkowski hydrated, it hits many of you – the “if only.”

“If only the Patriots had that one deep threat, that one guy who could win one-on-one downfield every time. That would have changed everything.”

Looking past the fact that without the prototypical “deep threat” (and really their best receiver of any size or shape for seven weeks) the Patriots had more plays of 20-plus yards than anyone else in the league or the fact that Tom Brady’s own inaccuracy on quick throws was as much to blame as his receivers’ inability to get open or his line’s inability to block against an elite Denver defense, OK, I’ll play your game.

I’ll play it if we can both acknowledge that when talking about deep threats, you’re not talking about a guy who will occasionally stretch the field; you’re talking a top-caliber, every down receiver.

You’re talking about Randy Moss 2.0.

That guy doesn’t exist on the free agent market, so really, you’re talking about a guy on another team of Pro Bowl quality who might be made available by a team in transition. Enter Megatron.

Calvin Johnson has hinted at retirement, a notion that is questionable given his age (31) and the fact that he is still playing at an extremely high level, but also somewhat understandable, given the Detroit Lions’ futility.

In his career with Detroit, his teams have managed to make the playoffs just twice (wild card qualifiers ushered out in their first game), their only two winning seasons. While playing at a high level, he’s suffered through some 0-16, 2-14 and 4-12 campaigns. During the winless season of 2008, he led the league in touchdown receptions, while in 2012 when the team won just four games, his 122 receptions (currently seventh all-time) yielded the most receiving yards in NFL history. To say they guy has paid his dues is an amazing understatement.

But the real wild card lies in how serious Johnson is about his retirement contemplation. After an amazingly uninspiring year of leadership from Jim Caldwell, new General Manager Bob Quinn not only announced Caldwell would stay, but also recently gave him an added endorsement, which, believe it or not, could actually tilt the scales in favor of Johnson staying. After all, the retention of Caldwell also signaled that Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who was able to get the Lions’ offense playing well after his mid-season promotion, would also be sticking around in the Motor City. Johnson is on record saying he enjoyed playing in Cooter’s offense.

Johnson’s contract carries with it a $24 million cap hit for next season and nearly $13 million in dead money that the Lions would be responsible for if he retires or is released. He’s not going to be released. Detroit does not face a cap crunch in 2016. So simply put, the Lions stand to benefit from moving on from Johnson only if they are convinced he won’t play for them.

From the Patriots’ perspective, it’s easy to see why you would want a guy of that caliber. From a purely logistical standpoint, the Patriots would have to do some maneuvering to afford to take him on, but it’s far from impossible.

Some of the moves are obvious. Jerod Mayo figures to be gone, which would automatically result in $6.4 million in savings. Scott Chandler, who was a huge disappointment, would save about $2 million against the cap if released. Danny Amendola, who carries a $7 million cap hit, will surely have his contract restructured regardless of Johnson’s status.

The Patriots could also do what they did with Moss and make a restructure of Johnson’s deal a condition in the trade, turning some of his salary into bonuses.

Whether the Patriots have enough equity to acquire him, or are willing to part with the assets necessary to do so is another topic altogether. Already missing their first round pick in this year’s draft thanks to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unfounded and unprecedented punishment for the self-made DeflateGate “scandal,” the remaining picks carry with them a higher premium, especially for a team that figures to address some line of scrimmage issues via the draft. Some of the Patriots’ best draft pick currency is in the form compensatory picks, which can’t be traded.

But then how much would it take to pry away a guy who will handcuff a team to the tune of $13 million to watch games from his couch? Randy Moss was not just a malcontent; he was an underperforming malcontent, so a fourth-round pick for a player like Johnson would probably be a stretch, but how much?

Too much remains unclear about Johnson’s mindset (the Lions have admitted that to this point, they haven’t spoken with him regarding his future) and that remains the lynchpin in this discussion.

In this case, the uncertainty means hope for many Patriots fans, who remember Brady’s glory days (as if they’re gone).

Go ahead and dream.

Crazier things have happened.

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