College football finds itself in a perilous position on the eve of the 2020 season.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, and no team recognises this more than the New England Patriots, who consistently contend for championships year after year.
Bill Belichick. Tom Brady. Robert Kraft. These were the names driving the ship in 2001 and they’re still navigating the NFL’s high seas now. This year they will again pilot New England as the team sets course on becoming the first franchise since themselves in 2005 to successfully defend a Super Bowl title. Here’s why they can do it.
The off-season was a huge tick for New England, re-signing their priority-free agent Dont’a Hightower and gaining the services of Stephon Gilmore, Mike Gillislee, Kony Ealy and Brandin Cooks.
The Patriots did lose Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan from their Super Bowl-winning roster, but these pieces are replaceable – Dwayne Allen is a blocking tight end who will deliver a similar output to Bennett while Gilmore is an upgrade on Ryan in the secondary.
NFL media personalities were also hot on the Patriots’ draftees, with Football Outsiders crediting New England with a GPA of 3.33, the fourth highest in the league.
Essentially a new recruit for the Patriots, Rob Gronkowski, who missed half of the 2016 season with a back injury, immediately improves New England’s team from Super Bowl LI. Although he has significant durability concerns, Gronk is the best tight end in the game and provides Brady with a game-changing asset.
When he’s not shirtless in Boston sculling beer or off on one of his party cruises, Gronk demands double and sometimes even triple coverage, which opens the field for wily receivers like Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan.
This season the Patriots also have the lightning-quick Cooks on the outside, whom could require man coverage with secondary help over the top, such is his blistering speed. The problem for opposition teams is that you can’t double-team both Gronk and Cooks.
3. Stronger defence
New England had one of the best red-zone defences in the league last year, but that stat exaggerated their ability. A more reflective representation of the Patriots defence is the 328.3 yards allowed per game figure, which is the eighth best in the league. It’s not a poor defence by any means, but it did place added pressure on Brady and the offence.
This season the secondary will be better thanks to the addition of Gilmore, who should enable the Patriots to shut down an opposition wide receiver one-on-one rather than using Malcolm Butler or Eric Rowe with safety help over the top, allowing more pass rush possibilities for Matt Patricia.
Additionally, New England should expect greater output from developing players like Trey Flowers, Cyrus Jones and Malcolm Brown.
4. The best back-up quarterback in the NFL
They have arguably the best quarterback in the NFL, but the Patriots could lay claim to the best back-up, too. New England resisted the temptation of cashing in Jimmy Garoppolo for draft picks this year, meaning the team is well placed at quarterback if Brady goes down or finally succumbs to Max Kellerman’s cliff.
It’s an enviable position and a damn good insurance policy knowing you have two players in the game’s most important position that are better than half of the league.
5. The AFC East
While Miami is a playoff contender, the rest of the AFC East isn’t expected to be a threat this year. The Jets are rebuilding and have shipped off most of their veterans while the Buffalo Bills still don’t have a quarterback. Consequently the Patriots should be confident of emerging from their division with at least a 5-1 record over their rivals.
6. Continuity in positions that matter
The NBA obsesses over its ‘big threes’ dating back to Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish in the 1980s to LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love today. The NFL’s equivalent is a slam dank. Kraft (owner), Belichick (coach) and Brady (quarterback) have led the Patriots since 2001, claiming five Super Bowls and seven AFC Championships.
Similarly, the offensive and defensive coordinators, Patricia and Josh McDaniels, have been calling the shots since 2012. Having stability in such critical positions is reassuring for players and coaches, especially considering these guys know how to get it done.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The seasons tick over and the personnel often changes, but the foundations have been the same for 16 years – so you shouldn’t bet against the outcome: New England going all the way, changing.