By Andy Goddard (@godsy1985)
The next instalment of our season review articles takes a look at last years world champions, the New England Patriots. Is a 12-4 regular season record really the end of the dynasty?
Entering the season
Going into the 2019 season, the Patriots were once again one of the favourites to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Miami but there were also a lot of question marks against the team. The major concern appeared to be at the wide receiver position, which was very thin, but did still include the reigning Super Bowl MVP in Julian Edelman and the troubled yet talented, Josh Gordon. The other obvious concern was the loss of Rob Gronkowski. ‘Gronk’ had announced his retirement in March 2019 leaving the Pats with an ageing Ben Watson and two unproven players in Ryan Izzo and, the recently acquired, Matt LaCosse.
Preparations for the new season took another hit on 26th August 2019 when it was announced that centre David Andrews had been diagnosed with pulmonary embolism which would eventually result in him being placed on season ending injury reserve (IR) at the end of August 2019. The Patriots 1st round draft pick, N’Keal Harry, also then found himself on IR in September due to an ankle injury.
Before a play had even been called, the Patriots were struggling on offense but the defence had held the high scoring LA Rams to just three points in Super Bowl 53 so there was still optimism that with Brady and Belichick, another trip to the big game was possible.
The AFC East has been looked upon as a little bit of a joke for quite a while now. The New York Jets and Miami Dolphins were both in transition periods and the only challenge for New England looked to be the Buffalo Bills. However, heading into the 2019 season, the Patriots were still expected to win the AFC East and head into the playoffs once more.
During the season
The Patriots started the season with what was regarded as a very weak schedule. The Pats opened the season 8-0 and there was talk from some people in the media that this team could go undefeated. Blow out wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets (twice) and the Washington Redskins did not tell the whole story as the second half of their schedule would show.
On September 7th, the Patriots signed Antonio Brown to a one year contract. Suddenly a weak wide receiver unit was now looking very promising with Brown, Gordon and Edelman all lining up alongside Tom Brady. Unfortunately, this lasted just one game (at Miami) before Brown was eventually cut on 20th September due to an ongoing court case and further allegations made against the wide receiver.
Regardless of the Antonio Brown issue, the Patriots were winning, and winning comprehensively. Their defence’s play was historically dominant and was the catalyst for the 8-0 record. Scoring touchdowns on defence and special teams at an astonishing rate covered over the cracks on offense. The Patriots ‘ran over’ teams on their way to winning Super Bowl 53, but this team had to rely more and more on Tom Brady as the running game was non-existent. This may seem strange, having to rely on arguably the greatest quarterback to ever play the game but Brady was 42 when the season began and (finally) showing signs of his age. To make matters worse, his wide receivers were also struggling. They couldn’t get open, and on the occasions they did, the number of dropped catches was very alarming. The once reliable Julian Edelman, lead the league in dropped catches (9) and Brady no longer had his big tight end, ‘Gronk’. In October, Josh Gordon found himself on IR before being before released and claimed by the Seattle Seahawks. Although Mohamed Sanu was traded to the Patriots on 22nd October, he also struggled and finished the season with just 207 yards.
A week 9 trip to Baltimore brought the Patriots first defeat of the season and although they won the next two games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys it was once again the defence that were the main cause, holding the Eagles and Cowboys to 10 and 9 points respectively.
Notoriously, the Patriots thrive in December and begin to play their best football. The 2019 season was the complete opposite of this as they fell to consecutive defeats against the Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs. New England’s offense had looked a little better against the Chiefs but one really bad piece of officiating took points off the board when N’Keal Harry was wrongly adjudge to have stepped out when he had scored a touchdown. They would eventually lose 16-23.
Heading into week 16, the Patriots needed to beat the Buffalo Bills to secure another AFC East title. A 24-17 win meant that not only did they win the AFC East but a victory in their final game, at home to the (4-11) Miami Dolphins, would secure the number 2 seed in the AFC and clinch a first round bye in the playoffs. In week 17, things appeared to be going to plan as Tom Brady drove his Patriots down the field late on to take a 24-20 lead but ‘Fitzmagic’ (Ryan Fitzpatrick) had other ideas as the Dolphins scored with seconds remaining to win the game 27-24. That defeat, coupled with a win by the Kansas City Chiefs, meant that the Patriots would finish as the third seed and have to play in the wild game for the first time in since 2009!
The Patriots hosted the Tennessee Titans in the wild card game. With the Titans leading 14-13 at the half, the Patriots would fail to score another point in the 2019 season as the Titans ran out 20-13 winners and advanced to the divisional round.
The big question going into the off season revolves around quarterback Tom Brady, who will be an unrestricted free agent. It’s crazy to think of Brady in another uniform but there is a real possibility this happens. It was well reported that Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, wanted to keep Jimmy Garoppolo before he was eventually traded to San Francisco so we could see a new quarterback under centre for the Patriots. Of course, Brady could very well return for another season but one thing appears certain, Brady does not want to retire just yet.
If Brady was to move on, do the Patriots go with back up Jarrett Stidham, draft their new man, or make a trade? I would be very surprised to see Brady sign with someone else and believe that Robert Kraft (New England Patriots Owner) will do everything in his power to keep his QB around and make him a Patriot for life.
In 2019, the defense looked solid against the pass with Stephon Gilmore being the stand out performer and winning Defensive MVP, but they need to improve against the run. This was highlighted in the wild card game against the Titans.
The Patriots also have a long list of players who will hit free agency. Some big name players including Devin McCourty, the impressive Kyle Van Noy, Matthew Slater, Jamie Collins, Joe Thuney and Danny Shelton will be available. Not all of these players will be Patriots next season. Kyle Van Noy and Joe Thuney will get paid big money by another team so will need replacing and the offense still needs improvement at the skill positions. The loss of Gronkowski was huge, not only in the passing game but he also excelled as a blocker. New England has $49 million in cap space and this will probably grow with contracts being restructured.
Heading into the 2020 season, the Patriots need at least 2 wide receivers, a tight end and maybe a quarterback! Added to those positions there is also a need at guard and the linebacker position if Thuney and Van Noy do not sign new deals. This could be the biggest offseason for the Patriots in a long time!
At the top of the article we asked, ‘is a 12-4 regular season record really the end of the dynasty?’ And for me, the answer is a resounding no! The Patriots actually improved on last seasons regular season record and although their season ended early, they still went 12-4! In fact, there are only a handful of teams that wouldn’t be very happy with that record. There is no arguing, It was a disappointing season but that just highlights the success that the Patriots have had over the past two decades. One teams failure would be seen as a huge success by many other teams in the league. Whilst Belichick is still the head coach, they will always have a chance.
If Tom Brady returns and Belichick can get the right people around him, they will be challenging again next season. The AFC East will be more competitive next year with the Buffalo Bills being the biggest challengers and the Miami Dolphins improving.
Much was made of Brady and the Patriots passing offense, but if you look at the stats, if wasn’t too bad. They finished the season 7th in passing yards per game (253.6 yards) and were also in the top 5 for total number of drops (23). To the dismay of many, I don’t see New England fading away just yet but improvement is needed.
Fun Fact: Heading into week 9 the Patriots were 8-0 but if their offense hadn’t scored a single point, they still would have been 4-2-2!