It’s not going to be easy. In fact, it may be nearly impossible. The mountain is steep, and the New England Patriots are far removed from their dynasty years. Tom Brady no longer resides in Brookline. And as former Celtics Head coach Rick Pitino would say, “Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman aren’t walking through that door folks.” Most feel the Patriots simply don’t have the talent or star power to make the playoffs this season. However, what translates to the field on game day is anyone’s guess. In the infamous words of another former Celtic Kevin Garnett: “Anything is possible.”
But while many of the teams around them in the now highly competitive AFC got remarkably better this past off-season, the Patriots did not keep pace as much as most fans had hoped. Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick watched their team finish at 10-7 in 2021 making the postseason under first year quarterback Mac Jones, only to get demolished by the Buffalo Bills in the first round. One would think after such an embarrassment the team’s brass would make every effort to improve and get the team to the next step in the rebuild. Not so much.
After a wild and unprecedented spending spree the previous off-season, New England did little this summer to inspire confidence in the fan base. Often injured players like linebacker Mack Wilson were acquired via trade from the Browns. Free agent safety Jabrill Peppers coming off a 2021 ACL tear was signed to shore up the secondary. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, wide receiver DeVante Parker was brought in to strengthen a mediocre receiving corp. While none of these 3 signings scream “blockbuster,” Parker may be the closest thing. At 6-3 and 219 pounds, the former Dolphin can be a dominant presence when on the field. A significant red zone threat and likely Jones favorite target, Parker must find a way to stay healthy to help the team, something he has been unable to do throughout his career.
To make matters worse the Patriots brought back two former coaches, Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Both are also former head coaches (Patricia with the Lions and Judge with the Giants) who failed miserably as lead men. Patricia went 13-29 in 3 years in Detroit, and Judge was 10-23 in his 2 seasons as head man in New York. Now they are back with the Patriots with neither having a defined role with the team, leaving many to wonder why they are even here.
As the Patriots were making minimal traction on the free agent and trade markets, their chief competitors were busy going all in. Within their division the AFC East, the Dolphins significantly improved their offense by trading for Tyreek Hill one of the top receivers in the NFL. They also added two speedsters in the backfield, running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert. With an already superior offense led by Josh Allen and Stephon Diggs, the Bills made a free agent splash on defense by signing future Hall of Fame pass rusher Von Miller. Elsewhere in the conference, the Denver Broncos finally got their elite QB trading for former Seahawk Russell Wilson. The Las Vegas Raiders acquired perhaps the best receiver in the league, Davante Adams, and the Cleveland Browns traded for star players WR Amari Cooper and QB Deshaun Watson (Watson is suspended for the first 11 games of the season). Lastly, the upstart Los Angeles Chargers significantly improved their defense signing former Patriot All-Pro cornerback J.C. Jackson, and trading for Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack. The AFC looks more dangerous than it has in years, and the Patriots aren’t among the teams being feared by anyone.
All these moves are only contracts and obviously will have to translate to the field. But if the Patriots training camp and preseason games are any indication of how the season will play out, optimism is not a word that will continue to be spoken outside Gillette Stadium. Jones hasn’t looked good in the few times we have seen him in preseason action. Reports from inside training camp point to a second year struggling quarterback searching for his mojo. The offense hasn’t looked in sync since practices began, and Belichick refuses to name either Patricia or Judge as offensive coordinator leaving many to question who will run the offense. These are things that aren’t instilling confidence within Patriot Nation. On the defensive side of the ball, it’s not much better as the team lost captain Donta Hightower the team’s leader and signal caller, along with fellows starting linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins. The team’s overall best defender, cornerback Jackson, signed with the Chargers. The amount of question marks on offense and defense are numerous.
If the Patriots have any shot of squeaking into the postseason almost everything must go right. Jones must establish himself as a legitimate NFL starting quarterback. The offensive line must protect him and keep him healthy. Parker must stay on the field and become the true No. 1 receiving option the team has lacked for years. Judge and Patricia must find definitive roles and the team must figure out how to best utilize their individual coaching skills. The defense must scheme and plan a way each week to keep up with a speedier, more athletic, dangerous collection of weapons now residing in the AFC. On both sides of the ball, fans must hope a playmaker emerges that can change the dynamic of games.
It’s a lot to ask. But making the playoffs last year in what many considered the first year of a rebuild was a significant step forward. Missing out this season would undeniably be two huge steps in the wrong direction.