Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy wouldn't look back opposite Chandler Jones on the Pats' line. Credit: Getty Images
In hindsight, perhaps Bill Belichick and the Patriots jumped the gun after their 2006 AFC Championship game loss to the Colts. After that defeat, Belichick brought in Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth to finally give Tom Brady the type of weapons that Peyton Manning had been playing with for years. Those moves worked, for the most part, as the Pats rattled off 18 straight wins before running out of gas against the Giants in the Super Bowl.
But despite all of the rule changes over the years favoring offenses, despite the NFL taking a great deal of physicality out of the game due to legitimate concerns about concussions, it still appears that a great defense will trump a great offense. Last Sunday night’s blowout win by the Seahawks over the Broncos was just the latest example. The year prior, it was Baltimore's defense that got the job done as it picked off Manning two times in the divisional round and then picked off Brady two times in the AFC title game.
The Patriots went into both Super Bowls against the Giants with top three scoring offenses (No. 1 in 2007, No. 3 in 2011). But New York’s defenses held the Pats to just 14 points the first time around and just 17 points two years ago. The 2010 Super Bowl winning Packers were second in the league in fewest points allowed that season and made Ben Roethlisberger look like today’s Jared Lorenzen in the pocket, picking him off twice. The 2009 champion Saints are the closest thing to an exception to the “defense still wins championships” rule, but it should be noted that the two biggest plays in their Super Bowl win over Manning’s Colts were an onside kick recovery and a pick-6 by Tracy Porter. The 2008 Super Bowl winning Steelers? They were first in the league in fewest points allowed.
So, the question remains, how do the Patriots get back to that Super Bowl-winning level? On the surface, they appear to be just a stud receiver away and Pats fans will likely storm the FieldTurf in Foxboro next month if Belichick doesn’t reel in one large pass-catching name in free agency.
But as fans urge Belichick to “go after it, already!” as Brady’s window closes, perhaps their best bet is to go back to basics. Help Brady by helping the defense, first and foremost.
Re-sign Aqib Talib. Re-structure Vince Wilfork’s contract and keep him in Foxboro. Get Jerod Mayo back healthy. Sign a veteran cornerback like Asante Samuel (who was released by Atlanta Wednesday). Trade for a solid safety to back-up Devin McCourty. Maybe even (gulp) overspend, just a little, on Panthers free agent defensive end Greg Hardy (15 sacks in 2013), who would look pretty damn good opposite Chandler Jones on the defensive line. See if Adrian Wilson (remember him?) has anything left. If he doesn’t, release him and use that money to get another veteran defensive back.
Those are just a few ideas that the Pats could entertain this spring. One idea that they should not entertain is breaking the bank on multiple wide receivers, running backs and tight ends that could shatter records in 2014 but not bring home a Lombardi.
Yes, it's absolutely true that Brady’s window is closing. But it may be time to focus on a different pane.