The New England Patriots are not winning the Super Bowl this year. Everyone knows it. The fans know. The players know it. Bill Belichick knows it. This just won’t be their year.
The reasons are myriad. The defense is too young. The offensive line has problems. The running game lacks a single playmaker. The passing game looks good, but who knows how long two rookie tight ends can carry it? And while special teams have proven they can be explosive, the special teams unit is easily the least important phase in football. The only time special teams really affects a game is when they play extraordinarily well (as they did against Miami) or extraordinarily poorly. Even above-average special teams play won’t really help a team win, and a team can usually give up a touchdown kickoff return without losing the game. The special teams unit is also a double-edged sword, because every score by them replaces a defense-resting offensive drive. So continued excellence by the Patriots special teams unit might wind up hurting them.
The Patriots are not winning the Super Bowl this year, and Randy Moss would have left at the end of the season. The Patriots occasionally pay for talent, but it’s rare that they pay for wide receivers. So Moss would go to free agency, get paid somewhere else, and the Patriots would get nothing. So if the season is not going to bring home a championship no matter what, then why not trade a player who doesn’t factor into New England’s future and get something for him?
The Patriots are going to have a lot of early-round draft picks in 2011. Alabama super-back Mark Ingram is almost a guarantee. The Patriots could also shore up an offensive line that will likely lose both Matt Light and Logan Mankins. And if they really need a wide-receiver, they might look at A.J. Green from Georgia. He might have been suspended for four games by the team, but the Patriots took Brandon Meriweather and did some good things with him. Same with Randy Moss and Rodney Harrison. Problem players usually do well with the Patriots. So while the 2010 Patriots may be a lost cause, the the 2011 Patriots will be absolutely stacked.
Whether or not Belichick actually has given up on this team, that is definitely the message he sent by trading Moss. Brady’s best statistical season was 2007, the first season that introduced the new Moss-heavy offensive strategy. It was his most accurate season (68.9 percent), his highest average throw season (8.3 yards-per-throw), his highest total yardage season (4,806) and his highest-scoring season (50 touchdowns, an NFL record). His next-best season? 2009: 65.7 percent accuracy, 7.8 yards-per-throw, 4,398 yards, 28 touchdown passes. Clearly Brady is best suited to an offense where he has a consistent deep threat because it opens up routes underneath.
Without Moss, safeties are going to creep up. What used to be one person hitting or tackling Welker or a tight end will become two or three. The rookies will get mauled while trying to catch passes. Their development may be hampered, and they might get hurt. Trading Moss crippled the offense. And when you cripple your best element, you are essentially saying that you’ve given up on the season.
To further contextualize Brady’s offensive preferences, let’s take his third-best year: 2004. You’ve got the same 28 touchdowns and 7.8 yards-per-throw as 2009. His total number of completions (288) are low, but his quarterback rating was third-highest (92.6). Who else was on the 2004 team? Corey Dillon, averaging a whopping 109 yards-per-game. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that year. So while Brady might do best in an offense with a deep threat, the Patriots might do best when Brady has a great running back to split the duties with.
Now, this year the Patriots do not have as good a running back as the 2004 Dillon, or even the 2006 Dillon-Laurence Maroney combination. Without that, in order to flourish Brady would need a deep threat. He doesn’t have that now that Moss is gone. That means that neither of the successful offensive models are available this season. Hence, a crippled offense.
By trading Moss, Belichick was willing to sacrifice the 2010 season for the possibility of a massive overhaul in 2011. The Patriots should find themselves with a truly explosive running back. The offensive line will be young and strong. And if Brady really needs a deep threat, wide receivers are usually easy to draft and there are a few big-name players entering free agency too. But the reality is the Patriots (though not necessarily Brady himself) did their best work when they had a consistent running threat. They’re not going to get it this year, so Belichick took a step necessary to ensure that they get it next year.
Trading Moss guarantees a less-successful 2010-2011 season. The offense will sputter and the defense will get overused. But all that extra playing time for the young defenders will push their development. And when the Patriots come back rarin’ to go next year, the defense will be better for the extra experience they got this season. This decade will end not with a bang, but a whimper. But next season will be a Big Bang, and the Patriots dominance will be recreated anew. Whoever wins the Super Bowl had best watch out: the Patriots will be gunnin’ for you.