Why Incremental Is Not Enough: Evaluating The New England Patriots Free Agency

The New England Patriots continued what appears to be a strategy aimed at incremental improvement rather than a big splash, when they signed two wide receivers to contracts. The most prominent is Brandon Lloyd, and the Pats also picked former Indianapolis Colt receiver Anthony Gonzalez to strengthen the options in the mid-range passing game. These acquisitions—along with that of San Diego Charger strong safety Steve Gregory are improvements, but can they really get the team a fourth Super Bowl win under the regime of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady?

In my critique of the Gregory signing, I remarked that Brady was the only true playmaker on the team. A reader rightfully called me out, wondering what Rob Gronkowski was, if not a playmaker. Frankly, I have no idea what I was thinking (or not thinking) in failing to include Gronk on the list. But I do think what ultimately keeps New England from winning another Super Bowl is the need for a couple more impact players, the types who can change a game in an instant.

No team in sports—not just the NFL, but all of sports—is more consistent than the New England Patriots. Even when they don’t look dominant, they churn out sustained winning streaks in the regular season and get themselves favorable playoff position. But they made it to the AFC Championship Game without beating a single team that finished with a winning record. The one win they did get, over the Baltimore Ravens, was more about the Ravens making mistakes. This is why, ultimately I am convinced that the current free agent signings just aren’t what the team needs the most. Not when a spirited run could have been made at anyone from Marques Colston to Mario Manningham on offense to Mario Williams on defense.

Paradoxically, a lot of my criticism is because of my regard for Bill Belichick as a head coach and Tom Brady as a quarterback. I think both are good enough at what they do that you can drop in the vast majority of NFL players and at least make them look above-average. But you can’t coach playmaking talent on the defensive side of the ball. A quarterback can’t make a receiver into a secondary-stretching deep threat.  Talent alone does that.

New England still has a tremendous opportunity ahead of them in the NFL draft. With two first-round picks, they can make significant upgrades, so this offseason story is far from over. At least for right now though, they’re likely to be the same type of team they’ve been since the end of the 2007 season. Yes, I’m fully aware that’s still awfully good—they’ve averaged a 12-4 record since then and it goes without saying that any other organization in the NFL would love that. But the Patriot fans I know (as a Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins fan, I’m very sympathetic to the Pats, even though my primary NFL loyalty is to the Redskins) is measuring success by whether they win the Super Bowl. Hence, the bar in evaluating these offseason moves has to be higher, by definition. And the Pats have to leap a little bit higher before this one can be called a success.


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