Jesse Pantuosco

Bump and Run

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State of the Patriots

Tuesday, June 12, 2018


I drove to Cape Cod for a friend’s bachelor party on Friday afternoon and spent most of the car ride listening to Boston sports radio. And boy do I regret it. Bertrand and Zolak on 98.5 had me in such a panic I literally had to pull over at one point. When I finally arrived, instead of greeting all my friends, I found myself announcing to the room, “Gronk is getting traded today.”

 

Maybe I should have checked my sources. The Gronk rumors were exactly that—rumors. Redditlover1981 may have guessed right on Julian Edelman’s PED suspension (we’ll get to that in a minute) but that doesn’t suddenly make him Adam Schefter. Patriots beat reporters emphatically denied any movement on the Gronk front including Tom Curran of NBC Sports Boston, who said there was “zero truth” to any of the rumors that had my heart pumping on I-95. But even if nothing came of Friday’s mini-panic, it’s clear that tensions in Foxboro have never been higher. The winds are swirling around Patriot Place, clouds darkening like the bags under Bill Belichick’s eyes. Is this how it all ends—New England’s once-unshakeable dynasty crumbling at the feet of disgruntled stars, PEDs (or whatever the heck Edelman was on) and Internet rumors?

 

That’s doubtful—the Pats have been through much worse than this (Deflategate anyone?). But it's still been an unusually chaotic offseason for the defending AFC Champs. Let’s take inventory. After briefly contemplating retirement, Gronkowski announced his return days before the NFL Draft, then sat out most of the offseason program while negotiating an ongoing contract extension. Preferring to work with his personal trainer Alex Guerrero, Brady has been a ghost this offseason, only appearing in Foxboro for last week’s mandatory minicamp (though the reigning MVP did find time to tell Jim Gray he felt unappreciated in New England). Meanwhile Edelman, Brady’s go-to target and one of the premier slot receivers in all of football, was hit with a four-game PED ban triggered by an unknown substance. On top of all those distractions, New England lost several of its core players including Danny Amendola, Malcolm Butler, Brandin Cooks, Dion Lewis and Nate Solder to trades and free agency.

 

For a team that was a Hail Mary away from winning the Super Bowl last year (or at least tying it), the Patriots sure are a gloomy bunch these days. But let’s keep things in perspective. New England went 13-3 without Edelman last year. Crazy as it sounds, Edelman’s suspension (assuming he loses his appeal), may actually work in his favor because it will give him more time to recover from the torn ACL that cost him all of last season. Keep in mind, the regular season is just a dress rehearsal for New England. The Patriots have always had the luxury of sleepwalking through the ludicrously uncompetitive AFC East, a perennial free space on the NFL’s bingo card, and it’s likely they’ll be able to do so again in 2018. September may matter to other teams but not the Patriots. The goal, as always, is for Edelman to be healthy and peaking for the postseason.

 

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Of course, that does little to help Edelman’s fantasy owners, of which there are many. Four games isn’t a life sentence, but it’s definitely enough to knock him from the WR2 ranks. Last year the Patriots were able to overcome Edelman’s injury because of how stacked they were at wide receiver. That’s not quite the case this year following the losses of Cooks and especially Amendola, who would have been the logical choice to replace Edelman in the slot. It stands to reason that Chris Hogan will see his role increase, just as it did last year when Edelman was sidelined (career-high 6.6 targets per game). He should get the biggest boost among Pats receivers, though newcomer Jordan Matthews may also carry some fantasy intrigue. Matthews was largely unproductive in Buffalo last year but also wasn’t healthy. A proven slot receiver with 20 touchdowns on his NFL resume, the ex-Bill makes sense as a late-round stab in PPR leagues. Another sleeper to consider is receiving back James White, who has totaled 116 catches on 158 targets over his last two seasons.

 

Edelman’s alleged PED use is an interesting development considering how it relates to Tom Brady. Both are clients of Alex Guerrero, who was quick to defend himself when news of Edelman’s failed drug test went public. “Elite athletes sometimes work with multiple coaches and health professionals as part of their training,” said Guerrero in a written statement. “Here at our facility, we take a natural, holistic, appropriate and, above all, legal approach to training and recovery for all of our clients.” Belichick restricted Guerrero’s access to the team last year, a choice that may have forever altered his relationship with Brady. With Edelman in hot water, Belichick’s decision to distance the Patriots from Guerrero now seems warranted.

 

The fear among Patriots fans is that if Edelman, a known client of Guerrero, took a banned substance, couldn’t Brady also run the risk of testing positive for PEDs? It hasn’t happened yet and almost certainly won’t, but you can understand why some might make that connection. At least the Patriots had Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett to fall back on when Brady was suspended for the Deflategate debacle in 2016. Now all the Patriots have behind him is journeyman Brian Hoyer and seventh-round rookie Danny Etling. While highly unlikely, a PED ban would serve to further muddy Brady’s already-complicated legacy.

 

The reported discord in Foxboro over the past year shows that success comes at a steep cost. Winning the “Patriot Way” is an exhausting enterprise and after so many years maintaining a dynasty, you wonder if it’s worth the upkeep. Clashing egos, conflicting ideologies among coaches and players, a rogue trainer, PED suspensions—the negative energy surrounding the Patriots has been almost suffocating. Ex-Patriot Cassius Marsh claimed playing in Foxboro was the most miserable experience of his football life while Lane Johnson of the Super Bowl champion Eagles has called New England a “fear-based” organization. Even in Detroit, new Lions coach and Bill Belichick disciple Matt Patricia has caught flak from at least one columnist for his combative media presence and method of disciplining players (spoiler: he makes them run laps).

 

We’re still very much in the throes of silly season, where content-starved radio hosts pollute the airwaves with unsubstantiated rumors and trade speculation runs rampant on Internet forums like Reddit and Twitter. With free agency and the draft long gone and training camp still weeks away, juicy Patriots gossip, accurate or not, is all we have. Which brings us to Gronk. One of the more ironic aspects of New England’s dynasty, is that Gronkowski, a fun-loving man-child who would probably be on a slip-and-slide somewhere if he didn’t have to attend practice, has been such an important cog in the Patriots’ machine. He is the antithesis of the austere, unrelenting Bill Belichick, yet Gronk has always been a company man, embracing New England’s stringent “do-your-job” mantra. But after nearly a decade of taking marching orders from Emperor Bill, it seems Gronk has grown tired of being stifled, hence his absence for much of this offseason.

 

When Gronkowski contemplated retirement earlier this year, many shrugged it off as an emotional player blowing off steam in the wake of a frustrating Super Bowl loss. The tight end’s expansive injury history gave credence to the possibility of an early retirement but at the core of Gronk’s angst was his souring relationship with taskmaster Belichick, the NFL’s pre-eminent head coach but also its biggest killjoy. Bill and Gronk supposedly patched things up at a sit-down days prior to the NFL draft, but that doesn’t mean that this is a permanent arrangement. Mike Giardi of NBC Sports Boston noted that the 29-year-old displays all the familiar symptoms of a player entering his final days in Foxboro: contract demands, age, injury history and as Giardi put it, “willful behavior.”

 

The number of beloved Patriots let go by Belichick during his tenure is almost too long to list: Drew Bledsoe, Jamie Collins, Chandler Jones, Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Randy Moss, Logan Mankins, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork. Tom Curran confirmed New England entertained offers for Gronk leading up to the draft—the Patriots were enamored with Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield—but obviously that plane never got off the ground. Maybe it never will. But if any cat was bold enough to trade the greatest tight end of his generation—if not of all-time—it would be William Stephen Belichick.

 

What’s lost in all this talk of Gronkowski, Edelman and Brady is that New England’s offense has never been the issue. Brady’s production will taper off at some point—Peyton Manning’s transformation from “world beater” to “barely good enough to hold off Brock Osweiler” occurred almost overnight. But let’s not forget that New England yielded 41 points to Nick Foles in last year’s Super Bowl while allowing over 500 yards from scrimmage. That came just two weeks after the famously erratic Blake Bortles gashed New England for 293 yards while pushing the heavily-favored Patriots to the brink of elimination on their home field. Adding a second McCourty twin to the secondary this offseason was a nice touch and New England should certainly benefit from the return of stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who sat out most of last year with a torn pectoral muscle. But if 2018 is the year the Patriots’ decades-long dynasty finally goes off the rails (Vegas says it won’t be), you can bet it won’t be because of their offense. Not with Tom Brady steering the ship.



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
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