I’m not even going to talk about the Miami Meltdown. Haven’t read about it, don’t want to hear about it, don’t need to go over it.
Okay, one thing. From now on, let’s have safety Obi Melifonwu take the place of tight end Rob Gronkowski on the ol’ Hail Mary defense. Melifonwu is a 6-foot-4 safety with a 44-inch vertical and 4.40-second 40 speed. So let’s make that switch. Fine. Done. Moving on…
Nope, hold it, just one more thing. Should the Patriots have thrown the ball on third and goal? I know, a throw could have gotten intercepted, or gone incomplete to stop the clock. But with play action, a receiver could have broken open. Plus, if necessary, Tom Brady could have taken a sack to keep the clock running. A touchdown would have won it at that point. I’m a little surprised Coach Bill Belichick didn’t go for it based on that reason alone: he tends to call the one play that can seal a game.
Enough. I’m foregoing the typical game-after column to answer a question that has been on my mind for a few weeks. What’s missing from the 2018 Patriots? Yes, if they win out, they end up at 12-4 and probably a first-round bye. But what has separated this team from, say, the 2014 and 2016 Super Bowl winners?
It comes down to this: the 2018 Patriots have fewer overachievers and/or pleasant surprises than those teams.
In 2014, free agent receiver Brandon LeFell joined the offense and caught 74 passes for 953 yards and seven touchdowns – all of those marks career highs. Rookie center Bryan Stork came on to stabilize the offensive line. On defense, Darelle Revis lived up to lofty expectations, picking off two passes and breaking up 14 on the season, effectively shutting down his side of the field.
But the real stories of 2014 came from outside of the starting 22 in the form of free agents. Lineman Alan Branch shored up the run defense. Linebackers Akeem Ayers and Jonathan Casillas helped out in the pass rush and coverage, respectively. Tight end Tim Wright caught six TDs. Rookie running back Jonas Gray started a Week 11 game at Indianapolis and carried the ball 37 times for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Also, an undrafted rookie cornerback named Malcolm Butler would literally step forward and stun us all in February 2015.
In 2016, a similar trend of overachieving emerged. Receiver Chris Hogan had career highs in catches (38) and yardage (680), with four TDs. Malcolm Mitchell caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns, a notable debut for a Patriots rookie receiver. Tight end Martellus Bennett, first fitting in as a complementary addition to Gronk, ended up taking over after Gronk’s season-ending injury. Bennett ended up with 55 receptions and seven scores. Hard to imagine that team winning it all without Bennett.
After missing his rookie year due to injury in 2015, defensive end Trey Flowers bloomed, notching seven sacks as a sophomore and figuring prominently in the Super Bowl. While Chris Long had been brought in as a backup pass-rusher, the four-game PED suspension of Rob Ninkovich forced Long into a more prominent role early. He responded with four sacks and three tipped passes on the season. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy joined the team midway through 2016 via trade and helped fill in the vacancy that Jamie Collins left behind, ending up with 29 tackles, a sack, and an interception.
This all brings us to 2018 and the question, “Who on this roster has overachieved?”
Left tackle Trent Brown? He has shown the ability to anchor that side of the line for the foreseeable future. A better-than-expected signing in the absence of Nate Solder, who has disappointed in New York considering his Midas-level payday.
Receiver Josh Gordon? Absolutely. Thirty-nine catches for 701 yards and three touchdowns out of a guy who I thought might not last a week in Foxboro? Unexpected and appreciated. I’ll add rookie running back Sony Michel, corner Jason McCourty, and linebacker John Simon to the list of pleasant surprises. But I just don’t see a ton of “where the hell did that guy come from” type of players this season.
There have, however, been disappointments, including D-lineman Danny Shelton, who has made me think of what Christmas morning would feel like if I forgot batteries. Plenty of excitement when you first got him, but when you try to play with him you realize he can’t do much.
You know who else has been a bummer to me? Tight ends. Take Jacob Hollister. Not like the aforementioned Wright ripped up the field in 2014 (26 catches), but Hollister has eight receptions and zero TDs in his 22-game career. As a pass-catcher, fellow tight end Dwayne Allen makes a great blocker: Three grabs for 27 yards. These two tight ends have combined for seven receptions, 79 yards, and zero scores, aka one mediocre game for Gronk.
I’m not one to say that Belichick can’t draft. In fact, every year I say the opposite in my annual Patriots Round-By-Round Draft Review. (Now here’s where, much like a 1990s hip-hop video, you can see a big but coming…)
HOWEVER (close enough), the Patriots’ past few draft hauls have failed to life up to the standards of Belichick’s previous successes, largely due to injury. Out of Dominque Easley, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Antonio Garcia, and Derek Rivers, only Rivers remains with the team, unable to help on a regular basis because of a season-ending knee injury suffered at the end of his rookie summer of 2017. The ruling on this year’s selections can’t be realized for seasons to come, but ailments have limited or ended the seasons of Isaiah Wynn, Ju’Whuan Bentley, Duke Dawson, and Christian Sam.
When it comes to winning a Super Bowl, a little bit of luck never hurts, as I’ve written every year.
Here’s the thing: no one’s coming to save this current roster. They have the players they have; they need to improve. Can they beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh? Maybe. Can they win a playoff game away from Foxboro? Maybe. But they need to start exceeding expectations.
Chris Warner has been to Miami, a city that looks like what would happen if the 1980s skipped its own intervention. Twitter: cwarn89.