Last Updated 1/3/09
The easy choice would be to blame the Patriots' absence from the playoffs on the absence of league MVP Tom Brady, who tore up his left knee in the season opener and missed the rest of the year.
The right choice would be to look beyond one position.
Matt Cassel did a superb job as Brady's replacement -- better than expected -- by throwing for 3,693 yards with 21 touchdown passes and only 11 interceptions. Of the five games the Patriots lost, at least four can be pinned primarily on the defense's inability to make key stops at opportune times.
The Patriots allowed 38 points in a home loss to Miami, 30 in a loss at San Diego, 34 at home to the Jets and 33 against the Steelers. Though they allowed only 19.3 points per game, the Patriots had problems in the secondary from the start of the season. They never truly replaced cornerback Asante Samuel, and the problem got worse when others -- specifically Rodney Harrison -- suffered season-ending injuries.
Even the vaunted defensive line, which features three former first-round draft picks as starters, was a part of the problem. In the past, the Patriots have been able to mask their problems in the secondary with the effectiveness of their front seven, but there were times this year when opposing quarterbacks faced no pressure at all.
Chad Pennington never even got hit in the loss to Miami in Week 3, and after the Chargers crushed the Patriots 30-10 in October, Philip Rivers pointed out how the defense never touched him.
The Patriots have always invested high draft picks in defensive linemen, but now might be the time to target the secondary. They tried to replace Samuel, who signed with Philadelphia during the offseason, by bringing in seasoned veterans such as Fernando Bryant and Jason Webster. Neither worked out. They gave Deltha O'Neal a shot, but he struggled throughout the year and was ultimately replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Jonathan Wilhite. The latter cracked the lineup toward the end of the year after fellow rookie Terrence Wheatley suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
Wheatley eventually may develop into a shutdown corner, but the Patriots need immediate help. They finally found a franchise linebacker in Jerod Mayo, but eventually they will have to groom replacements at other positions. Harrison's latest injury may end his career, so the Patriots will either keep their fingers crossed that Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders continue to develop, or they might be on the lookout for another safety in this year's draft. First and foremost, cornerback remains the big issue.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots need to figure out what they're going to do with Cassel once he hits the free agent market. All indications suggest he's due for a big payday, but the Patriots might be reluctant to let him go if Brady isn't ready to start the season on time. There have been reports of setbacks with his recovery, which may affect the team's decision on Cassel.
One option would be to franchise Cassel, but they run the risk of paying him an exorbitant salary if they are unable to unload him elsewhere in exchange for draft picks. Having him as a backup is a nice fallback plan, but not at the price of one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.
Likewise, the Patriots need help in the running game. The plan of keeping five running backs turned out to be intuitive, as most of them suffered injuries at some point, leaving the Patriots thin throughout the season. The biggest chore is figuring out what to do with Laurence Maroney. The former first-round pick failed to build off last season's late success and eventually wound up on injured reserve after talking about undisclosed "issues" he had been dealing with.
Maroney might not be worth the baggage for New England, so don't be surprised if the team shops him during the offseason. Should the Patriots find a new home for Maroney, the next step is developing another franchise running back. Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan filled in nicely this year when they were healthy, but it's unlikely they'll be durable enough down the stretch to be suitable replacements. Kevin Faulk has been phenomenal in the latter stage of his career, but he's never been a No. 1 back and certainly wouldn't be now at his age.
Like most teams that didn't make the playoffs, the Patriots have plenty of issues to deal with in the offseason. Surprisingly, quarterback isn't one of them -- unless, of course, Brady's rehab takes anymore unexpected detours over the next few months. Stay tuned.38
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