Less than two months removed from winning Super Bowl XLIX, the New England Patriots are already a much worse team. Free agency has not been kind to the Pats, stripping their defense of its most important players.
Gone is Pro-Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis, who returned to the New York Jets on a five-year, $70 million deal, more than half of which is guaranteed. Gone too is Brandon Browner, the big, bruising cornerback who led all NFL defensive players in penalties last year despite missing nearly half the season. The former Pro-Bowler landed a three-year, $15 million contract with the New Orleans Saints. It goes without saying that New England’s defense projects to be considerably weaker without them.
But the biggest loss, literally, is that of 325-pound defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. A team captain who anchored New England’s defensive line for more than a decade, the five-time Pro-Bowler had his $8.9 million team option declined by the Patriots. Within two weeks he signed a two-year deal with the Houston Texans.
While all three were key components of New England’s stout defense last year, head coach Bill Belichick had good reason to let them leave. Revis was too expensive, Browner cost his team too many yards last year and the 33 year-old Wilfork is starting to show his age. They are too old, pricey and injury-prone at this stage in their careers.
Such is the Patriot Way. With the exception of Tom Brady, no player is above the team. It is a rule of thumb that when Patriots become too old and/or too expensive, they do not return. Call it ruthless if you want, but Belichick’s coaching record in New England speaks for itself. Nothing supercedes winning, no player is irreplaceable and there is no room for sentimentality. As anyone who has seen Belichick’s press conferences knows, his mind is always on the future. The past is never his concern.
But this time around, maybe it should have been. The Patriots just won the freaking Super Bowl, after all, which means they clearly did something right last year. They won more games and had a higher point differential than every other team. A big reason why was their drastically improved defense, more specifically their shutdown secondary. Revis and Browner gave opposing receivers fits all season long, stifling anyone and everyone who dared run into their coverage. They were as unstoppable as any cornerback tandem in the game and every bit as instrumental in bringing another Super Bowl trophy to New England as the team’s golden-armed quarterback, party animal tight end and poindexter coaching staff.
After years of running out generally mediocre defenses designed to bend but not break, Belichick assembled an elite unit last year. New England ranked eighth out of the 32 NFL teams in fewest points allowed, their best finish since 2010. Always a team that relied on Brady and co. to win games, for once the Patriots had a top-notch defense to complement their high-octane offense.
Without Revis, Browner and Wilfork, however, things are back to the way they were. New England is suddenly much more vulnerable to athletic receivers and strong-armed quarterbacks, and its run defense will suffer without Wilfork stuffing running lanes. Belichick will find adequate replacements, I’m sure, but he can’t possibly hope to duplicate last year’s success. Pro-Bowlers don’t simply grow on trees.
The last 15 years have proven that the Patriot Way works. There’s no denying that. But it just did a number on New England’s Super Bowl hopes for next season.