Brady (12) gives instructions to Vereen (34), Amendola (80) and Boyce (82) at Patriots training camp last week.
At this time of year, with training camp ongoing and the first round of pre-season games fast approaching, the New England Patriots – like all of the teams in the NFL – are busy preparing for the new season.
Normally analysts are busy predicting who will make the post-season, which players are destined for exceptional seasons and who might just make the Super Bowl in February of next year at Met Life Stadium in New York.
Under normal circumstances the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick do not attract headlines for the wrong reasons. They go about their business and stride into action somewhat unnoticed.
This off-season has been very different however. Following defeat in the AFC Championship game at the hands of the eventual winners the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots are ready to go again, ready with one goal in mind and ready to deliver a fourth ring for the Tom Brady-Belichick regime which began back in 2000.
Usually the Patriots organisation are very keen to shy away from media attention, particularly things that may prove a distraction. They have not been successful at that in 2013.
From Wes Welker’s departure to an AFC rival in the Denver Broncos during free-agency, there have been huge question marks surrounding their credentials without a receiver who contributed almost 7500 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns following his arrival from the Miami Dolphins prior to the 2007 season.
In doing so he naturally became one of Brady’s ‘go-to guys’, a safety blanket and a very, very effective play maker operating from the slot.
Welker pictured during his time with the Patriots, moved to the Denver Broncos in March.
Nonetheless – while no one has doubted his importance to New England’s offense – they let him go in March and he duly signed a two-year $12 million contract with the Denver Broncos.
Elsewhere, Brandon Lloyd also departed after one season, Deion Branch is no longer on the roster and there are still injury concerns over tight end Rob Gronkowski who has had multiple surgeries since breaking his arm in December.
First and foremost, his intended replacement at Gillette Stadium was wide receiver Danny Amendola who arrived from the St Louis Rams where he was Sam Bradford’s favourite target.
However there are still doubts over his health which has seen him miss extended time in the last couple of seasons. The other question is, can he have the same impact Welker did when he arrived in Massachusetts six years ago?
Amendola arrives with tremendous potential at the age of just 27, but he needs to prove to the coaching staff that they were right to choose him over re-signing Welker during free agency.
He should be helped by the fact that he will have a future Hall of Famer throwing him the ball and that he has some familiarity in Michael Hoomanawanui – a former teammate – and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels who had the same role with the Rams in 2011.
Moreover, the team took the decision to draft both Aaron Dobson in the second round out of Marshall and Josh Boyce in the fourth from TCU in the 2013 NFL Draft to bolster the receiving core, which they hope will pay immediate dividends.
This may not seem like that big of an issue given stories would come out of Foxborough in the coming months which would draw headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Firstly Tim Tebow’s release from division rival the New York Jets where he was seldom used, led to speculation that he might be on his way to the Patriots.
Not the end of the world you might think? Well not really, yet Tebow does bring with him the possible furore that accompanied him during his one season stay with ‘Gang Green’ and did when he lit the league alight with the Broncos in 2011.
Criticised for his poor throwing action and unconvincing mechanics, he was still able to drag the Broncos to an unlikely play-off berth, and then play-off victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in early 2012.
Although, the arrival of Peyton Manning last off-season saw ‘Tebow Time’ come to a halt as he was traded to Rex Ryan’s Jets.
Now it would be foolish to think that he arrives into New England and he will start – he won’t. It also could be viewed as silly to believe that the locker room could be affected by unwelcome media attention.
Bill Belichick has never allowed for this to be the case. He has taken risks before to sign players on the scrap heap, players who had gained a reputation as being negative influences.
One of those came with spectacular results in Randy Moss who – in 2007 – grabbed 23 touchdowns in a single season. Other acquisitions haven’t worked. Defensive Lineman Albert Haynesworth joined in 2011 and he simply didn’t adhere to the ‘Patriot way’. Neither did Chad Ochocinco who only made 15 receptions during the 2011 season before he was let go.
Signing Tebow represents a possible shrewd move. He might not even make the final 53 man roster, if he does he won’t start and even then he won’t be the backup quarterback either.
What he represents is somebody who comes with no strings attached. There is no guaranteed money, so if New England want to cut him, they can without having to give him a penny.
If it works out he could line up in various formations with some believing he could be used on special teams, at tight end or even as a half-back in short yardage situations.
Its boom or bust possibly for Tebow. If he is released he may have to start contacting the Canadian Football League. If it does go to plan, Belichick may have made a terrific signing.
However, the most controversial and possibly damaging story of the off-season was the story concerning shamed tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Drafted out of Florida in 2010, he quickly formed a devastating tandem with Gronkowski – two tight ends which some pundits called the best in the NFL, and who would dominate the league for the next decade.
Yet, on 18th June it emerged Hernandez had been arrested in connection with the murder of semi-professional American Footballer Odin Lloyd – a close friend who was discovered with gun shots near his home.
Nine days later, the 23-year old was then investigated with a double murder that took place a year earlier in the Boston area.
Aaron Hernandez has given New England headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The Patriots and the NFL were rocked. Their owner Robert Kraft did his best to avert a media frenzy by barring Hernandez from taking refuge in the stadium and it was not much longer that the organisation – in light of the allegations – decided to take the decision to ‘cut’ or release a player who had become a key part of the Patriots offense during his three season spell with them.
From a perception standpoint too, the NFL had been tarnished – something commissioner Roger Goodell was well aware of, telling the NFL Network “It’s a black eye”.
On one hand it symbolized something of real embarrassment to the whole of the league, but also to his former employers. On the other hand, amid the departure of Welker and the fitness concerns with Gronkowski this led many, including the NFL Network team to discuss whether the Patriots offense – which has consistently ranked in the top five over the last few years – could still be effective.
NFL Network analyst, Fox commentator and ex Ravens head coach Brian Billick drew the conclusion that as long as ‘number 12 (in reference to Brady) was there then they should still be effective.
Brady turned 36 over the weekend, though he is still considered one of the league’s best.
His pressing issue is the need to prove to the doubters that he can still get the best out of the players at his disposal, and to fend off possible competition in the AFC East from the improving Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills who at present are an unknown quantity under rookie quarterback E.J Manuel and first year head coach Doug Marrone.
In fact, witnessing a tumultuous off-season for the Patriots which has rarely been the case, this perhaps throws the division door wide open and lays down a real point to prove for a side which has been division champion in nine out of the last ten seasons.
The Patriots may still go onto to win their division easily in 2013. They will probably emerge with a winning record. If they do they will be among the favourites to represent the AFC in the first Super Bowl to be held in a northern state.
But following the comings and goings of several players and a murder investigation overshadowing their preparations, the ‘Pats’ will emerge as a side who are hungry to move on from that setback and to accomplish every sides goal heading into a brand new campaign – lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy come its conclusion.
It is difficult though to overlook the challenges both on and off the field that they face in the months to come, challenges they will embrace and strive to overcome for a franchise that has not won a Super Bowl since 2005.
This year may prove to be one of the hardest yet. The saying goes however, ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger’. The Patriots will hope they can be testament to just that.
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