By Gregory Hunt
The New England Patriots 2013 season was unlike any in the history of the franchise. In many ways, it seemed to be a success and a failure at the same time. Depending on your perspective, this was either a team that overcame a number of obstacles to remain among the NFL's elite franchises, or this was a team that was destined to fall short of its ultimate goal due to a dearth of talent on the roster.
Dating back to the off season, there were a number of mistakes that led to New England falling short of the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. The biggest was the decision to not re-sign wide receiver Wes Welker to a contract. Although coach Bill Belichick won't admit this outright, he and Welker went through a pretty bad divorce. Perhaps it started when Welker dropped a critical pass in Super Bowl XLVI. Maybe it intensified when Belichick disciplined Welker for making jokes about New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. But with Belichick's accusation on Monday that Welker intentionally injured New England cornerback Aqib Talib in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, it became apparent that Belichick felt a great deal of personal animosity toward the player who caught more passes than any other receiver in Patriots history.
When it comes to making personnel decisions, the Belichick regime has always focused on stockpiling mid-to-late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents and seeing what sticks. Instead of devoting a high percentage of New England's payroll to high draft picks and high-demand free agents, the money is instead dispersed among a number of mid-level players, some of whom may develop into stars. This way, the team is not left in the lurch whenever a high-paid player turns out to be a bust. In the salary cap era, it can take years to recover from such a bust. Welker and quarterback Tom Brady himself are two examples of unheralded players that became superstars, so based on this and New England's continued success in making the playoffs nearly every year, Belichick's player philosophy appears to be working.
But on the other hand, for every player that overachieves, there are going to be several more that never develop into reliable NFL players. In trying to replace Welker this season, Belichick went with free agent Danny Amendola and rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. Even if none of these players were able to match Welker's productivity individually, it was hoped that they would do so collectively. That didn't happen. All three of those players missed time due to injury, and when they were healthy, none of them were significant contributors. Brady and the running game still performed well enough for the Patriots to rank seventh in the NFL in total offense, but the team looked like it was stuck in quicksand through much of the season.
But while these failures will continue to be debated for some time, Patriots fans can still count their blessings. Until 2003, the franchise record for regular season wins was 11, so prior to the arrival of Belichick and Brady, a 12-4 season like this one would have been considered the greatest regular season in the history of the franchise. The 1998 season was significant because it marked the first time in Patriots history that the team had qualified for the playoffs three years in a row, but the team has now achieved a pair of five-year streaks within the past 11 seasons. When New England reached the conference championship round this year, the fans of 28 other NFL teams didn't have a horse in the race. After every game, Patriots fans were happy a lot more often than they were sad, and several spectacular comebacks will make this season's highlight video pretty entertaining. Even without reaching the Super Bowl, always seeing your team in contention is a lot better than seeing your team hover at .500 or below every year.
With any luck this off season, Belichick may find another diamond in the rough that will grow into a reliable target for Brady. Brady deserves this because he will be 37 years old next season, so the window of opportunity is closing for him to win that elusive fourth Super Bowl ring. But regardless of how the team evolves in the near future, Patriots Nation should savor every remaining minute they have to watch Brady play.
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Gregory Hunt is a Boston native and a life-long fan of the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics. He's also particularly fond of lacrosse, IndyCar racing and women's college basketball. He currently works for Examiner.com where he serves as the Senior Manager of Content and Media Access. He also writes for Examiner.com as the New England Patriots Examiner. His work can be found on aExaminer.com.
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