Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Pats return a host of talent
Minutes after the painful finish to his 12th NFL season, Brian Waters didn't know if there would be a 13th. He didn't know if he wanted to put his body through those battles again. Didn't know if, at age 35, he was up for the weekly beatings of an offensive guard. But he did know that if he does play football next fall, he wants it to be for the Patriots.
Because he knows New England could make the bumps and bruises all worthwhile.
“The thing about this football team is that it's a young football team,” he said after Super Bowl XLVI. “We have a lot of talent — a lot of talent — so this is not the last time you'll see this football team in this game.”
That's not something a guy like Waters takes for granted, either. He spent a decade in Kansas City without even winning a playoff game, so he understands how difficult it is to get to the point of playing for a championship. But he also understands that the Patriots are well-positioned to get back to that point again next season.
It won't be easy; it never is. Though with the foundation it has established, New England's immediate future needn't be one of reconstruction — but rather one that continues to build upon what's already in place, retain a few key pieces at risk of leaving, and fortify the roster with a few targeted upgrades in specific areas.
The need for change is a natural inclination after losing a second Super Bowl to the same team in the span of five seasons, as the Patriots did with their 21-17 setback against the Giants, though the renovations — while not finished and hardly flawless — have already been done. And had a play here or there gone differently Sunday, Bill Belichick would likely have a title to show for that turnover.
It wasn't the ability of the players that lost the game, but rather the way they were outplayed in game-deciding situations. And Dr. John F. Murray contests he can quantify that. A sports psychologist, he developed the Mental Performance Index to statistically and psychologically evaluate the game beyond the traditional statistical measures, and analyzed every Super Bowl in his book, Mental Performance Index: Ranking the Best Teams in Super Bowl History.
According to his calculations, over the course of the contest the Patriots actually held a slight advantage over the Giants both offensively and defensively — but the game turned in “pressure situations.” Murray defines these as third downs, red-zone snaps, or any play that could have a major impact on deciding the winner — and according to those measures, New York was simply more clutch.
The Giant offense produced an MPI of .591 at the critical moments, compared to a .417 for the Patriot defense, and while the teams were even when New England had the ball, New York held an overall advantage of .569 to .461 in pressure situations. As a result, the Giants outscored the Patriots, .521-.500, in total MPI score. And, Murray said, the team with the higher MPI has won 90 percent of the Super Bowls.
“The Patriots pressure defense was not good,” Murray said. “That's the bigger statement. It's not so much that Brady was outplayed, it's that the pressure defense was not good, and conversely Eli Manning was better than Brady.”
So after flexing their mental toughness all season, the Patriots will live forever knowing they were beaten in the game's biggest moments Sunday.
But they were right there. They held the Giants without a touchdown for nearly 45 straight minutes. They led the Super Bowl with a minute to play. And thus there's no reason to overreact in readying a team to make a run at redemption in 2012.
Offensively, the top priority is re-signing Wes Welker, who'll want to be paid well after leading league in catches, but who wants to be back, and whom the Patriots will protect with the franchise tag if need be. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is another they'd like to keep, but only at the right price after spending a pair of high draft pick on running backs in 2011, and they could be forced to choose between free-agent centers Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly unless Waters decides to retire. Whether or not Deion Branch opts to play again, the probably also need an outside receiver or two.
Defensively, the Pats surely want to improve on the league's 31st-ranked unit. Initially that includes identifying whether Devin McCourty is a cornerback or a safety, then spending for a veteran at the other position.
But much of the necessary improvement could be made in-house. Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love are good, young defensive linemen. The Patriots linebackers looked a lot better once Brandon Spikes got healthy. Kyle Arrington led the NFL in interceptions. And Sterling Moore played well in both the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, as did Patrick Chung.
The free agency of Mark Anderson and health of Andre Carter could leave the Pats looking to replace their leading pass rushers, though none of the other aforementioned has been a pro for more than three seasons, and in light of that inexperience the limits of last year's lockout can't be overlooked.
With a summer to grow together within the system, they should certainly be better than they were in a season spent pulling guys off the street and constantly trying new personnel combinations. And so 2012 should again be Super Bowl or bust for New England.
“Me, personally, I think we have a young defense with a lot of talent, a lot of good guys,” Spikes said. “As long as we can just keep together and get better as a whole unit, I think the sky is the limit for us.”
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.