View Full Version : Patriots face several challenges to maintain dynasty

02-08-2005, 03:01 PM
When they get back to work, here are the five most critical issues facing the '05 Patriots, in their quest to to make it three consecutive Super Bowl championships, and four in five years:

1. Doing right by Tom Brady -- The Patriots quarterback is running out of fingers to put Super Bowl rings on. And with that in mind -- even though Brady still has two years remaining on his current contract -- both sides know it's time to explore long-term extension talks.

Brady currently makes between $6 and $7 million per year, and that's a whale of a bargain considering Peyton Manning is at $14 million annually, Michael Vick checks in around $12 million and Donovan McNabb -- the guy Brady just beat -- averages $8.6 million.

The Patriots know what they have in Brady, and Brady knows what he has in the Patriots. Don't expect either side to get greedy and try and kill the goose that lays the golden egg. These will be intelligent discussions, with care given to maintain the uniquely successful relationship that currently exists between the club and its franchise player.

What does Brady deserve? It's a decent bet he'll crack eight figures annually in any new deal, but don't get silly and look for New England to stray wildly from its approach to salaries in order to give the Manning deal a run for its money. Never going to happen, and Brady wouldn't expect it to.

Extending Brady will also help the Patriots' '05 cap situation, because his $8.3 million salary cap number this season will be lowered with the pro-ration factor of any new deal. Look for the two sides to come together at some point this offseason on a contract that gives Brady fair market value but doesn't require Patriots owner Bob Kraft to back the Brink's truck up to Gillette Stadium.

2. Making the call on Ty Law -- This much we know: The Patriots proved they can win without their star cornerback. He missed the entire second half of the season and the playoffs with a broken foot, and New England didn't miss a beat, taking out some of the best offenses in the NFL in the process.

Law has a $12 million salary cap figure in '05, and it's extremely unlikely he'll be back in New England at that number. The Patriots hold all the cards. If Law plays ball with them and agrees to cut that number significantly -- maybe by as much as 50 percent -- he could return. But nobody's really expecting quite that much cooperation.

Don't be fooled by the level of acrimony that existed between Law and the club last offseason. This is not a marriage that has to be dissolved. Most of the noise was Law and his agent complaining long and loud about how the Patriots had done them wrong, but the club wisely didn't fire back. Law has since gotten over most of his frustration and put the pieces back together with head coach Bill Belichick.

At the right number, the Patriots would gladly retain Law, rather than having to go lay out a big cash signing bonus to land another top cornerback. But if they chose to replace Law, the team will either draft a top cornerback or pursue one in free agency who they believe better fits into their salary structure.

In this case, guess you could say the Patriots fought the Law, and the Patriots won.

3.Coordinating theirc oaching staff-- With Charlie Weis off to Notre Dame and Romeo Crennel headed to Cleveland, the Patriots are in the market for a pair of coordinators. And whoever gets those jobs will face the task of replacing two of the best in the business.Belichick would love to elevate his well-respected secondary coach, Eric Mangini, to the defensive coordinator post, replacing Crennel. But it's not that simple. Mangini has other options, with both Miami and Cleveland interested in him as their defensive coordinator, and both likely to offer him more than the Patriots traditionally pay their assistants.

Here's where Kraft needs to be smart and not buy into the hype that everything he and the Patriots touch turns to gold and that everyone's replaceable. New England needs Mangini, and it should step up to the plate and pay what it takes to keep him. He's likely to stay with Belichick if the Pats' offer is competitive. New England may never approach the $1 million coordinator salary, but an effort to stretch the salary model on Mangini's behalf should be made.

On the offensive side, things aren't as clear cut in regards to Weis' replacement. But this much seems likely: The Patriots will stay in-house and elevate somebody currently on Belichick's staff. Above all else, New England values continuity and familiarity with Brady and the offensive system. The Pats aren't interested in going out and landing a big-name coordinator for the sake of creating headlines.

That scenario seems to bode well for tight ends/assistant offensive line coach Jeff Davidson, who actually handled some play-calling duties in recent years when Weis was having medical issues. Receivers coach Brian Daboll is another strong option, as is veteran offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who has done wonders with his under-appreciated unit and is already Belichick's assistant head coach.

4. Ensuring their top free agents don't get free -- Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli has already done a lot of quality work on this front, because New England has executed recent extensions with potential free agents such as linebacker Tedy Bruschi, offensive tackle Matt Light and special teams standout Larry Izzo.

Who's left? The priority list starts with kicker Adam Vinatieri, guard Joe Andruzzi and receiver David Patten. New England's restricted free agents include receiver David Givens and offensive tackles Brandon Gorin and Tom Ashworth.

The Patriots could always franchise Vinatieri again like they did in '02 and negotiate a long-term extension with him at a later date. But what they're counting on is that their star kicker values the cult-figure status he has achieved in New England and realizes his post-career earning potential is higher there than it would be anywhere else on the NFL map.

The Patriots will approach free agency like they've consistently done in recent years. They're not going to throw stupid money around, and they'll make full use of their hometown, winning-team advantage. They like players like Andruzzi and Patten very much, but view both as guys who are not worth breaking the bank over. If somebody makes a huge, costly run at either player, they'll likely weigh in with their best offer, then kindly thank them for their contributions and ask where they would like their Super Bowl ring sent.

And you can't really quibble with the Patriots approach, because name one starting player who recently left New England for the big money and played better with his new team? Not Lawyer Milloy. Not Ted Washington. Not Damien Woody. Not Drew Bledsoe.

5. Fighting the complacency factor -- Somehow the Patriots were immune to the post-Super Bowl syndrome this season but warding off the tendency to grow fat and lazy is a never-ending battle. Ultimately this offseason could be Belichick and Co.'s greatest test in that department, because the franchise's overwhelming success (34-4 and pair of Lombardi trophies in the past two years) makes it ripe for many people to start stepping up to claim their share of the credit.

It's a fine line between staying lean and mean and letting all the accolades inflate your sense of self-worth, but the Patriots need to stick with the put-your-head-down-and-work mentality that has worked so wonderfully for them so far. New England has to be smart enough to pay the people who have gotten it done for them and unemotional enough to let the less than vital cogs in the winning machine go.

It might be scary for the rest of the NFL to hear this, but the Patriots could be every bit as good next year or even better when they get some of their injured players back on the field. Law would be among that group, as would impressive '04 first-round tight end Ben Watson, veteran cornerback Tyrone Poole, and handy defensive lineman/linebacker Dan Klecko. Another '04 rookie, third-round pick Guss Scott, is expected to make his mark as well after missing this year with a knee injury suffered in the preseason.

And then there's the draft, in which the Patriots have all seven of their picks, with the anticipation of adding a few more via compensatory selections for free agents lost. New England is among the best in the league every April at infusing its roster with young, inexpensive talent. The Patriots don't own two first-rounders as they did last year, but it's a good bet they'll find another handful of contributors and make another run at Super Bowl glory in '05.

It's now officially a three-ring circus in New England. The kind everybody in the NFL would love to deal with.