They say that success is never final, and failure is never fatal … but it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the subtleties of those two divergent forces after losing a conference championship game. Now, for those teams, the analysis portion of the year begins. Where are the holes? How can they be filled? Here’s one potential issue for the two teams eliminated on Sunday.
- New England Patriots: How much help will Tom Brady have next season?
I was speaking to a former NFL player in the CenturyLink Field press box as the New England Patriots started to run out of gas against the Denver Broncos on several television screens around us. This former player -- who knows the game as well as anyone I've ever met -- opined that the level of skill players given to Tom Brady over the last few years bordered on "criminal." Obviously, guys like Rob Gronkowski, Randy Moss and Wes Welker aren't part of that equation, but between the attrition suffered by Brady's receiver corps in 2013 and several questionable moves at the receiver position over the last few years, it's fair to wonder what kind of talent Brady will have around him as his championship window starts to close.
Though Brady has done an amazing job in that void, the first few passing plays against Denver told the story. There was a five-yarder to Julian Edelman, who has become Brady's most reliable receiver through his own hard work -- but also through a roster that basically has him hitting cleanup when he should be leading off. Then, there was an incomplete short pass to Austin Collie, who has caught seven total regular-season passes in the last two years and whose concussion history almost ended his career years ago. The Patriots waived Collie in both November and December. Then, there was a six-yard pass to tight end Matthew Mulligan, who had spent time bouncing on and off New England's roster through 2013. Then, an incomplete pass to Matthew Slater, a special teams expert who had caught one regular-season pass in his entire six-year NFL career.
Brady got his more recognizable targets involved as the game went on, but those first two drives were three-and-outs. It's simply time for the Pats to stop getting cute and wasting the golden years of their franchise. To paraphrase what Albert King once said of Jimi Hendrix, ain't no more Tom Brady coming down after this. By hook or by crook, through free agency or the draft, it's on Bill Belichick and his people to surround Brady with the kinds of players who will provide him with any margin of error in the passing game.
Was Brady at his best against Denver? No question, he was not. He completed 24 of 38 passes for 277 yards, one touchdown and no picks, while Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and two touchdowns. And that's the entire point -- when your quarterback has to play perfectly for anything to happen, you have built your team incorrectly. As much as Belichick is one of the greatest geniuses the NFL has ever seen, he'll have to correct this bad road before it gets worse.
- San Francisco 49ers: Will two iffy drafts come home to roost?
Since they made Jim Harbaugh their head coach in January 2011, the San Francisco 49ers have been one of the NFL's most stable and successful franchises. Harbaugh became the first coach in league history to take his team to the conference championship game in his first three seasons, and the fact that the franchise hasn't extracted a Lombardi Trophy in that stretch should not diminish that achievement.
However, Harbaugh inherited a lot of talent, and he got a lot more when he and general manager Trent Baalke scored big in the 2011 draft -- Aldon Smith in the first round, Colin Kaepernick in the second, Bruce Miller in the seventh. When you get your franchise pass-rusher, your franchise quarterback, and your most valuable blocker in the same draft, that's a series of home runs.
But the 49ers' last two drafts have provided short enough results to have some wondering about the future of the team. First-round receiver A.J. Jenkins isn't even in the building anymore, having been traded for Kansas City's Jonathan Baldwin, who has done very little in return. Second-round back LaMichael James has been a nice reserve player and special teamer, but if you're going to take a back that high, even with Frank Gore out there, you might expect more than 184 rushing yards and no starts in two seasons. Actually, the 49ers have still not seen a single start from anyone in the 2012 draft class -- and no matter how stocked the team is, that's worrisome.
"I think it was Coach Belichick or Coach Parcells years ago who said, if you're getting a ton of production and you're having a lot of guys make the team from your draft class, you're probably not in a position to play in a Super Bowl," Baalke told me at the 2013 scouting combine, when I asked him if he was concerned about the return rate on the previous draft class. "So maybe there is something to that. I don't know. But we feel very good about the class. We didn't get a lot of production from the class. But if you look at the players we drafted and the positions we drafted, they were coming into some loaded depth at certain positions.
"I think the question always comes back to the higher picks. We feel very good about A.J. We feel very good about LaMichael James. We feel good about that group of guys. Joe Looney, who came off of an injury into an offensive line that's a pretty good group. So we weren't expecting a ton of production, to be honest with you."
The good news is that safety Eric Reid, the first-round pick in the 2013 draft, has played very well and started every game. He ended the season with four pick and has added a combination of coverage and enforcement that stabilized the 49ers' pass defense. The team decided to redshirt two massively talented but injured players in running back Marcus Lattimore and defensive end Tank Carradine. The idea was to wait out two prospects who might have been first overall at their positions and hope the investment pays off in future. But other than Reid, only receiver Quinton Patton has really produced at all.
"Did we get what we expected? That's to be determined," Baalke told me back at that combine. "There's a lot of years left in those guys' playing careers."
It could be true but remains to be seen. It's less troublesome when perennially bad teams whiff like this in consecutive drafts from an overall perspective, because we expect that. When a team of this caliber shoots and misses in a game where success is built primarily on draft classes, it's fair to wonder if the 49ers haven't started to close their window before they have to.
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