Sep 22, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) warms up before a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots: A Decade of Frustration


By the start of the 2014 season, it’ll have been ten seasons since the New England Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2004 Super Bowl. That’s right—a decade’s worth of chasing after what’s come to be an almost impossibly elusive fourth ring.

What’s worse, a decade feels more like an eternity when one considers that Corey Dillon was in his first year with the Patriots a decade ago; Vince Wilfork was selected 21st overall in the draft a decade ago; Charlie Weis was still the offensive coordinator a decade ago.

That’s not to say all has been misery for the New England faithful over the past decade. Quite the opposite, actually. Since the 04’ season, the Patriots have accomplished plenty:

  • A gaudy 110 regular season victories;
  • 8 AFC East titles in nine year;
  • A perfect 16-0 regular season;
  • 8 playoff appearances;
  • 5 AFC Championship appearances; and
  • Two Super Bowl appearances;

Missing from the aforementioned list of accomplishments, however:

  • A Super Bowl victory

With that in mind, a decade’s worth of time seems like an appropriate place to stop, take a step back, and evaluate why the Patriots haven’t won a Super Bowl during that time. First, though, let’s take a look at the last nine Super Bowl winners to see if there’s any indication of what matters most when it comes to building a Super Bowl champion:

  • Pittsburgh Steelers;
  • Indianapolis Colts;
  • New York Giants;
  • Pittsburgh Steelers;
  • New Orleans Saints;
  • Green Bay Packers;
  • New York Giants;
  • Baltimore Ravens; and
  • Seattle Seahawks

If the last nine Super Bowl Champions prove anything, it appears that success is greatly predicated on having an elite head coach, a borderline elite quarterback, and—to a lesser extent— franchise stability. To that end, Bill Belichick is an elite all-time head coach. Tom Brady is a hall of fame caliber quarterback. Yet, the Patriots are notably absent from the above list of Super Bowl champions.

Obviously, having a great head coach and quarterback isn’t enough. Opinions differ amongst Patriot prognosticators when it comes to explaining why the Patriots have come up short over the last decade. Fingers tend to point at one of the following:

  • Organizational philosophy;
  • Draft selections;
  • Free agent signings; and
  • Spygate

Of the aforementioned factors, which is most determinant of New England’s Super Bowl failures? Tough to say. However, below is an analysis of each factor, accompanied by a number from 1-10 evincing the impact of each factor: 1 being the least determinant, 10 being the most.

Organizational Philosophy: Organizational philosophy refers to the way in which a team approaches the building of the roster. Put another way, organizational philosophy refers to a team’s tendencies when it comes to things like free agent spending and draft philosophy i.e., moving up or down in the draft. For example, the Green Bay Packers have a tendency to build their team through the draft. They rarely spend in free agency. Conversely, the Miami Dolphins have (recently) spent money early and often in free agency (see Mike Wallace, Brent Grimes, Brandon Albert).

As to the Patriots, there tends to be two major philosophical criticisms.

First, the Patriots tend to let players walk in free-agency so as to avoid paying for (what the team believes to be) past performance. Notable players the Patriots have let walk in free agency include:

  • Asante Samuel;
  • Deion Branch (traded after holding out in the final year of his contract);
  • Adam Vinatieri;
  • Wes Welker; and
  • Danny Woodhead

Of the players the Patriots chose not to resign, Asante Samuel likely represents the biggest mistake. Bringing him back wouldn’t have come cheap as he signed a six-year, $56 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2008 season. That said, the Patriots tried—and repeatedly failed—to fill the void left at cornerback when Samuel left. Notable free agent disappointments include: Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders, Jason Webster, Deltha O’Neal, and Shawn Springs.

Similar to free agency, the players brought in through the draft leave a lot to be desired. Such players include: Darius Butler, Patrick Chung, Jonathon Wilhite, Terrance Wheatley, and Ras-I Dowling.

The results on the field reflect such mistakes: in three of the five years following Samuel’s departure, the Patriots ranked as one of the five worst teams in terms of passing yards allowed per game during the regular season. Needless to say, resigning Samuel would have been money well spent.

Was it a mistake not bringing back Tom Brady’s favorite receiver after the 2005 season? A valid argument can be made that losing Deion Branch potentially cost the Patriots a chance at a Super Bowl in 2006 (consider that Reche Caldwell led the team with 760 yards receiving in 2006). However, after leaving New England for Seattle, Branch missed significant time due to injuries. Further, the Patriots hardly missed Branch from 2007 through 2010 (he rejoined the team in 2010) as they consistently led the NFL in just about every offensive category.

Beyond Samuel and (to a lesser degree) Branch, it’s hard to fault the Patriots for letting key players walk in free agency. Adam Vinatieri was replaced by Stephen Gostkowski. Since coming into the league, Gostkowski has made 85.6% of his field goals which is good for the fourth highest percentage among active kickers. By comparison, Vinatieri has made 83% of his field goals.

Wes Welker’s replacement was supposed to be Danny Amendola, but in reality, Julian Edelman became the guy to replace Welker’s production in the slot. In 2013, Edelman caught 105 balls for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns, quickly erasing any doubt the Patriots made a mistake letting Welker go. By comparison, Welker had 73/1,134/10 in his first season with the Denver Broncos. The question then isn’t whether the Patriots should have let Welker walk in free agency, but whether they should’ve looked in-house for his replacement instead of signing Danny Amendola to a five-year, $31 million contract.

Last, Shane Vereen likely didn’t do enough to silence those who questioned the Patriot’s decision to let Danny Woodhead walk in free agency; Woodhead had a stellar first year in San Diego while Shane Vereen missed a lot of time due to injuries. However, having Woodhead on the roster in 2013 would have done little to help the Patriots beat the Broncos in the AFC Championship.

Potential Effect: 5 out of 10.

The second philosophical criticism concerns the Patriots’ constant desire to trade down in the NFL Draft. Such an approach is believed to favor quantity over quality. Since 2005, Bill Belichick and his staff have made a trade in every draft. Those who disagree with such an approach tend to point to potential players that could’ve been selected had the Patriots avoided trading down. For example, in 2009, the Patriots had two chances to select Clay Matthews; instead, they traded down (twice). In 2010, the Patriots had multiple chances to select a game-changing wide receiver; first, Demaryious Thomas and then Dez Bryant. Instead, the Patriots elected to trade back. Compounding such frustration is the fact that all three players filled a void at positions of need. Another (less spoken of) player the Patriots had the chance to select was Daryl Washington—a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals who was selected with a pick the Patriots owned, and subsequently traded away.

Conversely, there’s plenty of ammunition for those who support the Patriots when it comes to trading down in the draft. First, the Patriots have selected more than a few talented players as a result of trading down. Recently selections include: Stevan Ridley, Marcus Cannon, Aaron Hernandez, Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, and Julian Edelman. Second, trading down in the draft—a lot of the time—includes future draft picks. Thus, the Patriots are constantly afforded great flexibility to move around the draft board, and or trade picks for current players. Such an advantage can’t be understated.

In the end, however, it’s a bit of an analytical impossibility to gauge the significance of such draft day trades because there’s no telling who the Patriots would have selected had they not traded down. Further complicating such an assessment, is the fact that the Patriots have (surprisingly) traded up in the draft nearly as much as they’ve traded down. Therefore, it’s appears to be a bit of a moot point when arguing for or against such a draft day philosophy.

Potential Effect: 2-3 out of 10.

NFL Draft (Players Chosen): If determining the effect of draft day trades is difficult, then determining the effect of players chosen in the draft may be nonsensical. I say that because the NFL Draft is an inexact science—the ultimate exercise in hindsight critique. That said—in an attempt to avoid overthink things—below is a list of players taken in the first four rounds of each draft from 2005-2012 (2013 is excluded due to the inability to properly assess such picks at this time). The list also includes notable players selected later in the draft as well as picks traded away for players. The picks are divided into three categories. “Hits” include those players that significantly contributed to the team’s success. “Misses” include those players that failed to contribute in any meaningful way to the team’s success. Last, “debatable” refers to those players whose contributions can be argued one way or the other.

Hits

  • Logan Mankins;
  • Nick Kaczur;
  • Ellis Hobbs;
  • Stephen Gostkowski;
  • Jerod Mayo;
  • Sebastian Vollmer;
  • Devin McCourty;
  • Rob Gronkowski;
  • Brandon Spikes;
  • Nate Solder;
  • Shane Vereen;
  • Stevan Ridley;
  • Chandler Jones;
  • Dont’a Hightower;
  • Aaron Hernandez;
  • Matt Cassel;
  • Matthew Slater;
  • Julian Edelman;
  • Zoltan Mesko;
  • Brandon Deaderick;
  • Marcus Cannon;
  • Alfonzo Dennard;
  • Wes Welker;
  • Randy Moss; and
  • LeGarrette Blount;

Misses

  • Chad Jackson;
  • David Thomas;
  • Garret Mills
  • Kareem Brown;
  • Terrence Wheatley;
  • Shawn Crable;
  • Kevin O’Connell;
  • Jonathan Wilhite;
  • Ron Brace;
  • Darius Butler;
  • Tyrone McKenzie;
  • Jermaine Cunningham;
  • Taylor Price;
  • Ras-I Dowling;
  • Tavon Wilson;
  • Jake Bequette;
  • Isaac Sopoaga;
  • Jeff Demps;
  • Greg Salas;
  • Albert Haynesworth; and
  • Chad Johnson

Debatable

  • James Sanders;
  • Laurence Maroney;
  • Brandon Meriweather;
  • Patrick Chung; and
  • Brandon Tate

There’s little debate that, from 2006-2009, the Patriot’s selections leave a lot to be desired. That said, I’d ask those who criticize the Patriots to point to a team that’s done a better job over the last decade: I’m confident that doing so would have many concluding that the Patriots have fared just as well as any other team in the league.

Potential Effect: 2-3 out 10.

Spygate: Admittedly, It’s painful to give credence to such an asinine argument, but many—including a certain (former) St. Louis Rams running back—still feel it’s appropriate to point to Spygate in support of New England’s inability to win a Super Bowl since 2004. In short:

Post Spygate, the New England Patriots have failed to win another Super Bowl.

Post Spygate, 26 other teams have failed to win a Super Bowl.

Post Spygate, the New England Patriots have accomplished the following:

  • 87 regular season victories;
  • 6 playoff victories;
  • 4 AFC Championship appearances;
  • 2 Super Bowl appearances; and
  • A perfect regular season record

Post Spygate, the New England Patriots are exactly who they were before Spygate—one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. To those who argue that New England’s success was a result of improperly stealing signals: don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Patriots lost a first round pick as a result of Spygate. The pick—31st overall in the 2008 NFL Draft—was a valuable asset. Absent forfeiture of the pick, the Patriots would have been able to draft the likes of Jordy Nelson or Brandon Flowers, both of which were available when the Patriots would have been selecting. Who knows what the Patriots would’ve done with the selection. That said, there’s no denying the significance of losing out on a first round selection.

Therefore, the impact of Spygate on New England’s Super Bowl chances can’t be outright dismissed.

Potential Effect: 1 out of 10.

Free Agency/Trades: During the 2000 season, the Patriots went 5-11. The next year, an improbable Super Bowl run. Two years later, a second Super Bowl Title. A year later, a third Super Bowl: Dynasty cemented.

Logically, the question then becomes: how? How could a franchise, historically marred by mediocrity, rifle off three Super Bowl victories over a four year span? Most—and for good reason—point to Tom Brady. The truth is, the Patriots’ success during their early 2000’s run may have had more to do with the players acquired through free agency and trades, and less to do with #12. Blasphemous, I know, but consider the following players brought in from 2001-2004:

  • Mike Vrabel;
  • David Patten;
  • Larry Izzo;
  • Terrell Buckley;
  • Bryan Cox;
  • Antowain Smith;
  • Roman Phifer;
  • Rodney Harrison;
  • Roosevelt Colvin;
  • Ted Washington;
  • Corey Dillon;
  • Anthony Pleasant; and
  • Keith Traylor

Conversely, the Patriots have been far less successful acquiring talent over the last decade. That’s not to say they’ve missed all-together (see Randy Moss, Rob Ninkovich, Wes Welker, Mark Anderson, and Brian Waters). However, the last decade has been littered with free-agent/trade missteps, including:

  • Jonathan Sullivan;
  • Doug Gabriel;
  • Adalius Thomas;
  • Fernando Bryant;
  • Deltha O’Neal;
  • Joey Galloway;
  • Shawn Springs;
  • Derrick Burgess;
  • Torry Holt;
  • Quinn Ojinnaka;
  • Marcus Stroud;
  • Chad Johnson;
  • Shaun Ellis;
  • Albert Haynesworth;
  • Jonathan Fanene;
  • Daniel Fells; and
  • Anthony Gonzalez

Looking back, maybe the bar was set too high as it relates the players brought in from 2002-2004. Maybe the law of averages would have it that a tapering off in free agency was inevitable. Or, maybe the whole notion of “things being different in New England” has been a bit overstated—a sort of false reality that has led Patriot decision makers astray from what had them winning in the early 2000’s. Put another way, maybe the “Patriot way” has been a bit more myth than reality. For example, the following defense is uttered every time the Patriots sign (or trade) for a player with character concerns: “Corey Dillon had character concerns before he was traded to the Patriots and he changed his ways when he arrived in New England.” Such a defense was argued when the Patriots brought in Chad Johnson and Albert Haynesworth in 2011; and lest we forget that, as well as Randy Moss played for the better part of three seasons in New England, he was eventually traded less than five weeks into the 2010 season.

Add those things up and maybe it’s time to accept that Corey Dillon was more of an exception as opposed to the rule when it comes to bringing in players with character concerns. That’s not to say the Patriots’ failings in free agency can be attributed entirely to they’re practice of bringing in players of questionable character, but it may be dangerous to continue bringing in such players with the belief that there’s some sort of character cleansing that occurs when one steps through the door at Gillette Stadium.

Potential Effect: 8 out of 10.

Over the last decade, the New England Patriots have served as a case study in the supremely-talented-but-can’t-get-over-the-hump franchise. In fact, it’s hard to argue that any team has been more successful than the Patriots over the last decade, which is (I guess) an accomplishment, in and of itself, when one considers that they’ve won zero championships during that time. To that end, could it be the Patriots are simply held to an unfair standard? Could it be that trying to determine why they’ve gone so long without another title may have us missing the point? Instead, maybe it’s time to concede that the Patriots, more than any other franchise in the NFL, have built a perennial Super Bowl contender year in and year out, and any attempt to make sense of their shortcomings simply becomes an exercise in paralysis by analysis.

Fortunately, such an evaluation may cease to exist after the 2014 season. After all, the Patriots now have (arguably) the best coach, quarterback, and defensive player in the NFL. Here’s to the future.

Tags: Bill Belichick New England Patriots NFL Draft Tom Brady

  • beavis

    Difference between when the Pats won their SBs and lost the 2 SBs – execution. Samuel’s dropped INT in the first one and Brady’s misfire to Welker in the second. Change those to positive plays and we’d be talking 6 SBs and one perfect season.

  • truthbetold

    For one, i don’t think the spygate argument is asinine. Very simply, the patriots cheated. If you have a team that cheats, it will naturally be assumed that they accomplished what they did by cheating. Second, I think letting players walk is the overall biggest problem. The organization gets cheap and don’t want to pay guys that perform well for them. And then the nameless guys that try to replace them aren’t up to the task. Wes Welker coming up to shake Bill Belichicks hand after beating him in the AFC championship game last season was priceless hahahaha! There’s your issue.

    • Michael Cunningham

      Every team cheats. You just don’t like the fact that the patriots win so many games, and they cant possibly be cheating in all of them.

      • trinity

        Every team cheats. That’s an interesting statement. And by interesting, I mean a reckless blanket statement that you cannot prove, but still use anyway to avoid taking responsibility for your team cheating. I get that. In sports, I don’t think there is anything worse than being a cheater. As a diehard football fan, just the word cheater makes me cringe. It’s understandable to me that you guys would want to avoid owning it, even though it is what it is. As for being mad, I for one am entirely neutral on the patriots. They aren’t a team I hate like I hate the chargers and cowboys. They’re a very talented team with an all-time talent at quarterback, who once upon a time got caught cheating. That’s how I view the patriots. Like I said, it really just is what it is.

        • Michael Cunningham

          You sound like you’re very naive if you think every team would not push past the legal limits to win a game. If a player is at the bottom of a dogpile because of a fumble I can guaranty that they push the limits. I think your problem is the Pats kicked your teams butt too many times and you have to find an excuse like spygate.

          • trinity

            Think whatever you like :). It’s all moot. There is no proof of “every team cheating”, so I will just take it as a pats fan trying to avoid taking responsibility.

          • Michael Cunningham

            What team does not cheat at some degree? Why do you think they through flags half the time? The proof is in every game. quit whining about it!

          • trinity

            jumping off sides and taunting is something far different than hiding in the bushes with video cameras. Hahaha. I’m cool with trading differences of opinions,but lets not start hurling absurdities here please. And who is whining? Certainly not me. I’m not discounting the talent of the patriots. Sure, they cheated. But they had to have talent to execute the gameplans they created from the cheating. Do I think their championships deserve an asterisk in the history books? Of course. Anyone who is unbiased would say so. But are they good? Hell yeah they are. It’s just the reality of the situation man.

          • Michael Cunningham

            That shows how much you know about what New England was fined for. They were not hiding at all. It was a rule change that got them fined and before that rule change everyone was taping. There is a reason they went 16-0 after spygate, it’s because the video taping didn’t matter. What reason is it that your team always lost?

          • trinity

            Calm down lol. I know the whole story of spygate, the hiding in bushes hyperbole just always makes me chuckle :). The patriots ignored the rules and continued on cheating. Not much to really debate on that front. As for my team, do you know who my team is?

          • Michael Cunningham

            No I don’t know who your team is, but usually people who hate the Pats or even use the word spygate tends to be on the L side vs Pats. I see it all day even from writers. The hate the success, even with a mounted injury list they always make it to the playoffs.

          • trinity

            I asked if you knew who my team was, because perhaps you should have asked before you made that statement. I root for the New York Giants :). Hahahahahahaha. Now, I’m not a troll, and I am not interested in this discussion dissolving into petty insults. So I won’t do the obvious here by elaborating on why I am so amused lol. But Michael, you know. Without a doubt you know. Lol :)!

          • Michael Cunningham

            And all I have to say is I knew you would come back with that BS because you are a looser. Now I am sure you rooted for the Giants but you would root for any team that plays the Pats. Also no team this decade can compare to the Pats overall record and that is a fact you have to deal with.

          • trinity

            *loser. And that’s cool :). The patriots can have the record. The two rings we got at thier expense is enough for me lol. I sense what’s happening here. There isn’t anyway you can defend us beating you twice in the superbowl, so you’re about to go off the deep end and start hurling desperate insults. I’m interested in debate, not immaturity, so I don’t want to waste my time entertaining that. Take care, and best of luck next season man :).

        • Andrew Scalingi

          Michael, thank you for having a look at the article. I appreciate the comments you’ve left. I do want to clarify my stance regarding the Spygate category: when I used the term “asinine” I was referring to those that argue against the team’s success post-Spygate. Thanks again.

          • Michael Cunningham

            Yes I know, it was a good article. My comment was directed at the doubters. They just hate that the Pats had such success post spygate.