The New England Patriots, arguably the most successful NFL franchise of the last 13 years, are facing unprecedented challenges this off-season. On the field, they seek to transform the identities of their offensive, defensive and special teams units...always a daunting task. However, those challenges pale in comparison to the real question facing the Patriots: Have they lost their way?
Risk/Reward is a difficult thing to measure. Where one man sees unlimited upside and little risk, another man might see risks and pitfalls they are not willing to gamble on. The Patriots, since the beginning of the Belichick era, have been big on "value" investing. The 2001 Super Bowl Patriots were a ragtag group of wily veterans and strong-willed cast-offs who showed the sum was greater than its parts. (Having a young, fearless Tom Brady didn't hurt either.) However, as the decade progressed and the lust for more rings grew, it became less about character and more about results. They still believed in value and depth, but were more willing to take risks on wild cards with skill.
The Corey Dillon Experiment of 2004 was a smashing success. "Clock Killin'" Corey Dillon was an instrumental member of the Patriots team that won their third Super Bowl. Despite character and off-the-field concerns, Dillon was a mostly positive addition to the mid 2000s Patriots teams. The Patriots, with the capital built up from 3 Lombardi Trophies, were emboldened to add more playmakers with checkered pasts.
Randy Moss was one of the greatest and worst things to ever happen to the New England Patriots. Like Dillon before him, his physical gifts were second to none. However, his attitude, effort and off-the-field issues made him an outcast in Oakland. The Patriots attracted him away from the Raiders for a paltry sum, and he proceeded to light the world on fire. He set the single season TD record and helped the 2007 Patriots go 16-0 and destroy the competition. He did everything he could to get a fourth ring for the Patriots (and one for himself), but as we all know it was not meant to be. Despite it all, the acquisition seemed like a win again for the Patriots.
The next few years brought names like Adalius Thomas, Albert Haynesworth, and Chad Ochocinco Johnson to the Patriots. The Risk/Reward ratio for all of these guys initially seemed to be perfect. Acquiring them was considered by many to be almost "no lose" situations. None of these acquisitions worked out for the Patriots, and all three created massive headaches for the team. However, the worst move of all was yet to come.
The Patriots drafted two tight ends in the 2010 draft: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both players had red flags which caused them to drop significantly in the draft. While their respective productions have surpassed expectations up to this point, one is now recovering from 5+ major surgeries and the other will probably never play football again. Drafting these guys was brilliant, and I would argue it still is to this day despite hindsight. The Patriots screwed up when they re-upped these guys too early. They had faith that the combined dominance would continue for the next decade. Aaron Hernandez, as we all know now, is a murderer. The due diligence on Aaron Hernandez was either poor or not done properly.
This all leads me back to the myth of "The Patriot Way." This mostly media created term is a crude way to define the "magic" that created the Patriots Dynasty. The truth is, the Patriots won Super Bowls because of the right combination of depth, coaching and once-in-a-generation talent. How do the Patriots regain their way? First, realize that Risk is more than just the amount of money you pay, the chips you trade or the cap hit you take. Second, admit your failings and work to make sure they never happen again. And finally, build a complete team that is greater than the sum of its parts. That's what you did when this whole thing started, right?