It's been more than a week since the Patriots failed to repeat as NFL champions in Super Bowl LII, and we're little more than a month away from the official start of the 2018 league year (March 14).
If New England hopes to be back in the Super Bowl next February, the club must first address a number of matters on and off the field over the next several months.
But where to begin? In this writer's estimation, it starts with the obvious.
1 ) CONFRONT THE BUTLER TOPIC
Before the Patriots can even think about mounting another playoff push, they must face facts about what may have contributed to their decline in the most recent one. Normally, when this team loses games – even the biggest ones – the refrain is a familiar one, something along the lines of, "We win as a team, we lose as a team. No one person is to blame."
Following Super Bowl LII, it was revealing to hear several Patriots, including leaders like co-captains Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty, deflect questions about the Malcolm Butler benching by telling reports to "Ask Bill" because they don't make personnel decisions. Another team leader and co-captain, QB Tom Brady, went so far as to express his support for Butler on a social media post the cornerback wrote in the wake of the big game.
Over this past weekend, the Boston Herald ran an editorial on the subject, quoting a couple of former Belichick players who assert that the threat exists for a rift to develop between the returning squad and their coach if he doesn't provide answers to why Butler was not involved in Super Bowl LII.
"It can come back and backfire on him. The players might not play as hard for him," Rodney Harrison said in the Herald piece. "There are a lot of different things that could happen potentially. It just depends on how he handles it with his players."
"As great of a coach as he is, there still has to be some type of accountability," Damien Woody told the Herald. "The sooner you talk about it, and address it and tell people what your thinking was, you can try to move on from it."
It might be farfetched to expect Belichick to offer a public explanation for his Butler rationale, beyond his usual bromide of doing "what's best for the football team." But his players, at least those who'll be returning in 2018, deserve to understand why Belichick made a decision that many observers (including some players, apparently) believe negatively affected the outcome of Super Bowl LII.
Without the full support of his players, Belichick will have an even more difficult time getting another crack at winning a sixth title. Therefore, this issue needs to be broached sooner rather than later. If it happens at all (if it hasn't already), it will likely take place behind closed doors, and the public may never know what was said, but players' body language, if not their comments to the media this offseason, will be our way of gauging whether or not Belichick has succeeded in maintaining their allegiance.
2 ) PLUG UP THE LEAKY D
If we're honest with ourselves, New England's defense was not up to championship snuff in 2017. It lacked overall talent, depth, and consistency in getting off the field on third downs.
While it will be beneficial to have co-captain Dont'a Hightower and '17 rookie defensive end Derek Rivers back from serious injuries, the Patriots need more help than these two players can provide. And all three levels of the defense need help.
Up front, pass rushers and run-stuffers are urgently needed. The Patriots couldn't get any significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks throughout 2017, as was evident on the grandest of scales in the Super Bowl, and were vulnerable as well against the run at times last season.
In the secondary, the aforementioned Butler, a free-agent-to-be in March, is unlikely to return to Foxborough. As a result, New England must find someone to pair with last year's high-profile signing of Stephon Gilmore, who overcame a terrible start to his Patriots career by having arguably the best postseason of any Patriots defender. The safeties are beginning to age as well, so, it might be time to bring some talent in there as well.
Of course, with the departure of Matt Patricia to the Lions, Belichick must also decide who is best suited to oversee the overhaul of his defense. Is it him, by taking on extra responsibilities (he's done it before, when Patricia was the de facto defensive coordinator), or does he trust someone already on his staff to do it, like linebackers coach Brian Flores, who received consideration as a head coaching candidate from Arizona last month.
3 ) KEEP THE O (RELATIVELY) INTACT
No Super Bowl loser has ever scored as many points as the Patriots did against the Eagles (33) – a testament to how virtually unstoppable this 2017 New England offense was. A healthy Julian Edelman will only make it stronger, but some potential defections could balance out his return.
First and foremost, the Patriots need to learn whether or not there's anything of substance to recent reports of tight end/co-captain Rob Gronkowski's flirtation with a career change to become a Hollywood action hero. If he's honestly considering leaving the NFL altogether and eventually follows through, he would deal a serious blow to this juggernaut's arsenal.
Meanwhile, other big-play stars like Dion Lewis and Danny Amendola are about to become free agents, and New England must decide if they remain in the team's immediate future plans. The Patriots would be wise to keep as many components in place as possible. In this regard, they got a fortunate reprieve when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels chose at the last minute (literally!) to stay in town rather than move to Indianapolis. His decision should provide a measure of stability.
4 ) FIND ANOTHER JIMMY G
Much easier said than done, of course, as good quarterbacks, even quality backup ones, are as rare as four-leaf clovers these days. New England had one in Jimmy Garoppolo, but gave him away perhaps prematurely and certainly below market value.
Now, it's time to look for another passer who could potentially be groomed to succeed Brady, who'll turn 41 in August and is nearing the end of his illustrious career. Will the Patriots find one in this year's NFL Draft? They'll have to dedicate considerable time and effort to this search.
5 ) GET AWAY FOR A WHILE
Super Bowl seasons are exhausting, even more so when you don't win them. That fatigue is magnified when you make consecutive appearances in the title contest. New England's players, coaches, and other staff are currently experiencing this degree of burnout after the marathon-sprint that has been these past two seasons.
As a result, they're all in need of some time away from football to clear their heads before any decisions of consequence are made. "No days off" may have been a catchy slogan at this time last year, but right about now, a few days out of the office might be exactly what the Patriots need most.