Tag, you're it. No, wait. You're it. Aren't you?
We're only three weeks removed from the euphoria of winning a fifth Super Bowl trophy, and already there appears to be some confusion, teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing going on over "what do we do next?"
Tag this guy. Go get that guy. Do we re-sign this player? Do we want to bring in that player? What are the cap ramifications? Does this guy fit into our system?
Patriots' fans. Gotta love 'em.
Always looking ahead, just like the front office and the coaching staff, who look ahead as well as any staff in the NFL. You've probably heard - or have asked - your own questions in addition to the above as well, amiright?
While it is true that the Patriots have been a bit behind in their preparations for 2017, it's only because they were still working on the finishing touches to 2016. And finishing off that comeback-for-the-ages against Atlanta directly relates to what you'll see happen for 2017.
The game of catch-up by the front office and coaching staff is not an insurmountable one. Rather, it's a realistic one. And from this point of view they've had the foundation for success in place for several years now, and it probably won't change much because, well, because it works.
Why should it change?
You're familiar with the phrase "change is inevitable. Growth is optional?"
That's not a Bill Belichickian quote (it's author John Maxwell's creation), but it is a Patriots' thought process. It is a philosophy. When you know change must occur in order to evolve or improve, you do need to take the time to carefully plan that change. And that change will differ from time to time, year to year or occasion to occasion.
Not all change is constant. But it is consistent, if that makes any sense.
So while fretting and worrying over franchise tags and roster moves and free agent pick-ups will be a constant from year to year, the realization that change must occur for improvement to take place is consistent within the Patriots' organization. They know change will happen.
But what kind of change will it be? That's the fun of it all, right there. We don't know, yet. But we do know these guys have a pretty good track record to this point.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing.
Three Things To Do
There are many opinions, as well as options, on what the Patriots should do as we enter the time for the NFL Combine, and with franchise tagging and free agency right around the calendar corner. You've got your own ideas, naturally. And you're welcome to share.
For your consideration, however, here are three items undoubtedly on the Patriots' upcoming agenda and/or wish list. But do they pull-the-trigger and make a deal, or take a pass and move onto other matters?
Re-sign Dont'a Hightower
This seems to be a universal opinion. Bring Hightower back into the defensive fold with a contract extension, but it won't be cheap. I'm not certain New England can find another option that can fill Hightower's role without breaking the bank, so to speak - so why not bring back a guy who has already been successful? And is still young enough to excel at his job? But answering these questions will also include how much are his traits worth to the organization. He's a leader, he's a captain, he's a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker. That's worth a lot on the open market. Good thing the Patriots have the cap room to make a potential deal possible.
Find some pass rush help
I'm not picking on the defense. Really, I'm not. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that when pressure is put on even the best QB's in the game, it causes mistakes. And it only takes one, key mistake to turn a game completely around, doesn't it (hello, SB LI, looking at you)? Trey Flowers' emergence was magnificent to watch, but there is room to improve overall. Whether that comes from a penetrating defensive tackle (re-sign Alan Branch? Unleash Malcom Brown?) or a complementary end isn't yet clear. But what should be clear is the need for more consistent dominance up front. It makes the job of the guys behind them that much easier.
Get stronger in the trenches
If you followed the nitpicks from this corner during the season, you'll know this was mentioned often. Okay, it was mentioned just about every week. But where an opposing defense often exploited the Patriots was up the middle - right up the gut - forcing Tom Brady to scramble or step up into the pocket quicker than he'd like. Houston got good pressure up the middle in the playoffs. So did Atlanta. Others will do the same, if New England doesn't fortify its' front. Improved strength is needed at center and at guard, and additional, quality depth won't hurt here. Adding to the tight end mix is probably going to be required as well, with Rob Gronkowski recovering from back surgery and Martellus Bennett testing the free agent waters.
From one goat to another
Not sure this got the run it deserved, but when Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers dropped the "GOAT" tag on TB12 in a recent television interview, doesn't that mean something?
Rodgers is universally talked about as one of the top two or three quarterbacks in the NFL today. He was asked how he felt watching the Super Bowl unfold, and initially spoke of his empathy for Atlanta's Matt Ryan. "Felt bad for Matt. Getting to know him over the years, he is a fantastic guy. He had an incredible MVP season. Sitting there (leading) 28-3 and everybody watching and probably at the game was thinking 'Atlanta is gonna get their ring sized up here pretty soon.' So that was disappointing."
However, Rodgers added: "But from a fan's perspective, what a great game to watch and to see Tom (Brady) in his greatness on display one more time. I mean, he didn't need to win that to prove that he's the GOAT, but that's just another part of his legacy there."
Rodgers is 33 years old himself - still younger than Brady, but it's becoming apparent he has an appreciation for what TB12 has accomplished with his own window of opportunity closing just a bit. Call it mutual respect, if not grudging admiration, from one of the game's best signal-callers to another.
As far as the actual "GOAT" stuff? Well, the Patriots' GOAT does have five, shiny baubles on his hoof. The history books, or the Farmers' Almanac, perhaps, can sort the rest of it out.
John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and just completed his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 29 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame