Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Hernandez arrest disrupted Patriots' master plan
Over the two weeks that have elapsed since the Patriots' season was stunted so unceremoniously, and since New England knew it would be forced to reconcile the fact that tonight will mark the ninth straight year it'll be someone other than Bill Belichick or Tom Brady lifting the Lombardi Trophy, something of a consensus appears to have developed in attempting to explain both realities.
It's a belief seemingly held by a big segment of the fan base, envious of how easy Peyton Manning's offense made things look en route to the Super Bowl. It's a belief touted by a variety of pundits via various mediums, who wonder aloud what the Pats might've been. And during the ramp-up to Super Bowl XLVIII it apparently became a belief shared by people inside the game, too.
"When you have a great quarterback, you need to give him as many quality receivers as possible," former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said in a Twitter message critical of the way the Patriots were constructed, which went on to also say, "New England missed the mark and Denver hit it."
It's easy to say that now, because we know it went wrong. We know that it failed. We know that the Patriots were sorely lacking another playmaker in the passing game at times this season - never more so than in the ill-fated AFC title game - and so with that hindsight it's simple for Angelo and others to say that Pats brass did itself and its star a disservice by not surrounding Brady with better weapons this season.
The consensus seems to allege that Belichick foolishly failed to acknowledge the closing window of opportunity for his aging quarterback, and by letting Wes Welker leave in free agency, by signing Danny Amendola, and by carrying three rookie receivers he thereby handicapped Brady in one of his few remaining chances to win a championship.
The idea blames the coach for his lack of urgency, or his arrogance, or some combination of the two. And, again, those are easy aspersions to cast. After all, the plan didn't work.
But could the reality be that Belichick was actually acknowledging Brady's age when he charted this course of action? That he actually saw a chance to extend the Patriots' window of opportunity by acting now? And that he believed by going this route his team could be legitimate contenders not only in 2013 - but, in fact, through 2017?
The answer is yes, when considering beyond the scope of this single season's final result. And particularly when looking chronologically at those factors, the logic of Belichick's blueprint becomes all the more conceivable.
The sequence of events effectively begins last February, when Brady restructured his contract at a point in time when he probably didn't need to. With his good buddy Welker about to hit the open market, many figured the motivation was to clear more space under the salary cap - but in actuality, given the way the deal is backloaded with guaranteed money, it was the Patriots way of announcing that (barring catastrophic injury) Brady was part of their plans for the next five seasons. Until he's 40.
That's important to remember because it helps explain their thinking on how far they were willing to extend themselves for the 32-year-old Welker. With tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez both under contract at least as long as Brady, the Pats had consciously installed those two as their offensive cornerstones for the next half-decade, and committed to that plan for the long-term - not just for the next year or two.
So when Welker hit free agency, they made him an offer that was competitive with the one he took from Denver, but weren't going to overpay. Hernandez was set to replace Welker's role within the attack, and Amendola - a commodity known and coveted by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels - was available to assume Welker's specific position.
That familiarity was an important component, given the Patriots mighty struggle since 2004 to find veteran receivers who fit their system (except when trading for future hall of famers). So if they thought they had someone who would work, and could get him under agreement for five years (instead of just two for Welker), it made sense.
And it essentially left one starting-type spot to fill in the passing game. A month after free agency opened they signed Julian Edelman to a one-year deal that paid him more like a punt returner than a player expected to win that job. Then a few weeks after that they spent a second-round draft pick on Aaron Dobson, a fourth-round choice on Josh Boyce, and signed the undrafted Kenbrell Thompkins off the street.
It was never a sexy lot from which to select - although, again, let's remember the real-time circumstances. The season prior, the Patriots had scored the third-most points in NFL history with Brandon Lloyd manning that post. Clearly, they could succeed with mediocrity there, and Lloyd was still aboard, so they had the option of retaining him or mixing and matching with the rookies.
After all, fresh off a 4,827-yard, 34-touchdown season, the Patriots had every reason to think Brady was still plenty good enough to carry a group of young, foreign wideouts through a transition. He was still in his prime. Even at age 36.
What was less certain was whether Brady still would've been capable of lugging the team through a transition at 38 or 39, which is when they would've essentially been rebooting and rebuilding at receiver had they brought back Welker and either retained Lloyd or acquired a short-term veteran to replace him.
At least with the path they chose, by the time Brady is pushing 40, whoever sticks among the Dobson-Boyce-Thompkins troika will have a few years under his belt, and have been bred to fit within the Patriot system. If Brady has begun to decline, their development should help close the gap and keep New England competitive - this past year, and theoretically for as long as Brady is around.
We'll never know for sure whether it would've worked; because he was so central to it, the plan was ruined the moment Hernandez was booked on murder charges. They need to replace his production this offeseason, and they need to account for Gronkowski's recovery for a torn ACL, too. They were a weapon short, and that's why the Patriots will be watching the Broncos play tonight. So it's time for a new plan. And that, ostensibly, means the last one failed.
That doesn't necessarily make it a bad idea, though.
Bad luck is more like it.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.