Beginning of the end?

Since the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady marriage was consecrated in 2001, no NFL franchise has won more games, scored more touchdowns or appeared in as many Super Bowls as the New England Patriots. For the last 12 years, this is the organization that so many have tried to emulate, so few have successfully triumphed over. New England is the gold standard for professional football. That statement is reaffirmed every time someone makes a reference to the fact that the Patriots haven’t hoisted a Vince Lombardi Trophy since early 2005. Talk to the fans in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Buffalo. A nine-year championship drought would be welcomed with open arms in those cities.

Tom Brady and Bill BelichickTom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots have won more games since 2001 than any other team in the league.

However, the unfortunate reality for the Boston Strong is that for each beginning there is an end, for every peak there is a valley. People don’t live forever. At some point, the Belichick-Brady marriage will come to an end.

New England’s anticipated regression to the NFL’s middle class could still be a few years away, but that doesn’t mean the horizon is overflowing with clear skies and sunshine. This has been a troubling offseason for one of the league’s preeminent teams, rife with key personnel changes, injury concerns and off-field alarms. For those reasons, 2013 could quickly become the biggest challenge of the Belichick-Brady era.

Here’s why:

Regressing on the outside: Try as they might over the last two years, the Patriots have failed in their multiple attempts to approximate the outside wide receiver production enjoyed during the Randy Moss era. In the two full seasons (’07, ’09) that Brady and Moss spent together tearing opposing secondaries to shreds, the dynamic duo connected 181 times for 2,757 yards and 36 touchdowns while guiding New England to a 26-6 mark during the regular season. After Moss was sent packing in 2010, the Pats experimented on the outside with veteran Chad Johnson (15-276-1), but found more success with old-timer Deion Branch (51-702-5). The organization then went free agent shopping in 2012 and settled on journeyman Brandon Lloyd, but squeezed just 74 receptions, 911 yards and four scores out of the 2010 All-Pro.

Still, the Patriots managed to post an impressive 25-7 record in the two years since Moss’ departure, thanks in large part to the integral roles played by a variety of pass-catchers who you will read about in the coming paragraphs. But at some point, the rest of the offense won’t be able to cover for the lack of production from the outside receiver position. At some point, the outside receiver position will have to cover for everybody else.

Sayonara, security blanket: The Robin to Brady’s Batman, the King to Brady’s Ace, Wes Welker was the Stickum that kept the New England offense together over the last six seasons. Since the 32-year-old joined the Pats back in 2007, no receiver in the NFL has caught more passes (672) than the Texas Tech product. Over the last two seasons alone, Welker has accounted for 27.88% of Brady’s targets, 29.92% of Brady’s completed passes and 28.87% of the quarterback’s first down completions.

Wes WelkerICONWelker's defection to Denver leaves some big shoes for newcomer Danny Amendola to fill.

Unfortunately for New England, the free agent was miffed by the team’s perceived lack of interest in shelling out a lucrative, long-term contract, so Welker shocked the football world by jumping ship and signing with archrival Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos this offseason. New England responded by locking up former St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola to a long-term contract, but the 27-year-old has had trouble staying on the field (12 appearances over last two seasons). Younger? You bet. Just as talented? That remains to be seen. But one thing you can bank on is that if Welker helps Denver scratch its way into the Super Bowl while Amendola struggles to fill the big shoes left behind in New England, you’ll have a lot of people pointing to March 13th as the day it all came unglued in Massachusetts.

Under the knife: Tight end Rob Gronkowski is one of the integral components that allowed the Patriots to make a relatively smooth transition out of the Randy Moss era, as well as part of the reason why the team deemed Welker expendable. But Gronkowski’s 2011 breakout campaign (90-1,327-17) was followed up by an injury-plagued 2012 season that saw the Pro Bowler appear in just 11 games, catching 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 scores. The numbers were solid, but that’s not the problem. The issue is that Gronk has now undergone four surgeries to repair a broken left forearm sustained back in Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals, as well as another back procedure that now has the tight end 12 weeks away from seeing the field. For the draftniks in the house, you’ll remember that Gronkowski’s back kept him from playing football at Arizona in 2009 and was a big factor in why the 6-6, 265-pound monster fell to the second round during the 2010 draft. Sure, Gronk could come back healthy and play in all 16 games this season, but five surgeries in well under a calendar year is certainly cause for alarm.

The latest headache: Forget all about the fact that tight end Aaron Hernandez has yet to complete a full 16-game regular season during his three-year career, because injuries are the least of the guy’s troubles at the moment. Rather than preparing his body for the 2013 season, Hernandez currently finds himself at the center of a homicide investigation in which evidence puts a vehicle driven by the tight end at the scene of the crime. This story has the potential to go in a variety of directions over the next few weeks/months, but the common denominator in all of those scenarios is that Hernandez will be focusing more of his time and energy in the near future attempting to exonerate himself rather than getting his mind right for training camp. This is the type of distraction that can ooze its way around the locker room in a hurry.

Aaron HernandezICONTight end Aaron Hernandez finds himself in a world of trouble at the moment.

Of course, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first time in which Belichick and Brady have had to deal with adversity both on and off the field. This is a duo that knows what it takes to win games in the National Football League. But you can’t help but look at what’s happened to this roster over the last few years and wonder whether another trip to the Super Bowl is truly in the cards. New England is still in search of a reliable outside receiver, just watched their most productive pass-catcher sign on with their top rival and is left wondering whether their ultra potent 1-2 tigh t end punch will be healthy and/or available for the upcoming season.

Given a choice of head coach-quarterback combos to throw into an identical situation, there’s no doubt that the Belichick-Brady tandem would rank towards the top of everybody’s list. But how much is too much?

This season we just may find out.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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