Hackett: How a Patriots loss might shape wild offseason

Jim Hackett
January 10, 2019 - 10:13 am

Don’t let the headline fool you, I think the Patriots have more than an even chance to defend the home turf and advance to the AFC Championship on Sunday. Home-field advantage, two weeks of rest, well-timed cold New England weather and that prominent and seemingly incurable chip that exists on the Patriots collective shoulders will all be major factors. 

A win would not surprise me at all but nor would a loss in this strange 2018-19 season. Win or lose what strikes me most these days is what comes next for the most dynastic team in modern American sport and what their approach will be. 

This offseason presents a growing concern about the ever-narrowing Brady/Belichick window, a significant number of aging core and star players and a definite lack of top-of-the-league talent at key positions on both sides of the ball. However, the 2019 offseason also presents great opportunity, shaping up to be as important as any in the recent history of the Patriots; a team fighting to keep its position as a perennial contender and stave off eventual transition. 

I think it’s the most important offseason in 20 years for the Pats and I'm anxious to witness their approach. 

The Patriots success in Jan. and Feb. has been its hallmark since 2001. Fans of other teams like the Jets, enjoy their teams’ seasons far more in April or May each year where hope literally springs eternal for downtrodden franchises. Despite having the success when it matters, the Patriots have typically left its region of fans rather unfulfilled around the NFL Draft and throughout the offseason of free agency. They have dipped their beak a few times, the Stephon Gilmore signing obviously coming to mind, but over these 18 years of wild success, most offseasons have left me wanting and I’m not the only one. 

In the early years of the initial dynasty as the biggest names fell off the draft board, we became very used to hearing the word "value" from the monotone pipes of the coach. Trading down in the draft to acquire picks and future positioning was as common as a Brady completion underneath or up the seam; it was as much a part of their DNA as any of their organizational hallmarks. So every spring we would yawn and every winter have our weekend calendars happily filled with meaningful football. The formula has worked and there’s no disputing it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a forever solution. I think it’s time for an adjustment.

If the offseason approach does change a little this year it wouldn’t be the first time. After the 2006 season where another potential Super Bowl Championship literally slipped through the shaky hands of bug-eyed Reche Caldwell two weeks prior, the Patriots finally cashed their chips. After years of fans moaning about Brady’s lack of weapons, Belichick went all in and acquired Randy Moss and Wes Welker, giving birth to the most prolific offense in league history. 

In 2012 after some weak drafts, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, the Patriots core ideal of ‘trading down’ was flipped upside down, actually trading up to acquire a pair of highly touted and talented defenders named Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower. Chips cashed and just in time.

According to my math, the Patriots need to change their pitch mix every five to six years or so and add in some much needed offspeed and breaking stuff to their game plan. They really needed to do it last year, but either way, they are due. 

Sony Michel is a nice player who came out of last years’ draft and will certainly be a key to their postseason fortunes starting on Sunday. However, he doesn’t look like the transformational player that say rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in Cleveland appears to be. I liked the Isaiah Wynn pick when it happened as I’m a firm believer that you cannot fortify an offensive line enough, but sadly 2018 has been a lost season for him. Same for the next guy they picked last draft, defensive back Duke Dawson whose season was similarly lost to injury. Regardless of why, the truth is that the 2018 class under-delivered on much needed top-end talent and it underscores what is now an even greater need coming this spring.  

This is where the aforementioned opportunity comes in. As fellow WEEI.com writer Ryan Hannable reported earlier this week, the Patriots stand to gain some serious draft capital with the addition of as many as four compensatory picks. If it pans out as reported here’s what the Patriots will have to play with at the 2019 draft:

Round 1- Own
Round 2- Own
Round 2- Bears
Round 3- Lions
Round 3- Nate Solder comp 
Round 3- Malcolm Butler comp 
Round 4- Own
Round 5- Danny Amendola comp 
Round 7- Own
Round 7- Eagles 
Round 7- Cameron Fleming comp 
Round 7- Josh Gordon

They have the draft capital to make a major impact on their roster this time around be it via trades like 2007 or drafting their own like 2012 and it’s time to do it. 

Trading down for more value and sustained positioning has worked to the tune of five Super Bowl championships and eight total Super Bowl appearances in the Belichick / Brady era. No argument here in terms of their sustained, superior level of success, but just like 2007 and 2012 the time has come to cash in the chips and get that necessary group of next level talent. 

Should the Patriots win on Sunday, does that enable them to stay the same course this off-season? I hope not. What if they make it to or win another Super Bowl? Does that incline Belichick to stay with his most consistent course? If it does then the future could get a little darker a lot sooner and that window of opportunity could close even faster. 

If the Patriots come up short on Sunday and lose to San Diego (yes I know they’re supposed to be the LA Chargers)… I won’t be devastated, at least not in the short-term. However, if they lose and spring rolls around and the Patriots approach to the draft and the off-season doesn’t change, well then I’ll be pissed and you should be too. 

Here’s hoping for a win on Sunday and a change this spring.

Related: Oral History: Patriots-Chargers 2006 postseason classic