Another offseason for Tom Brady and another injury to recover from.
The latest is surgery to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. (It was the left knee that Bernard Pollard blew out when he plowed into Brady in the 2008 season opener.)
By his own count, Brady will play operation for the fifth time in nine years. That's not even counting last year, when Brady played the majority of the season with a broken finger and cracked ribs. He gleefully said last Jan. 26 at a charity appearance in Boston:"I'm very fortunate to walk off the field this year and end the season without having surgery, so that's not really a concern."
He was not so fortunate this season, even though the real pain he's feeling isn't from his foot, but from another premature playoff exit. Perhaps, the Patriots could get Jets coach Rex Ryan to take a look at Brady's foot since Ryan seems to fancy himself something of an, ahem, amateur podiatrist.
The point is that Brady has taken a beating in his 10 years as an NFL starter and you wonder when it's going to start taking a toll on TB12, who turns 34 in August. Football careers are finite. No one plays forever. Brady going under the knife only underscores that the Patriots have to do everything they can to maximize their championship window while Tommy is still in tow.
In the wake of the failure to launch against the Jets, there has been a lot of kvetching and discussion about what the Patriots need. No. 1 on the grocery list should be a pass rusher. The Patriots search for someone who can sack the quarterback is beginning to resemble the Bigfoot-esque quest of the Bruins for the ever elusive "puck-moving" defenseman -- promising Steve Kamper the latest to audition for role for the Black and Gold.
A better defense would certainly take some pressure off of Brady, but what would really help prolong Brady's career is a big-time running back. If the Patriots run of success is going to have legs, then Brady needs some too. The reality is that finesse and flinging the ball only goes so far.
Terry Bradshaw had Franco Harris. Troy Aikman had Emmitt Smith. John Elway didn't win a Super Bowl until he had Terrell Davis lining up behind him. The perception is that Joe Montana, who lifted four Lombardi Trophies, is the exception to the rule. That his short passing prowess was the 49ers running game. Not quite.
It is true that Joe Cool never had a franchise running back, although Roger Craig is memorable for a running style that had him lifting his legs higher than a Rockette. True, Montana didn't have a great running game in 1981, when he won his first Super Bowl.
However, in 1984, the 49ers finished third in the NFL in rushing at 154.1 yards per game, and Wendell Tyler was fifth in the league with 1,262 yards. In 1988, when San Francisco won title No. 3, the 49ers were second in the NFL in rushing at 157.7 yards per game, and Craig rushed for more than 1,500 yards. In 1989, the 49ers dipped to 10th, but Craig again went over 1,000 yards.
If there is a common theme from the Patriots last three playoff defeats it has been an inability to generate the big play on the ground. Teams like the Jets and Giants have flooded the field with defensive backs and dared the Patriots to run, while taking aim at Brady.
The greatest example of this was the Patriots' Congress-worthy filibustering, fourth-quarter drive on Sunday that took 7 minutes and 45 seconds off the clock and accomplished nothing. Simply, the Jets were willing to swap yards on the ground for time off the clock, all the while confident that the Patriots couldn't pop a long gainer to get back in the game.
New England averaged four yards a carry against the Jets, but the longest run was 11 yards via trick plays. Brandon Tate took an end around for 11 yards and a reverse to Julian Edelman went for 11 as well. The longest run by an actual running back was 10 yards by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had nine carries for 43 yards.
Last year, against the Ravens, the Patriots averaged 3.6 yards per rush and the longest run was only nine yards. The Patriots ran 16 times for an abysmal 45 yards in Super Bowl XLII. The longest rush was nine yards.
The Patriots did finish in the top 10 in the league in rushing this year, and Brady had a 1,000-yard rusher in Green-Ellis. It was the first time since 2004, when Corey Dillon ran for a franchise-record 1,635 yards. That also happens to be the last time the Patriots won a Super Bowl. Coincidence?
It's one thing to rack up yards in the regular season it's another to be able to run when it matters most. Green-Ellis was a great story, but he's a grinder and not a game-breaker.
Forget another diva wide receiver that can run deep, Brady needs a running back that can carry some of the load.
Luckily, the Patriots have more chips in this draft than Frito-Lay. They have three of the top 33 picks (No. 17, No. 28 and No. 33) and six of the top 96, with three picks in each of the first three rounds. Unluckily, it's not a great running back group behind Alabama's Mark Ingram and Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams.
But Brady's latest injury/surgery is a reminder that one way from keeping your quarterback from having to heal is having him handoff more.
So, it's time for the Patriots to get grounded before it's too late for them and Brady.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.