Preparing for the 2005 may be the biggest challenge to date for the Patriots, with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets appearing poised to rise to the challenge of dethroning the perennial powers of New England, with the Miami Dolphins running a distant fourth.
After a season of promise and improvement in Buffalo, the Bills have turned the corner and seek consistency. The emergence of explosive running back Willis McGahee and wide receiver Lee Evans has turned the Bills into contenders, rather than the pretenders often viewed over the past few seasons. Heading towards the 2005 season, there is an element of the unknown surrounding the Buffalo organization.
As the quarterback goes, the Bills may go. Second-year signal-caller J.P. Losman has been thrust into the starting role with the release of veteran Drew Bledsoe, which will provide the Bills with a much more athletic option at the position. Relatively inexperienced, Losman will have a tremendous amount of pressure placed upon him, as this Buffalo organization expects a playoff contender in 2005. Additionally, the potential loss of starting tackle Jonas Jennings, Losman’s blindside protector as an unrestricted free agent could be damaging to the growth of this offense. The team has been in discussions to obtain L.J. Shelton from the Arizona Cardinals to offset the loss at this important position.
Defensively the Bills are solid, but the team has to prepare for the potential departure of standout defensive tackle Pat Williams. Williams, known as one of the best at the position is an unrestricted free agent and the Bills hope to reach a deal with the run-stuffer prior to the start of free agency on March 2nd.
Much like the Bills, the New York Jets face some of the same issues and questions this off-season. Despite a playoff appearance in the 2004 season, little time and energy has been expended on this success. Coming off a season which the defense was greatly improved and kept the Jets competitive, it is the offense which has the organization seething.
Despite sporting the league’s leading rusher (Curtis Martin), the Jets were an average team at best offensively, with predictability, a lack of direction, and big-play potential being at a minimum. The Jets wasted no time in changing a situation which had grown old with the organization, its players and coaches, as well as supporters.
Realizing this team may have reached its peak, former Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger has been hired to enhance and change the complexion of the New York offense. In Heimerdinger, the Jets are bringing aboard a youthful, energetic coach, most importantly a coach that understands the intricacies of an explosive caliber offense. Utilizing a vertical brand of the West Coast offense, Heimerdinger’s offense will stretch the field and create match-up problems for the opposing defense in multiple receiver and zone crossing offensive sets.
Though the passing game is going through a reformation and revitalization, the Jets will remain a rush-first team, featuring running back Curtis Martin. The new offensive scheme should be a welcomed development for Martin, with the vertical approach he potentially could see less contact at the line of scrimmage, with increased room to run as the defense will not have the sole ability to cheat in the box against this offense.
As the Jets and Bills seek to improve this off-season, the jury and direction is out in Miami. Saddled with salary-cap issues, questionable quality and depth along the offensive line, running back, and defensive line positions, first-year head coach Nick Saban could be in for a long season.
Relying on a strong defense and just enough scoring from a ball-control offense, the Dolphins had been an effective and playoff contending team over the past few seasons. In the 2004 season, the wheels fell off the wagon and change was evident. Granted there was no planning for the unexpected retirement of running back Ricky Williams, but the depth deficient Dolphins under the direction of former head coach Dave Wannestadt shouldn’t have placed its lone offensive ability and philosophy in the hands of only one player.
The strength of the Miami team, its defense is aging with high salaried players, creating an element of uncertainty and flexibility for the future. Plenty of changes are in the works in Miami, with the defense expected to take on a new look, with many familiar faces exiting South Beach. With the Dolphins looking to manage the salary-cap and gain fiscal responsibility, Miami could field as many as seven new starters on the defensive side of the ball. A change of this magnitude is significant and the Dolphins could be in a full rebuilding mode.
Without an impact player in the offensive backfield, the Dolphins are again expected to struggle in the 2005 season. Quarterback A.J. Feeley will be given the opportunity to lead the offense, maybe more importantly the offensive line will be coached and schemed into more of a zone-type blocking scheme, which should simplify and improve their overall play.
As the off-season kicks into full-gear, Saban has been actively scouting running backs and wide receivers to improve the skill position level players of this team. Adding a dynamic type running back will make this Miami team a threat week-in and week-out, but not on the level of contention in the AFC East, as of the Jets, Bills, and Patriots.
Despite large turnover anticipated throughout the organization, the New England Patriots remain the team to beat in the AFC East. Departing are offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and All-Pro cornerback Ty Law. With a large number of players eligible for free agency, the Patriots under the direction of Bill Belichick could easily stumble heading into the 2005 season.
Built on the theory of teamwork, this is an aging team with limited depth at many critical positions. The starting corps of linebackers, the key to the success of New England has resided led by Tedy Bruschi are on the other-side of 30, when a slip in athleticism and ability become evident. Bruschi, known as the ‘heart and soul’ of the defense remains a question mark due to a mild stroke he suffered recently. A make-shift defensive backfield will be without Law (released) and potentially Tyrone Poole (potential retirement).
The departure of the coordinators, who were responsible for the daily overseeing and coaching of the offensive and defensive, could be a major factor in the demise of this organization. Both Weis and Crennel were greatly respected for their abilities to teach and bring the units together. Though rarely receiving the accolades, both Weis and Crennel were instrumental in the development and success of the past Patriots’ Super Bowl winning teams.
With the potential of eight starters departing, coupled with the loss of its coordinators, the New England Patriots may never be more susceptible. You can never discount the team structure of this New England organization, which only leads us to believe Belichick and personnel guru Scott Pioli will again field another strong New England team.