FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Following their second straight loss in the AFC Championship Game, the New England Patriots are, in a way, treading water. They remain elite, but the streak of seasons without a Super Bowl triumph is now at nine and there is plenty of work to do in order to get over the hump.
That work began in earnest Monday, a day after the Patriots dropped a 26-16 decision at Denver. Head coach Bill Belichick said no personnel changes are imminent, but the next month or two will see the beginning of a transformation.
“In the neighborhood of six to eight weeks,” he said Monday morning when asked when official transactions will begin to occur. “Obviously, free agency starts a little less than two months from now so we need to be ready by then.”
Free agency begins at 4 p.m. ET on March 11. Key players such as cornerback Aqib Talib, wide receiver Julian Edelman and running back LeGarrette Blount are among 13 Patriots on the list. Before that comes the combine in Indianapolis and on the immediate horizon for Belichick and his staff is the end of college all-star games, including the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday. College workouts also occur in March, the draft comes in May and then OTA’s before there is, finally, a calming period.
Belichick sees pros and cons to having his season end late in January.
“When your season goes into the postseason as ours did for three weeks, you’re behind going into the combine, draft and to a certain degree I’d say the free-agency process,” he said. “So to be honest with you we’re on to the 2014 season right now. We’re behind, so we have some catching up to do. That’s a good position to be in, but it’s a bad position to be in.
“[If] your season ends on the last day [of the regular season], you have those extra three weeks to try to get caught up on the college draft, get caught up other things. We’ve been trying to win games in the postseason so we’re behind there. The slower time in the NFL is that mid-June to mid-July range and right now is not it. Similar to the college season, those guys end their season and the next day they’re out recruiting. That’s the nature of the schedule.”
Belichick said he may go to the Senior Bowl and is sure to hit the combine next month. He also said he will communicate, in one form or another, with every player on the roster. Discussions with Talib and others in that boat will involve their future with the team.
Blount, who broke out for 431 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in the three games prior to the AFC Championship, said Monday that he hopes to be able to run the football for Belichick next year.
“Bill is the best coach that’s ever coached this game,” he said.
Blount echoed Belichick’s satisfaction in what the team was able to accomplish in the wake of injuries to several key players.
“For me personally? No,” he said when asked if there was pride in the season. “But for this team there’s a lot to be proud of.”
Edelman broke out for 105 catches -- fourth-most in the NFL -- and 1,056 yards, filling the gap created by the departed Wes Welker. With targets for quarterback Tom Brady at a premium during stretches this season, Edelman will have some leverage in any negotiations. The same goes for Talib, who entered with questions surrounding his character but has been a leader and, at times, a shutdown defender.
Although Belichick did not comment specifically on anyone’s future with the team Monday, he expressed regret at the fact that Talib’s season ended with a knee injury after a controversial mid-field collision with Welker on Sunday.
Whether Talib will have a chance to continue his career in New England remains to be seen, but it is one of the centerpieces to the offseason puzzle, one which Belichick admits is a bit messy in the wake of Sunday's loss.
“On a personal level there are a lot of things that come in the season. Particularly as the season comes into the November, December range, things come across my desk,” he said. “I open up a drawer, put it in, and say, ‘I’m working on Buffalo, I’m working on Indianapolis, I’m working on Denver. I’ll deal with them after the season.’
“That drawer fills up, you put it in another drawer. Now it’s time to open those drawers. And there’s a lot of junk there. There’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t dealt with in the last few weeks, couple of months, that you just say I can deal with it after the season, there’s more important things now, and that’s where I’ve been.”
New England has the 29th overall pick in the draft, as well as selections in the second, third, fourth, sixth (two picks) and seventh rounds. Protecting Brady is always a priority. The pass rush was virtually non-existent against Denver. The team will have to see how free agency plays out with key players and monitor the progress of star tight end Rob Gronkowski, who underwent surgery earlier this month to repair ACL and MCL tears.
There also could be changes forthcoming on the Patriots' coaching staff.
“That’s the way it always is. Once the season is over, there’s a lot of changes in the NFL in the coaching staffs,” Belichick said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe it will affect us, maybe it won't. Is there a possibility? Sure, there’s a possibility.”
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels earlier this month took his name out of the running for the Cleveland Browns' head coaching position. Belichick acknowledged Monday that there was a possibility that former OC Bill O’Brien, now the head coach in Houston, could turn to some of his old pals in New England for help along the sidelines.
Finally, Belichick said that while there is no real down time until just before training camp, the day-to-day pressure is very different from the week leading up to the Denver game.
“The intensity of the offseason is nowhere near where it is in the season. It just isn’t,” he said. “So regardless of the amount of hours you worked, the urgency and intensity is not the same. I’m not saying the draft is not important. I’m not saying free agency is not important. I’m not saying salary cap management is not important. But those things are a lot easier to manage from a time standpoint when you have seven days to prepare for your regular down stuff, your third-down stuff, you’re regular stuff ... all the things you have to get ready to go against Indianapolis, Denver, whoever you’re playing, It’s a whole different timeframe.”
The head coach also acknowledged he will have an opportunity to get over the sting of Sunday’s setback.
“I’ll be OK,” he said. “I’ll take out all my frustrations at Pebble Beach. See if I can hit the ball over the water instead of in.”