INDIANAPOLIS -- The distance between the Patriots and the rest of the AFC East is already pretty wide -- New England has won nine of the last 10 division titles, and done so pretty handily. The only exception to the rule came in 2008 when -- of course -- quarterback Tom Brady was on the shelf for practically the entire season.
But as things stand right now, that gap will continue to grow wider, at least for the next few years. The Bills have hit the reset button with a new coach and (possibly) a new quarterback. The Jets are one four-game losing streak from firing their head coach. And while the Dolphins are flush with cash, there’s no sense that Miami will be able to challenge the Patriots -- not until they can add a few more pieces on both sides of the ball and give Ryan Tannehill a few more years in the system. (If he’s even the answer.)
On paper, the Patriots finished five games ahead of the second-place Dolphins at the end of the 2012 regular season. Barring a seismic injury for New England, that number might as well be 50 games heading into the 2013 season.
“There’s a gap,” Miami GM Jeff Ireland acknowledged Thursday at the combine when asked about the distance between the Patriots and the rest of the division. “We have to close that gap -- I think it’s a five-game gap, right now, in wins and losses. That’s what the gap is. We have to close that gap, and we plan to do our best job and put our best foot forward and getting that done this offseason. Whether we can completely close the gap … we have to get back on the field and close the gap on the field. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to talk about it right now.”
Of course, in a quarterback-driven league, much of New England’s advantage can be traced back to the signal-caller. With Brady, the Patriots have always held a colossal advantage when it comes to the quarterback position, and there’s no reason to think that is going to change going forward. Not just the fact that Brady is one of the best in the history to play the game, but the continuity that exists when you have the same quarterback under center for an extended stretch (and the fact that he’s worked with the same coach for that entire period) is an invaluable part of the process.
By way of comparison, since Brady took over as the starter for the Patriots in 2001, the Bills have had eight different starting quarterbacks and five different head coaches in the same time period. And while they’ve already changed coaches for 2013, there’s a feeling they could change quarterbacks as well -- on Thursday, the Buffalo braintrust didn’t exactly give current starter Ryan Fitzpatrick a ringing endorsement.
Meanwhile, Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland lamented the fact that their quarterback has less than 40 games of experience (dating back to college) under his belt.
“As I’ve said before, Ryan has 35 or 36 games under his belt as a starting quarterback combined, from a college and pro career. You’d normally like to have 35 games under your belt as a graduating senior,” Ireland said of Tannehill, who ended his first season with 3,294 passing yards, a 58 percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns and 13 picks.
“I still think there’s a bunch of upside left in Ryan’s potential. I like what I see so far. I love [his] intangible makeup. I love his athletic skill set. We have a long way to go -- he knows that. But he can get a lot better. I’m confident in that.”
And the Jets quarterback situation?
“I think everyone, Mark included, recognizes that he, our offense, our team as a whole, has to perform better than we did in 2012,” said new Jets GM John Idzik. “And we are going to do that. We are going to do everything to increase the competition so that he plays better. We have a new offensive coordinator [and] a new quarterbacks coach -- staff changes that I think will be healthy for Mark, so that we can again get the juices flowing and turn the page to 2013 and not look back to 2012 and start anew and get rolling.”
But it also has a lot to do with the team-building philosophies. The Jets, coming off a five-year window where they pursued short-term gains at the expense of long-term success, are now forced to make massive cuts in an attempt to remain competitive under the cap. They could still end up dealing away their most prized possession in veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis -- while it wouldn’t bring a Herschel Walker-sort of bounty in return (the league has changed dramatically since the Cowboys were able to pull off that heist), they face a long road to recovery.
But will the change in philosophies really help? One thing that stood out during Idzik’s time with the media on Thursday afternoon was the fact that he was clear in his mission statement as GM: “We’re in the business, quite simply, of acquiring, developing and maintaining good players. Great players.” That seems to run counter to the Patriots’ longtime approach: “It’s not about collecting talent. It’s about assembling a team.” That’s not to say that the New England approach is necessarily the right thing for all teams, but it doesn’t sound too far removed from their old approach of grabbing players and finding out how they’ll fit down the road.
As for the Bills, their task is still daunting, but the fact that they’re fundamentally starting from scratch with a new coach -- as well as a new quarterback -- suggests that they are still a good distance from contending.
Of the three other teams in the division, the franchise with the best combination of big picture thinking and financial wiggle room appears to be the Dolphins. But even with that, Miami’s biggest obstacle could be an impatient ownership; Stephen Ross and the rest of the Miami front office has a track record of mismanagement, including their inability to attract a marquee quarterback last season (which may work out for them in the long run with Tannehill) and an awkward courtship of one coach while they had another under contract.
If Ross and the ownership steer clear and the Dolphins navigate smartly through the draft and free agency, there’s a chance.
“I think it’s very, very important time period,” Ireland said of where his team is at this stage of its development. “We’ve put a lot into getting into this position, so we obviously are in this position by design. We plan to use some of our money and plan to obviously draft the best players available if we can and try to address some of the needs and musts we have on our football team.”
All of this is not to suggest that the Patriots are a team that doesn’t have issues of their own. The uncertainty at wide receiver and defensive back must be addressed sooner rather than later. But these are relatively minor when compared to the problems that face the rest of the AFC East: while New England is worried about a few minor dents and repairs, the other three teams are in the shop for an extended overhaul that could take some time.