JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Fresh off their third Super Bowl title in the past four seasons, the New England Patriots won't have long to savor their accomplishment. Planning for the 2005 NFL Draft commences early Thursday morning in Foxboro, by which time their 80-hour-old Super Bowl victory will no doubt seem like a distant memory.
The Patriots just embarked on the latest-starting offseason in NFL history -- it's already Feb. 7, and the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis opens in 16 days -- with their winning ways again affording many of their competitors an extra five weeks of preparation time.
When they get back to work, here are the five most critical issues facing the '05 Patriots, in their quest to to make it three consecutive Super Bowl championships, and four in five years:
1. Doing right by Tom Brady -- The Patriots quarterback is running out of fingers to put Super Bowl rings on. And with that in mind -- even though Brady still has two years remaining on his current contract -- both sides know it's time to explore long-term extension talks.
Brady currently makes between $6 and $7 million per year, and that's a whale of a bargain considering Peyton Manning is at $14 million annually, Michael Vick checks in around $12 million and Donovan McNabb -- the guy Brady just beat -- averages $8.6 million.
The Patriots know what they have in Brady, and Brady knows what he has in the Patriots. Don't expect either side to get greedy and try and kill the goose that lays the golden egg. These will be intelligent discussions, with care given to maintain the uniquely successful relationship that currently exists between the club and its franchise player.
What does Brady deserve? It's a decent bet he'll crack eight figures annually in any new deal, but don't get silly and look for New England to stray wildly from its approach to salaries in order to give the Manning deal a run for its money. Never going to happen, and Brady wouldn't expect it to.
Extending Brady will also help the Patriots' '05 cap situation, because his $8.3 million salary cap number this season will be lowered with the pro-ration factor of any new deal. Look for the two sides to come together at some point this offseason on a contract that gives Brady fair market value but doesn't require Patriots owner Bob Kraft to back the Brink's truck up to Gillette Stadium.
2. Making the call on Ty Law -- This much we know: The Patriots proved they can win without their star cornerback. He missed the entire second half of the season and the playoffs with a broken foot, and New England didn't miss a beat, taking out some of the best offenses in the NFL in the process.
Law has a $12 million salary cap figure in '05, and it's extremely unlikely he'll be back in New England at that number. The Patriots hold all the cards. If Law plays ball with them and agrees to cut that number significantly -- maybe by as much as 50 percent -- he could return. But nobody's really expecting quite that much cooperation.
Don't be fooled by the level of acrimony that existed between Law and the club last offseason. This is not a marriage that has to be dissolved. Most of the noise was Law and his agent complaining long and loud about how the Patriots had done them wrong, but the club wisely didn't fire back. Law has since gotten over most of his frustration and put the pieces back together with head coach BillBelichick.
At the right number, the Patriots would gladly retain Law, rather than having to go lay out a big cash signing bonus to land another top cornerback. But if they chose to replace Law, the team will either draft a top cornerback or pursue one in free agency who they believe better fits into their salary structure.
In this case, guess you could say the Patriots fought the Law, and the Patriots won.