MIAMI GARDENS (CBSMiami/AP) – It’s been a long wait, but the beginning of the NFL season has finally arrived.
Nearly a decade has passed since the New England Patriots last held the Lombardi Trophy, and with Tom Brady closer to 40 years old than 30, it’s unclear how big of a window the franchise has remaining to win another title during his tenure.
Brady, though, should be more familiar with his receiving corps this season thanks to a number of returners and the Patriots appear to have gained a suitable substitute for tight end Rob Gronkowski in case he’s not ready for Sunday’s opener at the Miami Dolphins.
New England (12-4) is coming off its 11th AFC East title in coach Bill Belichick’s 14 seasons and reached the conference title game for the third straight year. However, the Patriots again fell short of the ultimate goal with a 26-16 loss to Denver.
Brady, who turned 37 on Aug. 3, opened last season without his top five pass catchers, including Gronkowski, who would play in only seven games. This year, Brady could have his top nine receivers back depending on Gronkowski’s health.
“The more we’re on the same page, the better we’re going to be,” Brady said. “Offensive football is about anticipation and about having a lot of trust and confidence in one another. I think we built on that.”
Gronkowski underwent knee surgery in January and missed the final five games, including two in the playoffs. He didn’t participate in any of the four preseason contests, but on Monday proclaimed himself ready for the season opener.
The next day, Belichick wasn’t ready to commit, saying “With all due respect to Rob, I’m glad he feels the way he does. We’ll have to make the decision that we feel is best for the team and we’ll do that as we go through the week.”
Gronkowski practiced on a limited basis Wednesday and Thursday, while Brady returned to practice Friday after a one-day absence that the team attributed to a calf injury.
Adding perhaps further intrigue, the Patriots acquired tight end Tim Wright from Tampa Bay on Aug. 26 for six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins. Wright had 54 receptions for 571 yards and five touchdowns in his rookie season, and made four catches for 43 yards in New England’s final preseason game.
The Patriots also brought in receiver Brandon LaFell, who had a career-high 49 catches in his fourth season with Carolina in 2013.
“We certainly have some new players, some new additions who are doing different things,” Brady said. “Different guys are playing some different spots. But everyone’s kind of got to find a role for themselves, and then we go out there and let it rip and see where we’re at.”
Those additions could help Brady top 4,000 yards for a fourth consecutive season and improve on last year’s 87.3 passer rating – his lowest in a full season since 2003.
The loss of Mankins, though, might not aid Brady’s chances of staying upright more in 2014. He was sacked 40 times, one shy of a career high and 13 more than in 2012.
Ryan Tannehill could empathize after enduring a league-high 58 sacks last season, which was also a franchise record. After a tumultuous 8-8 season, the Dolphins beefed up the offensive line and brought in former Philadelphia quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor to run the offense.
Lazor, who aided second-year quarterback Nick Foles’ rise with the Eagles in 2013, replaces Tannehill’s former coach at Texas A&M, Mike Sherman.
“It could be really good,” center Mike Pouncey said. “You’ve seen it last year with the Philadelphia Eagles. They obviously had one of the best offenses in the NFL. We’re hoping to go out and do the same thing with our offense. We’ve got the playmakers to do it.”
Branden Albert, a Pro Bowler in 2013 for Kansas City, is installed as the new left tackle and first-round draft pick Ja’Waun James is expected to anchor the right side. The Dolphins, though, likely won’t get Pouncey back from hip surgery until at least the end of the month.
In an NFL investigation of Miami’s bullying scandal last season, Pouncey was named as one of three offensive linemen who harassed Jonathan Martin along with Richie Incognito and John Jerry. The other three players are no longer with the team, but the Dolphins picked up the fifth-year option on Pouncey’s contract in April.
Pouncey was also served with a grand jury subpoena following a 27-17 loss in New England on Oct. 27 as part of the investigation of former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, currently awaiting trial on the first of three murder charges.
Defensively, the Dolphins won’t have lineman Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2013 draft, for four games because of a PED suspension. Starting safety Reshad Jones will also miss the first four contests after failing a drug test.
Darrelle Revis will make his debut on New England’s defense and try to help secure Belichick’s 200th career regular-season victory. The Patriots signed the five-time Pro Bowler on March 12, days after losing Aqib Talib to Denver.
Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork are hoping for healthier seasons after playing a combined 10 games because of a torn pectoral and a torn right Achilles, respectively.
New England had won seven in a row over Miami until a 24-20 road defeat Dec. 15 that allowed the Dolphins to clinch their first non-losing season since 2008. They went 11-5 in that campaign and made their only playoff appearance in the last 12 years.
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