INDIANAPOLIS - Were the 2006 New England Patriots a success?
Absolutely. While the pain of Sunday's 38-34 AFC title loss here to the Colts still throbs, it's clear that in the final four of the NFL playoffs, there really isn't a loser.
As defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said, "They came out and played some great football (in the second half). We played our hearts out. That's all you can ask."
When you look around the field and see the likes of Eric Alexander, Rashad Baker, Reche Caldwell and Tully Banta-Cain taking regular snaps in the AFC title game, you almost had to wonder how this team got here.
Then you see the coach, Bill Belichick, and the quarterback, Tom Brady, and you begin to realize.
With these two here, this franchise is guaranteed to compete in the playoffs annually.
There might be near-misses like 2002 or dominant seasons, like 2003-04. The difference is, of course, the performance of the supporting cast around them.
Summing up the 2006 season, you'd have to grade the Patriots an overall B+. This team never stopped scrapping and clawing. That said, lets take a look at the roster, alphabetically, with their individual grades for 2006 and where their future with this team lies:
Eric Alexander, LB (C-)
Solid special-teamer, but showed little at linebacker.
On the horizon: There's always a spot on an NFL roster for athletes who cover kicks. He's been a solid special-teamer and valuable in coverage.
Willie Andrews, DB (C)
Fast and fearless. Again, a threat in the kicking game. Overcame injuries to help this team, a quality Belichick loves.
On the horizon: He'll get more action covering kicks and could even get a shot in the return game.
Rashad Baker, S (C+)
Not bad for a mid-year waiver grab. Saw time at safety in AFC title game after two other playoff inactives.
On the horizon: Can he make this team with all eyes on him from April to September?
Tully Banta-Cain, OLB (C)
So close to cashing in free agency off of huge playoff start against Jets. Then, he got exploited by San Diego and sat much of the day vs. Indy.
On the horizon: A free agent who can rush the passer (5.5 sacks this year), he'll probably become a millionaire elsewhere.
Tom Brady, QB (A)
The only thing saving this grade from an A+ is the lack of a Super Bowl. He's the franchise and proved it again with a shabby cast around him.
On the horizon: With him, you've got a chance for a title every year. A Hall of Famer already, with at least five more years of greatness ahead.
Wes Britt, OL, (C-)
Big, strong and progressing. Still, he's seven or eight on the depth chart with nine inactives on his resume this year.
On the horizon: He's a nice insurance policy to have around.
Troy Brown, WR (B+)
Earned a solid B after having to earn a spot in training camp. Gets extra credit bump for legendary strip in San Diego.
On the horizon: A well-deserved retirement with a cushy job on this club's administration. He's an all-time legend who overachieved, but the tank is way down low.
Tedy Bruschi, LB (B)
Effort means everything. He's slowed at 33, but he's still this team's life blood.
On the horizon: All the best if you hang up the cleats for good, Tedy. You, like Mr. Brown, are a champion and a warrior.
Reche Caldwell, WR (B-)
Led the team with 61 catches for 760 yards. That said, he is rather ordinary, a No. 3 receiver at best.
On the horizon: Can he take the No. 3-4 role from the aging Brown? Has he topped out in a career year?
Matt Cassel, QB (C)
Held well on PATs and looked solid enough in the preseason to lock up a stronghold on the No. 2 spot behind Brady.
On the horizon: He's one dynamite preseason away from becoming prime trade bait. Advanced in the offense, he's smart and reads well.
Bam Childress, WR (D)
Nagging injuries hurt, but didn't make the jump from a surprise rookie season.
On the horizon: He'll be in a fight for his life to make this club next year.
Rosevelt Colvin, OLB (B-)
Team leader with 8.5 sacks, but he fattened up on the weaklings. A serviceable pass rusher, but we're still waiting for a giant impact.
On the horizon: Locked up contract-wise, he's a positive on a defense in need of them.
Corey Dillon, RB (B-)
At 33, he's easing into retirement via the Jerome Bettis short-yardage role. Scored a team-high 13 TDs.
On the horizon: One more year as Laurence Maroney's mentor is probably the way he's headed. Only the future will tell if he's a positive or a detriment to the rookie's progression.
Heath Evans, FB (B)
Earned his keep on special teams with inspired play. A character guy, he's a Belichick favorite.
On the horizon: Every team needs character guys like this. He's a quality role-playing veteran.
Kevin Faulk, RB (B)
Twenty-three fumbles in eight years with two this season. His hands are the only thing that have kept him from growing into Dave Meggett's role.
On the horizon: Good guy, team guy, a tremendous third-down threat.
Jabar Gaffney, WR (F regular season/B+ playoffs)
Reclaimed career at age 26 with playoff work (21 catches, 244 yards).
On the horizon: Gets a clean shot to establish himself with full offseason and training camp in '07.
Stephen Gostkowski, K (A-)
A big-time booter with eight postseason field goals in as many attempts. Huge surprise
On the horizon: A decade of solid field-goal work and kickoffs.
Daniel Graham, TE (C)
Just not enough of a threat for a guy that Belichick moved up in the draft to get.
On the horizon: He's a free agent, a quality guy with a good work ethic. He'll get some calls for his services.
Jarvis Green, DE (C+)
Second on the team with 7.5 sacks. Fits the fourth lineman role brilliantly.
On the horizon: He'd probably like more playing time and plays like it every time he gets the chance.
Rodney Harrison, S (Incomplete)
Two major injuries cost him more than half the year. Tough to figure.
On the horizon: He's 34 and the road back will only get tougher with age.
Artrell Hawkins, S (C-)
Veteran battled and steadied things in midseason crunch when Harrison and Eugene Wilson went down.
On the horizon: Love to have him back in a backup role.
Marquise Hill, DE (D-)
He only dressed for four games and isn't showing any signs of progress.
On the horizon: How long will Belichick keep this project alive?
Ellis Hobbs, CB (D)
He occasionally makes big plays but too often gets stung. Talks like a lead corner, plays like a nickelback.
On the horizon: Can be explosive but needs to grow up and deliver on weekly basis.
Russ Hochstein, G (C-)
Sixth-man on a five-man unit.
On the horizon: Solid veteran fill-in at guard and center.
Larry Izzo, LB (B+)
Special teams captain delivered his best year at age 32.
On the horizon: Life is day to day on the suicide squad, but Izzo remains a stalwart in the kicking game.
Chad Jackson, WR (F)
The early injury set him back, but he never got going. How bad did it get? He played over 15 offensive plays vs. the Colts and nobody ever thought of him as a receiver.
On the horizon: He's got a long way to go, starting in April.
Nick Kaczur, OT (C-)
Worked hard and overcame injuries. That said, he got beat often and struggled in his drive-blocking chores.
On the horizon: Is he really better suited as a guard in the pros?
Kelvin Kight, WR (D)
A fringe player at best.
On the horizon: A project, but showed life in special teams.
Dan Koppen, C (B)
The captain on the O-line. He's smart, makes all the calls and selects the coverages. He's a tough, nasty pro's pro.
On the horizon: He, like the rest of the starting O-line, is locked up long-term and will start here for years to come.
Matt Light, OT (B)
Struggled some against the league's top rush men. He overachieves for his size and athleticism. Just not a marquee left tackle.
On the horizon: Is he really better suited to be a right tackle?
Logan Mankins, OG (B-)
Getting better daily. Tough and nasty, now needs to stop with the dumb penalties.
On the horizon: If there was one complaint on the O-line, it's the lack of run blocking.
Laurence Maroney, RB (C+)
Looked like the next Deuce McAllister in the first half of the year. Then, he either hit the wall or got banged up and never recovered.
On the horizon: Will the real Laurence Maroney please stand up.
Corey Mays, LB (C)
Free-agent rookie made nice progress, especially on special teams. A keeper.
On the horizon: Baby steps, folks, but it's nice to see him adapt and soar in the kick-coverage game.
Ray Mickens, DB (C-)
Off-the-street pickup, filled the reserve role of dime nicely.
On the horizon: He's 34 and free to go wherever he wants. Maybe he'll stick around.
Gene Mruczkowski, OL (C-)
He's a fringe linemen, a system guy.
On the horizon: An insurance policy here because he's learned well.
Stephen Neal, OG (B)
Coming into his own. But again, where's the push on this offensive line?
On the horizon: He's a solid middle guy who's signed long-term and is only going to get better.
Ryan O'Callaghan, OT (B)
Split time, starting six games at right tackle. Not bad for a rookie.
On the horizon: Has size and skills to stick around and produce in the tackle for a top caliber offense.
Lonie Paxton. Long snapper (B)
No missed snaps all year.
On the horizon: You don't hear anything from him, and that's a positive. No news is good news.
Asante Samuel, CB (A)
The top playmaker on defense. A dozen interceptions. He moved among the top 20 corners in the NFL.
On the horizon: Will the Pats put up the cash to pay him or will he be coaxed away by a multi-million dollar deal elsewhere?
James Sanders, S (C-)
After four weeks, the grade was a clear F. He did make some decent strides.
On the horizon: Good news, bad news. The good? He's become a horse on special teams. The bad, he's not ready to play safety on a championship defense.
Todd Sauerbrun, P (C+)
Admirable midseason pickup. Looked super vs. Indy with 51.4 yards a boot.
On the horizon: He'll get the invite back if he so desires, but it will be a dogfight if Josh Miller recovers from shoulder woes.
Chad Scott, S (D)
The team lost a little confidence in him down the stretch, dictated by his performance.
On the horizon: He's 32 and fighting for every minute he hangs around in this league.
Richard Seymour, DE (B+)
Nagging injuries to his arm and knees cost Seymour a prime season, but he was still extremely productive. Teams still avoid him like the plague.
On the horizon: He's the anchor on the team's greatest strength, the defensive line. Expect an angrier, healthier Seymour in '07.
LeKevin Smith, DL (D)
Rookie dressed for only three games while he learned the pro game.
On the horizon: He's someone to watch in camp next summer.
Antwain Spann, CB (C-)
A pleasant surprise in the kicking game.
On the horizon: He might have shown enough in eight games to earn another look at camp in 2007.
Vinny Testaverde, QB (A)
Solid insurance policy.
On the horizon: Enjoy the little spike in your NFL pension, Vinny.
David Thomas, TE (C)
Great hands. Looked superb when he got the chances.
On the horizon: If he can work his routes and get open a bit more, he could supplant Graham and Ben Watson at TE.
Mike Vrabel, LB (B+)
Cerebral leader. Versatile. Superb worker.
On the horizon: He's 31 with a couple prime seasons left.
Ty Warren, DT (A+)
The dominant trench player on the franchise. Pats defensive player of the year, and he's just hitting his stride. His 117 tackles were monstrous.
On the horizon: If he doesn't make the Pro Bowl in '07, scrap the system.
Benjamin Watson, TE (D)
So much was expected of Watson and he comes through with a mediocre 49 catches for 643 yards. He's got bad cases of the bobbles, drops and fumbles (3).
On the horizon: Will he ever scratch his potential?
Vince Wilfork, DT (A)
Blue-collar, run-stuffing force in the middle of the line. Finished with 46 tackles in 13 regular-season games.
On the horizon: Only injuries can slow this potential monster.
Pierre Woods, LB (C)
Just what you wanted to see out of a free-agent rookie. Earns a uniform in camp. Works hard in the system and ultimately made 11 special-teams tackles in eight games.
On the horizon: He's one of the youngsters to watch in a linebacker corps needing help.
Mike Wright, DL (B)
Great second-year move out of the former Cincinnati Bearcat. Filled in beautifully on the nose for Wilfork. Another chip on the D-line pile of gems.
On the horizon: His emergence could force Belichick to seriously consider a switch to the 4-3 set permanently.
A whopping 13 Patriots finished the year on the injured reserve, some there before they even got started.
Of punters Josh Miller and Ken Walter, only Miller will actually get a chance to return and make the club.
Running back Patrick Pass will have to earn a roster spot after a lost season.
Defensive backs Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson are starters if healthy, and Tebucky Jones is a proven special-teams cover man.
Corners Mel Mitchell and Gemara Williams are longshots to return.
Linebackers Junior Seau, Don Davis and Barry Gardner are all 30-somethings, whose pro days have to be numbered.
Rookie tight end Garrett Mills showed good things before being sidelined in November with a leg problem.
Billy Yates will again look for a reserve offensive line spot if his leg injuries heal.