As Patriot Nation finally eases into the offseason, it's incredible to think about how many teams were settling into their vacation way back on New Year's day. Now, finally, with everybody taking a collective breather, it's beginning to feel less like a vacation and more like the calm before the storm.
We're about to get slammed all over again with the combine, the draft and free agency. For all intents and purposes, the 2012 season has already started.
For some of us, our brains are caught somewhere in time between 2011 and 2012. On one hand, we reflect on a season that fell a catch short of total glory. On the other hand, we look ahead to a new season and another shot at that which has eluded us since 2004.
For those readers caught between 2011 and 2012, this article is for you. Consider it a helpful transition guide, and here's hoping it gets your juices flowing for the battles ahead.
Here are eight reasons New England Patriots fans should be optimistic in 2012.
You're thinking about the dreaded Super Bowl hangover. You're thinking about the monumental strain of getting back to the big game. You're thinking about what happened to the Packers and Steelers in 2011, and you're realizing that the Patriots and the Giants are doomed in 2012.
Relax. There's good news.
The Patriots are the only team in the league to hit back-to-back Super Bowls since the Tom Brady era began back in 2001.
Eleven seasons have come and gone. In all that time, only your New England Patriots have made it to consecutive Super Bowls. Amazing.
So, while the prospect of climbing Mount Everest for a second straight time seems like a daunting task, it's nothing that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick haven't done before.
Patriots fans will eventually recover from Super Bowl XLVI, but Ravens fans will never recover from the 2011 AFC Championship. That made the season worth every penny.
It's generally unwise to attribute a team's success to one player, but I have to make a rare exception in the case of Sterling Moore. His endzone strip on Lee Evans was the defining moment of New England's 2011 season, and he was the reason why the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XLVI.
Undrafted out of Southern Methodist University, Moore is quickly proving himself to be a tricky cornerback in the NFL. He denies passes with a unique brand of physical wit, and he seems to be getting wiser in a relatively short span of time. He routinely shows flashes of future excellence and his football IQ is remarkably high.
Moore has something I call "Ray's Memory." It refers to Ray Allen's short-term memory when it comes to shooting; even if he's 0-for-20, he'll shoot the next one as if he's 20-for-20. He always believes the next one's going in. Moore displayed some of this short-term memory in the AFC Championship.
His overall performance in that game easily could've been defined by his missed tackle on Tory Smith, which led to a Ravens touchdown. But the kid was unfazed by his mistake, and he went on to break up two key passes in Baltimore's final drive.
Ultimately, Moore was the hero of the game. In fact, he was the hero of the season.
When you consider the fact that the guy who won the AFC Championship doesn't even have a jersey for sale on the Patriots website, that should get you very excited. It means he's still in a state of becoming, and we have the privilege of witnessing his evolution in 2012.
Moore is the player to watch next season. He's only 22 years old—and he's about to be huge.
When Pierre Garcon is up for grabs and nobody cares, you know the free agency list must be stacked with superstars.
This isn't an ordinary free agency season. This one is special.
The store is open and championship pieces are for sale.
Mario Williams, Cliff Avril, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Reggie Wayne, Mario Manningham, Cortland Finnegan, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Tracy Porter, Carl Nicks, Robert Mathis, Brandon Carr and Brent Grimes are on the market, and that's just the abbreviated list.
Good thing the Patriots brought their wallet.
New England has upwards of $20 million to work with, and some wise purchases could make all the difference between a good season or a championship season in 2012. Money isn't an object—it's simply a matter of spending it wisely.
By the way, DeSean Jackson, Mike Wallace and Stevie Johnson are up for grabs (hint hint).
Patrick Chung once blocked a field goal, blocked a punt and returned a pick-six in the same game. Kyle Arrington led the league in interceptions last season. Tom Brady just threw over 5,000 yards. Wes Welker was second in the league in receiving yards. Vince Wilfork is an elite beast. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the best tight end duo in the NFL. BenJarvus Green-Ellis has never fumbled, and Stephen Goskowski has the highest accuracy percentage for a kicker in Patriots history.
That's your team, folks. If you don't make a single change during this offseason, you'd still have that group of guys. You could roll out of bed late and still ace the test.
Guys like Danny Woodhead, Devin McCourty and Julian Edelman haven't even blossomed yet. Can you imagine how good this team will be if they start finding their grooves?
The Patriots are stacked from top-to-bottom. Without making any changes, this is still a top-5 team with a serious shot at Super Bowl XLVII.
Naturally, I would still advise making improvements through free agency. But while other teams must make improvements, the Patriots have the luxury of choosing to make improvements. That's power.
The Steelers are who they are. The Ravens are who they are. The Patriots, on the other hand, are not who they will be.
In 2011, the Patriots were still deep in the process of rebuilding.
Brandon Deaderick, Mark Anderson, Nate Solder, Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley, Matthew Slater, Brandon Spikes, Danny Woodhead, Julian Edelman, Sterling Moore and James Ihedigbo were all used in new and experimental capacities.
Yet somehow, despite the fact that none of these players fully bloomed in 2011, they all pitched in and played key roles in getting the Patriots to the Super Bowl.
Just about every other team in the NFL should be scared to death about that.
Teams that are in the process of rebuilding should not be playing in the Super Bowl. Your team just did. Not only is that a testament to their fantastic coaching and the raw talent on the roster, but it shows just how good they'll be when they finally become who they want to be.
If some of our younger players hit their stride in 2012, the Patriots will be scary. With a few wise acquisitions on the free agency market, the Patriots will be downright frightening. If our tight ends and our quarterback stay healthy, the Patriots will be unstoppable.
Next season will be the first year this team shows everyone what it is they've been building towards.
That's a big reason to get excited.
If Welker returns to the Patriots, he will make the big play in the next big game.
This is neither an endorsement for or against Welker, this is simply a fact. If Welker returns, he's catching that ball next time.
How much is he worth? That's a different story altogether. But we can take solace in the fact that he won't ever drop that ball again.
If the Patriots make it to New Orleans for the Super Bowl next season, he'll want the ball in his hands. If Brady calls a time out and climbs inside of an airplane and flies up 50,000 feet in the air and drops the ball with a minute left in the fourth quarter, Wes Welker will find a way to catch it.
He'll probably get tackled right after that, but at least he'll get the first down.
Well, Patriot Nation, we have now officially experienced everything.
We won the Super Bowl with our backup quarterback in 2001.
We didn't make the playoffs in 2002.
We won back-to-back Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004.
We lost the Super Bowl (and a perfect season) in 2007.
We lost Tom Brady in the first quarter of the first game in 2008, and didn't see him again for the rest of the season.
We lost the wild card round in 2009 to a team we hate.
We lost the divisional round in 2010 to a team we hate.
We lost the Super Bowl in 2011 to the same friggin' team that beat us in the last Super Bowl.
That's it, folks. You can't get any higher or any lower than we've already been. Now, we can relax and breathe. From here on out, we can just play some football. We can enjoy watching our young team grow and fully appreciate the last few years of Brady's career.
No matter what happens in 2012, we'll be prepared for anything because we've already been through everything. It's a great time to really start appreciating all of the special moments this team has brought us over the years, and all the special moments they'll bring us in the years to come.
Hands down, still the best quarterback in the NFL. Aside from Joe Montana, there's not another quarterback in the history of the game who comes close. And after all this time, he's still ours.