There were a few blemishes beginning to appear on the New England Patriots' image as a football utopia. More than a few. These were full-fledged smudges, needing more than just some Windex and a rag to be wiped off.
The Patriots weren't winning Super Bowls anymore. The typical season had gone from 12 wins or more and a journey into January to 10 or 11 wins and an early checkout just after the arrival of the new year. Division races, originally over and done with by December, were needing every quarter of every game to be decided.
The Patriots hadn't become a bad football team. They weren't the Oakland Raiders, mind you. But they weren't the class of the league anymore. The rest of the pack had caught up.
The murmurs started after a playoff beatdown at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens in 2009. They weren't quelled when the Patriots went 14-2 but were one-and-done again at the hands of the arch-rival New York Jets, again on their own field.
But one year and an AFC championship later, those vibes are back. This offseason is reminding us that the Patriots, while not the AFC lock they were years ago, are just as admired a destination around the league as ever.
Consider how easy New England has had it while upgrading its receiving corps. While teams around the league spent big on players like Vincent Jackson and Pierre Garcon, the Patriots landed Brandon Lloyd for the modest price of three years and $12 million.
It's worth repeating. Three years, $12 million. For the league leader in receiving yards two years ago. Peanuts.
Sure, Lloyd was influenced as much by the opportunity to reunite with Josh McDaniels as he was by the opportunity to wear red, white and blue and play in Foxborough. But plenty of players in the past have spurned, or at least haven't offered discounts to, their former coaches.
Lloyd was coming to New England for almost nothing. He wanted to play for McDaniels, and he wanted to play for a team as well-positioned for a Super Bowl run as any other in the league.
Chad Ochocinco, meanwhile, was asked to cut his $3 million salary to $1 million. True, Ochocinco caught only one more touchdown pass than Terry Glenn last year. But such a request, especially when it means cutting a salary down 67 percent, would normally be met with, to put it lightly, an adamant refusal. Maybe even a laugh or two.
Ochocinco's response? Absolutely. All he needed to know was where to sign.
Ochocinco and Lloyd understood what was at hand. New England is making a run at the Super Bowl this year. The Patriots are as competitive as ever, and if being a part of that means sacrificing the checking account, so be it.
That's the way it used to be.
Veterans who were tired of toiling for losing teams did whatever they had to do to stay with New England. They took less money and suppressed their egos. Corey Dillon, who wore out his welcome in Cincinnati, barely spoke as a Patriot. Rodney Harrison got a free agent offer from New England and didn't consider any teams after that.
Players wanted to play for the Patriots, but that wasn't always the sentiment. During the 2009 season, linebacker Adalius Thomas feuded with coach Bill Belichick, and it was believed that cornerback Shawn Springs was in on the act. Logan Mankins went to war with the front office over his contract in 2010 and '11. Randy Moss wrote his own ticket out of town when he called the Patriots cheap before the 2010 season.
Now, it's trending back. Two receivers, one on the wide-open market, just did whatever was necessary to either join New England or stick around. Getting back to the Super Bowl can do wonders for your image. Go figure.
The Patriots aren't a dynasty anymore. Maybe the mystique is a thing of the past as well. But they still command respect. Their draw is as good as it's ever been.