What a difference a year makes.
The New England Patriots had one of the most tumultuous seasons possible in 2008, following a year they nearly went 19-0, and this year—the Patriots’ 50th anniversary season—has much to offer in regards to possibilities. Many questions remain for the once near-perfect Patriots, and only time will tell what is truly in store.
The biggest news of the fresh season is obviously the return of 2007 league MVP and the team’s mastermind quarterback Tom Brady.
After suffering a season-ending knee injury in last year’s season opener versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Brady is said to be successfully rehabbing his surgically repaired knee, as well as the rest of his body, and expects to come back stronger than ever before, and ready to play, according to various reports from both ESPN and The Boston Globe.
The trade of stand-in star Matt Cassel to (ironically) Kansas City in the offseason, along with longtime defensive star Mike Vrabel—for little compensation—backed those reports to the fullest extent.
There are other obvious changes heading into the new season that could spoil the Patriots' run at another Super Bowl title as well. Departures in the front office that will have an evident impact include former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels becoming the head coach of the Denver Broncos and former Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli being hired as general manager of the (not-so-ironically) Chiefs.
McDaniels ran the Patriots’ high-octane offense and Pioli helped build the empire that won three championships in four years. They will both be missed, but if any team is known for replacing vital parts of their football program, it’s the Patriots.
On top of front-office departures, injuries plagued the Patriots last year, and it wasn’t just Brady. Key players missed significant time, including Brady’s fellow injured reservists, running back Laurence Maroney, linebacker Adalius Thomas, and safety Rodney Harrison.
Along with the injury of Maroney, the New England backfield was banged up throughout the year, with Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan both missing multiple-week spans throughout the season, forcing undrafted rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take on a secondary role behind team captain Kevin Faulk.
Green-Ellis did well, like most Patriots do; they know how to step up.
And, while Pioli acquired Cassel and Vrabel in Kansas City, McDaniels scored Jordan, wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, and long snapper Lonie Paxon to help him in Denver. Cornerback Ellis Hobbs left Foxborough too, following former teammate Asante Samuel to Philadelphia when he was traded on the second day of the NFL Draft for picks.
Trading away one of the strongest remaining pillars of its troubled secondary, as well as a solid special teams player, from last season in Hobbs is an unexpected move, but it seems the team is headed in a different direction with an outlook on what’s best in the process to win games.
Second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo had an outstanding rookie season last year and, along with recently re-signed young cornerback James Sanders, are expected to emerge as the new leaders of the New England defensive unit.
“(Coach Belichick) felt like I was a guy that, when things got rough on the field, the guys can rally behind,” Sanders told the Patriots official Web site after re-signing.
But what do all these departures mean for the Massachusetts Minutemen?
The answer remains to be seen, but Coach Belichick has been hard at work at this since the end of his final game last year in Week 17.
Players come and go. So do coaches. But what Belichick brings to his team hasn’t gone anywhere: his mentality. This team, behind Belichick, has a goal. They know what Belichick wants. He wants to win. He wants to win championships. He wants to win rings. His players follow.
That’s why the Patriots haven’t gone away since winning those Super Bowls in the early 21st century. They haven’t experienced the horrified fall from grace because they are too resilient. Sure, they lost their latest Super Bowl—perhaps the biggest game most of the guys on that team will ever play—but it doesn’t mean great things can’t still be achieved. Or that new players in similar jerseys under the same direction can’t achieve greatness.
And that’s Belichick’s outlook.
The success of last year’s team with Cassel under center is proof it can happen.
Plus, with all of the offseason departures, come acquisitions.
The biggest offseason signing, other than retaining Sanders, is probably former Jaguars veteran running back Fred Taylor. The 33-year-old (who was born the same year as Faulk) was released from the Jags after 11 seasons, and the Patriots didn’t hesitate to bring him in. Same with veteran wideout Joey Galloway, who is just a few years shy of 40, but can certainly still catch a football.
New England also brought in tight end Chris Baker, who was released by the New York Jets early this year, along with seasoned cornerback Shawn Springs, who was also released in February by the Redskins. The long-snapper hole left by Plaxton was quickly filled with free agent Nathan Hodel, and defensive players Leigh Bodden and Tully Banta-Cain, among others, were added to the roster in the weeks leading up to the draft.
These moves were done to clear room for incoming draftees, many of whom were selected to help mold or enhance the revamped Patriots defense. It was no secret last year that New England’s defense was their weakness, even with a back-up quarterback and depleted backfield on the other side of the ball.
To resurrect that weakness, the Patriots used their first three draft picks to obtain defensive cast members. Their first pick (34th overall), Oregon’s Patrick Chung, is expected to harmonize the deep secondary, complementing third-year safety Brandon Mariweather and possibly returning veteran Rodney Harrison, whom still has not re-signed with the team.
The team's third pick (41st overall), University of Connecticut cornerback Darius Butler, looks to be another promising addition to the overhauled secondary. Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace, picked up with the second pick (40th overall), will be added to an already aggressive defensive line, along with late picks Myron Pryor (sixth round, 207th overall) and Darryl Richard (seventh round, 234th overall).
The team's sixth pick was used to pick up Tyrone McKenzie, a linebacker from the University of South Florida, but he was lost for the season in minicamp with a torn ACL. They used their fifth pick to take University of North Carolina receiver Brandon Tate, who is expected to be groomed into a leader in the following years on the offensive side of the ball.
On May 5, the Pats added safety Brandon McGowan to the roster as well, one day after signing seven other players to both sides of the ball. They also added five free agents to the team on April 30, including quarterback Brian Hoyer, the same day tight end Alex Smith was acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for an undisclosed selection in next year’s draft. Expect him to play a big part in the Patriots' game plan this year.
To say that the Patriots have been busy in the free-agent market the past few months would be an understatement. And, chances are, they’re most likely not done.
But where does this all put the team one year after missing the playoffs with an 11-5 record?
If the team can remain healthy and the new guys gel with the existing members and personnel, it’s simple: They're dangerous and soon to dominate.
For opposing teams, especially those of the AFC East that got a few wins in on the Pats last season, expect another legendary run by the 50-year-old party poopers. Last year was painful for Belichick to watch, and for that, we’re all going to watch him spoil many games with bolstering victories. Again.
The New England Patriots are the little kid down the street who, no matter how bad you wanted him to, just wouldn’t go away.
Don't forget: Randy Moss and Wes Welker haven't gone anywhere.
The Patriots may be one of eight teams to celebrate it’s 50th birthday this year, but look for Belichick & Co. to be adamant their team finishes better than the rest of those teams…well, all of the league’s teams.