Catching the Tuna: Revitalized Patriots Aiming At Own Success Story

Sam Hollingsworth@@SammySportsContributor IIMay 21, 2009

FOXBOROUGH - MAY 2: Coach Bill Bellichick watches during the New England Patriots Minicamp at Gillette Stadium May 2, 2009 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

The New England Patriots’ six division titles (and four Super Bowl appearances) over the past eight seasons brought plenty of clarity to the American Football Conference’s East division throughout the past decade, but last year’s battle-until-Week-17 fiasco kept the winner as open-ended as it was in the late '90s (when the Indianapolis Colts were still a part of the division). 

The up-and-down year among the four AFC East teams—the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, and Patriots—was anything but expected, with the Dolphins successfully resurrecting the Wildcat formation, as well as quarterback Chad Pennington, to take the division and make the playoffs, while the Jets nearly made a run of their own for the playoffs before falling along with Brett Favre’s aged arm.

Buffalo started the season off looking the most promising of all the teams in the division, and possibly the entire conference, but that quickly changed after the Bills had to start playing division opponents.

The boys from Orchard Park, NY, didn’t win a single game all season vs. an AFC East opponent, finishing a dismal 7-9 for the third straight year.

The Patriots had a crazy year of their own. With quarterback Tom Brady going down in the team’s season opener with a knee injury that ended his season, career backup Matt Cassel was required to step in and fill some big shoes.

Brady, the 2007 NFL MVP, was certainly missed, but Cassel did his best to lead New England as far as possible. Despite an 11-5 record among a plethora of team injuries, the Patriots fell short of the postseason, the first time a team with that record missed the playoffs since the 1985 Denver Broncos.

This year will certainly be another roller coaster ride.

The Jets released the nearly 40-year-old former league MVP (1995, ’96, ’97), Favre, and fired head coach Eric Mangini, who was soon replaced by Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.

Less than two weeks after being fired by the Jets, Mangini was hired as head coach of the struggling Cleveland Browns.

After both coaches began their new coaching journeys, Ryan and the Jets used a pre-draft trade with Mangini’s Browns to move into the No. 5 draft position to draft decorated University of Southern California quarterback Mark Sanchez.

And although Kellen Clemens and Erik Ainge currently remain higher on the depth chart at the quarterback spot, Sanchez has already taken on the role as the face of the New York franchise.

The Jets weren’t the only AFC East team working hard to fix the mistakes of last year, though.

The Buffalo Bills’ offseason was headlined by the acquisition of recently released Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens.

Owens, who is no stranger to rumors or the media, was signed to a one-year contract in a smaller market than he’s ever played in before, but, along with his Buffalo teammates, has had nothing but a promising outlook on the upcoming season.

Although Owens has had his fair share of plans go awry in the past (he’s yet to win a ring), if Trent Edwards stays healthy and gets the ball to Owens enough throughout the season, the Bills offense could put up a lot of points.

If the Buffalo defense does its share of hard work, the team could emerge as a legit contender in the AFC East.

Last year’s division champs, the Miami Dolphins, seem to once again be the Patriots’ toughest challenge to getting into the postseason.

With Bill Parcells steering the ship in Miami as vice president of football operations, along with second-year head coach Tony Sparano, who proved himself last year as a genuine leader, the Dolphins made an impeccable comeback in 2008, one year after winning only one game all season.

Utilizing a wide array of position players, including running backs Ronnie Brown and the previously suspended Ricky Williams, as well as Ted Ginn Jr. and Devone Bess, the Dolphins showed the rest of the league just how dangerous a properly run Wildcat offense could be, starting with a 38-13 thrashing of the Patriots in Foxborough, MA, in Week Three.

The addition of lethal West Virginia University quarterback Pat White—who can be used at multiple spots on offense, especially when running the Wildcat—in the draft should also have a large impact on the Dolphins’ success this season, depending on how much he is used.

White was Miami’s second pick of the draft (44th overall), preceded by Illinois corner back Vontae Davis (25th overall). Former USC wide receiver Patrick Turner (87th overall) also brings even more depth to Miami’s position-player personnel.

With New England losing both offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels and Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli to job opportunities in other organizations, the Patriots had to do some shifting to pick up the responsibilities left behind by their departures.

Make no mistake, Belichick approached these holes with urgency and is aiming at having his coaching staff prepared for the upcoming season in his normal, hasty way.

The return of Brady—who is said to be on track with his knee rehabilitation—as well as running back Laurence Maroney, should keep the Patriot offense potent and successful. The return of the Brady-Randy Moss combination is anything but settling with the rest of the AFC East considering they smashed records for both touchdown passes (50) and receptions (23) in 2007.

New England’s offseason acquisitions, including its first three draft picks—all of which are defensive players—and some seasoned veterans on both offense and defense only intensify the Patriots’ game plan.

Recently released Jaguars running back Fred Taylor and former Buccaneers (among other teams) receiver Joey Galloway will offer that veteran experience and fight often brought out by older players getting a second, or even third, chance in New England. We’ve seen that plenty of times before. (See Randy Moss, Junior Seau)

The bottom line is, in the AFC East, there can only be one winner and, like NFL fans learned last year, sometimes the result is painful. The fact that the Patriots didn’t make the playoffs with a record better or equal to more than half of the teams that did make the playoffs last year didn’t make Coach Belichick very happy.

And considering New England could have quite possibly represented the league more proudly than the Dolphins did in the Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens, Belichick won’t be giving up much slack—and definitely not to division rivals.

If anything, last year’s playoff-less debacle has done nothing but better prepare Belichick and the rest of the Patriots coaching staff for what to expect this season.

Regardless of how well Miami performed throughout the remainder of the season, a 25-point butt whoopin’ in Week Three certainly got the Patriots ready for future opponents and brought the once-thought-to-be-supernatural Pats down to earth.

As the regular season approaches, New England is the favorite to emerge from the AFC East yet again. That could hurt the team, with other teams using that doubt to fuel their resurgence, much like last year’s ’Phins.

On the other hand, Brady and Co. have been waiting to get back together and rip apart opponents each week in a fashion similar to 2007’s historic season. And with a new head coach and surrounding personnel in New York, expect the Jets to try to make a splash of their own.

Don’t count out the Bills just yet either. We saw what they were potentially capable of early last year when they beat four teams in their first four games of the season, although those were arguably the four worst teams in the league last year. The addition of T.O. and a healthy Edwards only builds a stronger argument.

There’s no doubt the AFC East is up for grabs, and this division is easily matching the gritty, tough-nose competition of its NFC counterpart, the NFC East. My money’s on the Patriots to have another bombshell season and win not only the AFC East, but the entire AFC.

But, then again, that’s why they play the game.


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