Between 2001 and 2004, Bill Belichick led the Patriots to three Super Bowl victories and elevated the franchise to a level of extreme success, which created a radical culture of winning. With that culture came a somewhat oppressive climate of expectation, whereby the team ceased to be measured by the yardstick of division titles or playoff appearances and solely by the weight of championship hardware.
Since then, Belichick has been successful by everyone's standards but his own.
To figure out if Belichick is on the verge of meeting the standards he set during those dynasty years, we need to understand the team he's constructed. What's their identity? Just who are the 2013 Patriots?
Let's explore the matter, beginning at the most obvious place: Inside the mind of the mad scientist who assembled this monster.
Beyond Belichick's instinctual genius for scouting, schemes and situational football, his true greatness is in getting his players to believe that no single man keeps the team afloat. No matter who goes down with an injury, the team believes they'll survive. No, they'll do more than survive, they'll flourish.
Plenty of coaches preach this philosophy, but few are in a position to mean it.
If quarterback Aaron Rodgers goes down, the Packers are toast. If quarterback Peyton Manning goes down, the Broncos are toast. The Falcons are toast without receiver Julio Jones. Just about every team in the NFL is one injury away from being toast.
But the Patriots are never toast.
Back in 2008, quarterback Tom Brady went down in the first game of the year. Season over? Toast? Nope. Backup quarterback Matt Cassel came in and led the Patriots to an astounding 11-5 record.
That's a Bill Belichick team.
Even with linebacker Jerod Mayo and nose tackle Vince Wilfork sidelined for the 2013 season, the Patriots are still on the right track. It doesn't make any sense at all. When a team loses two defensive captains, they should be done. Finished. See ya next year.
But the Patriots march on with confidence, even when it defies common sense. This is the root of Belichick's greatness. His team is always "in it," even when they shouldn't be.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski hasn't played a snap this season, yet the team is still 5-1. Receiver Wes Welker is gone, but they're still 5-1. Tom Brady has thrown fewer yards this season than Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, Jets quarterback Geno Smith, Giants quarterback Eli Manning and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub—yet the team is still 5-1.
Belichick's ability to keep his team consistent in the face of change and adversity is his greatest trademark. It's this element of his coaching, even more than his five Super Bowl rings (three as a head coach and two as a defensive coach), which will define his legacy.
But, here's where things get dicey.
The change and adversity that the Patriots always need to compensate for is often a result of Belichick's decision-making. This, to me, is the biggest source of frustration when it comes to Belichick. He runs this franchise in such an absolute manner, it doesn't seem as if there's anyone to rein him in.
He drafts whoever he wishes to draft, even if it's a big gamble and there's better options left on the board. He lets productive players walk. He passes on available free agents who can improve his team. He buys players who are too old or too banged-up, simply because he loves getting deals and maximizing dollar-for-dollar value.
He's a genius, but even geniuses need someone to slap a ruler across their knuckles every once in a while and say, "Hey, don't do that."
Case in point: Someone should've said, "Hey, don't get rid of Welker."
Welker should still be in New England. There's no rhyme or reason why he's in Denver catching 37 balls for 378 yards and eight touchdowns through six games. He should've been a Patriot for life.
Belichick's reason for letting Welker walk remains unclear. Maybe it was a matter of the receiver's age. Maybe it was a matter of proving a point to a particular player, agent or fanbase. In a word, maybe it was ego. It's a mystery.
What isn't a mystery, however, was the plan to replace Welker with "similar-on-paper" Danny Amendola. It was a tablecloth trick. Belichick planned to pull out the tablecloth and show everyone how the plates and wine glasses and trays hadn't moved.
But, of course, the plates and glasses and trays have spilled. New England's offense is noticeably anemic (20.8 points per game) and Denver's offense is noticeably potent (44.2 points per game).
Here's the most pressing question: Why attempt this tablecloth trick at all?
Welker was at the top of his game last season (118 catches, 1,354 yards), and he was showing no signs of slowing down. More importantly, his durability is something to marvel. He had one season-ending injury in 2009, but he came back stronger afterwards. Same thing happened with Brady after his injury in 2008; both him and Welker bounced back better because they were born to play professional football.
The same can't be said for Amendola. He has the right mentality and the right spirit, but he doesn't have the right body. He was falling apart back in St. Louis. He couldn't even make it through New England's preseason. He's played three games this year and now he's dealing with a concussion.
Like Amendola, megastar tight end Rob Gronkowski doesn't have a football body, either. He couldn't even get through his breakout season of 2011 in one piece. He was injured for the most important game that season, the Super Bowl, which the Patriots lost to a team that's now 0-6.
While everyone walked away from the 2011 season thinking Gronkowski was the greatest tight end on earth, I walked away from that season thinking his body couldn't ever be relied on.
Gronkowski followed that season with a mangled 2012 campaign, in which he cobbled together 537 fewer yards than his effort from the previous year. He played sporadically because of his injuries. He was absent during the 2012 AFC title game, then he had five surgeries over the offseason.
He hasn't played at all in 2013. All we've heard thus far are useless updates on the situation. Here's the most recent one, straight from Gronkowski's mouth:
I'm just improving every week, that's all, really. I mean, like I said, nothing's changed man, and nothing has changed the whole time. And just the one thing that has changed actually is that I'm improving every week and it's going good.
Absolutely meaningless. Really, the only thing you can take away from that quote is that you can't rely on him to play, which you already should've known.
Gronkowski and Amendola are not the keys to winning the Super Bowl. They can't be. They're too broken, too unreliable. If they're healthy during the playoffs, if they're healthy during the Super Bowl, then great. That would be awesome. It's like having found money to invest with. But it's a mistake to count on having that money in your back pocket.
The fate of the 2013 Patriots will come down to the faces you've been seeing on the field, guys like undrafted rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, rookie Aaron Dobson and veteran Julian Edelman. Those three guys amount to New England's chances to win it all. They're out there, earning your trust and mine. They're doing a fantastic job.
Are those guys good enough to win it all?
Did you see that final drive of the Saints game? All three of them made huge catches. New acquisition Austin Collie had a pair of nice catches on that drive, as well. What you saw in that drive is the blueprint. That drive, plus the fact the defense held New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham to no catches, was the first real glimpse of what the 2013 Patriots are capable of.
Speaking of the defense, they've done a stellar job of keeping this team together while the offense works out their kinks. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard have been excellent. This is a championship secondary.
The pass rush hasn't blossomed yet, but there's time. Defensive end Chandler Jones is getting there, but he can be even better. Defensive tackle Tommy Kelly's health is critical from a leadership standpoint. It'll be interesting to see what rookie defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Jamie Collins bring to the table; they both have the potential to be studs.
As it all comes together, Belichick's "next man up" mantra will continue to keep the team marching forward. They've been decimated, doubted and left for dead. What kind of broken, beaten-down team is 5-1 and looking so good? A Belichick team, that's what kind.