Even as the New England Patriots carry an impressive 7-2 record into their bye week, many fans are still wondering whether or not it's safe to buy into them. This team has already shown foreboding glimpses of heartbreak ahead; some are afraid of getting too close.
True, this team has looked ugly all year, but another word for "ugly" is "gritty." And sure, it's been inconsistent, but at 7-2, you could just as easily say it's "consistently found different ways to win."
Anyway, what's so bad about the Patriots being gritty and inconsistent if they're getting the job done?
Heck, the Boston Red Sox just won the World Series that way. Ugly at times? Check. Chasing an impossible goal as the world's ultimate redeem team? Check. Nobody wanted to get close to them either. Everybody rightfully had their guard up. But, little by little, the Sox chipped away at everyone's soft spot.
The Sox embraced their persona as an improbable crew of misfits who outplayed the limitations of their "on-paper talent." They looked to a different player each night to get the win. They were ugly, gritty, frustrating, exciting and entirely consistent in the fact that they weren't consistent at all.
And now they're World Champions.
The Patriots share some similar characteristics to the Sox: new faces, raw talent undergoing growing pains, chemistry issues and massive doubt about how far a low-talent team can go.
They say superstars win championships, but that's only partially true. The 2001 Patriots and the 2007 New York Giants are proof that underdogs can achieve the impossible.
And sure, a superstar-studded Chicago Blackhawks team won the Stanley Cup last season, but a misfit Boston Bruins team won it two years before them. There is balance in the world.
What adjustments can the Patriots make during and after their bye week to make a realistic march toward the Super Bowl? To properly analyze the question, we need to look at who they've been so far this season.
Former Patriots linebacker and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi really put it best in his weekly Q&A on ESPNBoston.com last week, when he described the Patriots as "buying time" through their first nine games. That's a quality assessment from a quality guy.
The Patriots have been playing without any finesse, grinding out games, playing smart situational football at key moments and essentially stalling until running back Shane Vereen, receiver Danny Amendola, tight end Rob Gronkowski and cornerback Aqib Talib are back to full strength.
In scraping together a 7-2 record, they've put themselves in a position to really take off when they become whole again. That's when they'll be able to get back to true Patriots football.
But, here's the rub: They want to get back to Patriots football, but how can they "get back" to something that hasn't been established yet?
We've never seen Vereen, Amendola, Gronkowski and Talib healthy at the same time. And aside from Week 1, we've never seen Amendola and fellow receiver Julian Edelman tag team as the legendary "one-two punch" they're capable of being.
Really, what the Patriots are trying to "get back to" is a vision of something they could be.
It's a bit surreal and trippy, but that's what's going on here.
This is the root of the primary adjustment that needs to be made during and after the bye week. It's about getting healthy, sure, but it's really about establishing a rhythm, a mood and a persona that's befitting of a championship squad.
It's a question of identity. The Patriots don't have one. Their identity is stuck like a cat in a tree; everyone's waiting for Tom Brady to get the cat down safely. It doesn't work like that.
As Bruschi wisely put it during an interview on ESPN's SportsNation: "This isn't basketball, where all you need is LeBron James and you're OK. This is the game of football, where you need contributions from a lot of players in all three phases of the game."
True, Brady can do more as a leader. And he should. He needs to emotionally take charge because everyone else is just too inexperienced to do so. However, his arm alone will not win a world title.
The bottom line is this: If the Patriots intend to win a championship, they need to find an identity that has nothing to do with previous seasons and previous incarnations of the team. That process of discovery starts now on their bye week.
For an example of a championship identity, think about the Baltimore Ravens last season. They looked good throughout 2012, but did they really look that much better than they looked in 2011 or 2010 or 2009? Not really.
They looked about the same; you knew they were going to be in it for the long haul, you knew they'd give the Patriots some trouble, but you figured they'd probably fizzle somewhere in the postseason, as they usually do.
It really wasn't until Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis announced his impending retirement last January, during the postseason, that the change happened.
Something invisible shifted, but you could feel it. All of a sudden, the Ravens looked possessed by some empowering ghost. Instead of looking like a team that would eventually break, they looked like a team that would break anyone in its path.
In retrospect, it all made sense.
Quarterback Joe Flacco was in a contract year, and the "elite debate" was at an all-time high; it was truly a make-or-break time for him.
Receivers Jacoby Jones and Torrey Smith had amazing seasons. Elder statesmen Ray Lewis and Ed Reed were so obviously on their last legs and in search of that final blaze of glory. Their head coach was playing against his brother in the Super Bowl, which added some spice to the mix.
That, plus a dozen other little things, came together and formed Baltimore's championship identity.
These are the "retrospect moments"—things that only make sense after the team has hoisted the ultimate prize.
That's how football goes. You play a whole season to figure out who you are. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you get to December and January and February and realize you've been a team of destiny this whole time. You look back and realize it was all spelled out, clear as day.
For the 2013 Patriots, a team that's spent nine games "buying time," it remains to be seen whether or not all of this adversity they've been through will be the championship elements that make sense in retrospect.
Perhaps, next summer, we'll be looking back and saying, "Of course Gronk and Vereen and Amendola were injured that whole time; they needed to be missing because their absence allowed Player X and Player Y and Player Z to emerge as studs and make the championship-winning plays."
Or, "Of course they needed to lose to the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets in the first half of the season, because that afforded them the mental toughness and schematic know-how to beat those types of teams in the playoffs."
Or, "Of course Brady needed to have one of worst first-halves of a season in his career, because that's what allowed him to explode for the best second-half of a season of his life."
Point is, the main adjustment the Patriots need to make during their bye week is figuring out who they are. And here's the point-by-point summation on their "to do" list:
They need to elevate rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins back to the level he was at before he was made a healthy scratch against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's too talented to slip down the depth chart. He and fellow rookie receiver Aaron Dobson are comrades who feed off each other. The team needs both of them to succeed together.
Rookie receiver Josh Boyce needs to have a voice, a presence, something. He's too talented to be as invisible as he's been. Find a way to get him involved, even in some small measure. Even if he only makes one big play this year, it could be a play to win a playoff game. He's that kind of player. We'll stomach the growing pains because the end will justify the means.
Julian Edelman cannot be allowed to regress to the days where he was known only for his prowess on special teams. Granted, his tremendous 43-yard punt return was a huge play in the Steelers game, but still, he's too talented to go backward. He's a ball-catcher. Keep pushing him to flourish as a receiver.
On defense, it's time for defensive end Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont'a Hightower to make the sophomore leap we kept talking about during the offseason. Jones has been sensational, and Hightower has been improving, but now's the time for them to start leaving their fingerprints on games the way Aqib Talib does. Jones, especially, needs to be one of the most dominant players in the league. It's time.
They need to keep pushing the secondary to reach new heights. Cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington haven't been perfect (Arrington especially struggled against the Jets and Steelers), but overall, there's good chemistry here. Keep developing cornerback Logan Ryan. This unit is crucial to the team's success.
And finally, here's the key adjustment: They need to consider not "buying time" and just embrace the fact that the team is ugly.
After all, it's not like this team won any rings when they were averaging over 32 points per game in 2007 and 2011, so why plot a return to those days?
And also, on the subject of finesse vs. ugliness, consider this: Quarterback Peyton Manning has been a finesse guy his whole career, but he only has one ring; his brother, Eli Manning, a much uglier slinger, has twice as many rings. And also, Eli put up fairly mortal numbers when he won two rings. So, at the end of the day, who really cares about finesse?
Stay ugly. Get meaner. Hit harder. Understand that being a flawed team can be a good thing. It can be a unifying factor which elevates an unlikely group of guys to new heights.
Ask the Red Sox, they'll tell you.