Like many of its fellow founding members of the American Football League, the New England Patriots have a full slate of colorful campaigns planned for the 2009 season to recognize the 50th anniversary of the AFC forerunner’s genesis.
Most visibly, the team will don their classic throwback uniforms worn from the 1970s until the early '90s, pulling their former trademark red home shirts and white “Pat Patriot” helmets from the Gillette Stadium equipment room vault to treat their fans to a taste of the old days—when Billy Sullivan was in the owner’s box and the concrete bunker where they played professional football in Foxboro was still known as Schaefer Stadium.
[Worth noting—as much as fans have openly begged to see more of this color scheme since its demise at the reformative hands of Bill Parcells in 1993, no one, absolutely no one ever demands the return of Schaefer’s formerly popular beer to Gillette Stadium, even as its contemporaries Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz have enjoyed something of a renaissance.]
The last time that the Patriots broke out the old red and whites several years ago, any Patriots fan who lived through the comically moribund years in which the rags were the official team colors was tickled positively pink by the sight of Brady and Bruschi playing in them like the titans of the field turf they’d become.
For, other than that one ill-fated run in 1986, the Pat Patriot unis mark a time in the team’s history when excellence was the rarity, versus the annual measuring stick.
Peering ahead into 2009, the current iteration of the Patriots would seem far removed from those hapless Red Shirts that manned the gridiron during the lion’s share of the era that produced these historic throwbacks.
If things go as planned, they’ll have their all-time great quarterback Tom Brady back under center, not the ill-fated Tommy Hodson, and be coached by sure thing Hall of Famer Bill Belichick, not Rod Rust of the historic 1-15 annus horribilis.
But at the same time that these current Patriots seem most unlikely candidates to become league doormats like their futile forebears, there remains a long list of questions that stalk this roster, remaining elements of which only a few seasons back carried the franchise to three titles in only four years.
The questions begin just one rung below the owner’s box, where Bob Kraft and his family can still take tremendous pride in having rescued the franchise from its history of painful incompetence.
For after years of a model marriage between team executive and coach, Belichick must figure out if he can recreate the same magic he fostered alongside his partner Scott Pioli, who departed for Kansas City and a new rebuilding effort after serving as the Pats’ vice president of player personnel since 2002.
Pioli’s front office fingerprints are unquestionably all over each of the Lombardi Trophies that the Pats’ players he helped plug into the coach’s team-first system won on the playing field.
Beyond that sizable task of executive retrenching, Brady, the world’s most glamorous quarterback, must prove that his rebuilt knee can carry the high-flying Patriots offense back to the top of the league.
The star’s new bride model Giselle Bundchen may never have needed a lick of plastic surgery to augment her natural splendor, but no one has yet seen a close-up of Brady’s newly scarred left leg which will carry the hopes of the entire franchise onward for the foreseeable future.
And with superstar backup Matt Cassell gone to join Pioli on the Chiefs, a cast of understudies offering no more credibility than Brady’s rebuilt ACL and MCL waits in the wings to see if Mr. Stetson cologne still has all the right moves.
Then there’s the Pats’ defense, the core of the team’s fabulous championship run, which over the last two seasons has looked increasingly less dominant, and at times even surprisingly vulnerable, especially considering Belichick’s recognized skill in aligning on-field talent with his complex, attacking game plans.
Stalwarts including linebacker Bruschi and franchise end Richard Seymour must prove that they can still get all the necessary stops to keep Brady and Randy Moss on the field, while youngsters including safety Brandon Meriweather and linebacker Jerod Mayo need to step up and replace outgoing Patriots stars like Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel.
On the offensive side surrounding Brady, running back remains another question mark.
Will free agent acquisition Fred Taylor be more like the title-winning import Corey Dillon or represent yet another backfield fumble a la Marion Butts?
Or will any one of Taylor’s collection of playmates in the form of Mssrs. Morris, Green-Ellis and Maroney step forward to provide the team with the authoritative rushing attack it has lacked since Dillon’s final healthy seasons?
Wide receiver might be the only place on the field where the Patriots would still appear stacked, but even the formidable Moss is 31 years old, and one has to wonder how many more cold-cock hits Wes Welker can absorb with his diminutive frame like the one he took from Steelers safety Ryan Clark last December. Backing the two stars is list of far lesser proven talents.
The offensive and defensive lines should also remain team strengths, as always, but the aging process continues to play out there as well as Pro Bowlers Light, Mankins, and Koppen put their bodies to the test for another grueling NFL season.
On defense, big bodies Seymour, Wilfork and Warren must reload and attempt to see if they can win the league’s interior pile pushing contest once again.
And then there’s special teams, where smothering coverage, airtight kicking, big plays and turnovers have been the difference in many a Pats victory, but where turnover is the order of the day in 2009.
Not only is longtime special teams guru Brad Seely gone to coach under Belichick alum Eric Mangini in Cleveland, but also departed is veteran long-snapper and snow angel Lonnie Paxton (a spendy free agent acquisition by Pats alum and new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels), along with hard hitting specialist Kelley Washington.
As the 2009 Patriots suit up for the season, the only thing that appears to be set in stone is that there are as many question marks hovering over this team as there are certainties, despite the fact that many prognosticators expect them to return to the form that won them a perfect season and prime shot at a fourth title until coming undone in the final quarter of Super Bowl XLIII against the Giants.
Will the 2009 Patriots be a throwback to that dominating status? Will they revert to the shortcomings that made them an also-ran in years like 2008?
Or could they somehow return Patriots Nation to those cold, miserable days when the original red-shirted teams got the stuffing knocked out of them by just about everyone visiting the frigid grey confines of Foxboro the former?
We’ll only know the answer for sure when the 2009 season is history.