The talk of the New England Patriots' 2008 preseason was the play of the team's quarterbacks not named Tom Brady. The coaches put an emphasis on limiting Brady's snaps to ensure back-up Matt Cassel gained experience against NFL defenses. Cassel was less than spectacular in his August performances but the hope was that in the end it wouldn't matter, the New England Patriots are Tom Brady's team. Unfortunately for Pats' fans their worst nightmare came true before the team could get out of the first half of the opening game of the season. Tom Brady was lost for the season after suffering a devastating hit to the knee and Matt Cassel was handed the keys to the car.
The season's expectations, originally Super Bowl victory or bust, had to be immediately altered. For the first time since 2001 no one knew what to expect out of the New England Patriots. Whatever fans had as expectations following Brady's injury it is safe to say the Matt Cassel led Patriots exceeded them. Cassel led the Pats to a very respectable 11-5 and a first place tie for the AFC east crown. Despite scoring more points and giving up less than any team in the division the Patriots lost the division tie-breaker to Miami and missed the playoffs.
Now Brady is back and with his return comes the lofty expectations of a Brady-Belichick led team. Simply put the players in that locker room fully expect to win the Super Bowl. Call it a consequence of the culture coach Belichick has created with his success this decade. As a fan it's foolish not to set the bar as high as the coaches and players on the team set it. As crazy as it may sound my expectations for the 2009 New England Patriots is to hoist the Lombardi Trophy when the season is over.
Of course a number of conditions must fall into place for these expectations to be met. The first and most obvious is the health of Tom Brady. Early reports out of Foxboro are that the knee healed as expected and his light throwing has to be considered a good sign. Another good sign is the trading of Matt Cassel. Belichick is just too good of a coach to trade a boarder line pro bowl quarterback if he was not one hundred percent convinced that Brady was completely healthy. Still, nothing is guaranteed and a hesitant, self-doubting, unhealthy Tom Brady will quickly put an end to any talk of a forth Super Bowl title.
For all the talk of Brady’s intangibles sometimes his physical skills actually go underappreciated. No one would confuse Tom Brady for Michael Vick in terms of foot speed but no quarterback in the game moves better inside the pocket than Tom Brady. Tom Brady has what scouts call “phone booth quickness”. Brady has the ability to feel pressure and slide inside the pocket accordingly. All the while he is able to keep his eyes down field, shoulders square, and body in a position to make a strong accurate throw at the precise moment. If Brady finds that his new knee limits his ability to move in the pocket he will have a hard time replicating the success he had before the injury. Tom Brady’s health is the number one factor that will cause the Patriots to meet or fall short of expectations in 2009.
Going back to the last full game the Patriots played with Tom Brady under center the most glaring issue was pass protection. In the trenches the Pats were outplayed by a quicker and surprisingly more physical Giants' defensive front. Left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins, and center Dan Koppen are all above average NFL lineman. They all picked a bad time to have their worst games of the year but to think of them as unqualified is unfair. That is still one of the best left sides of an offensive line in the league. Right guard Steven Neal and especially right tackle Nick Kaczur leave little to be desired. Hopefully second round pick Sebastian Vollmer can blossom into an NFL starting right tackle and help sure up a unit that cost the team a perfect season in 2007. With a quarterback coming off season ending knee surgery a lack of pass protection will cause the patriots to crumble this upcoming season.
A last concern for the Patriots is an aging front seven for the 3-4 defense coach Belichick has perfected. On the line the second round selection of defensive tackle Ron Brace is evidence that the coaches would like to limit the number of plays for starters Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, and Richard Seymour. Look for Brace and back-up Jarvis Green to play significant minutes and help a unit that has piled up a lot of mileage over the years.
Linebacker, a staple of the three Belichick Super Bowl championship teams, is the biggest question on defense heading into 2009. Reigning defensive rookie of the year Jerod Mayo stepped up in a big way last season exceeding everyone’s expectations. Look for him to make the first of a half dozen of so pro bowls in 2009. After Mayo there are no sure things in the unit. Adalius Thomas is coming off a season ending arm injury. He will move from the middle back to the outside, a place where he will be able to utilize his elite pass rushing skills. If he is able to bounce back from his injury the Pats will need him to become an anchor for the defense. The aging Tedy Bruschi will play alongside Mayo on the inside. Bruschi is a step slow and lacks the big time play making skills he was known for in his prime. He gets by on smarts and experience but that can only take him so far. If last year’s undrafted free agent Gary Guyton or the newly signed Paris Lenon impress at camp look for one of them to see a lot of playing time this year. Pierre Woods, Tully Banta-Cain, and Shawn Crable will compete for the last outside linebacker position. Clearly there are more questions than certainties at the linebacker position and if the Patriots can not find players to fill in those roles it will prevent them from meeting the team’s expectations.
With Tom Brady under center and Bill Belichick pulling the strings the Patriots players and fans expect a forth Super Bowl title. If Brady comes back healthy, his offensive line protects him, and the defensive front seven finds adequate players to fill holes there is no reason to think those lofty expectations will not be met.