Under Pressure: The 2009 New England Patriots
2008 was a down season for the New England Patriots. 2007 NFL MVP Tom Brady played half a quarter before being tackled low by Bernard Pollard of the Kansas City Chiefs, tearing his ACL and MCL, and missing the rest of the season.
The Patriots bounced back to finish 11-5, but missed the playoffs. I assure you, Bill Belichick is not happy.
Heading into 2009, Patriots fans, management and players must all be expecting the same thing: a return to 2007 form not only from Brady, but the whole roster.
The sting of the last minute loss to the Giants in Super Bowl 42 lingers because last year presented the Pats with no real opportunity for redemption.
Look for a highly motivated team to be firing on all cylinders early in the season, as the preseason will be spent getting Brady re-acclimated to the speed of the NFL game.
This slide show presents five players or groups of players who enter the season with higher expectations or scrutiny, and four groups or players entering the season with lower expectations or scrutiny.
Given the team’s success in 2007 and the 2008 injury to Brady, many expect this season to be filled with the same offensive fireworks and run at glory as 2007, so expectations are high for all players.
I’ll try to point out those who will be most or least under the microscope if they fall short.
1. Tom Brady and the Wide Receivers
Tom Brady’s excellence has come to New England every fall just like brightly colored leaves and apple pie. It makes most New Englanders just as happy, too. Despite his injury, Brady has said he’s working as hard as he ever has to come back at full form.
The first preseason game against the Eagles saw Tom complete ten of fifteen passes for two TDs, exactly 100 yards, and one INT. Despite the overthrow to Randy Moss turned INT, this game confirms that Brady’s well on his way to tossing the pigskin around with his usual ease and accuracy.
Randy Moss and Wes Welker share in the lofty expectations surrounding the quarterback. Both have excelled in the Patriots’ system, and with a second year of building a rapport with Brady, should put up the same gaudy numbers they did in 2007.
Will Moss break his own single season touchdown reception record? I doubt it, but you cannot count him out. Will Welker catch 150 passes? Again, I doubt it, but would anyone be really surprised if that happened?
Belichick and the Patriots will look to score points like they did in 2007: through the air and often, so Brady & Co. need to perform.
2. Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather
Don’t forget, the Patriots won three Super Bowls with great defense. I find it impossible to credit one particular group, as all the units had studs playing at their highest level.
Jerod Mayo looks like another stud. In his rookie campaign, Mayo led the team with 128 tackles, 100 of which were solo. With a first round pedigree, fans will expect Mayo to morph into Tedi Bruschi "2.0." All signs look positive so far, but that’s a real leap.
Brandon Meriweather is another first rounder who is coming into his own. Now that Rodney Harrison has retired, Meriweather and rookie Patrick Chung will be counted on to man the safety spots, along with James Sanders.
Shawn Springs will be the veteran leader of the secondary, but expect Meriweather to be the group’s top performer, after picking off four passes last year.
3. The Defensive Line
This group has been so good for so long that it almost goes without saying, but they key the Patriots defense. When Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork team up with Ty Warren to penetrate the opposing offensive line, the Pats become hard to run or throw against.
Warren’s groin is currently hurting, but if he’s not ready for the regular season, newly acquired end Derrick Burgess or rookie nose tackle Ron Brace will be called on to fill in.
There’s an interesting subplot here, because Wilfork’s contract is up at the end of the year, and the club drafted Ron Brace out of Boston College in the second round, who has the size and strength to replace Vince at the nose tackle spot in the three-four defense.
Don’t mistake me, Wilfork is an elite talent, and Brace hasn’t proved himself at all yet, but this may be an unspoken message to Wilfork that no player is irreplaceable. Look for Wilfork to have a monster year to earn himself a monster contract, a la Albert Haynesworth.
4. The Coaching Staff
Another unspoken strength of the Patriots is preparation for opponents down to minor details, allowing them strategic advantage week in and week out. I may be blocking something from memory, but I cannot recall the Patriots being out-coached in a game while BB has been at the helm.
This is not limited to Belichick. Dante Scarnecchia, the offensive line coach, has been coaching O-line men for decades, and always finds a way to use the skills of his players to protect Brady.
Despite a veritable merry-go-round in the coordinator positions, Belichick seems to bring in quality individual after quality individual, so expect nothing different this year.
5. Lawrence Maroney
Will he ever stay healthy? Will he ever become the runner he shows in flashes, sometimes whole weeks at a time, who hits holes, regularly breaks through to the second level, and makes defenders miss?
Originally, I thought Maroney was going to be a quality starting back in the NFL, but I have little confidence in his abilities at this point. It seems the coaching staff feels the same way, having brought in Fred Taylor this offseason.
Maroney is talented in spades, but something hasn’t clicked yet. If it doesn’t soon, how long Maroney will occupy a roster spot becomes much more in doubt.
I believe he’ll remain the entire season, but without improvement, not much after that.
1. Chris Baker
Here begins the “low scrutiny” section. Patriots fans expect Benjamin Watson to be the starting tight end, and he likely will be. However, the favorite TE pass target of Tom Brady may be Baker.
He may increase expectations if he catches two touchdowns a game for the rest of the preseason.
For now, however, Baker looks like a solid back up TE who may emerge as the year goes on.
2. Julian Edelman
Here’s hoping this athlete finds his way into the mind of Bill Belichick when he makes his final roster for the 2009 season. Able to play quarterback, run, return kicks and punts, and play wide receiver, Edelman is a chameleon type that Belichick loves (see Brown, Troy).
He has already had an electrifying moment, having returned a punt 75 yards for a TD against the Eagles, and he caught 5 passes in that game to boot.
If Edelman can carve himself a niche, perhaps in a Wildcat formation, if the Patriots decide to give that offense a try, I expect he will become a fan favorite.
3. The Young Cornerbacks
The Patriots have spent a number of draft picks in recent years acquiring corner backs. They’ve also done work in free agency to address this need. The Patriots have four CBs who have less than three years pro-experience, Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, Darius Butler and Jamar Love.
None of these backs have been featured in the defensive backfield yet, particularly the rookies, so they are moderately unknown.
Despite their anonymity, someone needs to cover opposing wide receivers, and one or more of these gentlemen will need to emerge. Luckily for them, any expectations are split among them all and the workload probably will be as well.
4. Brandon Tate
On the 2009 Patriots, expectations begin and end with the offense, so let me fittingly close on that note.
With Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Joey Galloway ahead of him, Tate will be able to learn from some of the best and most experienced wide outs playing pro football today.
Additionally, they will be expected to shoulder the burden of giving Tom Brady open targets down-field. Tate will be able to learn the playbook while gaining comfort, and hopefully grow while in the presence of the greats. Also, working with Brady must be a thrill for a young wide out.
If Tate is able to assimilate quickly, he may find his way into games, but if he doesn’t, the Patriots already have a number of receivers who can do the job.