Since the final seconds of the game ticked off the clock, Pats fans' boos have filled the chilly New England air. Cries of “The Dynasty Is Over!” have echoed in the words of sportswriters all over the country, and it seems like a waste of time to rehash the countless claims that the Patriots’ ride at the top is over.
There is a different point to be made—one nobody is bringing up—that deserves attention, though.
The New England Patriots were a better team last year.
Now, don’t mistake this claim. This is not intended to be a Tom Brady-bashing diatribe. One shaky season and one really awful game can’t erase all Brady has done.
That said, the fact remains, the Patriots were a better team last season. Team is the important word here, and it’s going to be crucial to New England going forward. While many thought the Brady-less season was a lost year for the Pats, it’s going to be important for them to evaluate that year in order to see the holes they need to fill in the 2010 offseason.
So what made the '08 team better than the '09 one?
To start, there is the obvious—the ’08 team won 11 games to the ’09 team’s 10. In a cruel twist of events, the ’08 squad did not make the playoffs, but that was because the Dolphins came out of nowhere with their wildly effective wildcat formation. It was a fluky circumstance that the ’08 Patriots fell victim to.
But where the 2008 team really separated itself from the 2009 one was in grit and cohesion.
The 2008 team had a lot of veterans still on the roster. They had, to name a few, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, and Tedy Bruschi. These were guys who were familiar with the Patriots' system and bought into the Bill Belichick way of life.
They also provided invaluable leadership for the 2008 team.
Now, back to the quarterback. When Brady went down, most people gave up the 2008 season as lost.
But the 2008 team did not. The players rallied around Matt Cassel and took the responsibility of winning onto their own shoulders.
Then offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels put together a diverse, effective system for Cassel to run.
And give credit to Cassel, because he was highly criticized throughout but performed very well in his first season as a starter in the NFL.
Mentally, not having Brady made the entire Patriots team realize each member was more accountable for every win. Without No. 12 to save the day, every player needed to show up.
Just look at star wide receiver Randy Moss. When Brady’s knee exploded, many predicted that Moss would grow frustrated with his new quarterback if he wasn’t getting the ball thrown his way enough.
Instead, Moss was made a captain and toed the line. There weren’t scandalous reports about Moss giving up on plays or cutting off routes. Nor did Moss’ talents go unutilized, as he ended the season with 11 touchdown receptions, one of which came in the final seconds of the thrilling Jets/Patriots matchup in Week 11. Moss’ catch in the corner of the end zone sent the game in to overtime.
Now, look at 2009.
Mental toughness was considerably lacking in the Patriots locker room. More than once Brady pointed this out, and New England’s road record confirmed it. This year, the Pats' only road wins came against Tampa Bay in London and against Buffalo.
While losing Brady in 2008 galvanized the team, getting him back in 2009 may have led players to believe they could cruise on his coattails back to the Super Bowl. True, the veterans were gone, and you can’t build veteran players over one season, but nobody stepped up to fill the void.
This is the NFL, and while some athletes stand out, everybody has talent. Yet nobody seemed to bring their skills to the field, nor could the locker room generate leadership outside of Brady.
Belichick did not help with his coaching decisions. In an ESPN The Magazine article that ran before the 2009 season began, Belichick admitted than one of the mistakes that led to his failure in Cleveland was a lack of management. He admitted that he didn’t delegate responsibility well and therefore players and assistants were often waiting on him for a decision. Basically, he bit off more than he could chew.
After McDaniels left, Belichick never named a true successor. This may have been the reason that the 2009 offense became so incredibly predictable.
Here’s a thought about coaching and game planning. In 2009, the Patriots had a week to come up with a game plan without Wes Welker and lost. In 2008, the Patriots had a week to come up with a game plan without Brady and won.
Perhaps Moss demonstrated the change in the Patriots from 2008 to 2009 the clearest. Maybe he thought it would be easier once Brady was back and that he wouldn’t have to play as hard, maybe not. But 2009 saw Moss looking lackluster in several outings, including the final game against Baltimore, in which he was virtually invisible.
Finally, there was 2009 Tom Brady. Again, I’m not one of those people who denies his talent or thinks he is a bad quarterback. However, from the season opener to the final playoff game, Brady never seemed comfortable out there. In some games he showed flashes of his old self, but the 2007 Brady did not return this season.
His body language seemed off, especially in the Ravens game. Perhaps, deep down, Brady knew this team just didn’t have the grit to make a playoff run.
There are a lot of factors to go along with this, a lot of reasons why the following statement might not be entirely valid. However, one could argue that 2008 Matt Cassel did a better job of living up to the mythical 2007 Tom Brady than 2009 Brady did.
But there is good news for the Patriots. New England fans should look, of all places, to the LA Lakers of the NBA (I’m aware of the irony).
The Lakers' dynasty goes back to the very beginning of the NBA. It proves that a good organization can keep a dynasty going.
In 2008, the Lakers lost to the Celtics in the NBA Finals in a very embarrassing series in which LA was physically manhandled and mentally steamrolled (sounding familiar, Pats fans?).
Yet, in the offseason, the Lakers saw their problems, their lacking defense, and their need to become a tougher team, both mentally and physically.
The Lakers also had two NBA greats in their corner—superstar player Kobe Bryant and legendary coach Phil Jackson.
Losing so badly also revved up the 2009 Lakers and gave them an identity and a competitive edge.
The result? The Lakers made it back to the finals the next year and won.
See, Patriots fans? A dynasty does not need to end because a new nucleus is developing.
Now, New England and Belichick should look at what they had in 2008 (as well as 2007) and work on getting it back for 2010.