The average fan seems to believe that The New England Patriots dynasty has flat-lined. The popular media has buried Tom Brady, interred Bill Belichick, and cremated the idea that there is anyone of much value in the Patriot’s organization beyond these two passing icons.
But before we plant flowers on the grave of the Flying Elvis, perhaps we would be best served looking at a few of the particulars that have created this notion, and whether or not there is merit in these assumptions.
Perception #1: The last thing that the world remembers about the New England Patriots is Ray Rice skipping (rather effeminately) through their end zone in January after his second rushing touchdown to put the Baltimore Ravens up 21 points in the first quarter of their AFC wild card match-up. The Ravens went on to win the game by 18 points.
Conclusion: The Patriots defense is a shell of its former self and couldn’t stop a Pee-Wee squad. Two words: Leadership Void.
Reality Check #1: The Patriots defense ranked 6th in scoring defense and 3rd in yards allowed in 2009. However, the Patriots defense did surrender late leads to Denver, Indianapolis, Miami, and Houston to go 2-6 on the road. They also got demolished in the aforementioned Ravens game when playoff intensity escalated and they came out flat. This would suggest a lack of leadership in the locker room, a catch-phrase in New England in the off-season, likely caused by malcontent Adalius Thomas and his presumed toady, Shawn Springs, who was seen laughing at Thomas in his infamous “Snow Gate” press conference.
The void in leadership could also be attributed to the departure of stalwarts, Teddy Bruschi Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour who were sent out to other pastures.
The Patriots have made efforts to both purge toxic locker room players and add players with exceptional integrity in the off season, drafting five players who were captains of their college teams. Gone are bad boys such as Thomas and Springs.
Based on the overall statistics from last year, one would have to conclude that there is a tremendous amount of talent on the roster, which will blossom under the care of excellent coaching and a handful of veteran role players.
Perception #2: Tom Brady is past his prime and does not really care about football anymore.
Brady was photographed by paparazzi throughout the off-season getting foot massages from Gisele Bundchen, laying low in tropic locales, and, gasp, playing with his children. He did not report to the team’s optional off-season training program to spend more time on the West Coast with his children. As far as performance on the field, Brady choked during critical times during the season, including his three-pick performance against the Ravens.
Conclusion: Brady has essentially given up on football and will never be the same player as before Bernard Pollard demolished his leg in the 2008 opener.
Reality Check #2: Brady had the second best statistical season of his career in 2009, throwing for 4,398 yards and 28 touchdowns, completing 65.7 percent of his throws and earning a rating of 96.2. He put up these numbers while laboring most of the season with three cracked ribs, a broken finger on his throwing hand, and a shoulder injury.
Oh, and by the way, this was a year after he tore his ACL and MCL and spent the entire year in recovering from the surgery and in rehabilitation. As to the notion that Brady is no longer interested in football, one need look no further than several incidents in this year’s training camp in which Brady screamed at his offensive line for blowing a red zone play, at one point even calling them “fat cows.” (The latter epithet was likely a product of fatherhood, drawn from son Jack’s early readers such as “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon.” In this case, “The Cow Got Pushed Off the Line of Scrimmage and Into my Lap.”)
Brady’s fiery celebration after a first quarter touchdown by Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis against the New Orleans Saints tells you all you need to know about Brady’s competitive impulses, even at the ripe old age of 33. He is still determined to win, only this time, it will be using language that is a bit more suitable for a younger audience.
Now that he is healthy, a year removed from his knee surgery, the rest of the NFL should beware.
Perception #3: Bill Belichick is tired of coaching in the NFL and is past his prime as a head coach.
His mind is more on golf and fishing than on red zone efficiency and the 3-4 defense. At age 58, he is too old to want to withstand the rigors of being an NFL coach, particularly the long hours and little amount of time allowed to spend with family. Vince Lombardi stepped down from the Green Bay Packer’s head coaching position at age 55. Bill Walsh was 57 in his last year for the San Francisco 49ers. Bill Cower was 50 when he called it quits. Jimmy Johnson was 56 when he last coached in the NFL. Only a few exceptional head coaches, such as Bill Parcells and Don Shula, have made it into their 60s.
Conclusion: It is simply too difficult for an old man to fire up his troops to march into battle in the NFL.
Reality Check #3: What else would Belichick do? I don’t think that ESPN is anxious to get their hands on him. His press conferences could kill the dead (appropriately, his one cameo on television is at a funeral in the show “Rescue Me”). His typical response: “It is what it is,” has become a jingo in Foxboro, apropos of less than nothing. He was divorced in 2006 and his three children are grown up. Is he really that anxious to get home and watch reruns of “Everybody Loves Raymond?”
But aside from the emptiness that awaits him following his retirement, he bleeds footballs, literally, his blood is composed of liquefied pig skin. He nibbles on shoulder pads in the bowels of Patriots place and sips on the blood of the downed opposition, and has been slowly devolving into a Gollum-like creature over the past decade, thinly veiled in public with cut-off sweat pants and a gray hoodie. Think he’ll become a GM some day? Have you ever seen him put on a suit? He looks ridiculous. He would fit in at the front office like a dead cat would at a speed-dating meet-and-greet. No.
Belichick will coach until his head explodes and Xs and Os ooze out onto the field.
Perception #4: The offense is old at key positions and lacks depth of quality players.
Let’s begin with the offense. Tom Brady is 33 and has been in the league since Seal was popular. Their running back stable boasts three players (Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk, and Fred Taylor) who will soon apply for AARP cards. Receivers Randy Moss and Tory Holt have already bought adjoining rocking chairs and have started to begin every sentence with, “When I was a young man….” The offensive line is also old.
As for depth there, Logan Mankins is a holdout and will not be in camp anytime soon. His proposed backup, Nick Kazcur, is on the shelf with a back injury and is out “indefinitely.” The third man down the line, backup Dan Connolly, is untested, and behind him are a series of young unheralded players with bizarre names, such as Rich Ohrnberger, who are unproven.
Conclusion: Move over grandma...
Reality Check #4: The Patriots have drafted a series of young players to bolster their roster offensively, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and receivers Julian Edelman, Taylor Price, and Brandon Tate. All of these players are in their first or second year, and all appear to be the real deal, particularly Edelman who roasted the world champions in their first pre-season game for 133 total yards, most of them against the Saints first units.
Tom Brady lit up the league last year with three injuries and two good receivers last year. In 2006, he took the Patriots to the brink of the Superbowl with Reche Caldwell as his number one target. How do you think he might do with an offense loaded with young talent? Oh, by the way, Wes Welker is healthy. Some say he may wear down over the course of the season or not be able to cut as sharply as he has. Everyone has bet against this guy his entire career. Given how those assumptions have turned out, I’m not going to make the same mistake now.
Perception #5: The defense lacks quality depth, particularly at outside linebacker and defensive line, where the Patriots are thin and long in the tooth (what the hell does this expression mean?).
Last year, they had 31 sacks, good for 25th in the league in that important defensive statistic. Looking at the film, their QB hurries, hits, and pressures were all quite low as well. Many opposing QBs appeared to have enough time to build a house in the pocket before picking apart a suspect secondary. The run defense was atrocious, particularly during the Ravens playoff loss, surrendering 234 yards on the ground.
Conclusion: Jamarcus Russell could tear this group up, with a cup of purple drank in his left hand.
Reality Check #5: The Patriots did have a suspect run defense, ranking 13th in rush yards allowed per game. However, much of that can be attributed injuries to their two primary run-stopping studs on defense. Jerod Mayo hurt his knee in the first game of the season, missed three games, came back and was never the same. Vince Wilfork was hurt with three games to play, and came back only against Baltimore; rust was an issue. True, the team did miss Richard Seymour in run defense, as they tried to plug in Mike Wright and Jarvis Green, who was also banged up, to no avail. But they have addressed this gap in starter quality and quality of depth bringing in Gerard Warren, Damian Lewis, and drafting Brandon Deadrick, who is the real deal.
Middle linebacker will no longer boast role players such as Gary Guyton in starting roles. Second round pick Brandon Spikes had eight tackles against the Saints, mostly against the first unit, and plays like a veteran. He will start next to Mayo barring injury. The depth behind them is also much improved, with last year’s third round draft choice, Tyrone McKenzie and the previously mentioned Gary Guyton.
Outside Linebacker has widely been regarded as a position of weakness, but with the return of Derrick Burgess, the group suddenly offers solid depth, if not high-end talent. Burgess will likely start with Tully Banta-Cain. Many point to the fact that five of TBC’s sacks came against Buffalo, but recall that QB hurries, hits, and pressures are just as valuable, and he had a ton versus virtually almost every opponent (except for the Saints).
Behind these two is Marquis Murrell, who had a pressure and a sack on Drew Brees in the first preseason game. Fourth on the depth chart is second round draft pick Jermaine Cunningham from Florida, who has much in the way of potential.
The secondary picked up first round draft choice Devin McCourty to start as a nickel corner to support the likes of Leigh Bodden and Darius Butler, a second year player from UConn who has impressed in training camp. The trio, combined with playmakers Brandon Meriweather and Patrick Chung at safety, suddenly gives the Patriots a formidable secondary to compliment its pass rush.
They won't be a top five defense, but they'll probably be in the top ten.
Conclusion: Despite winning the AFC East last year with a record of 10-6, the Patriots were pantsed last year in the playoffs by the Ravens, unveiling a season of locker room turmoil and injuries at positions offering little depth. This year, with the walls of the locker room stripped of the images of past glory, the team appears poised for a monster season, restocked with young talent and depth at nearly every position.
While very few remain from the last Superbowl victory, shovel dirt on this group with a trembling trowel. With first ballot Hall of Famers Brady and Belichick in the coffin and glut of young upstarts lining the crypt, the Patriots may soon be eating your brains.