A week after the Patriots 2010 season ended sooner than I had hoped or thought, I am finally able to comment on it. That’s not bad, considering I’m still not fully over the loss to the Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl.
If we go back to before the season, there was lots of talk about the Patriots, none of it very positive. Having been thrashed by the Ravens at home in the first round of the playoffs, there were more than just whispers of trouble in Foxboro. Among the complaints heard:
• Bill Belichick is no longer a genius, or else he’s no longer the only one. He can’t draft without Scott Pioli, can’t coach without good coordinators, makes bad decisions (4th and 2), and loses every challenge (or else doesn’t challenge when he should).
• Tom Brady is too comfortable with his swanky life and sexy wife. He’s lost his passion for the game, doesn’t work as hard, and isn’t with the team enough.
• The offense is one-dimensional, lacking a running game, and Wes Welker may never be the player he once was before his ACL injury last year.
• The defense has lost too many veteran stars to be an effective unit. We need someone like Jason Taylor to bring leadership and toughness to the team.
• Bob Kraft is a cheap son of a bitch who won’t open his prodigious pockets to make the team better. He expects players to take a vow of poverty for the privilege of playing in front of Myra.
Then draft day comes and counter to every prediction by all the so-called experts (who also predicted a 2007 Super Bowl win), the Pats draft Devin McCourty, a cornerback who also has special teams skills. Fans and pundits are beside themselves in disbelief. Where have you gone, Scott Pioli?
(Oh, by the way, McCourty made the Pro Bowl and is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. His seven interceptions made a sorry secondary already depleted by the loss of Leigh Bodden to a season-ending injury competitive again.)
Then Kevin Faulk, one of the best all-around players in the NFL, let alone the Patriots, a tough, versatile back with an uncanny knack for turning 3rd and 8 into 1st and 10, went down with a season-ending injury. Matt Cassel had proven that even Tom Brady was not irreplaceable, but how do you substitute for everything that Kevin Faulk does so well?
(Does the name Danny Woodhead ring a bell?)
Randy Moss, the fastest mouth in the league, a deep (throat) threat unlike any the Patriots had had in the Brady era, finally talked his way out of Foxboro. Talk radio bemoaned the move, another proof point in the argument that Belichick had lost his marbles and intended to lose a bunch of games as well.
(Welcome back, Deion Branch. Hello, eight-game winning streak.)
Meanwhile, just as Tom Brady was once fourth on the depth chart, the Patriots regained a consistent running game this year, thanks to fourth-string running back BenJarvis Green-Ellis, who understood as Laurence Maroney never did that to gain yardage you need to run forwards.
(Duh. And thanks anyway, Fred Taylor, who only lost 15 games due to turf toe. When last seen, Taylor was recuperating somewhere with Jacoby Ellsbury.)
Against all odds, this Patriots team that no one but me believed in at the beginning – and even through the first quarter – of the season, went 14-2, beating some of the toughest teams in both conferences. The offense was frighteningly effective, the defense surprisingly opportunistic, and the special teams survived the loss of its star kicker to, yes, a season-ending injury and made a number of very special plays. We also managed to come up with one of our best punters ever, even after a mid-season change in long snapper.
So what happened against the Jets last week? Well, if you look back at the three total losses this year – two against the Jets, one against the Browns – one thing is apparent: the Patriots don’t lose close games. When they lose, they get their ass kicked. To beat the Patriots, you have to hope the Patriots don’t show up. Or else you have hit them in the mouth so hard they lose their will to fight.
That, I think, is what happened. Of all the teams in the NFL, the Jets and Browns are the two teams that the Patriots players should have been willing to die on the field to beat. The Patriots hate the Browns’ coach, and hate the Jets, period. Allowing those two teams to beat you – to beat your coach – is almost unforgivable. The games with the greatest emotional baggage attached to them are the ones the Patriots played worst in. Why is that?
I have no answer, other than to suppose that the Patriots don’t deal much in emotion. While this was a season in which Brady’s fiery demeanor on the field drew praise from fans and jeers from the Jets, in general the Patriots are more about finesse than ferocity. And the one thing that throws a finesse team off its stride is being punched in the mouth by an opponent that is playing on pure emotion. The Jets and the Browns took it to the Patriots this year, and the Patriots were lost when they realized Brady wasn’t going to have 20 minutes to find an open receiver.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the Patriot Way and I support Belichick’s decision to bench Wes Welker at the start of the Jets game because of his foot-laden press conference. But just because you’re not supposed to talk trash doesn’t mean you can’t flash some mojo. Tedy Bruschi had mojo to spare and he was an ideal Patriot. Look at how the Steelers played the Jets yesterday. It was as if Mark Sanchez was there to take food out of their children’s mouths. They played angry – and well.
After the Jets game, the radio experts had everything figured out. The young defense was exposed. We missed Randy Moss. Bah. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that sports talk show hosts know NOTHING. The fact is, sports is a human enterprise and past performance is only slightly indicative of future performance. Any given Sunday, a good team will lose to a bad team because someone didn’t sleep well the night before, or someone else is playing for a contract, or someone plays the game of his life while someone else plays the worst game of his life. If prognosticating were easy, lots of people would make lots of money betting on sports. It’s the human factor that beats any odds. The Patriots lost because they played like shit. Which happens. Period.
So what’s my verdict on the Patriots’ season? An unqualified success. It was not just a successful but also an exciting, surprising, and inspiring season. Good players went down, and good players rose up to take their place. Fourteen times, they came up with amazing ways to win. The 16-0 season was fun but it lacked drama. I knew before each game that the Patriots would emerge on top. The Matt Cassel year was in some ways more exciting because you didn’t know what would happen. This year, we blew out the scariest teams on the schedule and proved that the franchise wasn’t dead, Belichick was still a genius, and Brady was, is, and ever will be the best quarterback of all time. Even though it was nice to think that this year would bring another bone-chilling victory parade, we enjoyed four months of brilliant football.
One thing’s for sure: you’ll never find me saying, “wait ‘til next year.” That’s because I can’t wait for next year, when this defense has a year under its belt, when Belichick turns his piles of good draft picks into promising players, and when we get another chance to extend our second season. In fact, assuming the owners and players come to an agreement, “next year” begins this September. So thank you New England Patriots for a great year – let’s keep it going this fall.