Las Vegas has them pegged as a 9.5-win team, a fitting home for a team seemingly wedged in the netherworld between mediocrity and championship contention. In the NFL, many teams are candidates for the playoffs. Few enter the year as true Super Bowl threats. And as the 2010 dawns, the Patriots are faced with an obvious decision.
Which are they going to be?Bill Belichick now is in his 11th season as the franchise mastermind, and never have the Patriots entered a season during his tenure with the uncertainty of this one. The Patriots look loaded on offense. They look young and vulnerable on defense. They are among the wildest of the preseason wild cards, a team with a coach and quarterback that prompt fear and respect around the league, with a transitional roster that comes with as many questions as answers.
As such, set your expectations accordingly. Don’t ask for too much. The Pats are likely to produce some eye-popping moments this season as surely as they are to produce some head-scratchers. It is all part of the process. And where the Pats rest at the end of this season is far, far more important than where they rest at the beginning, largely because the future of a once-dynastic franchise depends on it.
Especially now that Tom Brady is signed.
Especially now that Belichick has transfused the defense from a pair of drafts during which the Patriots made a whopping 24 selections.
Especially now that the NFL landscape is about to change with the threat of a work-stoppage.
Really, think about what could be at stake this season: only everything. For the past decade, the Patriots have been the elite franchise in football, playing in four Super Bowls and winning three. New England sufficiently dominated the first five years of the 2000s to the degree that some slippage in recent years hasn’t altered their premium place in history. It’s all about where you draw the line. And by taking down photos of the recent past at Gillette Stadium before work for this season even began, Bill Belichick himself effectively closed the book on one era in Patriots history while initiating another.
The Brady-Belichick Years, Part Deux.
In the big picture, even the most cynical of us (ahem) must understand what this year is. The Patriots deserve our patience and understanding, particularly through the first half of the season. There are likely to be some considerable growing pains here. The last eight games of this season should give us some clue as to exactly where the Patriots are headed in the longer term, and in the wise words of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, it is time to find who can in addition to who cannot.
This means you, Ron Brace, Darius Butler, Patrick Chung and Sebastian Vollmer. You, too, Brandon Tate, Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty and Jermaine Cunningham. The last players in that group have more time and latitude, to be sure, but the Patriots do not have a lot of time to waste as their coach and quarterback move further along their collective timeline together.
In this extraordinary decade that has marked the golden age in Boston sports history, we have learned a great deal about what it takes to consistently challenge for – and win - championships. Committed leadership. Bold decision-makers. Talent. Coaching. Teamwork. Mental toughness.
As critical as any of those elements is luck, which never should be overlooked. Tom Brady was a sixth-round selection. David Ortiz was effectively bought at a garage sale. Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett ended up here only because Greg Oden or Kevin Durant did not. Tyler Seguin is on the front page of today’s Globe only because the Toronto Maple Leafs were worse than anyone could have realistically projected.
All of those things were – or could be – potentially franchise-altering developments.
With regard to Belichick or Brady, none of this is meant to detract from their skill or accomplishment. It just means that they are human. In Belichick’s case, here’s hoping that the 2009 and 2010 drafts were more like 2003 than 2006. In the case of Brady, here’s hoping that 2010 and beyond are more like 2003 and 2004 than 2008 or 2009. What the Patriots have, for certain, is good leadership as they enter Part II of the Brady-Belichick Era. What they lack, at least for now, is some of the other elements that may well determine their success this year and beyond.
Let’s hope the answers are the ones we all want.
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