They begin preparation for the 2008 season not only as favorites, but as punch lines.
Eighteen-and-one. Itís not only a sure sign of their greatness of a year ago, but also of their epic failure.
Never before has an NFL team entered training camp with such a lopsided winning record armed with much to prove and even more to forget. The Patriots open training camp today in Foxborough looking to improve on an 18-1 campaign that ultimately left them thirsty in the desert five months ago, choking up the opportunity for history.
In six weeks, it all begins anew again for the Patriots, spygate, perfection, David Tyree, and Mercury Morris all in the rear-view mirror. Today, step one in their rehab, a process that wonít really be fully rectified until they fulfill themselves with another Super Bowl victory.
Training camp wonít dull the memory.
A season-opening win wonít dull the memory.
Sixteen wins wonít dull the memory.
The only thing that will help ease the pain of the Super Bowl loss to the Giants is another Super Bowl win. And even then, the pain will never be fully rectified.
The Patriots missed out on more than just another Super Bowl, they missed out on history, a record of perfection that would be impossible to top. They would have been the team that all others were ultimately compared to, the golden standard for NFL dominance, flying in the face of controversy.
Their last regular season loss came on Dec. 11, 2006 at Miami. They are 19-0 in regular season games since that point; just 4-2 come postseason.
Of course, itís time to look ahead as far as the Pats and their fans are concerned, but that doesnít mean there will be a lack of revisionist history. The target is still there, square on the backs of a team that most of America hates for their controversial coach, pretty boy quarterback, and brash wide receiver.
Spygate or no spygate, that perception isnít going to change.
And so the Patriotsí 2008 Revenge Tour picks up its initial steam at training camp this week, planting the seeds for what the team hopes is a Super Bowl-winning campaign. They enter an NFL world where they are no longer on top, but one where both Manning brothers can claim back-to-back Lombardi trophies.
They enter a 2008 season where Tom Brady rested his injured ankle by surfing with Gisele. They enter their revenge campaign with major questions in the secondary and the annual injury concerns from Richard Seymour, whoís creeping on overrated status with each ensuing season. They begin training camp with the coach likely doing some soul searching, Bill Belichick probably wondering if he allowed himself to get so wide-eyed over his teamís record-breaking offense that he lost his ways of defensive principle.
They enter the 2008 season as the best team by far that the NFL has to offer. But they donít have a trophy to show for it.
The odds of this season being another 16-0 campaign arenít likely, which is fine as long as theyíre still in the mix come February. But even then, if redemption does finally take place for this team, what will it all mean? How will we look at Feb. 3, 2008 in the future? Will it be forgotten, just a painful memory to log in with Yankee Stadium, 2003, Shea, 1986, and New Orleans, circa í86 and í97? Or will it remain something more, a missed opportunity that will never leave a New England sports fanís consciousness?
A Super Bowl win would seem to dull that pain too. But how often is perfection at stake?
The Providence Journal's Jim Donaldson writes:
Now, at long last, Pats fans can officially forget about last season and look ahead to the coming year.
It's OK if the Patriots lose a few games this season. Just as long as they don't lose the last one.
They don't have to be perfect. They just have to better than everyone else.
Maybe they will be. But perfection? That's not a mark easily attained, and is at stake so rarely that to lose the opportunity isn't something easily forgotten.
They begin anew both celebrated and ridiculed. Theyíre not perfect, not NFL champs, nothing but an AFC title to show for an 18-1 mark.
Things can only get better.