Why Everything Boils Down To Darrelle Revis

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There’s a lot riding on new Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis this season. Charles Krupa / AP photo

Everything hinges on Darrelle Revis.

Everything.

The Patriots pushed all of their chips onto the table when they signed the 29-year-old three-time first-team all pro to a 1-year deal for $12 million, including an option for a second year at $20 million. And it should be no surprise that the hype has been at full tilt for the Aliquippa, Penn., native ever since, given what he represents for the Patriots: hope.

Revis is a player Tom Brady once said “doesn’t have any weaknesses.” The respect is apparent.

You have to understand, for the past seven years, this Patriots team has been just a few pieces shy of a Super Bowl victory. Every. Single. Year.

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Go back to 2008, following the debacle of XLII and 18-1, an injured Brady in Week 1 of the season hampered a return-to-glory effort. Matt Cassell could only do so much. New England got over it.

But in 2009, that’s when the deficiencies and loss of talent became apparent. With only 31 sacks, despite a stellar effort from Tully Banta-Cain (10 sacks), the Patriots couldn’t get a consistent pass rush in a 10-6 season. They lost in the wild card game at Gillette Stadium — almost unheard of at that point — to the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens’ power running game embarrassed the Patriots. A season-long collective groan over Richard Seymour’s trade to the Oakland Raiders was omnipresent.

In 2010, despite a 14-2 record and a Pro Bowl rookie campaign from Devin McCourty (seven interceptions), the secondary was an embarrassment. Between Patrick Chung, Sergio Brown, and James Sanders at safety, the unit was a complete clown show. The Patriots were the 30th ranked pass defense at the end of the year, fueling a drop from 11th overall defense in 2009 to 25th overall in 2010. No offense to Mark Sanchez, but he threw two touchdowns in a 28-21 New York Jets win over the Patriots in the divisional playoff round, another loss at Gillette Stadium in the postseason. (Lasting image: Bart Scott telling ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio “they can’t stop a nosebleed.”) In a prolific year for the team’s offense, the defense failed them.

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That failure on defense continued in 2011 when the Patriots went dumpster diving for defensive backs en route to the Super Bowl. Injuries wiped out rookie Ras-I Dowling’s season while Chung was limited to only eight games. Coupled with James Ihedigbo and Brown rotating in at safety, the secondary was still an embarrassment for the team. But the Patriots also found themselves dependent on waiver pickups at corner, too. Sterling Moore and Antwaun Molden were way too prominent all the way through the XLVI. And the Patriots got a little too creative as well, throwing Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater out at corner and safety, the latter of which was truly disastrous. In spite of the patchwork, the Patriots went 13-3 and advanced to their seventh Super Bowl, losing to the New York Giants 21-17. Chalk that one up to a Rob Gronkowski ankle injury. But the headaches from the secondary were becoming a now yearly occurrence.

The Patriots were finally ready to address the problem in 2012. After drafting Tavon Wilson in the second round and Alfonzo Dennard in the seventh round of the draft, the team was looking at another year in which expectations were on the rise, especially with a healthy Dowling. That lasted all of six games before Dowling was placed on injured reserve. It must’ve become apparent to the Patriots brass that without a legitimate No. 1 corner, a big bodied player that could defend against the Calvin Johnsons of the world — or at that time (and according to the Patriots schedule) the Andre Johnsons and Anquan Boldins out there — there could be no chance at a Super Bowl. Less than a week after putting Dowling on injured reserve, the Patriots traded for troubled cornerback Aqib Talib. Having Talib was like a shot in the arm, but he couldn’t stay healthy. He played five of the final nine games that season, starting in the AFC championship game against the Baltimore Ravens before leaving with an injury in the first quarter. Boldin shredded the Patriots secondary without him, finishing with five receptions for 60 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots still had a dismal finish in the passing rankings (29th overall), but there was at least optimism for the team if he could remain healthy.

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And a healthy Talib meant so much in 2013. He was able to single-handedly save the day against the Atlanta Falcons, shut down Jimmy Graham, and was generally viewed as the defensive leader in the team’s secondary, playing a total of 13 games as the Patriots went 12-4 for the second straight year. But what’s most important, he helped edge the secondary forward. With McCourty converted to safety full time, and a scrappy Dennard opposite him at corner, the Patriots were able to move up 11 spots to the 18th ranked pass defense. It was progress. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Talib couldn’t finish his second straight AFC championship game, taking a remarkable hit over the middle of the field by Wes Welker. His loss, coming in a game against the league’s most prolific passing offense, was a death blow for the season.

So you can imagine that after the year concluded, and after Talib’s contract was up, there was a tremendous amount of interest in his possible re-signing. When he signed with the Denver Broncos — the Patriots’ largest threat to a Super Bowl berth — Bill Belichick and company reacted swiftly by signing Brandon Browner and Revis.

For the Patriots, it was like winning the lottery.

A total of 26 teams were scrapping for Revis’s services and the Patriots were able to come away with most coveted cornerback in the league while adding another physical defensive back in the process.

But why is a seven-year veteran with a rehabilitated knee so sought after? And is there any way he could possibly live up to the expectations for him?

Let’s explore.

The evolution of Revis Island

When Revis entered the NFL in 2007, the 14th overall draft pick by the New York Jets out of Pittsburgh, the expectations were already there for greatness. He started every game for the Jets as a rookie, allowing only four touchdowns on the entire season.

In his second year, the accolades started to come. He allowed two touchdowns and picked off five passes, while holding quarterbacks to a 59.1 rating when throwing in his direction en route to his first of four straight Pro Bowls. In 2009, he was fifth in the NFL with six interceptions and was beginning to receive league-wide respect for his ability to shut down opposing receivers. He held quarterbacks to a 29.1 rating when throwing in his direction, allowed only 37.8 percent of passes to be completed and only one touchdown in the regular season. It was prolific, earning him the nickname of “Revis Island.”

Revis was able to maintain that level of dominance at his position that for the remainder of his tenure in New York.

In the winter of 2009 and 2010, as the Jets were making a playoff push, then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg renamed Manhatten “Revis Island” to commemorate his season-long excellence. Hello, international acclaim.

(In 2013, the tradition of renaming municipalities “Revis Island” continued with the Florida’s Treasure Island changing its nomenclature for a day, Sept. 12, in honor of Revis’s arrival with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

But it was after the 2009 season that Revis went forward with his second contract holdout, this time looking to restructure his rookie deal to better align with his playing abilities. The bad blood fostered by that contract holdout, along with a season-ending knee injury in 2012, helped fuel his departure from the Jets. He was traded to the Buccaneers in April 2013 after passing his physical, signing a 6-year, $96 million contract with no guarantees.

He continued to dominate at the cornerback position in his comeback campaign, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 54 percent completion rate when thrown in his direction and allowed only four touchdowns on the year. But he was slowly getting back into form.

“It was a long process,” Revis told reporters this summer after signing with New England. “I did finish all 16 games. I was slow and maybe sluggish in the beginning of the season but week to week, I got stronger and stronger. Toward the end, I probably felt my best as a football player.”

When the Patriots played the Buccaneers last season and Brady had to diagnose and break down Revis ahead of the game, he said Revis’s knee “looks pretty good to me. .. He’s doing all the stuff that he always used to do when we played against the Jets.”

That’s key, here. The Patriots are betting that Revis is the same player that strikes fear into the heart of opposing quarterbacks prior to his knee injury in 2012. The Buccaneers, who tried to trade Revis, ended up released him because of his massive contract. Not because of any diminished talent or skill. He’s far enough removed from his knee injury to believe that he’s fully rehabilitated. And over the course of training camp and preseason, there was nothing that would leave any close observer to believe otherwise.

“He covers big guys, small guys, he’s quick, he’s fast, he’s patient, he’s strong. He doesn’t have any weaknesses. I don’t think I’ve completed many balls on his side of the field very often. He’s not a guy that you want to test and see how well you’re going to do. He’s just a great all-around player.” — Brady on Darrelle Revis, Sept. 18, 2013.

As Revis comes to the Patriots he brings his reputation intact, with current and former players lauding his abilities, feeding the hype around him.

“I mean Darrelle is one of the best corners in the NFL,” said Edelman in June. “He showed it in camp. He did very well. He’s a very instinctive player. He’s great in the locker room. I like competing against him every day. It’s good to have another player like that.”

Said former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, “he’s gonna choke you at the line of scrimmage, he can play left, he can play right. All this talk about Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, who’s the best cornerback? The best cornerback on the planet is right here in New England, and he will prove it this year.”

Is there any wonder as to why expectations are so high?

What makes Revis better than Talib

You also have to also understand that there is a strong belief among former players and current ones that Revis is a considerable upgrade over Talib, who was absolutely fantastic in some instances and fell short in others. Revis, according to people close to him and those who have observed him, is much more consistent, much more technique oriented, and, above all, extremely competitive.

“With no disrespect to Aqib Talib who is a great corner himself, but Darrelle is a special talent,” said former Patriot defensive back Ty Law, now a member of the team’s hall of fame and a fellow Aliquippa native. “Not only are you getting experience, you’re getting extreme confidence. You’re getting a person who is not afraid to put it on the line at the end of the game.

“Darrelle, he wants to be in that position of covering the top guy week-in and week-out, down-in and down-out,” Law continued. “He goes to the inside if need be. He’s the type, if he wasn’t on the guy he would let the coach know it. I think that’s the mark of a true competitor, someone who is striving to be a champion. The way he practices, by playing with him for the year that I did, to be so talented, but to practice so hard, you don’t see a lot of young guys that have so much talent take the job that seriously because they’re so talented. That’s what I think separates Darrelle.

“He’s not taking his talent and his abilities for granted. He still wants to go out there and prove that he’s the absolute best week-in and week-out. He’s not taking that for granted. He wants to be the best for a long time. I have never seen anyone as competitive as Darrelle Revis. That’s the honest to God truth.”

If the Patriots are to be a successful team in 2014, Revis will need to play up to these expectations. Along with veterans like Brady, Edelman, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and McCourty, the Patriots cannot afford to lose him for any extended period of time because we’ve seen what happens when they go without. There will always be some measure of success for New England, losing one or two top flight players, but without a star player at his position, someone with the ability to shut down one side of the field and essentially create an island of quarterback despair, the Patriots’ chances of a capturing their fourth Super Bowl title is much slimmer in a pass-happy NFL. Revis is the one piece this team is counting on, an upgrade over Talib for a team that was in the final four last season.

He is the X-factor. And as he goes, much like Brady, so does the Patriots.

Zuri Berry can be reached at zberry@boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry and on Google+.

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