In the Patriots’ true championship-contending seasons, which is to say pretty much every season barring a Bernard Pollard-induced catastrophe, Bill Belichick has trained fans to anticipate the team fulfilling its potential and playing its best football in December, when the temperatures are low and the stakes are high. A successful December indicates the hard work of the previous months has taken hold, offering the promise of a potential ultimate payoff, punctuated by a parade, in January/February.
But beyond that Gospel of Belichick adage, we don’t pay much attention to the month-to-month progress of the seasons within the season. Because there are just 16 regular-season games on the schedule, it’s much easier to devour the details of the season as a whole rather than break it down into small morsels like we must with baseball (pre-All-Star break, post-All-Star break, dog days of summer, June swoon, This Week’s Bewildering John Farrell Moves, etc.).
This football season – or, more specifically, the 2016 calendar year in Patriots’ news – is different, however. It’s a fairly compelling way to consider how we got from there (an emboldening 3-1 September without Tom Brady) to here (a 4-0 December, a 3-0 January, and, if this ends the way we envision around here, a 1-0 February). Especially since upon further examination, the most important month of 2016 for the Patriots may not have been September, December or any stretch in between.
It may have been March.
Skeptical? Reacquaint yourself with this string of season-impacting transactions over an eight-day span and get back to me:
March 11: Signed restricted free-agent wide receiver Chris Hogan to a three-year, $12 million offer sheet.
March 15: Traded DE Chandler Jones to the Cardinals for guard Jonathan Cooper and a 2016 second-round pick.
March 18: Traded a 2016 fourth-round pick to the Bears for tight end Martellus Bennett and a 2016 sixth-round pick.
March 18: Signed free-agent defensive end Chris Long and free-agent linebacker Shea McClellin.
I’m not sure we recognized in real time how important those eight days would be in bolstering the Patriots’ roster for a season that was still six months away. There were plenty of words spent debating and lamenting the trade of Jones, who led the Patriots with 12.5 sacks in 2015. As it turned out, that trade looks like a win-win for both the Patriots and Cardinals. Jones delivered his typical productive but streaky season (11 sacks). Cooper never played a down for the Patriots, but that second-round pick was swapped for third- and fourth-rounders, which turned into starting guard Joe Thuney and up-and-coming receiver Malcolm Mitchell. I will take those two over Jones without a second thought.
Patriots fans, as I recall, were hopeful about the signing of Hogan, who enticed the Patriots to the point that they made sure his contract was front-loaded so the Bills could not match. The Patriots have plucked unheralded wide receivers from rivals before – most notably Wes Welker before the 2007 season, but also with their offer-sheet flirtations with Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders before he eventually ended up in Denver, and Hogan was relatively familiar, having played well against the Patriots while with the Bills. But on March 11, I doubt anyone outside of the Patriots organization – and perhaps even within the Patriots organization – assumed he’d lead the league in yards per reception and produce a sensational 180-yard, 2-touchdown performance in the AFC Championship Game.
All three of the March 18 signings have worked out to varying levels of success. Bennett, tough, versatile and loquacious, has been a godsend in the absence of Rob Gronkowski. Long didn’t put up huge numbers (four sacks, 35 tackles) as the de facto replacement for Jones, but he is a dependable contributor and relentless competitor. And the athletic McClellin had his moments after the Jamie Collins trade in October – including a Jamie Collins moment, when he bounded over the offensive line to block a kick against the Ravens. You can see why Belichick liked him.
There were a few minor misses scattered among the hits in that stretch: Where have you gone Donald Brown, Nate Washington, and E.J. Biggers? And are you sure you were really ever here? But in sum, that stretch of moves 10 months ago began an extraordinary season of transactions for Belichick, which included re-signing LeGarrette Blount in April, trading Collins in October (a shocking deal that has been a classic addition-by-subtraction move), and acquiring helpful players such as Kyle Van Noy and Eric Rowe from September onward.
Those moves 10 months ago – especially Hogan and Bennett coming in, and Jones heading out — helped define and shape this Super Bowl team. You could say the march to Houston truly began in March. And with apologies to Nick Caserio and his role in all of this, Belichick the GM must be thrilling Belichick the coach.