Seven years ago, the New England Patriots hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Since that fateful day, every single season has ended in an absolute gut-wrenching fashion. Now, with New England playing in its seventh Super Bowl, Brady, Belichick, and the rest of the Patriots have the opportunity to finally put those lost seasons to rest by achieving the ultimate redemption. But before they do, I wanted to take a moment to revisit each and every one of those six seasons of pain. I've been covering the Patriots since 2002, and at the end of every season, I took the time to reflect on the final game and the season as a whole. For the next six days, I'll be re-running the end-of-the-season article from the past six years. It's time to rip open the scabs and pout salt in these old wounds. Because until you've spent time in the valley, you'll never appreciate the view from the top of the world.
Written on January 13th, 2010
An opening game rushing play that should've gained about three yards goes off for 83 yards and a touchdown.
That image above pretty much sums up the New England Patriots' 2009 season. Whether it was defending a large fourth quarter lead, making basic play calls, punching the ball in from the 1 yard line, or something as simple as not letting a wide receiver run right past you, the Patriots managed to make the mundane into a monstrosity. This was a season built upon a foundation of late-game collapses, 4th and 2's, goal line fumbles, and missed assignments. The fact that it came to a screeching halt in the wake of a 24-0 first quarter deficit should come as no surprise. At no moment throughout this entire 17 game run did the Patriots do anything to establish themselves as one of the NFL's elite teams. Every opportunity to do so was seemingly met with an indominable will to "blow it". As a result, New England found itself overwhelmingly under achieving at 10-6. What could have easily been a first-round bye, became a wild card game. What could have been a young defense on the rise, became a squad notorious for giving up important plays. What could have been a season to build upon became a giant step backwards.
What could have been...
Yet this isn't a time for all the "if's" and the "but's". This is a time to reflect upon what is. And the Patriots are a team with a piss-poor pass rush, sieves at the corner position, a razor-thin receiving corps, no top running back, a banged-up quarterback, an over-matched offensive coordinator, no defensive coordinator, and a coach who's clearly lost his mojo. That's what the Patriots are. The debacle against Baltimore cemented it. Sunday's game was the ugly head of an infection that's been smoldering all season. When your opponent beats you by putting up one more passing yard than they do points, there's clearly something awrye.
Bill Belichick has his off-season work cut out for him perhaps moreso than any season in his tenure. There's cancers to be cut out, weakness to be stomped out, and bad trends to be reversed. Yet at the same time, the Patriots were still a team capable of winning their division and claming the AFC's third seed, despite all their flaws. It's easy to look at this past season and claim the sky is falling, as it clearly didn't measure up to what we've come to expect from this team over the past nine years. The Patriots have clearly gone from being excellent to just being good. Still, "good" is a decent starting point, all things considered. A pass rusher here, a cornerback there, and perhaps the return of Deion Branch or some other free-agent receiver, and, suddently, New England returns to the Super Bowl conversations.
No good thing lasts forever. Indeed, the Patriots' reing of dominance couldn't even last the length of a decade. Still, as we leave the 00's, an era that will forever be defined by New England and their epic battles with the Colts, I have hope for what lies ahead. There are still pieces left missing to the puzzle, but they will be filled in time. The Patriots went from being an old team to a young team seemingly overnight. Expecting the youngsters to play like the wily veterans who claimed those three titles is asking a bit much, as is expecting Brady to come back from ACL surgery and act like nothing ever happened, or expecting Bill Belichick to not miss a step when he's had a revolving door of top assistants year in and year out. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was the Patriots Dynasty. Returning New England to its former glory will be a process. If it involves some trial by fire, or, in this case, trial by the most embarrassing playoff defeat I've ever experienced, so be it. All I know is that I want to see my team raise the Lombardi again in the 10's. I want them to become the only franchise to ever define two decades. As I've said many times before, "If you have Brady, and you have Belichick, then you have a chance".
I believe this team has more than just a chance.