Friday, September 25, 2009

What are We New England Patriots Fans to Do? Have Belichick and Brady Gone Soft and Old? or From ESPN: Patriots Still Seeking Identity

We don't often talk about sports on this site, but given that I am an unapologetic New England Patriots fan this piece from ESPN caught my eye. I too was worried during the off season about my boy Tom Brady's ability to return to form after his devastating knee injury. Two games into the 2009 season it seems that we do in fact have much to be concerned about. The NY Jets game was atrocious--just piss poor football by the Pats...and to boot, the Pats of old would have punished the Jets for daring to brag before the game. There is a great deal of unease on Brady's part, understandable given a knee injury. And his rhythm--that amazing timing of his--is a bit off as well.

As Bill Simmons' piece points out, could it simply be that time, and the sheer pressure of the NFL has ended the Patriot's legendary run? I am still a believer in Belichick's genius. I still wouldn't consistently bet against Brady on any given Sunday. Nevertheless, something is clearly a miss with my Pats (have they lost too much veteran talent too quickly?) Are Belichick and Brady soft because they are now enjoying the fruits of their hard labor--i.e. money, women, and bit of sports entertainment power?

While still holding my breath, the following passage from Simmons' spot on article gives me some hope.

Part of me wonders if Belichick saw the writing on the wall, explaining why he swapped Seymour for Oakland's 2011 No. 1 pick. Most Patriots fans loved that trade, including me, but dealing a former All-Pro in a contract year (when he will never be more motivated) isn't exactly a 2009 power play. Was Belichick setting up for 2010 (an uncapped year) and 2011 (when the entire CBA will change) by risking this season's chances, just like when he risked 2006 by dealing Deion Branch for a future first? (And as it turned out, cost himself a title?) Did he decide Brady wouldn't fully recover for another year? Did he hedge his bets thinking this year's team might flounder?

Did he ... did he know?

Maybe Belichick is still the Emperor? Scheming and plotting against his foes as he prepares a trap that they could not have possibly predicted or defended themselves against. Hopefully, Brady is still the Chosen One--more the Vader of The Empire Strikes Back, than the reborn Anakin of Return of the Jedi.

Patriots Still Seeking Identity

In Malibu, beach houses hug the Pacific Ocean for miles on end. Each one looks different than the next. Some are modern, some are old-school. Some are gaudy, some are classy. Some are worth $5 million, others are worth eight times that much. If you stroll along the beach marveling at them, one thing always jumps out: the foundations. Some look like they could get nailed by a tsunami and remain standing. Others look like they could get swept away by the right wave.

For most of this decade, the New England Patriots owned a tsunami-proof house. They could weather anything. Even when Tom Brady blew out his knee eight minutes into the 2008 season, no Patriots fan gave up. We still have Belichick. We still have that foundation. We can figure this out. Nope. Missed the playoffs. That same defense mechanism kicked in after the Pats struggled in their first two games of 2009.

Everything is going to be OK. It's the Patriots. They will figure it out.

But will they? After a discouraging defeat to the Jets, Patriots fans splintered into two camps. The first camp (the "Kool-Aid drinkers," as the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy derisively called them this week) maintains that Brady only needs to get his sea legs back, that the defense will be fine when Jerod Mayo returns, that the Jets whupped them only because Kevin O'Connell gave them Brady's plays. Everyone in the Kool-Aid Camp believes in certain axioms that may no longer be true -- stuff like "never bet against the Patriots after a loss" and "when in doubt, Belichick will come through." They trust the foundation: eight straight winning seasons, three Super Bowl titles and the best eight-year overall record of any team in 20 years. The foundation will prevail. Always.

(Important note: My father is a charter member of this group. In fact, when I told him that I planned to write this column, he hissed things like, "it's too early," "we'll be fine," "you give up on our teams too easily," "this reminds me of when you quit on the Celtics two springs ago" and "you're an a**hole and I wish we weren't related." All solid points.)

For the second camp, it's more complicated. You wouldn't call them naysayers, just realists. And here's the reality: Today's NFL isn't built for teams to succeed year after year indefinitely. Extending the Malibu analogy, a good foundation only lasts so long. You still need to take care of your house. Need to wash the salt off your deck every day, update the furniture, keep a fresh coat of paint on there, check that foundation every few months to make sure it's fine. You cannot slip. You cannot fall behind. You cannot take anything for granted. Or else your house will start to look like crap.

Now ...

As a realist and a Kool-Aid drinker, for the life of me, I cannot decide between Camp No. 1 and Camp No. 2. My buddy Bug (Patriots Kool-Aid alcoholic, just like my father) believes the '09 Patriots will become this year's '08 Colts -- early struggles, untimely injuries, tons of panic and "could this be it?" columns, but ultimately the foundation will prevail and everything will be fine by December. That's Camp No. 1 in a nutshell. We have succeeded before, so we will succeed again. I could totally see this happening. I am rooting for it.

But I keep hearing the voices from Camp No. 2. In particular, five undeniable truths that don't bode well for the next three months...the full story continues here.

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