There were many moments, whether off-the-field roster moves, whole games, or single plays on the field, which factored into the Patriots' return to the playoffs in 2011. Before this weekend's faceoff against the hated J-E-T-S, I think it's worth a look back* at what I consider the ten most notable milestones for the Patriots on the road to being this season's top seed in the AFC.
At the Time:
According to the Boston Globe:
Tom Brady acknowledged that, indeed, there was a leadership problem in the Patriots' locker room...
There used to be a kind of religion about the way Patriots players operated. They'd drunk the Kool-Aid. They were on board with the organization, and it was clear from their results on the field that the organization had been assembled from perhaps a perfect storm of evaluative and coaching talent. That atmosphere was almost totally absent from the Patriots this year, never more so than yesterday between 1 and 4 pm.
~The Day After No Tomorrow, Jan. 11, 2010
In Hindsight: So here's what Bill Belichick did about all that. He went out in the 2010 off-season, and he built up a team full of malleable and talented youth alongside more agreeable, journeyman veteran talent than the likes of Adalius Thomas (whose name always sprang to my mind first during last year's post-playoff discussions of "leadership" and "tone-setting" as chief among the many fatal flaws of the 2009-10 team).
Tight ends are a perfect example of this. In 2010, the Patriots, not known previously for employing tight ends during the Belichick or any era, went out in the offseason and acquired three:
- Rob Gronkowski - Drafted in the second round by the Patriots in the 2010 draft, forty-second overall and the highest draft position at which the Patriots actually selected a player rather than trading their pick. In Week 10, Gronkowski tied a franchise rookie record by catching three touchdown passes in a single game.
- Aaron Hernandez - Hernandez, drafted in the fourth round in 2010, isn't setting records like Gronk. But he's had his big moments, and give him time -- at 20 years old, he started this season the youngest player in the NFL.
- Alge Crumpler - Was drafted...by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 2001 NFL Draft. Many years his teammates' senior, he's been the leader (there's a familiar word!) that has helped cultivate all that rookie talent.
One or two to receive on some plays, all to provide better blocking for Brady, who fell victim to ferocious pass-rushing in recent years, whether durng the ill-fated Super Bowl XLII, his knee injury in 2008, or being pancaked by Ray-Ray and the rest of the Ravens in the playoffs in 2009. This year, the Patriots have made more passing plays with two-tight-end-sets than any other team (ESPN).
Meanwhile, as we all know, Brady set a record this season for accuracy. Think maybe a little more help for the O-line and a little more time in the pocket might have had something to do with that?
Also, the team is young and green, and the Kool-Aid is flowing again. And with that has come winning.
As impressive as the tight ends are, of all the off-season moves, two defensive personnel maneuvers stand out even more...
9. Vince Wilfork re-signed
At the Time:
Wilfork is a huge part of the 3-4 defense, literally and figuratively -- Belichick has compared him to an oak tree in the middle of the defensive line. Locking him up to such a huge deal is not in keeping with Belichick's previous similar standoffs with big-name free-agents-to-be from Lawyer Milloy through Richard Seymour, and I had honestly begun to think as Wilfork's contract talks dragged on that they weren't going to re-sign him, either.
~ We interrupt Spring Training for breaking Patriots nose tackle news, March 5, 2010
In Hindsight: What I wrote in a mid-season analysis has held up: "In the defensive system the Patriots run, stout linemen are the linchpin. And this year, the linemen, specifically veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork, have become for the young Patriots defense what Brady has been for the offense -- an anchor."
In fact, it has only grown more solid, as one Patriots defensive lineman after another has gone down with injuries, especially Mike Wright and up-and-comer Ron Brace, now both on IR.
8. Devin McCourty drafted
At the Time: I didn't really 'cover' the draft this year, for many reasons, but I remember when I first really noticed Devin McCourty --
In the first half, the Bengals didn't convert a third down until there were just over 8 minutes left in the second quarter. When they weren't being forced to punt, the Patriots snatched the ball away a bit more rudely, with one fumble recovery and one interception returned for a touchdown. At halftime, the Bengals had converted just two of seven third downs; and scored 3 points.
Carson Palmer and TO had tried to pick on Patriots rookie cornerback Devin McCourty in that first half, who stepped up and held his own against the willowy Owens. This included a thwarted touchdown attempt in the end zone in the second quarter.
~ Patriots offense drowns out Bengals, Sept. 12, 2010
In Hindsight: Devin McCourty is been named a finalist for the NFL Rookie of the Year Award. Nuf ced.
While a green Patriots defense has come together and held its own, and that in itself is admirable, some of the team's greatest weapons have emerged from equally seismic roster shakeups on offense, which also happened during the season...
7. Randy Moss out; Deion Branch comes home
At the Time:
I believe that sound you may have heard off in the distance from other parts of the country earlier this week was a significant portion of the New England population hollering, "WTF?!?" in unison.
~This Week's Signs of the Apocalypse, Oct. 10, 2010
Afterwards, it looked like [Branch's] smile would permanently split his face. There were times in that "yes, sir," "no, sir", press conference where it seemed like there were tears in his eyes...cut to a few hours later at the Metrodome, with Randy Moss back in purple, wearing his original No. 84...He had a respectable, if not spectacular day, and also led his team's receivers for the game with five receptions for 55 yards, though the game's single touchdown pass had gone elsewhere, and Moss didn't get a sniff of the ball in the first half.
And his face on that Minnesota sideline was a downright sulk. Sourness just radiated from him. He was as visibly dour as Branch had been exuberant.
~Homecoming: one big Sunday for Deion Branch and Randy Moss, Oct. 18, 2010
In Hindsight: Turns out the Welker / Branch balance functions just as handily as the Welker /Moss long-short tandem did. Welker and Branch are ranked first and second among team receiving leaders. Welker earned 848 yards on 86 receptions with 7 TDs, and Branch earned 706 on 48 receptions and 5 TDs. (ESPN)
Meanwhile, the divergent paths I sensed between Branch and Moss while Moss was still with the Vikings in October only continued. Shortly after the acquisition, Moss was waved by insane Vikings coach Brad Childress, who would himself be fired a short time later.
While with the Patriots in Weeks 1-4, Moss earned 99 yards on 9 receptions, and scored 3 touchdowns .
While with the Vikings in Weeks 5-8, Moss racked up 174 yards on 13 receptions, and scored two touchdowns.
While with the Titans from Week 9 on, Moss (ESPN) has had just 6 total receptions for 80 yards, and scored ZERO touchdowns.
He's been a downward curve on a graph, fading, fading, fading...and it's debatable whether, at this late stage of his career, he will be able to return from the hole his mouth has dug for him this time...
But even given all the hoopla around Moss due to high-profile personalities, it was even more impactful for the Patriots that they made a relatively quiet shift to a solidly balanced offense after Moss's departure, as well as the departure of another former Patriots staple...
6. Laurence Maroney out; BenJarvus Green-Ellis emerges
At the Time: I recall some headscratching, but not much regret, among Pats fans when the dancing, East-West-inclined Maroney was abruptly traded in early October, and the man known as "Law Firm" took his place at the top of the runningback depth chart.
I was otherwise occupied at that time, which prevented me from posting at the time about the Maroney move. But I do remember when it became clear we had something special in Beni:
The Patriots' offense fizzled early. The running game was especially anemic, amassing a total of just 9 yards by halftime, though three of them were disproportionately crucial, gained on a direct snap to Li'l Danny Woodhead™ good for the Patriots' first touchdown of the game, and the offensive highlight of the first half.
After the half, BenJarvus Green-Ellis came up huge, finishing with 112 yards and two touchdowns, including the one that put the game away inside the final two-minute warning.
Brady wound up decent at 16 of 27 for 240 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. On that final fourth-quarter drive, Wes Welker and Woodhead co-starred, each converting a crucial third-and-long to keep the rally alive.
But the Pats ultimately survived the Vikes by putting points up on the board while chewing up more of the clock on offense than they had in the first half, giving a taxed defense some rest; and that strategy put the biggest spotlight on the Law Firm.
~Patriots do the Monster Mash on Vikings, Oct. 31, 2010
In Hindsight: Green-Ellis put up just over 1000 yards this season, the first 1000+ yard season for a Patriots runningback since Corey Dillon had 1635 in 2004.
What has me listing this switch ahead of the Moss / Branch swap isn't just that the complete balance all around him -- i.e., a dependable tandem of runningbacks to go along with brilliant young tight ends and varied, dynamic receiving weapons -- has made Tom Brady a league MVP candidate this year, and put the team in the playoffs.
I also rank this move as more impactful than Branch for Moss because of an amazing 2010 season in review writeup at Football Outsiders that I read last week. According to FO's Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) stat, BenJarvis Green-Ellis is ranked fourth among the league's runningbacks.
And guess who's ranked worst in the league?
Why, none other than Laurence Maroney, now of the Denver Broncos.
Talk about addition by subtraction.
To be continued...
* Okay, truth be told, I meant to do this kind of post before New Year's, and, well, whoops.