In Bill They Trust
The death of Odin Lloyd was a tragedy. He was someone’s son, brother, friend and teammate, and he will be mourned by those to whom he was closest. We cannot forget that.
But football will be played. The Patriots will take the field on July 25 for training camp after an offseason of unprecedented turmoil, including former tight end Aaron Hernandez’s arrest for Lloyd’s murder. The NFL season starts on Sept. 5, and life will go on. It’s no disrespect to Lloyd and his loved ones. It’s just the way things are.
If you think this turbulent offseason portends a decline on the field for the New England Patriots … well, frankly, you need a history lesson. No team in the NFL, and maybe in the history of sport, has dealt better with controversy. Issues that would have caused other teams to curl up in a thumb-sucking fetal position have been followed by some of the Patriots’ greatest successes. The entire Bill Belichick-Tom Brady dynasty—three Super Bowl titles, two other Super Bowl appearances and nine seasons with at least 11 victories since 2001—was launched on controversy.
Teams should be scared, because this is where Bill thrives. It will be Spygate all over again.
• In the second game of the 2001 season, quarterback Drew Bledsoe—who’d signed a 10-year, $103 million contract the previous March—suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his chest on a hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. When the popular Bledsoe recovered from the injury, Belichick kept him on the sideline in favor of a guy who hadn’t even been able to win a starting job outright in college. If you were to write a book called How to Torpedo Your Football Season, such a team-dividing quarterback firestorm would be the first three chapters. Yet the Patriots went 11-5 and won their first Super Bowl title that year.
• Five days before the start of the 2003 season, Belichick released the even more popular Lawyer Milloy (one of Brady’s best friends). The Bills picked him up and then embarrassed the Patriots 31-0 in the opener. On most teams a mutiny would have been in the offing—even ESPN’s Tom Jackson said the players “hate their coach.” Yet the Patriots went 14-2 and won a second Super Bowl title.
• During the 2007 season opener the Patriots were caught taping the Jets’ signals from the sideline, a serious violation of league rules. The Spygate cheating allegations swirled around the team throughout the season and all of New England’s previous success—not to mention Belichick’s reputation as a football genius—was cast in doubt. Yet the Patriots finished 16-0 and scored more points than any other team in history.
• In the first quarter of the 2008 opener Brady, who was coming off arguably the best year ever by a quarterback, suffered a season-ending knee injury. His backup, Matt Cassel, hadn’t started a game in college and had thrown just 39 passes in three NFL seasons. Though they missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, the Patriots went 11-5 and tied for the best record in the AFC East.
• In 2010 All-Pro guard Logan Mankins had a messy contract squabble and didn’t report until the ninth game. And Randy Moss, who had caught 250 passes and scored 47 touchdowns over the previous three seasons, was traded after the fourth game following contract complaints and suspect on-field effort. The Patriots survived on the line, changed offenses on the fly and went 14-2.
If you’re scoring at home, New England was a combined 65-15 with two Super Bowl titles and a conference championship in those five seasons of turmoil. One general manager, asked how he thought the Patriots would respond to their offseason, texted back, “Teams should be scared, because this is where Bill thrives. It will be Spygate all over again.”
How does Belichick manage these situations? Basically, he doesn’t. Belichick will bring up the issue in front of the team, saying it’s unfortunate for everyone involved and telling the players not to talk about it to the media. He’ll instruct them to refer all questions to him, then he won’t talk about it again. Belichick, who doesn’t outwardly care what anyone says about him, rarely shows frustration or anger in front of the media. He’s a walking billboard for “if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” If the man catching the heat doesn’t sweat a drop and goes about his job normally, why shouldn’t the players? It allows them to ignore the noise.
There is no question, however, that the Hernandez situation is abnormal. There’s little precedent for how to react when a teammate is confined to an 8-by-12-foot cell as inmate No. 174594 awaiting a murder trial at the Bristol County House of Correction, just 33 miles from the practice facility.
If there’s any reason to believe the Patriots might be adversely affected by the situation, it’s because of a locker room shift. The Patriots have typically had at least one strong leader in the locker room to maintain order. Guys like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison were strong presences who kept everyone in line. If something needed to be said, either to the team or to an individual, those players did it—Belichick didn’t have to say a thing.
Such a personality does not exist in the current Patriots’ locker room, and it hasn’t for a few years. Even before this offseason, internally the Patriots knew their locker room needed stronger guidance. That’s not to say New England lacks leadership. You won’t find many better lead-by-example players than Brady, Mankins, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty. But none are like Bruschi, who took ownership of the locker room and made sure everyone was doing things the right way. It’s as if the current Patriots have taken the “do your job” mantra too much to heart. If you’re only worried about yourself, people are going to get left behind and could drag the team down.
If the Patriots are to succeed once more in the face of adversity, one or two players must emerge to take ownership of the locker room. The best candidates are Wilfork and Mayo. It’s no longer good enough for them to lead their units. They must get in the faces of teammates on both sides of the ball and hold everyone accountable.
On the field, everyone is asking how the Patriots’ offense will adjust. Here’s what I think they will do. Actually, this is what I know they will do, because after covering New England for two and a half years, I’ve seen Belichick do it in all facets of the game: Whatever gives him the best chance to win one game, that’s what he’ll do.
Some teams enter a season saying, "This is who we have, this is how we're going to do things each week regardless of the opponent." Not the Patriots. They are a game-plan team in every phase, meaning the method of attack changes with each opponent. The players and coaches are used to switching up personnel and schemes on a weekly basis, because they do that even when fully healthy. If the Patriots think spreading out and using one back will give them the best chance to win against the Bills on Sept. 8, that’s what they’ll do. If it’s two backs, two tight ends and one receiver against the Jets in Week 2, that’s what they’ll do. Any unavailable player is treated the same by the Patriots regardless of the circumstances: It’s like he never existed.
Yes, Hernandez was an extraordinary talent—unrivaled as an ‘F’ or flex tight end in the Patriots’ system, and the perfect complement to Rob Gronkowski’s in-line, traditional ‘Y’ role. But the Patriots aren’t married to using two tight ends. They’re committed to winning the next game.
Looking ahead, the best players to help them do that are Gronkowski; receivers Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce; running backs Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen and tight end Jake Ballard. Vereen, entering his third season, could be the key. The Patriots love his versatility and were toying with him as a receiver last year. He could become the new flex player, even if he isn’t a tight end.
The Patriots often get better as the season progresses. It might be a little messy early, especially considering Gronkowski’s injury problems, but if New England can get through the first half of the season in reasonable shape, things should start to come together—especially when Brady is your quarterback. It’s not ideal that he’ll be without receivers Wes Welker (free agent) or Brandon Lloyd (released), and that Gronkowski might not be at full speed, but Brady has dealt with this kind of personnel turnover before. He’ll do what he always does: find the defensive flaw or mismatch on a given play and throw to the open player, regardless of who that is.
But there are issues of concern on the field. The Patriots waited far too long to overhaul their receiving corps, and their complicated playbook can be impenetrable to rookies at the position. They chose the athletic Amendola over the reliable Welker, but Amendola has missed 20 games the past two seasons. In fact, health will be a big question with this team—key players such as Amendola, Gronkowski, right tackle Sebatian Vollmer, linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Ras-I Dowling all have had problems staying on the field in recent years. And New England put a lot of free-agent eggs in the basket of former Raiders defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, who has underachieved for most of his career. After the release of Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, the Patriots have no experienced depth in the middle of the line behind Wilfork and Kelly.