FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Bill Belichick would love people to believe he’s not reading this story, or anything on this site, or on the internet, or watching anything on TV, and he’s certainly not letting anyone believe he even knows what social media is. But every so often, he’ll put his players on notice: His head is not in the sand.
And so it was that a moment came in the spring when optimism over just what the 2017 Patriots were becoming was boiling over. Could they go 19-0? Could they take on the dominant look their older brothers from 2007 did when Spygate mixed with a juiced-up roster to result in scorched earth?
Belichick wasn’t having it. At all.
“He quickly let us know how good that ’07 team was,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Wednesday. “It was basically, Don’t think you’re touching that. He told us, ‘They broke a ton of NFL records, not just Patriot records.’ That was one moment. … It was a meeting, he threw it out there, he let us know, that wasn’t the case here.”
And Belichick is right. It’s not the case. Yet.
In this week’s season-opening Game Plan, we’ll take a good hard look at the potential for anthem protests across the NFL on Sunday; how the Dolphins are handling Hurricane Irma; where Cam Newton is in his recovery; and examine Josh Rosen’s furious start to his possible final season at UCLA, and the loud statement he made about his NFL potential.
But on this Thursday, there’s just one place to start—right here at Gillette Stadium. And the story here, as the Patriots get set to open the season against the Chiefs, is of a team faced with borderline unprecedented expectations.
It’s a team with arguably the greatest coach and greatest quarterback ever to play, returning from its second Super Bowl title in three years, and fifth in 16 seasons, in position to make history and loaded up like—sorry Bill—that 2007 team was to do it. Consider …
• While that 2007 team stocked up in the offseason with Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Adalius Thomas, et al, it wasn’t coming off a title. I looked back at every returning champion this century, and couldn’t find another one that added immense veteran pieces on both sides of the ball the way New England did in adding Brandin Cooks to its offense and Stephon Gilmore to the defense.
• The attrition rate here was manageable. The defense lost Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long, Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan, and the offense lost Martellus Bennett. In each case, reinforcements were acquired to shore up the holes left behind (though Kony Ealy represents one that already hasn’t worked out).
• The Patriots also get back their second best player, Rob Gronkowski. He was lost for the 2016 season on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the team won it all without him.
• The coaching staff returns almost completely intact, with tight ends coach Brian Daboll (now the offensive coordinator at Alabama) representing the biggest loss. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turned down the Niners job to stay. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia’s candidacy for the Chargers and Rams jobs didn’t take. And the result is New England coming into the season with the two touting 16 years of play-calling for Belichick.
Now, there are questions here. The depth of pass rushers and linebackers is one. How the Patriots, and Brady, will adjust without Julian Edelman, their trusted, tone-setting slot, early in the season is another.
But these are high-class problems to have, which is why Belichick felt the need to address the 2007 comparisons during the spring. He reinforced it to players by opening camp with this message for his players in the first team meeting: Last year is last year, and we’re on to a new year.
“The gist was, cut that out of your head, we have to start over again,” said cornerback Eric Rowe, now in his second year as a Patriot. “So ever since then, I haven’t thought about the Super Bowl. I’ve basically forgotten that we won the Super Bowl last year. We’re starting over. We haven’t watched the Super Bowl tape, none of the highlights. That’s over.”
For the rest of us, it’s not. That game, and so many others over the past 16 years, are why it’s almost impossible to envision a scenario now, on Sept. 7, where the Patriots don’t win the AFC East (they’ve done that eight straight years), get a bye (they’ve had one seven years running) and advance to the AFC title game (they’ve been there six years in a row).
It explains how their odds are 13-4 to win another championship, more than twice as short as the odds of any other team (Seattle is next at 8-1). It’s how they’re a 9-point favorite, according to Westgate, Thursday night against a Chiefs team that was the second seed in the AFC playoffs last year.
“No question, we have great football players,” Danny Amendola says. “But it comes down to playing good. The good news is the season’s here.”
It is, and that means there’s plenty for the Patriots to sort through, like there is for every team, over the next few weeks, as their season takes shape and they develop an identity. But there does seem to be one thing going on here that we can count on.
All that hype? It probably won’t go to these guys heads.
“You guys don’t get to go to meetings,” McCourty said, now smiling. “You’d find out fast, it’s hard to get a big head around here. I mean, from the spring, Bill’s been on us, you’d think we’re one of the worst teams in the league. And it wasn’t unusual. Since I’ve been here, that’s how he coaches.
“I think you’ve heard a lot of guys who were here before say it, you won’t get many pats on the back. He says, ‘There’s no reward in doing your job.’ That’s expected. From Day 1, he’s been on us about being perfect.”
And maybe they can be.