The year is 2001. The Patriots are 11-5, and they've accomplished that record courtesy of hard-nosed football on both sides of the line of scrimmage and a collective team effort.
There are no household names on New England’s roster, at least not yet. Time and success will be kind to the likes of Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Adam Vinatieri and others. But for now, this is a group has gelled under the deliberate coaching of Bill Belichick to go on to become champions. Make no mistake, the Patriots' run to their first-ever Super Bowl title was anything but pretty.
In fairness, they probably liked it that way.
New England ran the ball 473 times that season versus just 482 pass attempts, nearly a true 50/50 split in its run/pass tendencies. Brady posted just a 6.4 adjusted yards per pass attempt (AY/A) and 6.1 AY/A the following year in 2002; it was a far cry from the career-high 9.4 AY/A he would post on 578 attempts just a half a decade later in 2007. The Patriots' offense was anything but the high flying act it would eventually be known as. The team passed for 300-plus yards just once in 19 games that season and eclipsed 250 yards on two more occasions, including an overtime victory over the Raiders in the playoffs — known as the infamous "Tuck Rule" game.
This team won ugly, going 7-3 in 10 one-score games over the course of the regular season and playoffs combined. But dammit, the Patriots won often thanks to clutch execution in crunch time and a whopping 42 forced turnovers on the year.
The year is now 2020. The Patriots' record is to be determined, but if they want to continue their annual trip to the postseason, things are going to need to go back to the future. Numerous standout players from the 2018-19 championship team are gone; such as Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, Jaime Collins, Stephen Gostkowski and Trey Flowers plus coaching departures in Brian Flores (Miami) and Joe Judge (New York Giants).
It's hard to stay atop the mountain for 20 years, yet New England has been a staple in the NFL's championship discussion ever since that magical run in 2001. The Patriots have done it plenty of ways too. But with this team sapped of much of its core and only Belichick remaining, the future Hall of Fame coach will need to return to his Patriots roots in order to continue his long run of success. If they are to reign once again in the AFC East, they're going to need to win ugly in 2020.
New England reportedly likes its young quarterback, Jarrett Stidham. But Stidham has thrown four career passes to this point and to assume he'll step into the role of Brady and offer anything resembling the same mastery of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels' offense would be a massive leap of faith. Instead, the Patriots will need to scrum it up and scratch out wins the old fashioned way. If you're looking for a silver lining, they generally have the personnel to get it done. They have a slew of capable running backs between Sony Michel, Damien Harris, James White and Rex Burkhead; and with a physical offensive line featuring former first-round pick Isaiah Wynn, standout guards Joe Thuney (franchise tag) and Shaq Mason and a returning David Andrews, the Patriots will find their share of success on the ground.
While the team has lost its share defensively, key veteran playmakers remain in Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower and Stephon Gilmore. Is it enough to force 42 turnovers like those 2001 Patriots did? Probably not; but never the less, they're an opportunistic bunch and, when combined with the coaching prowess of Belichick and a capable ground attack, we'd be fools to write the Patriots off in the revamped and remodeled division.
The great coaches are like chameleons; they can change their approach to fit their personnel. If Belichick's resume tells us anything, he's more than capable of turning a grind-it-out offense and opportunistic defense into a winner.
He already did, nearly 20 years ago.
- Aug 19, 2022
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