Scene: The locker Bank Stadium in Minnesota, hours before Super Bowl LII. Malcolm Butler is at his locker, talking music with Devin McCourty. “Jon Bon Jovi is so overrated,” Butler says. “He wasn’t even the best musician in Bon Jovi! As far as I’m concerned, it should have been called the Richie Sambora Band.” Those are strong words, but Butler isn’t done. “You know he tried to buy the Bills? What’s worse: Wanting to own the Bills or getting rejected by the Bills?” McCourty smiles, briefly, but he’s wary of engaging this very fraught topic—everyone knows that coach Bill Belichick is BFFs with the New Jersey rock legend. What neither of them know, couldn’t possibly know, is that Jon Bon Jovi himself is no more than 10 feet away, suited up as Pat Patriot, ready to continue his decades-long run as the mascot. Recall that in 1993, the team logo was redesigned to look more like Bon Jovi. This was not a coincidence.

Belichick, across the locker room, recognizes the affront that Butler delivered to his best friend—whose body language, even through the anime-Adonis-meets-Paul Revere mascot suit, conveys unmistakable despair. No longer is Pat rushing around the locker room, throwing his hands in the air, indulging Gronk’s requests to fire the T-shirt cannon at him. He sits on a bench, head down, a man afflicted by the bad medicine of a scathing critique.

The rest is history. The starting lineup is announced, and Butler isn’t on it. The Patriots go on to lose the game, 41-33. Harsh discipline? Perhaps. But this is how Belichick operates and always has. If you want to win games, everyone has to be humming the same tune, and that tune is “Blaze of Glory.” And that’s what happened.

Hey, it’s as likely as any other explanation we’re going to get. Butler sitting out the Super Bowl immediately joined Grady-Little-leaving-Pedro-in-too-long in the annals of endlessly dissected New England coaching decisions. Understatement alert: They could’ve used him. The only upside of last year’s Super Bowl was that Philly fans are 13 percent less destructive in victory than defeat, so there’s still a city there if you want to visit it. Sure, they’re not yet done mopping up the vomit and spraying down the lampposts with a proprietary solution of Valtrex and Roundup, but if the Eagles had lost, a feral mob would still be using the Rocky statue as a battering ram to loot cheesesteak vendors. So we can be magnanimous about that, at least.

Well, that was last season. What about this season? The dominant storylines seem to focus on the players that left the team, as if the Patriots haven’t been ably dealing with the same challenge every single year since 1 AB (After Bledsoe). Somewhere on a mountaintop in Vermont, there’s a hermit who’s pretty sure it all went downhill after they lost Lawyer Milloy. True, this year’s exodus seems particularly gruesome: Nate Solder to the Giants, Danny Amendola to the Dolphins and Brandin Cooks to the Rams. Butler and Dion Lewis are now Titans. The receiver corps in particular is looking a lot more Reche Caldwell than Randy Moss. It’s a rough year when you’ve had to kick the tires on Kenny Britt. But they’re gonna be fine. Here’s what to look for as the Pats try once again to earn the first ring for Brady’s other hand.

Rob Gronkowski. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney.

The Slow Start

Mark our words: The Pats will look shaky early on in the season. And if they do, so much the better. Last year, the Patriots lost two of the first four games and went to the Super Bowl. In 2016, they were shutout in their fourth game and they won the Super Bowl. Want to go back to 2014? They lost two of the first four but won the Super Bowl. In 2015, they won the first 10 and didn’t make it past Denver in the AFC Championship. And of course, let’s not talk about 2007. What we’re saying is, when the weather is warm and the Pats look temporarily hapless, that’s a natural feature of a healthy team. It doesn’t mean that Brady’s done and Belichick cut the wrong guys and a sinkhole of misery will soon engulf Gillette Stadium for a thousand years. What it’s meant, lately, is that Brady & Company will be suiting up in February. The thing we’d be scared of, really, is a blazing hot start. This team seems to thrive on early season humble pie, so don’t despair if DeAndre Hopkins goes for 225 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener.

Ja’Whaun Bentley. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Eric J. Adler.

Drafting Hurts

The Patriots’ top draft pick in 2016, Cyrus Jones, missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The team’s top draft pick for 2017, Derek Rivers, tore his ACL in the preseason and missed the whole season. With the first pick in the 2018 draft, they nabbed offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn. He lasted for about 10 minutes in the preseason before going down for the rest of the year with a torn Achilles tendon. If you’re healthy and want to stay that way, do everything possible to avoid becoming the Patriots’ top draft pick.

In any case, Wynn was working behind Trent Brown, who they acquired from the 49ers and owns the distinction as the biggest guy in the NFL, at 6-foot-8 and 380 pounds. Maybe Wynn will figure into next year’s team, but it seems that for now Brady’s blindside will be covered by Wun Wun, on loan from the Wildings and wearing number 77. (If you don’t watch Game of Thrones, Wun Wun is a giant who might not actually even be as big as Brown.)

Sony Michel is another exciting first-round pick, a running back out of Georgia who may or may not be totally healthy (he already had fluid drained from his knee, which seems bad). But at Georgia, Michel rushed for more yards than Todd Gurley—and we hear that guy’s been pretty good in the NFL.

The rookie who’s really been killing it, though, is inside linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round pick. His preseason touchdown return of Nick Foles’ fumble was a tantalizing vision of an alternate Super Bowl. Hey, Vegas odds do currently favor a Pats-Eagles rematch.

Trent Brown. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney.

Passing is not all about Receivers

Among all the fretting over the Pats’ receiver corps—which will be in especially tough shape during the first four games, when Julian Edelman will be surrendering $470,588.20 to serve his PED suspension—we tend to forget that the Patriots’ best receiver isn’t a receiver. He’s a giant goofy mutant who combines soft hands and hard partying, a tight-end touchdown machine who draws all the coverage even when he’s not getting the ball. And right now Rob Gronkowski is totally healt—never mind. We’re not even going to say it.

Remember, too, that every Pats running back can ably catch the ball. Former Penn State lacrosse standout Chris Hogan is still awesome. Then there’s Braxton Berrios, Phillip Dorsett and potentially the biggest sleeper of all…

Julian Edelman. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney. 

Cordarrelle Patterson

Acquired from Oakland for draft picks, Patterson could be a sneaky weapon—both for kickoff returns and as a receiver. Patterson doesn’t have a ton of career receptions, but he’s a 10-yards-per-catch guy—perfect for the Pats to bring in on third downs, if for no other reason than to mess with the head of the opposing defensive coordinator. He’s also notched five kickoff return touchdowns in six seasons. Last year, Patterson had back-to-back games with receptions longer than 50 yards, and that was with the 6-10 Raiders. Conceivably, he could become a reliable deep threat on a team that’s actually good.

Cordarrelle Patterson. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Eric J. Adler.

The D is Better Than You Think

Last year’s D gave up a lot of yards, ranking 29th in the league on that front. But, crucially, it didn’t give up a lot of points, ranking fifth in the NFL in points allowed. In other words, they were a bend-not-break D—opposing teams made a lot of trips to the red zone that ended in field goal attempts or turnovers.

The Pats like to play three safeties on the field at the same time, with McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon racking up most of the tackles. (New England led the league in tackles last year, which is both good and bad—it means they were on the field for a lot of downs.) Add Nate Ebner, coming back from a torn ACL last year, and you’ve got four safeties who have been playing together for five seasons. It’s hard to put a value on that, but it’s fair to say these guys have developed a level of cohesion and communication that makes them all more valuable than they would be if they were strewn to the NFL winds.

And while they lost the enigmatic Mr. Butler as well as defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, they still have the key guys on defense: Stephon Gilmore, Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy among them.

Devin McCourty. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney. 

Dont’a Hightower. Courtesy of New England Patriots / Jim Mahoney.

The Mystery Men

There are guys on the roster right now who will loom large in the 2018 season. We just don’t necessarily know who they are. And maybe we won’t until Week 6 or later. That’s how it works with a Belichick team—particularly at the RB spot. He keeps his powder dry. Last August, would you have expected that Rex Burkhead would score eight touchdowns in 10 regular-season games? No, you wouldn’t have. Is Jeremy Hill this year’s Rex Burkhead? And is Rex Burkhead this year’s Dion Lewis? Will we see more from Ralph Webb? Even the guys we know well can get deployed in sneaky ways. Last season, Brandon Bolden’s first touchdown of the year came in the postseason (surprise, Tennessee!). What we can say, definitively, is that you don’t want to draft a Patriots running back in fantasy football. Last year’s RB corps scored 25 touchdowns, rushing and receiving—
spread among four players. Fantasy nightmare, but the reality worked out pretty well.

Rex Burkhead. Courtesy of New England Patriots / David Silverman. 

Tom Brady

What’s more unlikely: A 41-year-old quarterback who is still playing MVP-level football, or that nobody seriously expects him not to? This is not Brett Favre at 41, retired-unretired and eking out another season. If you watched Brady’s Facebook series, Tom vs. Time, you know that he’s fanatically devoted to extending his career as long as possible. Somehow it’s hard to envision Favre (or Peyton Manning, for that matter), drinking veggie smoothies and eschewing traditional meathead workouts to work on flexibility. Bill Burr went on Conan the day after the Super Bowl and said, of Brady, “When he stands in the pocket, he looks 25. But the second he starts running, it’s like, ‘Dude, I could D this guy up.’ … Last year, when he threw that pick-six, when he dove to tackle that guy, it looked like someone threw a dead body out of a car. … But when he stands in the pocket … you’re like, ‘This guy’s gonna live forever.’ ”

Tom Brady. Courtesy of New England Patriots / David Silverman.

I know what Burr’s saying, but that in-pocket versus out-of-pocket dichotomy is the way it’s always been with Brady. If you don’t believe me, watch his 40-yard dash from the 2000 NFL combine. It’ll take a while, since he ran it in 5.28 seconds, which would’ve made him the slowest quarterback at this year’s combine. He’s probably quicker now than he was then—and smarter, and stronger. Yeah, he’s not Cam Newton when it comes to scrambling. He never was. But he’s the best quarterback the league has ever seen.

The Patriots will begin this season as favorites to return to the Super Bowl. There’s no doubt why. Despite the changes, the key ingredients are still there: Brady and Belichick. It might be fun to throw a hot take out there and suggest that losing Butler—or Cooks or Solder—portends doom, but history says this team will replace them and keep on winning. The Patriots might not play the Falcons this year, but there’s a good chance they’re going to Atlanta to play on Feb. 3. ◆

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