One day in February, I found myself picking up a car at a cavernous storage facility outside Atlanta. This was a few days after the Super Bowl, and inside that garage was the parade that never happened—rows of Mercedes-Benz models emblazoned with Atlanta Falcons world championship decals, ready to go. Even as a Patriots fan, someone aligned with the pitiless, vanquishing horde from Foxboro, I felt sad for a moment. Poor Falcons fans. They’ll never see these cars, this alternate vision of joy and happiness that was snatched away at the final moment in the most heart-wrenching way possible. A light cloud of empathic gloom enveloped me.
And then the moment passed, and I threw my head back and laughed the diabolical laugh of a supervillain with a freeze ray pointed at the U.N., because that’s what the Patriots are to the NFL. Not to belabor the very recent football past, but let’s relive the afterglow of Super Bowl LI for just a minute.
It’s the third quarter, the score is 28-3 and the Patriots have been thoroughly dominated. Those of us watching the game are already rationalizing—well, two years ago Lynch didn’t run, and Butler made the pick, and we kind of stole that one at the last moment, and that sort of lightning doesn’t strike twice. Except that it does, and the second time isn’t just lightning, but an electromagnetic pulse that disables all of the Falcons offense, triggers 31 unanswered Patriots points, and leads to the first overtime victory in Super Bowl history. The rest of the country may hate New England, but you can’t say the Patriots don’t bring the entertainment when it comes to Super Bowls.
Brandin Cooks. Photo Credit: David Silverman
Most teams have a hard time winning one Super Bowl. Two wins is statistically improbable, the relentless strain of the salary cap casting stars to the wind and forcing the kind of compromises that undermine postseason drives. Maybe you have a great O-line but a suspect secondary. Maybe you have a top-five wide receiver but a bottom-20 tight end. Maybe you’ve got Jay Ajayi but also Jay Cutler. That’s the way it works—for everyone but the Patriots. Because last year the Pats won the Super Bowl for the fifth time, and this year they’re even better. How so? Let’s take a look.
40 And Lovin’ It
Last year, generic-guy-in-a-suit Roger Goodell bequeathed the Patriots with a wonderful gift. While every other healthy NFL quarterback had to play 16 regular season games, Tom Brady only had to play 12! This hardly seemed fair to the rest of the league, but that’s the way it works for the Patriots—always getting special treatment. Thanks to that monthlong vacation, Brady was so well rested that he eventually broke a bunch of Super Bowl records for passing. And why not? It was only his 15th game of the season.
Brady is 40 now, so should we be worried? Historically, he probably doesn’t have a lot of time left in his career. He’s already the second-oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, behind Peyton Manning, who is only 69 weeks older but seems like he belongs in a black-and-white photo wearing a leather helmet. Even among pocket quarterbacks, you just don’t see anyone deep in their 40s taking snaps. There are no Tim Wakefields in football.
There have been 14 40-year-old starting QBs in the NFL. But fewer than half made it to 41, and after that it’s a select club. Hey, maybe Brady will be like Hall-of-Famer George Blanda, who played quarterback (and… kicker?) for the ’75 Raiders at age 48. Tom’s been eating that magic vegan Gisele food that gives you the telomeres of a teenager, so who knows what his limit is. All we can say is: If he plays like he did last year, that’ll do. And if he needs a game or two to rest his weary Gen-X bones and kick back to listen to some Spacehog, last year’s 3-1 start proved that the rest of the team can generally hold it together until he gets back. In fact, hey, Goodell: We saw Tom Brady spiking his kombucha with ginkgo biloba and his cleats are made of Flubber. You should suspend him for a few early games.
Rob Gronkowski. Photo Credit: Jim Mahoney via AP)
Not too Many Cooks
The Patriots traded the Saints’ first- and third-round draft picks in exchange for Brandin Cooks and a fourth-round pick. Fair enough! Last year, 15 of Cooks’ catches went for more than 20 yards, and six of them went for more than 40. For perspective, Randy Moss’ 2007 stats: 18 catches of more than 20 yards, nine of more than 40. Could Cooks, who is only 23, hit those kinds of numbers and become a Moss-like deep threat on the Pats offense? It sure seems like a distinct possibility. And a player like that helps everyone else. Early in a preseason practice against the Jaguars, Cooks burned everyone for a 65-yard catch. On the next play, the safety cheated toward Cooks and Chris Hogan caught a 40-yard pass on the other side. This is the kind of thing that’ll happen all year, we hope. Despite losing Julian Edelman to a season-ending injury, adding Cooks to the mix with Danny Amendola, Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell must have Belichick rubbing his hands together and muttering “excellllllent” like Mr. Burns. We mean, more often than he normally does.
As an added bonus, Cooks doesn’t appear to suffer from Crazy Star Wide Receiver Syndrome. He hasn’t flashed a busload of nuns or accidentally shot himself with a crossbow or legally changed his name to Pap Smear. Kind of makes us wonder if he’s even any good.
Malcolm Butler. Photo Credit: Jim Mahoney via AP)
RB by Committee, or RB by Gillislee?
Last year, LeGarrette Blount ran for 1,161 yards and led the league with 18 touchdowns. The question is: How much of that was Blount being a beast, and how much of it was a function of the Patriots offense and its general excellence? After all, a strong passing game begets a strong running game. And the difference between Pats Blount and sticks-and-seeds Philly Blount is stark—he went straight from leading the league in TDs to having Eagles fans debating whether he should even be on the roster. Sure, Blount’s at the age when running backs commence drastic physical decline, but that’s an awfully harsh season-to-season transition, and one that suggests that the Pats system is more important than the particular player taking the handoffs. We could probably suit up Jim Nance and have him go for 800 yards and 10 TDs.
Which brings us to Mike Gillislee. A more conventionally sized running back (around 220 pounds), Gillislee looks like a classic Pats acquisition, a backup who was stuck behind a superstar but showed flashes of excellence when given a chance. Last year with the Bills, Gillislee started the Week 8 game against the Patriots when LeSean McCoy was out, and in that game he ran for 85 yards and a touchdown. Evidently, Mr. Belichick took notice.
Given the number of weapons on the Patriots offense—including the crowded RB depth chart—it’s hard to say where Gillislee fits in. But let’s at least pencil in, “Laurence Maroney on a good day.”
Stephen Gilmore. Photo Credit: David Silverman
Speaking of former Buffalo Bills, the Pats made a big defensive acquisition by picking up Pro Bowl cornerback Stephon Gilmore. There’s no doubt that Gilmore has major talent, notching 48 tackles and five interceptions last year. But he is, uh, quite competitive. Like, “administer an on-field beating to your teammate” competitive. Yes, Gilmore kicked off his Patriots season by engaging in a helmets-off fracas with Julian Edelman during a practice, later explaining that he has “no friends” on the field. Hey, the same thing once happened with Rodney Harrison and Troy Brown, and those fellas worked it out.
The Backup Who Will Be a Starter
Meet Dwayne Allen. He’s the Patriots’ starting tight end. No, not right now. But at some point in the season, Rob Gronkowski—whose play often violates the law of conservation of energy—will run full-speed into an ill-placed cotton-candy vendor on the sidelines, coating the first three rows in an explosion of blue raspberry flavoring and costing himself three games with a sprained frontalis muscle. That’s why former Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen is more important than your average backup tight end.
Now, Allen is not going to form a two-headed TE monster with Gronk, like a certain guy we’d rather forget (no, not Martellus Bennett). But Allen caught six TDs last year for the Colts. He could be a booster on the Patriots rocketship, assuming he learns the offense, which he’s described as “extremely hard.” Hey, Gronk learned it. We assume.
Trey Flowers. Photo Credit: David Silverman
OK, There Is This One Problem
Two wonderful adjectives can be applied to our defense: “Super Bowl-winning” and “familiar.” The 2017 D looks similar to the 2016 edition, with Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Malcolm Butler and Trey Flowers among the key players returning. But there is a notable absence: Rob Ninkovich, who retired at the start of training camp, costing the defense an edge rusher. The Pats surely knew this was possible, so they used their top draft pick on defensive end Derek Rivers, who promptly blew an ACL in about the first 10 seconds of practice. And they traded with the Carolina Panthers for Kony Ealy, who they cut in August. So who does that leave them with? Maybe Geneo Grissom, maybe somebody we don’t even know about yet. The main thing to remember is that the fretting is probably overblown. Ninkovich was great, but last year he had four sacks. Somebody will step up and fill that role, because that’s what happens with the Patriots.
Yes, there are still some questions. Will they draw up a play wherein fullback Glenn Gronkowski throws a halfback option pass to Rob in an all-Gronk touchdown play? Will identical twins Jacob and Cody Hollister switch uniforms and concoct Double Trouble pranks to confuse the Gronkowski brothers? What percent of bearded New England men will wear a backward hat with a pencil in it as a last-minute Matt Patricia Halloween costume? (Answer: 98 percent.) Will Robert Mueller investigate Putin stealing Kraft’s ring and Kraft subsequently giving a ring to Trump? And will Pride of BC Matt Ryan make any more Gatorade commercials about how losing makes you extra-motivated? Because that was hilarious. He must be super-motivated at this point.
For Patriots fans, the default preseason mode is to obsess over perceived deficiencies and then totally give up if the team has two losses by October. But after what happened in February, we’re bathing in optimism. This year feels a lot like 2007. There is open talk about 19-0. So let’s remember the lesson from a decade ago, which is that cockiness can be its own lethal problem. Maybe the best thing for the Pats would be to lose the season opener. But if they manage to reach mid-November undefeated, let’s all remember that mouth-breather Eli Manning could show up in the Super Bowl and drool his way to a 21-0 lead. In which case, we’ll have him right where we want him.