#87 Rob Gronkowski
Patriots fans are spoiled. Each August, as the preseason games unfold, we debate whether this year’s team has the juice to win the Super Bowl. Think about that. There are always some uncertainties: Is the running game strong enough? Can the defense make key stops? But the Patriots have finished on top in the AFC East in 10 of the past 11 years. The one year they didn’t win the division was 2008, when Tom Brady got hurt, and they still had 11 wins. They’re never bad, and at this point we just take regular season success for granted and skip directly to discussions about January. Which is what we’re about to do here. But first, let’s just take a moment and relish that fact that we’re still in the Brady-Belichick epoch of Patriots history, when each fall brings a heady wave of optimism that a new Lombardi Trophy is but five months away. Before you gripe that the Broncos now have Wes Welker and Aqib Talib, give thanks that the debate isn’t about whether the Patriots are any good, but whether they’re championship-caliber excellent. Follow along, then, as we enumerate seven reasons why this year’s team is the best since 2007. And maybe—ultimately—better.
#39 Brandon Browner
We won’t see cornerback Brandon Browner until October, as he’ll spend September serving a four-game suspension after testing positive for a banned substance. Which banned substance, you ask?
Let’s be blunt: It was the sticky-icky, the dank, that Pacific Northwest ganja weed. And should that really surprise us? Browner was playing for Pete Carroll. In Seattle. The bye week probably included a mandatory peyote-fueled vision quest followed by a team discussion of whether Dark Side really syncs up with The Wizard of Oz.
In his short, uneven career, Browner’s played the role of both superstar and troubled underachiever. The Patriots are wagering that we’ll see something like 2011 Browner, when he had 51 tackles and six interceptions. Hey, if Belichick straightened out Randy Moss for at least a season, Browner might turn out to be the most dominant cornerback in the AFC. That is, except for the other big defensive acquisition…
The Patriots likely only have Darrelle Revis for a year, but hopefully he’ll decide he enjoys playing football after New Year’s Day and cut a deal in the offseason to stick around.
Because so far in practices, he looks like the pass-snuffing monster he was in New York. Revis can cover anyone, which addresses the Patriots’ key defensive problem in recent years—you just knew that when it was all on the line, a high-powered offense could burn them for long passes. Talib helped on that front, but he was always hurt. Revis is an upgrade, a smart, quick cornerback who can go man-to-man with the best receivers in the league. With Browner and Revis joining a cast that already includes Devin McCourty, the Patriots’ secondary is stronger than it’s been since the days of Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy.
The secondary isn’t the only place the Pats’ defense looks good.
Human school bus Vince Wilfork is back to clog up the middle and haunt the nightmares of opposing quarterbacks with his deceptive quickness and hands that might have been surgically transplanted from a top-flight wide receiver. Yes, yes, the Patriots swear by that whole cold-blooded analytical thing when it comes to contracts. But sometimes it’s worth it to pay up. Wilfork did a lot of saber rattling in the offseason, but in March he and the Patriots restructured his contract to keep the team’s defensive anchor in Foxborough for up to three more years.
No man in New England is more famous or more intensely scrutinized than Tom Brady, so if he lost a step we might be as likely to find out from TMZ as from ESPN.
When Brady shows the first hint of being washed up, 10 million haters will be ready to point it out. And that’s just not happening. Brady, now 37, is enjoying the career longevity that can come with being a pocket quarterback. Please join us during the next five months in screaming “Noooo!” every time Crazy Legs Tommy tries scrambling for a first down.
Regardless of whether Jimmy Garoppolo and Ryan Mallett could be competent NFL quarterbacks, the basic plan is to hope we never find out. (Before the first preseason game on Aug. 7, Garoppolo had never even attended an NFL game.) We draft backup quarterbacks because they’re cheap, not because anybody’s being groomed to replace Brady.
Given last year’s sudden evisceration of the Patriots’ fearsome one-two tight end threat, it’s amazing that the offense was any good at all.
Now Rob Gronkowski is back on the field after his knee injury. The good news in this, if there is some, is that the Patriots know they can score TDs without their favorite goofy giant running slants to the back of the end zone and easily snagging passes that need FAA clearance. But think about how many more points they’ll score with a healthy Gronk on the field. Between Gronkowski and Browner, the Patriots might be a significantly better team by the second month of the season than they are on Sept. 7 against the Dolphins. But just in case the rehab doesn’t go as quickly as we hope, we’d suggest the Patriots acquire one or two of the other Gronkowski brothers. We’re not sure, but we think there are about 15 of them.
Will James White be this season’s unknown rookie who becomes a powerhouse running back?
It happens every year somewhere in the league, and, like the Spanish Inquisition, you never see it coming. You’re watching highlights one day when you realize there’s a rookie who scored three TDs and you didn’t draft him for your fantasy football team. White could be that kind of guy, a fourth-rounder out of Wisconsin who just might be one of those patented Belichick sneaky finds. White fumbled only twice in college—twice out of 754 touches. That’s the kind of mistake-free performance that endears players to a certain hoodie-wearing sidelines mastermind. He can also catch passes and pound the ball up the middle, giving him versatility in an offense in which that’s a prized attribute. White’s likely not going to replace Stevan Ridley or Shane Vereen, but he might well surprise a few opposing defenses when he gets a chance to join the huddle.
#11 Julian Edelman
The more weapons you have on offense, the more effective each component becomes.
And great short-out guys such as Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman—whom Brady affectionately called “little pygmies” at a preseason practice—become even more valuable if there’s a legitimate deep threat to stretch the defense. Enter Brandon LaFell. He might not rack up a ton of receptions, but he’ll have some long ones, and those sideline bombs will instill the fear that opens up the middle for those relentless five- and six-yarders that Brady strings together for touchdown drives. During his career, LaFell has averaged 14.3 yards per catch—more Randy Moss (15.6) than Wes Welker (11.1). Now that he’s part of a pass-first offense, LaFell has the potential to have a huge year and take the Patriots’ passing game to the next level.
Here’s the thing about the Patriots that differentiates them from the Red Sox, the Celtics or the Bruins.
Those teams all have the potential in any given year to either underachieve or spectacularly exceed your expectations. (See: the 2012 to 2013 Red Sox. Or the 2013 to 2014 Red Sox.) But a football team has so many moving parts that it’s not terribly difficult to assess the whole, because any one fluke performer won’t have an outsized influence, good or bad.
So when the Patriots look like they’ve put together an unstoppable offense, they probably have an unstoppable offense. If they look like they’ve got iffy receivers, they probably have iffy receivers. Yes, the preseason will offer a few red herrings, also known as Zach Sudfelds, but barring too many injuries, you have a sense of where the strengths and weaknesses are. And this year, frankly, there don’t seem to be any glaring weaknesses. The defense looks great, the offense has plenty of weapons and Gisele still looks better than Eli Manning’s wife. (Sorry, but when it comes to the younger Manning, the hurt hasn’t gone away.) Assuming Brady makes it through the preseason with his knees still pointing in the correct direction, the Pats are worthy of the respect accorded by Vegas—right now the oddsmakers have the Seahawks, the Broncos, the Patriots and the 49ers looking like the surest bets for a championship in 2015.
So we’re going to do something unprecedented in the long history of Improper Bostonian Patriots’ previews: We’re calling the Super Bowl. Forget your superstition and old-time New England pessimism. This team is awesome. Brady is crushing it, Revis is Alcatraz and they’re going to own the Broncos and whoever else gets in the way. You can make your bets on whether Weird Al shows up in the halftime show, but don’t bet against the Patriots earning another ring. The last Super Bowl win came 10 years ago. It’s been long enough.
The 2004 Patriots’ season culminated with the franchise’s third title in four years, but the team’s two coordinators left for head coaching jobs before the confetti had even finished falling on the Super Bowl celebration. Bill Belichick’s staff of 13 assistant coaches that year included four future head coaches (denoted by bigger logos below) and four other future NFL coordinators. Some of the assistants (Matt Patricia, Ivan Fears) have stayed with New England for all 10 years, while others left this offseason (Dante Scarnecchia to retirement, Pepper Johnson to Buffalo). Here’s a look at what the most well-traveled coaches from that legendary staff have done in the 10 years since the Patriots’ last title.