Thank you, Roger Goodell! The world’s most overpaid gym teacher successfully sent Tom Brady to detention, where he’ll spend four games thinking about how naughty it is to violate the Ideal Gas Law, which is apparently what he did. Oh yes, we’re still talking about Deflategate, still marveling at how a passel of inconsequentially squishy footballs that were used two years ago—for one half of a game—will have a very real impact on the 2016 season. The face-value assessment is that losing Brady for four games hurts the Patriots. And that’s just what Bill Belichick wants you to think. Go ahead and gloat, fools. A four-game suspension won’t stop us. In fact, that’s exactly what we wanted.
Early in the season, the offense is still gelling. There might be bungled plays, missed blocks, vicious blindside sacks. Remember Mr. Bernard Pollard? Of course you do. He took out Brady’s knee in the first game of the 2008 season, which came to be known as the Matt Cassel Year. Brady wishes he’d been suspended for the first four games of that year. Bad things happen early, even during the preseason. Better to stab yourself with some scissors and bide your time than to end up like Tony Romo, with a vertebra sacrificed on the altar of a meaningless August tuneup.
In an alternate narrative, Tom Brady appeals to the Supreme Court, which rules 8-0 that Roger Goodell is as dumb as a manatee and should have a career standing on the sidewalk to advertise mattress sales. Brady then gets to play, and J.J. Watt marks his return in Week 3 by Pollarding Brady’s other knee. Then we would all wish he’d just rolled with this whole Deflategate thing and stepped into the season four games fresher than everyone else.
For the Patriots, a Brady-less September ought not to be a disaster. If Jimmy Garoppolo can go 2-2 during the first four games, well, that would be just what Brady himself did two years ago. They’re not going to go 0-4—the Cassel Patriots, our best and thankfully only frame of reference, notched 11 wins and should’ve made the playoffs. In fact, there’s an outside chance that the Pats start 4-0 and we all get subjected to a barrage of asinine stories speculating whether New England has a quarterback controversy. Let us answer that now: No, it doesn’t. Jimmy Garoppolo could somehow win five games in the first four weeks, and he’d still be standing on the sidelines come Oct. 9. He’s a solid quarterback, but right now he’s keeping a seat warm. That’s it. Brady will not be usurped. Not even if Garoppolo starts calling himself “Jim,” which would sound much more like an NFL quarterback and much less like someone who just earned his merit badge for basketry.
The Brady suspension is a topic to bitch about, but also something that ultimately shouldn’t make much of a difference, assuming No. 12 doesn’t spend his downtime jumping off cliffs in Costa Rica or touching anything sharper than Gisele’s cheekbones. No, the real make-or-break positions with this team lie elsewhere. Let’s take a look, starting with the defense.
The D Is Stacked
Fourth-year linebacker Jamie Collins is already a Pro Bowl-caliber leader on defense—last year he tied the NFL lead with five forced fumbles (along with 5.5 sacks and 89 tackles) despite missing four games due to illness. He’s one of those linebackers who seems to be everywhere on the field at once, a problem for both quarterbacks and their receiving corps.
Which, with the Pats’ defense, is sort of the idea—most of the guys out there can rotate into different positions, throwing an ever-bubbling cauldron of confusion at opposing offensive coordinators. Consider the recently acquired and excellently named Barkevious Mingo. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 240 pounds, Mingo can rush the quarterback or drop into pass coverage. Whether he’s really good remains to be seen (the Browns seem to think not, but they’ve been known to be wrong), but either way Mingo brings the element of surprise. Like the children’s song says, “There was a coach who acquired a hybrid defender, and Mingo was his name-o.”
There have been years when you just knew that the Pats’ defense couldn’t stop the run or was going to get consistently burned on deep routes. This crew, though, looks solid all the way through. You’ve got second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones playing cornerback and returning punts, never-paying-for-a-drink-in-Boston-ever-again Pro Bowler Malcolm Butler and second-year defensive end Trey Flowers shaping up to be a monster. (He was out most of last season but racked up the sacks in the preseason.) We’ve got Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower, Jabaal Sheard and Logan Ryan. Defense isn’t as sexy as a high-octane offense, but your path to victory gets a lot easier when you don’t need to score 42 points per game.
One other thing: Part of the defensive story always revolves around disappointment over a player who’s no longer on the team, also known as Lawyer Milloy Syndrome. So let’s just take a moment and be thankful that we dodged a bullet with Aqib Talib, who proved himself not so great at dodging bullets when he got shot in the leg at a strip club this summer. Yeah, he’s a good player, but obviously the Pats saw a little bit of Plaxico Burress in his crazy eyes and made the right decision when they let him go to Denver two years ago.
Now, About That Offense…
The offensive line is once again riddled with injuries. Shaq Mason and Sebastian Vollmer are hurt. Bryan Stork was alternately hurt or acting full-on cray, leading to him being replaced—again—by David Andrews, who started the first 10 games last year while Stork was injured. That should’ve clued in Mr. Stork that perhaps he shouldn’t throw punches in a preseason practice, of all things. Storks deliver babies, and Belichicks deliver Storks who act like babies to the Redskins, who…uh, return them if they fail their physical.
So that’s what’s up at center! At left guard, rookie Joe Thuney was a surprise standout in the preseason. Thuney is either wicked smart or wicked motivated, having earned a four-year degree from N.C. State in three years. Star left tackle Nate Solder is back after missing most of last season with a torn biceps. But maybe the biggest improvement for the offensive line comes from the sidelines, where longtime Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia is back. He retired in 2013, but after last year’s festival of O-line mediocrity (which, admittedly, was exacerbated by a ton of injuries), Belichick called and asked the 68-year-old to return. Which he did, because that’s what you do when Belichick calls and tells you to un-retire.
Now, assuming that the offense line can protect GaroppoBrady long enough to make something happen, there are plenty of weapons. LeGarrette Blount or James White should be able to rack up enough running yards to keep opposing defenses honest while keeping the field open for the receiving corps, which includes Julian Edelman back from foot surgery. And this looks like a year when the passing game will revolve around the tight ends—in this case, both of them.
In GQ’s recent “Gronk Up Your Life” story, we learned that Rob Gronkowski often tries to get to Level 6 dancing when he’s out clubbing, but doesn’t always get there because you can’t plan on it. But you can plan on Gronk and Martellus Bennett—6 feet, 6 inches tall, 275 pounds—being the most unstoppable tight end tandem in the league. Two years ago, Bennett posted six touchdowns and 916 yards for a mediocre Bears team. Meanwhile, Aaron Hernandez’s best year? Seven TDs and 910 yards. From the look of those numbers, Bennett has the potential to be even more dangerous than Hernandez. On the field, we mean. Bennett also used much of a preseason press conference to explain why Batman is so much better than Aquaman. This sounds like a guy who’s going to have a lot to talk about with Gronk. Now if only Gronk can avoid the Madden Cur—uh, never mind. Nothing to worry about. Video game curses don’t exist. Please, let that be true.
Sunday, Oct. 9: the Return of Brady. Then What?
Week 5 marks the return of Tom Brady. He’ll be fresh, invigorated and full of wrath and vengeance. By then, his attitude is gonna make Scowling Rio Phelps look like Richard Simmons leading a senior aerobics class. Moreover, he’ll be playing the Browns. Let’s go ahead and mark this one down as a win. From there, it’s not exactly gravy: The 2016 Patriots strength-of-schedule rating ranks ninth in the NFL, featuring plenty of teams that were better than .500 last year. And then you’ve got the late-season Miami game, which somehow always spells trouble even during the years when the Dolphins play football as well as actual dolphins.
So there’s a tough schedule, a backup quarterback for a quarter of the regular season and an offense with a questionable O-line. Naturally, then, the Patriots are favored to win the Super Bowl, with Vegas putting the odds at 7 to 1, just ahead of the Green Bay Packers, the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hey, in the current NFL, every team has defects, and the oddsmakers recognize that the Patriots have a habit of overcoming weaknesses and developing castoffs and untouchables into household names by January. The Pats made it to the Super Bowl six times in the past 14 years, and every year except the 2007 regular season there was some obvious flaw to overcome (and that year, a not-so-obvious one: hubris).
You all know someone, possibly yourself, who cringes at a sequence of three-and-outs halfway through an October game and declares the Patriots’ season done. New England sports fans are reactionary, somehow still nurturing a strong pessimist streak despite all these years of success. So just remember that it’s going to look ugly out there sometimes. Brady will get sacked, and the camera will cut to him ripping into a bashful galoot of a lineman on the sidelines. They’ll get past it. As long as the clock’s running, there’s still a way to win. The Brady-Belichick Era might be deep in the second half, but time is still on their side.