Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008: New England Patriots

Man…does anybody like last year’s team? Even the New England fans to whom I’ve talked all seem to have backed off of last year’s party line of douchebaggery, instead coming off as almost resentful for how the team turned them into lepers at every sports bar outside of Massachusetts on Sundays and then failed to deliver in the final game. Even Roger Goodell has to be a little pissed, seeing as the team was responsible for the federal government poking its nose around league business. In short, last year’s squad wasn’t just the perfect villain for a season; it had the perfect villain’s perfect demise, with everyone seemingly turning on its memory and moving on. And nobody had a bigger laugh at the whole thing than we did (well, us and just about every other football blog, but mostly us).

swagger like us - t.i. ft kanye west, jay-z & lil wayne

And now, as a fan of a team that shares a division with the Pats, I am in no way ready to see what this team does.

Because as much as we treat football as a text here, it isn’t a story, and closing the book on one season only leaves the whole tale closed until the next season begins. And where does this team go after last year? Did they get old? Nope, and as a matter of fact they injected even more new, hyper-talented blood onto their defense. Did they lose their talent? Unless you think Donte’ Stallworth was the key that started the engines of last year’s war machine (and if you do, you’re crazier than he is…and he’s gone on record about the alien that lives inside his head…), no, and the same team that played romper stomper with our hearts last season is back. Oh, except this time, they’ve got some justification for that obnoxious chip they had on their shoulder last year, so they’re that much meaner. Yeah, this is gonna be a great season for the rest of us.

The defense, much like last season, is going to be where this team is tested. Indeed, last season any team with a speedy back and enough passing targets to force the aging linebacking corps into pass coverage could put a scare to the Pats. This year…not so much. Adalius Thomas has a year under his belt in the Belichick system, and rookie LB Jerod Mayo, who is an athletic freak of nature, is in the perfect system to gain the league smarts to go along with his physical talent. Meanwhile, S Brandon Meriweather, who showed great range for the position, has another year under his belt as well, and rookie CB Terrence Wheatley should help shore up a secondary that lost Asante Samuel and got challenged deep frequently. All of this change takes place in a system that still has some of the smartest linebackers playing in one of the smartest defensive systems in the league. Oh, and Rodney Harrison is still out there trying to injure people, too. Point is, the D will be just fine.

But it’s the offense that should still send defensive coordinators scrambling. Tom Brady recently said that he thinks these guys could be even BETTER than last year. Granted, the guy has always skated the line between douchebag and cool dude (the recent Esquire article definitely pushed him closer to the former…), but I’m tempted to at least entertain the notion. Here’s the thing about losing Stallworth: On any other team, I’d say that it was a big loss, because so much of last year seemed to depend on Moss finding good matchups downfield (translation: any matchup with Moss against fewer than three defenders). But on this team, there are already plenty of fast bodies to go around. Jabar Gaffney is pretty much already a poor man’s Stallworth anyway, and the same could be said of Chad Jackson. Meanwhile, the team still has Wes Welker, the league’s best slot receiver, Ben Watson, who would be Kellen Winslow Jr. minus the attitude on any other team, and now has a ground game to keep defenders legitimately confused. RB Laurence Maroney is a great speed back (when he stays healthy), but the addition of RB Lamont Jordan gives the team the power back it lacked last season, meaning that these guys can has red zone options. Can has LOTS of red zone options. I’m not discounting the Stallworth loss entirely. In fact, against a team with the pass rush to get in the backfield quickly and often, the loss of his speed could be a major loss, and will probably keep them from going undefeated this year (what a horrible fate…), but come on, these guys were a scary offense with Reche Caldwell catching passes. They’re not sweating Stallworth.

Scarier still, they’ve got no reason to sweat anything at all. You think this team was rough to play last season, when they were running up scores and stats and humiliating retiring legends and laughing off Super Bowl competition? That was BEFORE these guys saw the bottom. Having been called cheaters, racists, d-bags, and having failed as miserably as they did last year, these guys still kept it together in the offseason and came back with as much firepower as ever. Belichick and Brady are laughing about last year already, and Moss re-signed for one reason alone, and it wasn’t to put up another undefeated regular season. What the hell is going to shake these guys up this year? Last season they were villains in the vein of Drago, waiting for someone scrappy to knock them off of their rarified pedestal. This season, they’re Rocky after the Clubber Lang loss, having tasted bitter defeat, survived, and coming back with the Eye of the Tiger and Apollo Creed beach runs fueling their return. They say it’s always harder to beat someone the second time. If last season boiled down to the world versus the Patriots, then the Pats have come back for round two leaner, meaner, and with the knowledge of how to win this time around. Dammit, the bad guys really do have more fun.

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