The Impossible Dream?
By: Armen Zeytoonian / HammerTime Sports
To supplement the prediction efforts of my esteemed colleague, Bob George, I have put together a game–by-game preview of the 2002 Patriots.
They say it is almost impossible to repeat as World Champs in today’s NFL. Because of the acute parity and the fluid nature of free agency, today’s teams fire like muskets, rather than automatic weapons. Shoot and re-load, and while you re-load, someone else slides with a primed musket.
The 2002 could be a rare exception, however.
Patriots work well with muskets, but beyond that, here are three key factors that could contribute to a Patriots repeat:
No one does a better job at game day planning and coaching than Bill Belichick and his staff. He has learned form his mistakes in Cleveland, and he has emerged as a great NFL head coach. Belichick was the anti-players' coach during his stint with the Browns from 1991 to '95. "It was his way or the highway," says DE Anthony Pleasant, who played for Belichick in Cleveland and with the New York Jets, before joining him in New England last year. "Now he uses life outside football to relate to us."
Despite this transformation, some still apply one major knock on him: He doesn’t communicate well with his players. But, upon further analysis, the players usually levying these claims are players Belichick has moved off his radar, or ones that are quickly on the way there. To his credit, he finds talent in dark corners and scrap heaps and he drafts pretty well, too. New England’s two draft classes under Belichick have yielded 3 solid starters already, and this year’s class promises at least two or three more.
On game day, it just doesn’t get any better than Belichick. Look at what he did to the Steelers and the mighty Rams in last year’s playoffs. And his greatest plan may have come earlier in the season when the Patriots lost to the Rams, but Belichick set the mold for the later success in the Super Bowl. He backed off the blitz packages he used in the November loss, and put extra DBs on the field to shut down the Rams explosive WR corps. Add a helping of Willie McGinest Dressing spread thick onto Marshall Faulk, and the Rams were dumbfounded for the better part of three quarters before getting untracked.
"Belichick's teams are so well-drilled," says former 49ers coach Bill Walsh. "He's simply ahead of the game defensively. Always has been."
He is a defensive genius with enough sense to turn responsibility over to his coordinators, and manage the big picture. But rest assured, in crunch time, Bill is calling the shots.
2. Running the Back Office
The Patriots did something no Super Bowl winner in the era of Free Agency has managed to do:
They had room under the salary cap after winning the Vince.
This is a testament to their management of the back office and their overall philosophy.
Belichick and Personnel man Scott Pioli go after mid-tier veterans, who will stick to Belichick’s game plans and systems, and possess strong character. They also like players Belichick has coached before.
In addition to Pleasant, since becoming New England's head coach two years ago, Belichick has added seven defensive players he's coached before, including Victor Green and Roman Phifer, both of whom played for Belichick when he was defensive coordinator of the New York Jets.
Because Belichick and Pioli make low key moves, they don’t get the recognition teams with bigger named free agents and draft picks receive.
Yet, the 2002 Patriots are probably deeper than the 2001 World Champions.
On offense, they’ve augmented the team with the likes of tight ends Cam Cleeland, Christian Fauria and first round pick Daniel Graham. They’ve expanded the talent pool at WR with Free Agent signee Donald Hayes and draft picks Deion Branch and David Givens.
Belichick has kept Tom Brady focused to avoid a let down after last year’s whirlwind ride, and pushed RB Antowain Smith to reject resting on his laurels by pursuing Jamaal Anderson ( a pursuit which my or may not be completed).
"We won a championship with this system and these coaches," says S Lawyer Milloy. "That's why Coach is looking for smart guys who have played in it, leaders who say, 'Get into the books.' "
Milloy is the quintessential ‘Belichick guy”, and fits the philosophy to a tee.
The Patriots Player philosophy states, “We will not be dazzled by a big name free agent. We will assign a value to each position, and sign players who fit into that fiscal structure. Additionally, we will look for selfless players, who will sacrifice their own glory for execution of the system and team accomplishments.”
Does it work?
Check the trophy case over at Gillette Stadium for the answer to that question.
3. The R-E-S-P-E-C-T Factor
After beating the Rams for their third consecutive postseason upset, to win the NFL Championship, Belichick said, tongue-in-cheek, "I assume we'll be underdogs next week."
Belichick has turned the “lack of respect” mantra into a war cry for his team, and they all buy into it, or they find someplace else to work.
Starting with a Las Vegas season over of 8 ½ games, and continuing with a point spread making them underdogs at home in the Monday Night season opener vs. Pittsburgh, these Patriots have become convinced that the world thinks very little of them!
These guys go into every contest with a chip on their collective shoulders, and that helps the team bond and unify.
Don’t underestimate the value of this brainwash!
So, how will these factors play out in the regular season?
Let’s take a look:
Week 1, Pittsburgh:
The Steelers have done some talking, starting with the press conference following their loss in last year’s AFC Championship game, and continuing right up to tonite’s kickoff. The Patriots have played it low key. These two teams mirror their individual coaches style. They all also match up well with each other. New England will dominate on special teams and win a close game.
Week 2, at Jets:
Curtis Martin may not play. But, Lamont Jordan may be more dangerous, due to the unfamiliarity factor. On paper, the Jets are a far inferior opponent, but something happens when these two meet – with or without the side of Tuna. I like New England’s defense against the Jets offense. The key will be Tom Brady – no mistakes, and the Pats win.
Week 3, Kansas City:
All of a sudden Kansas City has an offense! Priest Holmes is better than advertised, and Trent Green seems to finally be fulfilling his promise. The Patriots should have enough at home to keep them down, but this could be a close call.
Week 4, at San Diego:
At San Diego will be tough. This team has a lot of weapons that don’t jump right out at you, but LaDanian Tomlinson and Drew Brees do. Not to mention Junior Seau. The Chargers will break the 3-game winning streak at Jack Murphy.
Week 5, at Miami:
Always a tough game at Miami. The humidity is stifling and the Pats never seem to react well to it. Ricky Williams looked the real deal vs. Detroit, but I still want to see him stack and rack a real defense. Sam Madison could be out, with an ankle injury, which could help, but the Patriots will lose here, and it might even be ugly.
Week 6, Green Bay:
Green Bay is a scary team in terms of matchups with the Pats. Brett Favre is one of the few QBs we will face who could show up our secondary. Terry Glenn will get boos to be measured in decibels, and then have a decent game. Packers in a tight one.
Week 7, Open Date
Week 8, Denver:
Denver got lucky at home last year when Tom Brady experienced his first NFL “blow-up” game in the fourth quarter last year at Denver. Not this year at Gillette. Pats in a whitewash.
Week 9, at Buffalo:
Brace yourselves for this, Pats fans. Drew Bledsoe is going to beat us down in Buffalo in week 9. Drew always got kind of silly for the Tuna Bowls and would over play, leading to Jets opportunities. I think he has matured and settled down a lot. Add his composure and veteran leadership, plus Eric Moulds and Peerless Price, to Travis Henry’s running game, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Week 10, at Chicago:
Chicago made us look absolutely silly in 2000, and we made Shane Matthews look like Dan Fouts. This won’t happen again, but Chicago will be ready and waiting and churning towards the playoffs. It will be a bad week to run into them, but the Pats have superior talent at so many key matchup points, that they will pull it out.
Week 11, at Oakland:
The Raiders fans will be their usual “Yankee-esque” disgusting selves, and the Raiders will be primed for a takedown, and a payback for what they perceive to be a bad call in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. We’ll make a showing, but they will prevail.
Week 12, Minnesota:
The Patriots will be coming off three consecutive losses, and Belichick will have them so ready to take out Minnesota, it could be a blowout. Contain Randy Moss, and you beat this team. Belichick will, and the Pats will prevail.
Week 13, at Detroit:
The Pats will manhandle Detroit this year. No Turkey Day letdowns like the last time they visited the Motor City.
Week 14, Buffalo:
Bledsoe’s grand homecoming. Yes, he will get his standing ovation, and deservedly so, and then the Patriots will roll out onto the field and avenge the earlier loss at Buffalo. Pats in a blowout.
Week 15, at Tennessee:
The Titans are an enigma. Injuries seem to slow this team down. Monday Night in Adelphia Stadium is a tough place to play and I think the Titans will give the Pats a plateful, but New England will pull it out.
Week 16, Jets:
The Pats will start their home 2-game closeout vs. division rivals. A short week will hurt the Pats, but the late start, the primetime atmosphere, and the fans will jack them back up. The Pats will win, and maybe even big.
Week 17, Miami:
What a great ending to the season. Miami at Gillette. New England will stymie the Fish here, who will be in the middle of their annual December losing streak. The game will surely have playoff implications, and the Pats will be the winning side to end up 10-6 and make the playoffs.
So many factors can completely distort and dilute this prognostication. But, hey, that’s the fun of it, right?
It all starts tonite.
Pats vs. Steelers. Primetime Monday Night.
Chips, dips and a stogie in my lips.
PS: I’ll have my phone off the hook, so don’t bother calling!