If New England is going to take the first step back toward respectability, it’s going to require more than just a victory on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s going to require great performances by an offense that didn’t appear to come together until the final game of the preseason, and a defense that fared poorly against a tough Tampa Bay offense.
Good football teams (and we obviously don’t know yet if they are one) beat up on bad football teams. Running back Cory Dillon appears to be the only real threat the Bengals bring to the table, but they do possess a new quarterback in John Kitna, as well as several young exciting players including receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick who both have big play ability. But to go on the road and beat any team in their home stadium isn’t an easy task, let alone go in and expect to blow them out.
The defensive plan probably seems simple enough for Patriots head coach Bill Belichick: Concentrate first on shutting down the running game and attempt to keep Kitna off balance by throwing different blitz packages at him and make him beat you in the air.
Seems like an easy enough plan doesn’t it?
But in New England fans are all too familiar with being surprised by teams who aren’t supposed to be able to beat them. They’ve had to watch it happen on more than one occasion over the past couple of seasons, and also had a national audience sitting right there beside them during a couple of them. It’s a trend that had gotten worse year after year, and it’s amazing how well fans dealt with a 5-11 season despite the optimism there was heading into last year.
The good thing is that after the season Belichick did what everyone hoped he would do, and that was clean house and bring in guys who simply want to win and play football. He added fire and veteran leadership in the locker room by adding linebacker Bryan Cox, as well as plenty of other guys who have something to prove and enjoy playing the game. The attitude in the locker room now appears to be much more upbeat, far removed from the outbursts of frustration that have saturated the local media over the past couple of years.
The next step will be stepping onto the field and proving that things are finally different. Proving that there will no longer be any late game collapses, no more let downs against any team whether it’s one they should or shouldn’t be able to beat, and most importantly the poise that hasn’t been there when things are going poorly.
The expectations heading into this season are low, and with good reason. After all, a 5-11 record certainly won’t have people expecting much when the next season comes around. Not to mention the fact that the fiasco involving wide-receiver Terry Glenn put a bad taste in the mouth of Patriots fans who immediately shook their heads in disgust. But Glenn is no longer around and probably won’t be a New England Patriot when he finally steps onto the gridiron at CMGI field, and the focus has finally shifted back toward the team itself.
The dust from that debacle appears to have settled and after watching the first four preseason games, the emphasis of fans appears to be less on winning and more on making progress, a situation very similar to the 1996 season when the team was coming off of a poor performance in ’95. Not that fans should be thinking Superbowl mind you (which according to a USA Today writer on Friday had them at 10,000:1 odds of reaching), but whether they win or lose this season as long as fans see something to believe in they’ll at least be able to feel like there may be a chance in the future of seeing their team make another run at contending for a championship.
When the Patriots take the field on Sunday it will be the start of a new season, and as of right now they are not any better nor any worse than any other team as far as their record is concerned. Where they stand in the minds of the collective critics who both sit in the stands as well as media members who write and talk about them will be determined by how well they perform on the field. If they go out and dominate the Bengals, it will be viewed as something that good teams are supposed to do. If they squeak by them in another close contest like last season, or worse yet lose, there will be no respect shown to them unless Cincinnati surprises everyone with a better than .500 record and beats other good teams.
Not exactly an easy situation.
But respectability is what New England is seeking, and it obviously will take more than one week to achieve. A convincing win on Sunday may be a great place to start. Some will say that a victory in any form is a good thing, but when it comes time each week to talk about how good their team may or may not be, fans and media always feel better about a game in which their team went out and dominated their opponent on both sides of the ball.
Unfortunately, that’s something the Patriots will need to do on Sunday. They’ll need to convince themselves and everyone else that they may finally be turning the corner, but for now they’ll have to wait and see if that corner leads them back to contending for a championship.
Posted Under: 2001 Patriots Season
Tags: 2001 Patriots Season Bill Belichick Bryan Cox Chad Johnson Cincinnati Bengals Cory Dillon John Kitna New England Patriots Peter Warrick