You hear the talk, and you either smirk in disbelief or gnash your teeth in anger.
If you can find one publication, media outlet or news organization not directly related to the Patriots that thinks the champs can repeat the magic of 2001 in 2002, you might someday gain entry into the Sherlock Holmes Private Eye Hall Of Fame. We’ve wasted enough space in this column proving and disproving every theory on last season being a fluke, and the Patriots’ world championship being as genuine as a cold bottle of birch beer on a humid Saturday afternoon in the dead of summer.
Neither the Raiders, Steelers or Rams, nor the fans faithful to the vanquished Patriot playoff foes, will rise up and give the Patriots credit for a job well done. Raider fans say that they were ripped off. Steeler fans say that the wrong team won. Ram fans say that their team lost, not that our team won.
The rest of the league thinks the Patriots were Cinderella, the ugly stepsisters and the wicked stepmother all rolled into one. Experts who speculate on how the 2002 season will play out have all but left the Patriots out in the cold, with several sources not even picking the Patriots to even make the playoffs. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Bill Belichick and his troops, and that all the breaks will even out in 2002.
And, according to thems who think they knows, the 2002 NFL champ will be a “real team”. The Rams. The Dolphins. The Steelers. The Buccaneers (what must the late John McKay be thinking when his former team is picked to win a Super Bowl?). The Packers. The 49ers. And back to the Rams again. They really shoulda beat them Patriots, I guess.
But they didn’t. The rings that the Patriots sport these days say “Patriots 20, Rams 17”. This is as real as Johnny Bench bragging about “Reds 4, Red Sox 3” when Red Sox Nation continues to wax poetic over winning Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Bench’s team won Game 7. Your team didn’t.
The Patriots have spent the offseason getting better. The signing of Roman Phifer finally justified the selection of Daniel Graham. Donald Hayes and Deion Branch will improve the receiver corps from three-deep to five-deep. Tom Knight was a great pickup for the secondary, especially if Otis Smith finally shows his age. Steve Martin and Rick Lyle add great depth to the defensive line. Chris Hayes will be the Larry Izzo of 2002. Rich Tylski may be the sleeper of the bunch, and may turn out to be the best pickup of them all, draftees notwithstanding.
So, how can the Patriots possibly underachieve in 2002?
Sadly, nothing is guaranteed. The possibility exists that these nutcases who prognosticate doom for the defending champs could be right. All the while Patriot Nation has been counting the days until Smithfield (one month to go as of Friday, folks), the 2002 Patriot season could very well go up in smoke, especially with the tougher schedule that will be presented to them this year.
That said, here is what Patriot Nation really and truly needs to fear in 2002. “A bad team which is coming off a lucky season” will not be found in this list. That’s what fools think. But here are some genuine concerns which cannot be ignored.
Injuries. Few Patriot fans realize how lucky the Patriots were in 2001 in dealing with injuries. One injury changed the course of franchise history, and likely for the better.
Drew Bledsoe’s chance meeting with Mo Lewis last September 23 may go down as one of the most momentous in league history, especially if 2001 ignites a championship run for the Patriots. If Tom Brady turns out to be the real deal, and if he is indeed on the cusp of sustained greatness along the lines of a Joe Montana, this is an injury that all teams would love to have. Brady will have the world on his shoulders this fall, now that Bledsoe has been dealt to Buffalo.
Most of the Patriot injuries of any consequence happened in training camp. Matt Light, Mike Compton and Richard Seymour spent the most time on the shelf among those who started in the Super Bowl. But these injuries were mostly inconsequential, with Light’s being the most annoying and providing the most downtime. Not included in the “consequential” category are such folks as Terry Glenn, Adrian Klemm, Andy Katzenmoyer or the rookie tight ends (Jabari Holloway, Arther Love). Antowain Smith was bunged up in the second Miami game, but did not suffer any slowdown or downtime.
What the Patriots might worry about is if any starter is lost for the season, or for a prolonged amount of time. With Bledsoe gone, what if Brady suffers a cataclysmic injury? What if someone like Troy Brown, Lawyer Milloy or Ty Law is lost for a while? These are things that the Patriots never really had to deal with in 2001. If the Patriots suffer long term losses at key positions, expectations for the team have to be adjusted accordingly.
Complacency. Belichick will likely never allow this to happen. His approach to coaching motivates players greatly, and the chances of his players not playing hard the year after winning a Vince seems like an impossibility.
But you never know. You can’t really gauge the feelings of the players now that they have been there and have drank from the chalice. Can the Super Bowl win actually cause these players to be less hungry in 2002? Will each Patriot player be able to dig down deep and produce all the effort it takes each and every down? Or will players be more susceptible to take more downs off because their appetite has been whetted thanks to the Super Bowl win?
Again, don’t bet on this happening. With all the smack out there against the Patriots, you may actually see a hungrier Patriot squad this year versus last year. Their first opponent happens to be Pittsburgh, and their incredibly dumb organization and fan base are doing everything in their power to torque off the Patriots. A crushing win on opening night against the team they beat for the AFC title last year could slingshot the Patriots on their way to another Super Bowl berth.
Transformation from “hunter” to “hunted”. The Patriots got better in the offseason. But so did their opposition in the division. And the Patriots will not be ignored in 2002.
The team that should give the Patriots the most trouble is Miami. Their defense is still the best in the division, if not the conference. With the addition of Ricky Williams, it gives the Fish a chance to have the solid running game they’ve lacked all these years. But as long as Miami thinks they can win with Jay Fiedler as quarterback, the Dolphins cannot be considered a serious conference title threat. The Jets made a ton of salary cap dumps, and picked up two new cornerbacks and linebacker Sam Cowart. But their offensive line needs some serious rebuilding, and Vinny Testaverde is getting old. The Bills now have Bledsoe, but will not realize his great potential until they get a stud running back to keep defenses from overplaying the pass.
And of course, the Colts left the division. That’s not good for the Patriots, who saw great success against this team since 1990 (17-7 against the Colts in that span).
All things aside, the fact that the Patriots are defending world champs mean that every team will play hardest against them. They are likely to get that team’s best effort of the season, and the division rivals they play twice will turn up the “grudge dial” several notches. The AFC East will be a dogfight this year, and though the Patriots could very well win it again, it will be anything but easy or routine.
Back once again to the season/stadium opener. The Steelers game could very well reveal the character of the team, and though it’s tough to place such importance on just one game, it could very well determine the course of the season. Many questions will be answered in that game. Can the Patriots defeat a great opponent twice in a calendar year? Can the Patriots out-physical a tough, physical team who will be obsessed with doing worse to the Patriots? Can the Patriots seize the moment of the stadium convocation and use that emotion to put down the Steelers? Can the Patriots summon all their emotion and deny a great Steeler team any chance to win this game?
And the biggest question of all: Does the game, win or lose, set the tone for the entire season?
The Patriots do face some very real concerns going into the 2002 season. But the team did upgrade at some key positions, the team is angry and focused, and is ready to take dead aim on a repeat. Denver was the last team to repeat as Super Bowl champs, winning Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. There is no reason to believe that the Patriots cannot possibly pull off the same feat.
Now, the rest of the league needs to buy into that.
If they don’t, then so much the better. Keep them Patriots hungry.
Posted Under: 2002 Patriots Offseason