The Future of the Patriots Dynasty (UPDATED)
Deadspin’s Dashiell Bennett posted a fine collection of quotes from sportswriters across the country today regarding the fall of the Patriots fortunes since the halcyon days of 2004. Two years ago, they were the 16-0 AFC champions that seemed all but unstoppable. One year ago, a backup quarterback who hadn’t started a game since high school played well enough to position the Pats just short of a playoff run. This year, the franchise quarterback comes back, plays inconsistently, and manages to destroy the entire season in ten awful, heart-rending minutes of poor performance. “The end is nigh!” say both glum sportswriters in Boston and ecstatic fans of the up-and-coming Jets and Dolphins.
People are assuming the Patriots are on their way to their first losing season in 10 years. In their eyes, Belichick is already singing “Viva la Vida” to himself in the shower.
I personally don’t agree with the pessimism. I understand it, and I agree that New England will have to make another deep playoff run before they are treated with the same fear and respect that they were given in, say, 2004, but saying that this team is going to be the second-coming of the late-90’s Cowboys just doesn’t resonate with my inner stat-geek. Hell, it doesn’t resonate with what I saw on the field. We didn’t hear any of this talk about Indy when the Colts didn’t even win their own freaking division last year. Sure, the Patriots got slapped around by a scary good Baltimore team (9-7 doesn’t do them justice, for sure), but it was almost to be expected. Without Wes Welker, the Patriots were stuck in neutral offensively and the Ravens were free to tee off on Brady and the rest of the New England receiver corps as well as use exotic blitz packages to throw the pass and rush off-rhythm. Baltimore is exactly the kind of team the Pats have stumbled against all year: tough running (HOU, MIA) with a quarterback who avoids mistakes (NYJ, DEN) and a defense that forces costly turnovers and defend the deep field, forcing the offense to try and move up and down the field 5-6 yards at a time (NO, IND).
Should one (admittedly year-ending) loss define a season of solid play? Besides that game, this year’s Patriots generally played even better than they did in 2008. Anyone pining to have Cassel back is fooling themselves. The schedule was MUCH harder this year, with no Rams/Seahawks/49ers/Raiders/Chiefs to beat up on. This was as obvious a “rebuilding year” as any the Pats have had since 2000. Any Pats fans who were expecting Brady to step out of a career-threatening knee injury and party like it was still 2007 were delusional. He came out and played like Super Bowl Brady, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the recurring stream of endgame collapses on the defensive side of the ball. In case you think I’ve got my nose too far up Brady’s ass, just look at the stats from his Super Bowl years and compare:
2001: 63.9% COMP, 2,843 YDS, 18 TD, 12 INT, 1.4% DVOA
2003: 60.2% COMP, 3,620 YDS, 23 TD, 13 INT, 5.4% DVOA
2004: 60.8% COMP, 3,692 YDS, 28 TD, 14 INT, 33.2% DVOA
2007: 68.9% COMP, 4,806 YDS, 50 TD, 8 INT, 56.9% DVOA|
2009: 65.7% COMP, 4,398 YDS, 28 TD, 13 INT, 44.1% DVOA
By conventional stats, Brady was better than he was any year that he won the Big Game at the End of the Season. By DVOA, 2009 was the second-best year of his career. As long as the Pats have Brady and Belichick, they’ll remain a formidable opponent and a perennial contender, same as the Chargers with Philip Rivers’ cannon and the Colts with fetus-face Peyton Manning.
Four years ago, I read the same kind of doomsaying when the Patriots came off their third Super Bowl win, went 10-6, barely won their division, and got trounced by the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. That 10-6 team was a lot worse than this one. Instead of losing one blowout, they lost several, including 20+ point thrashings by the Chargers and Colts. Did they win a Super Bowl since? No, but they’ve made the playoffs three out of the last four years, including a Super Bowl appearance. As much as the rest of the football world would like to think so, the sun is not setting on these Patriots.
(UPDATE: Here’s a fantastic interview with Boomer Esiason of CBS, where he goes in-depth regarding the Patriots’ woes this season. Despite his position as a neutral observer, he’s very astute in his knowledge of this Pats team. Color me impressed.)