How many people named their dogs “Bruschi” over the past 20 years?
How many gallons of red, blue and silver ink have been embedded under the skin on ankles, thighs, shoulders, arms and the occasional neck?
How many millions swore their allegiance to the Patriots and parroted phrases like, “It is what it is” or “Do your job” or “Ignore the noise” or “In Bill We Trust”?
How many people use the New England Patriots and what they’ve accomplished as the bookmark to their lives? For instance, you may not remember what your kids looked like in 2008 without a prompt but when you think back to the Super Bowl party you had that year and see them in your mind’s eye, then you remember.
Their success has been our success. And I include myself without apology because if I were covering the Arizona Cardinals for the past 20 years, my media career wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting, fulfilling or lucrative. To pretend otherwise is a lie.
It’s been a helluva run. The truly passionate and diehard fans of this team during its first 40 years of existence - regardless of record or outlook – know this has been an almost unprecedented rags-to-riches story. And they know there are a lot of straphangers who came late to this train ride because it was the thing to do.
If success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan, what’s the paternity situation on a rebuild? Because that’s what the 2020 season is going to be. A rebuilding year. What percentage of Patriots fans have the belly for it?
The team already did a stealth rebuild once under Bill Belichick.
After Tom Brady missed 2008 with his torn ACL, the exodus came. Josh McDaniels, Scott Pioli, Mike Vrabel, Richard Seymour, Bruschi and Rodney Harrison were among the guys that left during that window. Benjamin Watson, Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas and others followed soon after the 10-6 season of 2009 which was capped by a playoff bludgeoning at home when Gillette Stadium was astonishingly overrun by Ravens fans.
Their 10-6 – two seasons after going 18-1 – was any other franchise’s 4-12. Why didn’t they bottom out like other teams?
Their drafting while they were in the winter of the 1.0 Dynasty was excellent. Jerod Mayo, Patrick Chung, Matt Slater, Julian Edelman, Devin McCourty, Nate Solder, Donta Hightower, Chandler Jones, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all came on during that 2008-2012 period. And they had Brady, Wes Welker, Logan Mankins, Matt Light, Dan Koppen, Dante Scarnecchia and Vince Wilfork.
That’s a wagon.
That’s not what the Patriots have now. Did you wonder why there wasn’t a single player released by the team on Saturday that seemed like the kind of player other teams would jump on? That’s because the roster – thanks in part to opt-outs but also their subpar drafting over the past few years – isn’t loaded to the gills with talent. No Cre’Von LeBlancs or Kamu Grugier-Hills – players who will go on to start when they couldn’t make the 53 here – went over the side Saturday.
The 2020 Patriots are going to have to get by on guts, guile and game plans. Their most important defensive player is, in my mind, Ja’Whaun Bentley. The reason? There is NOBODY behind the third-year linebacker to run the front-seven. The opt out of Donta Hightower and the free agent departures of Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts have the Patriots in a position where they are relying on the inexperienced and unproven.
They have no dynamic pass-rushing threat to bet on. If the easy-to-root-for but perpetually injured Derek Rivers finally catches a break, he may qualify. And there’s Chase Winovich and Deatrich Wise, who may be good but aren’t going to leave left tackles tossing and turning on Saturday night.
Offensively, they may look a lot like the 2019 Ravens, minus the quarterback who can run a 4.3, the stack of competent tight ends and the well-constructed receiver group.
How many times over the past two decades have we anointed one season or another “Belichick’s Best Coaching Job!” In my opinion, if he can coax double-digit wins from this team, the 2020 season will be right in the mix.
There seems to be a willing suspension of disbelief among fans and media, though. My theory is that the final five games of the 2018 season when the Patriots went from 9-5 and slipping to a Super Bowl win was what finally made people shut up for good.
That was truly this team’s “from the grave” moment and the chorus of people that doubted them vowed, “Never again!”
Interestingly – and by wild coincidence – the Patriots unprecedented run of success may end during an unprecedented season. If this team were to go sub-.500 in a normal year, the Brady devotees and fringe fans that filled the stands and parking lots for much of the last two decades might stay away and you would be able to see how New England was reacting to a rebuild.
Not gonna happen that way. If the Patriots enter a recession, we won’t see if there’s a great New England depression because Gillette is closed until further notice.
It may not be until 2021 that we get a true indication of just how many devoted fans the Patriots created starting in 2000.
Where the diehards at? We may soon find out.