April through August in the NFL is all about optimism.
Every player signed or drafted has upside, upside, upside. Every guy that was hurt is presumed to be coming back intact or improved.
Guys who left? Didn’t need ‘em anyway. When September comes, the cold hammer of reality starts pounding away and it doesn’t stop until New Year’s.
Some of the optimism stands up to the beating. Some of it was just delusional.
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The 2019 Patriots may have been the most enigmatic team in the NFL. They started 8-0. They had a defense that was on an historic pace for stinginess.
But down the stretch, they went 4-4. They got blasted by every other top team in the AFC. Their season was capped by a home loss to the Dolphins in Week 17 that cost the team a playoff bye.
A week later, they got steamrolled by the Titans at home and that was that for the 20-year Brady-Belichick Patriots.
So what were they last year? A paper tiger with a poorly-staffed offense that got fat on weak quarterbacks, benefited from brilliant special teams play and were managed by a quarterback who kept them out of harm’s way? Or were they one of the best teams in football, a 12-4 team? You are what your record says you are. Isn’t that what Bill Parcells told us?
The way last season closed and the departures this offseason make it even harder to accurately project how good the Patriots may be this year. Throw in the complete absence of a normal offseason, the presumed starting quarterback coming aboard in late June, a tougher schedule (on paper) and a transitioning offense and it’s almost impossible.
Some smart people I’ve talked to think 8-8 is an “at-best” prediction. And others think they’ll be what they’ve always been — a team that wins double-digit games just by showing up.
What do we truly know about this team as it enters camp? What are its strengths, weaknesses and places it has something to prove?
I tried to pin it down as best I could with this ranking of position groups. Everything’s a projection, obviously. But I took into account how well a group performed last year, the additions and subtractions made and the presumed improvement as guys either get more experience or returned from injury.
There is upside. There is cause for that August optimism. But there are a lot of questions.