Commentary

Patriots still seeking identity

Updated: September 25, 2009, 10:03 PM ET
By Bill Simmons | Special to ESPNBoston.com

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In Malibu, beach houses hug the Pacific Ocean for miles on end. Each one looks different than the next. Some are modern, some are old-school. Some are gaudy, some are classy. Some are worth $5 million, others are worth eight times that much. If you stroll along the beach marveling at them, one thing always jumps out: the foundations. Some look like they could get nailed by a tsunami and remain standing. Others look like they could get swept away by the right wave.

For most of this decade, the New England Patriots owned a tsunami-proof house. They could weather anything. Even when Tom Brady blew out his knee eight minutes into the 2008 season, no Patriots fan gave up. We still have Belichick. We still have that foundation. We can figure this out. Nope. Missed the playoffs. That same defense mechanism kicked in after the Pats struggled in their first two games of 2009.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesBrady has appeared a little nervous when opposing pass rushers get near him.

Everything is going to be OK. It's the Patriots. They will figure it out.

But will they? After a discouraging defeat to the Jets, Patriots fans splintered into two camps. The first camp (the "Kool-Aid drinkers," as the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy derisively called them this week) maintains that Brady only needs to get his sea legs back, that the defense will be fine when Jerod Mayo returns, that the Jets whupped them only because Kevin O'Connell gave them Brady's plays. Everyone in the Kool-Aid Camp believes in certain axioms that may no longer be true -- stuff like "never bet against the Patriots after a loss" and "when in doubt, Belichick will come through." They trust the foundation: eight straight winning seasons, three Super Bowl titles and the best eight-year overall record of any team in 20 years. The foundation will prevail. Always.

(Important note: My father is a charter member of this group. In fact, when I told him that I planned to write this column, he hissed things like, "it's too early," "we'll be fine," "you give up on our teams too easily," "this reminds me of when you quit on the Celtics two springs ago" and "you're an a**hole and I wish we weren't related." All solid points.)

For the second camp, it's more complicated. You wouldn't call them naysayers, just realists. And here's the reality: Today's NFL isn't built for teams to succeed year after year indefinitely. Extending the Malibu analogy, a good foundation only lasts so long. You still need to take care of your house. Need to wash the salt off your deck every day, update the furniture, keep a fresh coat of paint on there, check that foundation every few months to make sure it's fine. You cannot slip. You cannot fall behind. You cannot take anything for granted. Or else your house will start to look like crap.

Now ...

As a realist and a Kool-Aid drinker, for the life of me, I cannot decide between Camp No. 1 and Camp No. 2. My buddy Bug (Patriots Kool-Aid alcoholic, just like my father) believes the '09 Patriots will become this year's '08 Colts -- early struggles, untimely injuries, tons of panic and "could this be it?" columns, but ultimately the foundation will prevail and everything will be fine by December. That's Camp No. 1 in a nutshell. We have succeeded before, so we will succeed again. I could totally see this happening. I am rooting for it.

But I keep hearing the voices from Camp No. 2. In particular, five undeniable truths that don't bode well for the next three months.

Undeniable Truth No. 1: In case you forgot, we are rooting for laundry.

Watching a documentary about the 2003-04 Pats recently, I couldn't shake one thought: Most of these dudes are long gone. The only remaining 2004 cogs are Brady, Dan Koppen, Kevin Faulk, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork. That's it. When someone casually throws out the whole, "It's the Patriots, they'll be fine" line, they're banking on the great coach/owner/GM trifecta and assuming that an overhaul of 90 percent of the roster since 2005 went splendidly. Not really.

Here's what we know: Belichick and helper Scott Pioli landed Brady in his first draft (2000), then crushed the next three (2001-03). Nailing picks is the NFL's biggest ongoing advantage, especially after the first round; it's the best way to circumvent the salary cap, by getting cheap labor. Those four drafts directly set up the 2003-04 seasons: 34 wins, 4 losses and two Super Bowl titles. Not an accident.

The following two drafts (2004-05) went fine. Nothing special. Things fell apart in 2006 when only kicker Stephen Gostkowski panned out. The Pats took Laurence Maroney over D'Angelo Williams, traded up from No. 52 (Greg Jennings) to No. 36 (WR Chad Jackson, a bust) and chose tight end David Thomas over Owen Daniels. Egads. As far as drafts go, this was Belichick's "Funny People" -- such a mess that you almost want to pretend it never happened.

The next three drafts looked worse than they actually were because they lost the Spygate pick (No. 32 in 2008) and dealt two picks for Wes Welker and Randy Moss, but from 2007-09, only Mayo has emerged as an impact player, and only three current starters (Gostkowski, Mayo and Brandon Meriweather) came from the last four Patriots drafts (even though the team had three firsts, six seconds and five thirds over that time). When seventh-rounder Julian Edelman emerged as Welker Jr. this summer, I remember being shocked that we finally struck pay dirt with a non-first-rounder. Not a good sign.

Did Belichick lose his touch, or has it just been a prolonged cold streak? Like with so many other teams, you could play the "damn, we could have had so-and-so" game with every Pats draft from 2005 to 2009 -- Frank Gore, Justin Tuck, Santonio Holmes, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jon Beason, Steve Slaton, etc. (it's a long list) -- but Belichick's Patriots were never "like so many other teams." It's a little sobering. The last few years, he's been drafting by need instead of just taking the best players, which he never used to do. And he spends so much time flipping picks that I reached the "can't we just stand pat and take the best guy?" point two years ago. Just this spring, instead of moving up 2-3 spots to grab game-breaker Percy Harvin or just taking tackle Michael Oher at No. 23 (now a staple of Baltimore's excellent offensive line), the Patriots traded down twice, picking up a second and two thirds (none of whom are starting). Quantity over quality yet again.

Contrast that to Baltimore's success over that same 2006-09 stretch: With four firsts, three seconds and seven thirds, they landed seven starters (Oher, Ray Rice, Joe Flacco, Chris Chester, Ben Grubbs, Haloti Ngata, Tavares Gooden) and three more in later rounds (Le'Ron McClain, Sam Koch, Dawan Landry). In a related story, the Ravens might be the best AFC team right now. And it's not like the Pats were making up for botched picks in free agency; they continue to eschew big-salary guys and gravitate towards on-their-last-legs veterans (Shawn Springs, Fred Taylor, etc.) and smart bargain pickups (Leigh Bodden, Sammy Morris, etc.). Of the key players on the 2009 team, only Mayo is younger than 27.

(Gulp.)

And so we have to go here ...

Undeniable Truth No. 2: Even Bill Belichick can't throw in the high 90s for his entire life.

Sounds like heresy, right? I should mention that you're reading a guy who, from 2003-08, would have followed Belichick into a fire if he told me, "You'll be fine, it's not that hot!" Of course, I'm the same guy who once introduced the Speed Limit Corollary for NFL coaches back in January 2007: If the coach of your favorite team is older than 55, or if your team is about to hire someone who's older than 55, there's a good chance you should start preparing for a frustrating stretch of football. The piece ended like this:

"(In a related story, both Belichick and Mike Shanahan turn 55 before the start of next season. Hmmmmmmmmm.)"

Shanahan got canned last spring; Belichick turned 55 during the Eff You season. He's 57 now. I can report one undeniable change: The coach seems to be more at ease with his place in life. Controlling Secretive Bloodthirsty Belichick has made way for Enjoying The Ride Belichick. Just a little. His kids have grown up. He divorced his wife and squires his new girlfriend everywhere during the offseason. Every once in awhile, he shows up at a Celtics game with killer seats; they show him on the Jumbotron; the place erupts; and Belichick totally eats it up. Total armchair analysis, but he seems to me like someone who made a ton of money, earned a whole hand of Super Bowl rings, feels pretty secure about his place in history, and continues to love coaching football ... only maybe it's not quite life or death anymore.

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesBelichick would be one of the oldest coaches to ever win a Super Bowl.

Does the famous Belichick mystique still exist? Of course. One of my favorite 2009 "Hard Knocks" moments: when Belichick saw Chad Ochocinco before a preseason game, then teased him that the Patriots planned on doubling him the whole game. It wasn't just Ocho's reaction during the exchange (deferential, disappointed, like putty in Belichick's hands) but the coach's ability to connect with him through humor -- the side of Belichick that we always hear about but rarely see -- and how he stripped away Ocho's "Look at me!" shtick in less than 12 seconds. The scene ended and I remember thinking, "We need to trade for Ocho! Belichick can salvage that nutcase!"

So the mystique remains, but what about everything else? What about those dicey last few drafts? Why hasn't he hired a real offensive coordinator after Josh McDaniels left? Since he enjoyed so much success this decade, wasn't it inevitable that other teams would start emulating some of his Moneyball-like tricks (particularly not splurging on free agents), reducing his competitive advantage as the years went along? Finally, how long can we expect a man in his late-50s to control every single aspect of running an NFL franchise?

Remember, legends like Shula, Landry, Parcells, Noll, Walsh, Holmgren and Gibbs famously faded once they hit their late-50s. If the Patriots win the next Super Bowl, Belichick would become the fifth-oldest coach ever to hoist the trophy, trailing only Dick Vermeil (63), Weeb Ewbank (61), Tom Coughlin (61) and Barry Switzer (58) ... and those guys weren't drafting players, just coaching. We don't think of Belichick as making history agewise, just like we don't think Sandra Bullock is making history by still pumping out youthful chick flicks in her mid-40s. Just know that nobody older than Belichick built a team and coached it and won the Super Bowl. It's never happened.

Undeniable Truth No. 3: A modern NFL team crushing an entire decade, with a salary cap in place, is about as difficult as having a four-hour craps run without crapping out.

Take a breath, fellow Patriots fans. You won't like the following graphic...

According to ESPN Stats & Information, those are the only three teams to put together eight straight seasons of nine-plus wins in the past two decades. That's the nature of the modern NFL: stay healthy, nail your draft picks or pay the price, even if you stumble for just one season. We watched it happen with Manning's Colts (2001: 6-10), McNabb's Eagles (2005: 6-10), Shanahan's Broncos (1999: 6-10), Cowher's Steelers (2003: 6-10), Favre's Packers (1999: 8-8), Levy's Bills (1994: 7-9) and Aikman's Cowboys (1997: 6-10). The Belichick/Brady Patriots have avoided that inevitable stumble. So far.

Again, a ninth straight winning season would make history in the Salary Cap Era (which officially started in 1994). Can the Patriots pull it off despite the days of Tuck Rule-level breaks being long gone? The team's luck shifted in the 2005 playoffs (a gut-wrenching fumble call), then in the 2006 AFC title game (Jeff Saturday recovering a go-ahead TD in Indy's end zone and Reggie Wayne catching his own fumble on the biggest drive), then in Super Bowl XLII (the Helmet Catch), then in Week 1 of the '08 season (Brady's knee), then in Week 1 of the '09 season (losing Mayo days after the Richard Seymour trade). You need to be lucky to keep succeeding in the NFL. The Patriots need to find that four-leaf football clover soon. Or else.

(Now here's where Oakland fans start screaming, "I don't care! Tuck rule! Luckiest play ever!" Just remember, that play was return karma for Sugar Bear Hamilton in 1976. What goes around comes around. Speaking of...)

Undeniable Truth No. 4: In retrospect, it sure seems like the Football Karma Gods weren't a huge fan of Spygate.

I will now gargle with hydrochloric acid. Let's move on.

Undeniable truth No. 5. Every good team has a specific identity.

I'm not sure if the 2009 Colts are any good. It's up for debate. Still, they have Manning, so for moments like the one on Monday night -- Miami playing it safe in a tie game with four minutes to play, going with a lame inside draw on third-and-6 and settling for a field goal -- anyone who followed football even a little this decade muttered to themselves, "That's a huge mistake, Manning will make them pay." And he did. The guy many people (including me) once questioned in crunch time has turned into the league's premier assassin. He gives them their swagger. Single-handedly.

The Patriots once tapped into that swagger from three different places: Brady, Belichick and the defense. I watched a Colts-Patriots special recently in which they showed Tedy Bruschi ripping away the football from Dominic Rhodes on a climactic 2004 playoff drive, then waving the ball on the sidelines like a deer head and screaming, "They don't got it!" as his teammates ate it up. That team had a swagger. They really did. Now it's gone. If the 2009 Jets had dared to blitz every down against 2007 Brady, he would have shredded them and remained ticked off even 55 points later. Against 2009 Brady? It was the right move. 2009 Brady isn't getting the same protection, and he definitely doesn't have the same confidence or mobility. Not right now, anyway.

Will it return this season? Neither the Kool-Aid drinkers nor the realists can figure it out. Thirty-two years old now, Brady has mellowed considerably from the days when he gleefully head-butted teammates and sprinted toward touchdown celebrations like a maniac. He doesn't move as well. His timing is way off. He seems a little, um, jittery every time 300-pound guys roll near his legs. He might shed that rustiness this weekend; he might not shed it until November; he might need the whole season to bounce back like so many others who had knees rebuilt. We don't know. We just don't know. It sucks. For the first time in my life, I watched Manning play on Monday and felt a twinge of envy. The Brady-Manning rivalry is on hold right now. Indefinitely.

In the old days, you never wanted to bet against Belichick and Brady in a big game. I even made it a rule in my Gambling Manifesto. Just ... no. But late-50s Belichick and post-knee surgery Brady?

(One more gulp.)

Part of me wonders if Belichick saw the writing on the wall, explaining why he swapped Seymour for Oakland's 2011 No. 1 pick. Most Patriots fans loved that trade, including me, but dealing a former All-Pro in a contract year (when he will never be more motivated) isn't exactly a 2009 power play. Was Belichick setting up for 2010 (an uncapped year) and 2011 (when the entire CBA will change) by risking this season's chances, just like when he risked 2006 by dealing Deion Branch for a future first? (And as it turned out, cost himself a title?) Did he decide Brady wouldn't fully recover for another year? Did he hedge his bets thinking this year's team might flounder?

Did he ... did he know?

(OK, last gulp.)

Again, too early to say. Although the early returns remind me of something that happened in 1980, when Sports Illustrated stuck the struggling four-time champs on an early November cover, a picture of an exhausted L.C. Greenwood with the caption, "Have the Steelers Had It?" I was 11 years old. As far as I knew, the Steelers were going to be the best football team for my entire life. I couldn't comprehend the thought of their being finished. I remember staring at the cover and thinking, "Have they had it? Of course they haven't had it! It's the Steelers! They will figure it out!"

They never figured it out: 9-7. They ended up winning two playoff games total in the entire '80s. If you told anyone this in 1980, they would not have believed you. Kind of like now with the Patriots.

And so I will continue to straddle the two camps: Camp A (trust in the foundation) and Camp B (fear for the future). For the first time since 2002, I have absolutely no idea what's about to happen with my Patriots from week to week. Everything is in play: 12-4, 5-11, a "Have They Had It?" S.I. cover, you name it. The foundation is swaying. For once, nobody can say, "It's the Patriots, they'll be fine." This is the National Football League. You can't say things like that. Especially when they might not be true.

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Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) is the editor-in-chief of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best-seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, log on to Grantland. To send him an e-mail, click here.

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