It seems clear that the Patriots are reloading for what may be their last best shot at a Super Bowl in 2009. The off-season signings, the new free agents, the trades and the prospects for the draft all point to one thing: the Patriots think 2009 is the year.
The Patriots never mortgage the future to pay for the present. That's why they are so consistently--and almost uniquely among NFL teams--good year in and year out. Some years are better than others when they mostly avoid injuries and when it all comes together as in the Super Bowl years. But the New England method insures that even when the team isn't playing for the championship they are still right there with the very best teams in the league: 10-6 in 2005; 12-4 in 2006; and 11-5 last year when the Patriots lost Tom Brady and seemingly most of the defense and still put together a season that would be the envy of most NFL teams.
But some years it seems that the organization loads up and unmistakeably seems to say to the rest of the league "stop us if you can." 2007 was one of those years. The team added Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Sammy Morris and Kyle Brady to the offense, Adalius Thomas to the defense , blended them with a very strong returning cast, and proceeded to play football as well or better than it has ever been played, coming 35 seconds away from a perfect 19-0 record.
2009 is already looking a lot like 2007. So far, the Pats have taken an offense that will return the league's reigning great quarterback in Tom Brady, coming back from his knee injury, and added to an already solid unit running back Fred Taylor, receivers Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis, and tight end Chris Baker. They will provide excellent depth. If tight end Benjamin Watson and running Laurence Maroney can return to form--or perhaps even if they don't--the Patriots 2009 offense might be in the same category as the record-setting 2007 group that shattered every meaningful league mark for offensive productivity with Brady, the man who makes it all go, still in his prime.
But it is on defense that the Patriots have really ramped things up. Signing cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden creates an instant upgrade over last year's secondary. The possible addition of Julius Peppers or--perhaps more reaslitically, Jason Taylor--would address the paltry pass rush New England had last year. Plus, the draft will likely yield several more top-notch linebackers and defensive backs to create depth and versatility. So, too, will the probable emergence of last year's defensive rookies like Terrence Wheatley, Jonathan Wilhite, and Shawn Crable--all of whom showed some promise before getting injured. Most of all, the return to health of a defense that was devastated by injuries in 2008 might be the biggest new "addition" to the Pats' defensive unit.
So, all the pieces seem to be in place for an epic season. But there is one more: a sense of urgency. It is not just the unfinished business New England players constantly speak of stemming from the 18-1 near-miss of two years ago, or the sense that 2008 might have been one of those special seasons before Brady and so many others went down. Even more than that, 2009 might be the last year this group will be together on the Patriots. Next year is the last year that Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostkowski and others are under contract. While New England will likely keep some of those players, they probably can't keep them all. Furthermore, Tedy Bruschi (also in the last year of his contract) might retire as might Rodney Harrison (if he doesn't do step down this year). Leigh Bodden signed only a one year deal and if they get Peppers or Jason Taylor that could be for a short-term contract, too.
In short, the Patriots will still be very good in 2010 and beyond because of their depth, their returning players, the presence of Tom Brady and the greatness of Bill Belichick. They will plug the holes that emerge, begin to phase out aging players and replace them with younger ones, and probably not miss too many beats.
But 2009 looks to be special. And the Patriots seem to think so, too, because all their off-season moves are aimed at making one more great push at adding a fourth Super Bowl title to those won in 2001, 2003, and 2004. The 2009 Patriots are consciously being built to look a lot more like the 2007 team that flirted with football immortality. The record may not be 16-0, the statistics might not be as shiny and mind-boggling, but the thinking in Foxboro clearly is that this season is the best chance--and probably last chance--for this team to add more hardware to the trophy case.
The sense of urgency is real. It is not yet desperation, but everyone from Belichick on down seems to recognize that the window of opportunity remains open for one more season. That's why 2009 could make 2007 seem like 2008. But no matter what the record, here's hoping that 2009 closes on a much happier note than 2007 did.