I'm going to do what few sportswriters and sportscasters (I am neither) ever do--revisit one of my predictions that proved to be way off the mark, admit I was wrong, and try to figure out why. In my very first post on this site last March, I boldly predicted that the 2009 Pats would make the great 2007 team look like the rather pedestrian 2008 team. Boy, was I wrong. And in trying to figure out why I was, I've come to a few conclusions about the 2009 team.The essence of my original post was that the Patriots were gearing up for another Super Bowl run with a particular sense of urgency, mainly because they would not (due to free agency and retirements) be able to keep the roster intact. No one knew what the Pats might look like in 2010 and beyond but the 2009 team seemed to be preparing for one last shot at glory. Almost all the off-season moves seemed designed to bolster the existing team, to fill in gaps with missing pieces such as Fred Taylor, Joey Galloway, Chris Baker, Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs, Derrick Burgess, and others. Each of those veterans seemed likely to strengthen a weakness or add depth at key spots. The draft also turned up additional depth in the secondary and along the lines. Everything else seemed to be in place for a healthy Tom Brady to lead the team back to their rightful place among the NFL elite. Or so I thought.
Here's why it didn't turn out that way and this is what I flat out got wrong about this team. And, to the extent that the Patriots organization thought along the same lines I did, here's where their calculations went astray, too.
- I didn't count on the impact of losing so many veterans. Mike Vrabel had been traded away when I made my prediction and other key guys like Larry Izzo, Lonie Paxton, and Jabar Gaffney were gone, too, and I was pretty sure Rodney Harrison would retire. But I expected Tedy Bruschi back and I didn't expect Richard Seymour to be traded. And even with all these moves I underestimated the impact it all would have on leadership, an issue several players have commented was sorely (and strangely) lacking this season, since many returning players failed to step up and fill the leadership void.
- I underestimated how difficult it would be to work in so many new coaches to the staff. Four coaches were in their first seasons as position coaches: Bill O'Brien with quarterbacks (not to mention play-calling), Chad O'Shea with receivers, Shane Waldron with tight ends, and Josh Boyer with defensive backs. All except O'Shea had apprenticed as a coaching assistant, but that's a very different responsibility than being a position coach. Belichick and his veteran assistants undoubtedly had to spend lots of time coaching the coaches so that they in turn could coach the players. I don't have to tell anyone on this blog how we struggled at all four of those positions this season. All of these guys seem like bright, talented coaches but having so many newbies on the staff all breaking in at once was, in retrospect, not an ideal situation. I completely underestimated how difficult that would be.
- I was lulled into a false sense of security by New England's 11-5 record in 2008, achieved without Tom Brady and a lot of others out with injuries. I assumed too easily that if the Patriots could do that without those guys, they could easily surpass it when they returned--even against a more difficult schedule.
- On a related point, I too easily assumed that Tom Brady would step back in and pick up where he left off in 2007. Not that I anticipated the same ridiculous numbers he put up then. But I thought he would be the old Tom Brady instantly. I failed to account for how the injury might still affect him, for how a new set of receivers and a new offensive playcaller and position coach would take time to gel as a unit, for how new injuries might take an aging body even more time to heal, and--I'm guessing on this one but anyone out there who has ever been a new father (I've done it twice) can back me up on this--how much preparing for and then welcoming a newborn baby into the household in the midst of the season must have cut into his sleep and his concentration. I thought Brady would play much better than he did this year. It wasn't the fall-off in TD passes that concerned me; it was the rise in interceptions and the unaccountably Brett Favre/Jay Cutler-like bad judgment and poor decisions that I didn't anticipate.
- I totally overestimated the contributions that the new roster additions would make. I thought Joey Galloway would be a great number 3 receiver. I thought Fred Taylor would thrive as part of the rotation at running back. I thought Bodden and Springs would start and would be as good as in the past. I thought Burgess might really be the missing link to the pass rush. But too many of the newcomers turned out not to be the hoped-for and anticipated missing pieces. Instead, they just became spare parts. They didn't deliver as expected for reasons that seem very clear now: Springs and Taylor were too injury-prone, Galloway was just too old and slow. Rather than each having one or two more good seasons in them (as past Patriot veteran acquisitions did), this crew disappointed.
- I also failed to estimate how the Patriots famous even keel, no-game-is-bigger-than-any-other approach, which served them so well for years and kept them from getting too high or too low, would falter this year. In the past, the tough-minded, veteran Patriot teams could absorb the best efforts of opponents who got themselves jacked up to play New England and still hold on to win. This year's team--young, inexperienced, undergoing too many transitions with too little veteran leadership--was especially vulnerable to clubs like the Jets, Broncos, Saints, and Texans who turned their games with New England into the equivalent of playoff contests and brought a level of intensity the Pats simply couldn't match, unlike in past years.
- But perhaps my greatest failing came in making the mistake of assuming that the 2007 Patriots were the baseline of what this team could be instead of realizing just how great and dominant--and rare--that team's brilliance really was. All of us Patriot fans were spoiled by 2007 and too easily tempted into thinking such heights are achievable every year. The fact that this year's team--which, on paper, seemed not too far behind 2007's squad--was only a pale imitation of that greatness reminds us all of how hard such a standard of play is to reach once, let alone maintain year after year. By expecting (even though I should have known better intellectually) that 2007 was the norm and that 2009 would be pretty close to it, I disregarded not only the warning signs that were clearly visible with this team but also the historical improbability of the Pats or anyone else doing what they did in 2007. This year, the Colts and Saints both flirted with perfection and both came up well short. The Saints seemed destined to shatter New England's offensive records but also fell well short. Those experiences should remind us all of how rare and hard to duplicate what the Pats achieved in 2007 was.
So there it is. My admission of an erroneous set of expectations and predictions and an analysis of why I wrote what I wrote and why it failed to materialize. In this off-season as the team and us, the fans, reflect on what went wrong and how it might be fixed, I offer these thoughts for the rest of you Pats Pulpiteers to consider as we all wrap up our post-mortems on 2009 and ponder what 2010 may bring.