Even before Randy Moss was traded, New England's offense was changing. Moss was missing in action in his last game as a Patriot (at Miami) in large part because the offense changed around him and them moved on without him. Tired of throwing long bombs in the hopes that Moss might grab one and restore a little bit of that 2007 magic, Tom Brady and the Patriots changed things up in their offensive attack with great results. Not only are they leading the league in scoring, they've won four straight games and are tied with the Steelers and that team from the Long Island area for the best record in football. But as impressive as those feats are, the most important accomplishment of the 2010 Patriots may be that they have finally gotten closure on the 2007 season and are now over their efforts to emulate that unforgettable season.
It's probably the best thing that could have happened.
When 2007 ended so crushingly, just a few seconds shy of football immortality, it seemed the Patriots shrugged and said, "we'll get them next year." Most of the team and coaching staff returned for 2008 and, armed with a soft schedule and coming off an 18-1 season, there was no reason to change much. But then, things were changed dramatically in the first quarter of the first game when Tom Brady was lost for the season and the Patriots never had a chance to try to duplicate 2007. What happened that year was pretty good, considering, but it was a lost season, one spent marking time until Brady returned. When he did in 2009, the Patriots geared up for one more (one last?) shot at recapturing the glory of two years earlier. But that team never quite put it all together. There were moments to be sure, but Brady struggled a bit after a year out, the wide-open offense didn't work as well without Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney to siphon away defensive attention from Moss and Welker, and no good replacements were ever found for them that year. Throw in inconsistent performances from other units on the team and things didn't turn out so well. The Patriots were pressing all the old buttons, running the old familiar plays and sets, but the 2007 results didn't appear--and they weren't going to.
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This year, a new philosophy has taken root. It started at least as early as the draft when the Patriots grabbed Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and has continued right through their Week 2 pickup of Danny Woodhead and the trade for Deion Branch. Those players plus Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman and BenJarvus Green-Eillis and that remarkable, indestructible slot receiving machine, the talented Mr. Welker, may seem like spare parts compared to the 2007 roster. But those spare parts collectively pose quite a challenge to defenses who can't simply double Moss and count on shutting down the offense. What we have now ---in some great phrases coined by my fellow Pats Pulpiteers--is an offense of "Death by Smurfs" or receivers who are like Starbucks: there's one on every corner and they're always open. We're getting back to the old days when Brady used to say that his favorite receiver was the open one. No more forcing deep throws. No more throwing to Moss just to keep him happy. No more trying to force an offensive scheme that worked brilliantly three years ago (with that team's personnel) on a team that doesn't have the same personnel any more.
The Moss trade only added the flourish to a move that had been underway for awhile. This offense is being remade before our eyes in a way that confirms that Bill Belichick is just too smart to continue to try to fit a square peg in a round hole. No matter how spectacularly the vertical passing game worked in 2007, it was no longer working. Sticking with that (and with Moss) probably would have led to another season of frustration and futility.
The phrase typically applied these days to the Patriot's defense is "it's a work in progress." That's true. But it's no less true for the Patriots' offense. This unit has had some stumbles but each week, they make enough plays, they score enough points, they control the ball long enough to win games. In the process, they are just as surely defining themselves and growing an identity. They've lived in the imposing shadow of the 2007 offense for long enough and now, work-in-progress style, they are crafting their own identity and personality. And they are likely to get better as the season goes along.
2007 will always be a magical, mystical year for the Patriots. But there comes a time, in the ever-changing world of the NFL, when teams have to have the courage to reexamine what they are doing and let go of what was once a great thing when that once great thing is no longer great. The changes in this year's offense suggest very strongly that the 2010 Patriots have finally stopped trying to be the 2007 Patriots. That was perhaps the greatest NFL team of all time. But the 2010 squad might be pretty good, too, before the year is over--but only because they finally put 2007 to rest.
And if the Patriots themselves have gotten over 2007, maybe we fans can, too. I'll be the first to admit that I can't leave that stunning Super Bowl loss alone and I think back on that season and what might have been and how close the team came to 19-0 so many times. Each successive season, I've waited for that magic to return. But it's not going to, any more than David Tyree is going to drop that catch or Asante Samuel is going to hang on to that interception. Now, instead of hoping each season will bring a return to 2007 standards, I--and all of us fans--can just enjoy what is, take pride in a team that isn't blowing people out with the high-flying acrobatics of 2007 but is winning games in fun, interesting, different ways with a different cast of characters.Just as the defense is maturing week by week, the offense is developing its own personality and identity, too.
This Patriot team is not like 2007. And for the first time ever, I'm glad about that.