Free agency is in full swing, the draft is just around the corner, and then it will be time for the early, early, early pre-season predictions for the 2010 NFL season. But already we have a pretty good idea of who some of the early favorites for next year will be. And the New England Patriots will likely be in an unfamiliar place as those predictions get rolled out. I, for one, think that's a good thing. The reasons after the jump.
Sportswriters and broadcasters have wasted little time anointing the "winners" and "losers" of free agency (even though it's an ongoing process, not a done deal). People seem bullish on the Bears since they signed Julius Peppers and others, all on the first day. The Ravens and Jets also got high marks as improved teams and some others like what the Dolphins have done. Soon, we'll learn who "won" and "lost" the draft and then the pre-season picture will become clearer.
I already sense people climbing on the Ravens bandwagon for next year. They needed receivers for their young quarterback and to complement Ray Rice and a dynamic running game and stout defense and they went out and got Anquan Boldin and Donte Stallworth. The Ravens are already solid under John Harbaugh and are the answer to the trivia question "which AFC team is the only one to win games in both the 2008 and 2009 playoffs?" (Steelers? No. Colts? Sorry. Patriots? Uh...nevermind). Their thrashing of New England in last January's wildcard game will doubtless be seen as a changing of the guard in the AFC with the Ravens ascending to elite status replacing the Patriots. I expect the Ravens will be a frequent pick for AFC champion when the predictions come out, and with good reason. They're an excellent team and they seem to have improved.
The other team likely to get a lot of attention is the Jets. After their improbable run to the AFC title game last year and the addition of Cromartie and Tomlinson, not to mention the newly slim and svelte figure of
America's Biggest Loser --um, change that to "defensive mastermind" Rex Ryan, New York is going to be a sexy choice for many to win the conference. No doubt they'll be good, too. But you have to wonder if Sanchez will have a sophomore slump, if Tomlinson is really an upgrade over Thomas Jones, if Cromartie will ever figure out what a condom is for and how using one might save him a lot of money. Yes, the Jets might go 19-0 and shut out everybody. But they might also suffer the same second-season fate they did the last time they made a big splash with a hefty-sized coach who made a name elsewhere as a defensive coordinator and who got New York to the playoffs in his first season--we all remember the ill-fated 4-12 Jets of 2007, in year two of the Eric Mangenius experiment after his 10-6 playoff season as a rookie.
It also wouldn't surprise me if a lot of love is shown toward the Houston Texans, who finally broke out of their 8-8 stalemate last year to go 9-7. They still haven't made the playoffs and they never can beat the Colts but they may be a sleeper pick by many experts for 2010.
And what about the Patriots? I think every year since 2004 they have been one of the perennial favorites in the AFC. Often, they've won or come very close. Even last year no less an authority than Peter King in the Sports Illustrated preview--a writer and a magazine that embody conventional wisdom-- picked the Pats to win the Super Bowl. It looks ridiculous today but it certainly didn't seem outlandish at the time (I picked them to win, too).
But for the first time in almost a decade, I think New England will fly under the radar. I honestly think many people will pick them 3rd in the AFC East. After all, the Jets and the Dolphins have added so much this off-season and they were both close to the Patriots last year that I think many experts will boldly proclaim--as many have already started doing--the end of the Patriots dynasty, and even the end of their regular playoff appearances. I can see many people leaving New England out of their playoff forecasts and bemoaning what they see as New England's lack of aggressiveness in free agency, their refusal to hire outside coaches or even name coordinators, or to turn their roster upside down in an effort to improve.
I actually think low expectations would be the best thing for this team. Finally, finally they might be able to sneak up on people, to use those low expectations for motivation, to let all the other teams deal with the pre-season hype and hoopla, and then go out and remind people that reports of the Patriots' demise were greatly exaggerated. New England still has a young team on defense, still has question marks, still needs bounce-back seasons from many key players, and still has a lot to prove. But they are also likely to have a much better team than many will expect or forecast. They will be hungry and determined and, hopefully, play with the proverbial chip on their shoulder. And it would be nice for a change to prove the pre-season predictions about New England wrong---but in a good way this time. In the recent past, the Pats have failed to fulfill those high expectations. Wouldn't it be great to confound the experts by exceeding low expectations for once?
Remember, the Saints were just 8-8 in 2008. They were hardly a clear Super Bowl favorite heading into last season. But they had a great coach, a great quarterback, and a basically solid foundation in place. Then they added key pieces: a new defensive coordinator, some new weapons on offense and defense, improved their depth, got contributions from younger players. And then it all came together and they embarrassed Peyton Manning and Bill Polian and won it all. The Patriots could be like that this year. Great coach, great quarterback, solid foundation. We've added a new defensive coach (Corwin Brown), re-signed our key free agents and will add a few more, should get some quality players in the draft, can look for development and improvement from key younger players across the roster--the potential is there to surprise people just like the Saints did this year.
But for now, I'm happy to let the focus be on the Saints and their chances of repeating, on the Colts and the Jets and Ravens and Texans and others. Let those teams dominate the news and monopolize the pre-season Super Bowl picks. Let the Ravens and Jets feel the pressure of enormous expectations and experience the difficulty of winning big year in and year out, over and over again. Maybe they'll be every bit as good as they'll be expected to be. But maybe not. And maybe, just maybe, the Patriots will surprise the expects, upset the early predictions, and show that they aren't ready to be consigned to the dustbin of NFL history just yet.