In a game where the smallest variation can lead to tremendous butterfly effects, it makes sense to evaluate a team on the process, not just the result. Did the team do everything they could to put themselves in the best position to succeed? Did they turn over every stone, did they make adjustments on the fly, and did they stay true to their system?
When a team does all of the above and manages to win the Super Bowl? Well, that's just the best season anyone could ask for.
Let's start with the process. Back in March, the Patriots were engaging in a bidding war against the Broncos for pretty much every free agent. Denver opted to sign players like safety T.J. Ward and edge defender Demarcus Ware to monster contracts, while also outbidding the Patriots for both cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. This is a crucial flaw in the Broncos team building exercise.
For a team that made it all the way to a Super Bowl, throwing money at roster weaknesses makes sense from a surface standpoint, but it also meant that the Broncos were featuring practice squad linebackers on defense and protecting a creaky quarterback with a superglued offensive line. This was a team built to beat the Seahawks in a grudge match, but not to survive the length of a season.
The Patriots built their team different. They shelled out the big money for the best cornerback of the past 20 years, and brought aboard Brandon Browner to be his partner in crime (also, Browner Watch 2014 was one of the highlights of the free agency period). While Talib was outstanding at the start of 2013, he fell off hard in the second half of the season; Revis played the entire season at the same level as, or greater than, Talib's peak.
Browner assumed the vacated role of enforcer, formerly played by linebacker Brandon Spikes. Browner not only energized the entire team with his play, but he seemed to buy into the system better than Spikes had at the end of his tenure. The linebacker would rather march to the beat of his own drum, while Browner just wanted to beat down his opponent.
On offense, Julian Edelman couldn't find a suitor in free agency and returned to New England with a major discount, while Brandon LaFell was the consolation prize for the Emmanuel Sanders sweepstakes. The Patriots two starting receivers were the free agency leftovers, low priced acquisitions that flesh out the roster- just following the process.
The draft brought on a new wave of surprises and questions. The Patriots selected defensive lineman Dominique Easley, he of two torn ACLs, in the opening round and a back-up quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo in the second. Tom Brady was upset with the selection because he wanted improved weapons- and after the 2013 season he suffered through, who could blame him? The Patriots selected a bunch of linemen and back-ups with their picks; it felt like New England punted the draft for future returns.
And it all felt worse because the Broncos kept reloading. The drafted a cornerback to group with their recently signed Talib and Chris Harris. They followed it up with a big wide receiver target, just another toy for Peyton Manning to play with.
But, again, it came down to the process. It's just as difficult to understand in reflection as it was at the time; somehow the Patriots were able to take the leftovers and turn it into a three course meal- and the person in charge of the ingredients played a major role.
Longtime offensive line coach and part-time wizard Dante Scarnecchia retired- he had been around since 1982- and Dave DeGuglielmo stepped up in his stead; "Gug" was a former line coach for some of the more potent rushing attacks of the past decade, but he had recently just been hired to the University of Maryland; not the most lauded of signings.
On the other side of the line, longtime defensive coach Pepper Johnson- he had been around since 2000- decided to head in a different direction, opening up another hole in the trenches (Patrick Graham, the defensive line coach, was moved to linebackers upon Pepper's departure). Brendan Daly, a defensive line coach for the Vikings and the Rams since 2006, came aboard.
At the helm, Bill Belichick continued to make the right hirings, even if they were head-scratchers at the time. As the executive chef of the Patriots organization, he found the right coaches and players to offer the best chance for success in 2014.
But then Logan Mankins happened. The captain of the offensive line, the personal protector of the quarterback, and one of the best linemen the Patriots organization has ever seen, refused to restructure his enormous contract. Unlike Vince Wilfork, Mankins' doppelganger on defense, who unhappily bit the bullet and restructured after a season ending injury in 2013, Mankins refused. As a result, he was shipped to Tampa Bay, where he played for the absolute worst team in the entire league.
The Patriots received much needed cap space, a premium fourth round pick, and a gadget tight end in Tim Wright, but the trade was just confusing. It went against everything that an emotionally invested fan would have wanted, while the calculated chill of "team management" became the bottom line.
Most importantly, who the heck was going to take Mankins' spot? The Patriots had tried to move on from Ryan Wendell during the offseason, especially after drafting Bryan Stork in the 4th round. Dan Connolly has been versatile, but generally unspectacular during his time with the Patriots. Brady's biggest kryptonite was his immobility, the downfall of the Patriots in 2013 was their weak interior line, and the coaches decided to get rid of their best player?
The Patriots tripped out of the gate, losing their first season opener since 2003; it definitely didn't help that the offensive line was the obvious culprit for all of the struggles. A new offensive line coach filling the shoes of a legend? A disgusting rotation of inadequacy filling the interior line?
Over the first quarter of the season, the Patriots were fortunate to be 2-2, having lost two brutal games against the Dolphins and the Chiefs, and needing a last second stand to defeat the Raiders. Over the same time frame, the Broncos roared out to a 3-1 start, with the only defeat an overtime loss to the defending champion Seahawks in Seattle.
It didn't look good. Sanders led the league with 25 catches on 33 targets for 334 yards over the first three games; LaFell had 4 catches for 46 yards in the third game, after catching zero of his 6 targets in Week 1, and receiving zero targets in Week 2.
The 41-14 loss at the hands of the Chiefs wasn't even as close as the final score. It was a massacre that signaled the end of the Patriots reign atop the AFC. It brought pandemonium and calls for both the heads of Bill Belichick the General Manager and Tom Brady.
The loss marked the turning point in the season, but not for what was heard in the public outcry. For the Patriots, it marked the recovery of All Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. It was a time the Patriots kept fighting through the final whistle, when they could have given up. It's the point that Belichick refers to when asked about when he saw the true potential of his team.
The following week was a microcosm for the entire season. The team battled through us-against-the-world odds, moved on from the past, and maintained a focus on the next game, the next drive, and the next play. They were on to Cincinnati, as Belichick put it.
After the Chiefs game, the Patriots lost just one meaningful game, shredding their way through the best teams in the AFC. After a 26-point domination of the defending AFC North champion Bengals, the Patriots broke the spirit of the Broncos in Week 9 with a 22-point victory, sending Denver into a spiral and another one-and-done by Peyton Manning, and then another 22-point victory in Indianapolis against the Colts, marking the Icarian life of Jonas Gray and providing the Patriots their first road victory over a playoff team with a winning record since a 2010 game against Chicago.
The Patriots were casting aside doubters left and right, even after they fell in Lambeau to the Packers. Belichick made some of the savviest transactions of his career, picking up Akeem Ayers, Jonathan Casillas, LeGarrette Blount, and Alan Branch for pennies on the dollar during the regular season. Belichick the GM was earning "redemption" at every turn.
After suffering through a brutal first quarter of the year, the Patriots were the toast of the league over the final three. When the playoffs came around, it wasn't a matter of if the Patriots could make the Super Bowl, it was a question of who they would defeat along the way.
Of course, that storyline went out the window when the Ravens found their way into the playoffs. Of the five other playoff teams, the Patriots would have loved to see the Broncos, Colts, Steelers, and Bengals all before the sixth seed Ravens. The reality of the Patriots situation became clearer once the Steelers Le'Veon Bell missed the wild card game against the Ravens due to an injury.
The top seeded Patriots hosting the bottom seeded, yet fearless, Ravens.
Baltimore burst out to a 14-0 lead ten minutes into the game, scoring on both drives. The Patriots continued to fight and managed to tie the game with the chance to score both before and after the half, but Brady threw an awful interception with a minute left in the half, which the Ravens promptly followed up with a score.
A Patriots 3-and-out after the half gave the ball right back to the Ravens, who marched down the field and scored the first second half touchdown against the Patriots since Colts offensive lineman Anthony Castonzo back in Week 11. Just five minutes into the second half and the Patriots were facing their second 14-point deficit of the night.
In response, the Patriots uncorked their entire playbook. Josh McDaniels unleashed a short-handed offensive line play that confounded the Ravens and led to a Patriots touchdown. The following New England drive featured a double pass from Brady to Edelman to Danny Amendola that tied the game at 28 points.
The next Ravens drive resulted in the end of January Joe Flacco as Devin McCourty picked off a pass on the Ravens own 37 yard line. The Patriots could have and should have scored some points off of the turnover, but three straight incomplete passes led to a touchback punt, netting a meager 17 yards. The Ravens responded with a field goal drive.
The Patriots had a fantastic drive in response, capped by a gorgeous throw from Brady to LaFell to take the lead once and for all with five minutes to go. Flacco turned the ball over on an unnecessary deep shot, and the Patriots completed the first 14-point comeback twice in the same game in NFL history.
Baltimore cried foul for the shorthanded plays, but the Patriots rolled their eyes and moved them towards the Colts, who sucked the thin air out of Mile High Stadium the week before.
The Patriots stomped Indianapolis by 22 points in the regular season and followed that up with a 45-7 depantsing of the Colts franchise in the AFC Championship game. The Colts tried to respond by holding the collective feet of New England to the flames over deflated footballs.
It worked, and no one was talking about how the Colts never decided to show up at Gillette. No one was discussing the fact that this version of the Colts has been embarrassed every time they've played the Patriots. No one cared that the Colts have seen their points scored against the Patriots fall from 24, to 22, to 20, and finally to 7, or that the Patriots have topped 40 points each game, or that the closest game between the Patriots and Colts since Peyton Manning featured Dan Orlovsky at quarterback.
Everyone was talking about deflated footballs. The only vindication from this storyline will be if the Colts themselves deflated the lone football that was 2 PSI below the limits. The Patriots had to soldier on with their second allegation of cheating in as many playoff victories.
The Patriots squared off against the defending champion Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It was as perfect of a story as could have been told. A team that based its season on resilience and sticking to the process managed to bounce back from the brink of extinction and engineer the biggest and best comeback in Super Bowl history.
The season started that started in a bidding war with the Broncos, was saved by an undrafted free agent rookie out of a division II program. Revis was outstanding. LaFell was outstanding. Browner was outstanding. Edelman, Wilfork, Wendell, Brady, all outstanding.
This was a year for adjusting on the fly, for bootstrapping an offensive line until a rookie center was ready, for learning that your 37-year-old quarterback can scramble, for avocado ice cream, for smoothie tyme, for undrafted rookies and first round veterans in their 11th season, for having "to go see my guy", for the Boston D Party.
This was for the doubters, this was for the legacies, this was for the Genius and Tom Terrific, this was for redemption, this was for a decade of having glory at the fingertips, only to have it fall incomplete.
This was the most absolutely perfect season in Patriots history. For everything that the 2001 season did to kick start the franchise, this championship validated the entire process.
This one was for the Krafts. This one was for Bill. This one was for Tom. This was for Vince, Darrelle, and Jules. This was for all of the fans who have supported this team over the years, through the highs, the heartbreaks, and the heart attacks.
This was a testament to all of the hard work that every single person involved in the Patriots franchise has put in every single year for the past decade.
These were your 2014 Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, a transcendent part of the greatest dynasty this sport has ever seen.
We're on to 2015.