A lot can happen in the NFL over four years, but the Patriots always find a way to remain a contender. New England has won its way to the conference championship in four straight seasons, a feat only the Eagles have managed to match in the salary cap era, and appeared in two Super Bowls.
The New England secondary has shifted and morphed over those four seasons. The 2011 secondary could be considered one of the least polished of the Bill Belichick era, and their performance led to a renaissance in the secondary akin to the Patriots receiver corps after the 2006 season. In 2012, Kyle Arrington gave way to Alfonzo Dennard, Devin McCourty changed position with the acquisition of Aqib Talib, and Pat Chung took a backseat to Steve Gregory.
The secondary kept moving in 2013 as Chung departed for Philadelphia and rookie Logan Ryan joined the mix. McCourty spent his first full season at safety. Injuries derailed this team's attempt at a championship as starting corners Talib and Dennard just couldn't find a way to remain healthy.
2014 needed something different. It needed more ability. It needed more power. It needed players and swagger the coaches could trust, players who would fight until the final whistle.
Aqib Talib signed with the rival Broncos on March 11th, greatly weakening the New England secondary. Talib went down in the championship game with an injury for the second straight season and the Patriots were unable to beat Denver with their shallow depth. Changes had to come.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers were trying to shop All Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis during the off-season, but were unable to come to terms. The Patriots came up as one of the top suitors for Revis' services as numbers and compensation likely came up during the trade talks, but the teams were unable able to strike a deal. Still, New England had an idea of where Revis was willing to go with regards to his contract.
The Buccaneers cut Revis on March 12th. The Patriots snapped him up within hours.
In order to complement Revis in the secondary, New England wanted to find a physical presence that could match Seattle's dominance over the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Former Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner was a perfect target.
Browner Watch 2014 was one of the more amusing moments of the off-season as news of Browner's pending departure to Washington for a team visit was in dispute due to sources updating reporters of the 6'4, 220 lbs cornerback's hourly location.
He stayed in New England.
Safety Pat Chung signed on April 2nd to compete for a special teams role. Cornerback Malcolm Butler signed on May 19th as a camp body.
Over the course of the off-season, Chung surprised many by securing one of the starting safety spots, while Butler was the star of training camp. The starting corners of years past, Dennard and Arrington and Ryan, were relegated to lower rungs of the depth chart.
While Browner was suspended for the first four weeks of the season, the starting line-up of Revis, Browner, Chung, and McCourty was obvious and it represented three of the team's off-season acquisitions. It was a new day for the Patriots secondary- it was one that the team could lean on.
It has been a long while since you could watch a Patriots game and feel confident about all positions in the secondary. Perhaps 2007, with Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, James Sanders, and Rodney Harrison- but Harrison was injured and yielded to a duo of Sanders and Eugene Wilson. Maybe 2003, with Harrison, Wilson, Tyrone Poole, and Ty Law.
Perhaps it's recency bias, but there was an aura about the 2014 secondary that felt different than anything over the past decade. Every single player brought an individual story to New England and in doing so joined together to forgea unified idenity.
Revis was a former rival on a big pay check- could he live up to his lofty reputation?
Browner was known as a heavy hitter, but was coming off a suspension- could he even stay on the field?
Chung was a washout in New England, turned washout in Philadelphia- what the heck were the Patriots even thinking?
McCourty had one full season of experience at safety- was he for real, or would he be a bust?
Arrington, Dennard, Butler, Logan Ryan, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson, all players with varying expectations due to price tag or draft pedigree, each trying to fight and prove they deserved to be on the field.
In seasons past, the fight just wasn't there in the secondary. When it rained, it poured yards from the likes of Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Part of the issue was schematic, part was the level of talent on hand. But Browner and Revis brought a change in mentality to the Patriots secondary that permeated throughout the locker room.
If you went after Revis, he was going to make you pay. Browner would always hit you first and throw you off your game. McCourty created a no-pass zone in the middle of the field. Even Chung emerged as a dominant force against the run.
The strength and swagger and ability that had been missing in prior seasons was spilling out in spades. There was a fire not seen in many years.
The Patriots won the Super Bowl, thanks in part to the fight of Malcolm Butler. The undrafted camp body subbed in for Arrington in the second half on the largest stage and knocked down passes left and right. He could've given up after the impossible catch by Jermaine Kearse, but went right back onto the field and made the greatest play in NFL history.
The 2014 Patriots had one of the best secondaries in the league, and a month and a half later the roster is gone. Revis signed back with the Jets. Browner canceled a visit in Washington for a second straight year to sign with the Saints. These players will forever belong in Patriots lore, even if it was for a solitary chapter.
McCourty will be expected to set the tone for the 2015 secondary and the lessons learned from Revis and Browner won't soon be forgotten. The Patriots will fight on.