At long last. Football is finally here.
Who knows how long it will last, but for now, we’re 48 hours away from the first kickoff of the 2020 Patriots season, whatever that’s going to entail. I hope you’re all as excited about it as I am.
I realized, though, that there may be a fair amount of you out there who maybe aren’t all that excited about this upcoming season. After all, the 2020 Patriots are unfamiliar and mysterious in ways that extend far beyond a Coronavirus-altered offseason. For a lot of you, this year will be the first one you’ve ever experienced without Tom Brady.
Tom Brady has been the Patriots quarterback since 2001. That means that, for a good chunk of Pats fans out there, there simply isn’t a reality in which the Patriots aren’t immediate Super Bowl contenders each and every year. It’s crazy to think that if you recently got your driver’s license or can finally stop lying when you click on those “Yes, I’m Over 18” buttons on certain websites of ill repute, you weren’t even alive during a time when Tommy B wasn’t under center. Furthermore, if you’re under the age of 30 or so, you were maybe nine years old the last time there was this much uncertainty surrounding this team. Even more absurd is that the Patriots haven’t had question marks at both QB and kicker since 1996.
Maybe you were 15 or 16 when you started following the Patriots in earnest and have never seen them lose more than six games in a single season. Or maybe, like me, you’ve been around for longer and remember all too well when this team was a complete joke, but have been completely spoiled by their recent success and aren’t quite sure how you’re going to handle it.
That’s why I decided to put together this quick guide to rooting for the Patriots. No matter what happens over the coming weeks and months, it’s going to be wildly different than anything in recent memory, so I figured this would help us all, whether you’re among the fans bracing for the possibility of their first-ever losing season or you’re among the fans who aren’t all that excited by the possibility of moving back down towards the bottom of the Boston sports totem pole. So if you’re at all uncertain about how to approach this upcoming league year, this guide is for you.
The fact that I even felt compelled to write an article about rooting for a team following 20 years of dominance is just wonderfully obnoxious. Being a Pats fan is the best.
Normal expectations. For the vast, vast majority of football fans, the expectations from one year to the next is improvement, growing talent, building a roster, and maybe hoping for a deep playoff run every few years if enough cards fall their way. There are certain fans (ie Jets) that are just hoping to avoid complete embarrassment... but to be honest, “I’d love to see maybe a 9-7 season this year, possibly sneak into a Wild Card spot” is a perfectly legitimate thing for a lot of fans to say based on years past. A 9-7 season and a playoff berth would also represent a great step forward for a number of franchises. For Patriots fans, however, a 9-7 finish and a Wild Card spot would represent one of the worst seasons in Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach. For Pats fans, the choices have consistently been binary: the team either meets expectations by winning a Super Bowl, or the whole year was a complete bust. That’s just a ridiculous standard to live up to, and I’m willing to admit that there were more than a few instances over the last few years where I found myself relieved that the Pats didn’t lose as opposed to happy that they won. This year, though, we all get to enjoy more healthy, normal expectations for this team - optimism, the hope that some real talent emerges, watching the young guys play, maybe getting hot and turning a few heads for a playoff run, and if they happen to make the Super Bowl, it will be a wonderful surprise as opposed to them simply doing what they were supposed to do in the first place. Don’t get me wrong - I’d never trade these last two decades for anything - but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t kind of looking forward to just enjoying a season for what it’s worth for the first time in a while. Along those lines...
Each game matters and will be fun. I can’t remember the last time I got too happy, or too upset, over a Week 3 win or loss. For that matter, I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t more or less waiting around to see what New England’s playoff seeding would be come December. In the Brady Era, the regular season was a formality, and the only real unknowns were how they were going to get to 12-4 and how many playoff games they’d be hosting at Gillette Stadium. This goes back to my first point about about getting back to normal expectations, but I expect a number of folks to be pleasantly surprised by how much they can just sit back and enjoy a regular season game in early October without immediately wondering whether it’s going to affect getting the number one seed in January. If they drop four straight and are more or less out of it by early November (and here’s hoping the season even lasts that long), that’s OK; with no playoffs on the horizon, each game is it’s own little mini-playoff where you want to see positive growth while oddly kind of hoping for a loss to improve draft stock.
You can look at the big picture. It’s actually pretty fun to look at the 2020 Patriots not as a team for just this year, but for 2021 and beyond. There’s a lot of youth, and a lot of unknown talent, that I’m looking forward to watching this season. The hope is that players will develop chemistry, a solid core will start to form, and there will be things we see this year that will give us a lot of optimism for the state of the team for the next few years or so. Compared to Patriots teams of the past, where each one was kind of its own machine with Super Bowl aspirations and we were never really thinking about anything beyond this particular season, I know I’m going into 2020 with both this season and future seasons equally at the forefront, which adds a new layer to my enjoyment of the game that has been absent for a while now. I mean when was the last time anyone was thinking of anything beyond how far the Pats were going to go this season?
The hot takers may need to get some new material. The jury is still out on how many “journalists” are still going to try to stave off utter irrelevance by desperately clinging to the coattails of the New England Patriots, but it’s safe to say that this team has made a lot of fairly useless people a decent chunk of money over the past decades. Absolute non-stories for 31 other teams in the NFL become national news when it’s the Patriots involved...but I don’t know if that will be the case anymore. I didn’t see a single “Tom Brady’s window is closing” article this offseason for the first time since 2006. And while I have always said that it won’t be long before we’re all pining for the days when the angle of the JumboTron at Gillette Stadium was enough to headline the CNN evening news, right now it will be nice to watch the Max Kellermans of the world have to go back into the well to try and find a new ridiculous, incorrect, inflammatory comment to get their clicks up. And maybe the Mike Reisses of the world - aka talented reporters - will once again get their due.
If the Patriots suck, that can be fun too. If there are any Cleveland Browns fans reading this right now, I can actually hear the steam coming out of your ears from reading this. And I agree; constantly wallowing at the bottom of the league with no end in sight isn’t a good time for anybody. But as someone who remembers when the Patriots were terrible, and has rooted for the Red Sox for 30+ years as well, I can say that there’s something sort of therapeutic about rooting for a bad team, in an odd way. It’s tough to explain unless you’ve really been there, but there’s a sort of “we’re all in this together” feeling that is easy to embrace. Plus, if the Patriots are bad this year, we’re going to see a pretty massive shedding of fandom from a lot of fans who, through absolutely no fault of their own, simply aren’t prepared to accept the lean times with the fat ones. And the ones who are still around come December if the Pats are limping to a 5-11 finish are the real fans, the ones who you want to usher in brighter days with. There’s a strange joy in that, coupled with the knowledge that sticking with this team through a few lousy seasons after the past 20 years of dominance is the absolute least we could do. So if this team stinks in 2020, we can all enjoy that as well - although I’d be lying if I said that a bad Pats team will render my previous point moot, as the “Belichick is nothing without Brady” takes might just break the internet. Still, again, this is a very, very small price to pay for what we’ve been able to enjoy since we started writing “20” at the start of our dates.
So I hope this helps. I also hope that this article is even relevant this time next month, as I legit haven’t had to wonder what I was doing this coming autumn Sunday since I was about 11 years old. Either way... let’s buckle up.