Pats look to put past behind

August 21, 2010

The future Hall of Fame quarterback lobs bombs to a wideout who will someday enjoy that same distinction. The NFL's best slot receiver is back in the fold ahead of schedule from torn knee ligaments. A youth infusion has rejuvenated an aging defense. And overseeing it all is the greatest head coach of his generation.

The New England Patriots don't look like a defending division champion ready to slip.

But until last week's joint practice with the Atlanta Falcons and the 28-10 road exhibition victory that followed, Bill Belichick's troops were being regarded in a very un-Patriotic fashion. Entering a new decade, the franchise of the 2000s was actually flying under the radar compared to trendier preseason darlings such as Baltimore, Indianapolis and New England's AFC East rival, the New York Jets.

The main media focus was contract problems. Quarterback Tom Brady and wide receiver Randy Moss are entering the final year of their deals, while Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins has refused to sign his restricted free-agent tender. The Super Bowl buzz that usually surrounds the Patriots was eerily absent.

Not that this perception matters to the master of minimizing outside distractions.

"Honestly, I think there are questions every year," Belichick told last week before practice at Falcons headquarters. "You've got to start from scratch and rebuild. Every team has new people, whether it's rookies or veterans coming or leaving. No team now is where it was in December. They're just not. They haven't done it in nine months. You have to redevelop that timing, communication and everything."

In New England's case, "everything" includes leaving the past behind.

As much as New England has flourished under Belichick, the Patriots haven't won a playoff game since the 2007 New York Giants dashed their hopes for the first 19-0 perfect season in Super Bowl XLII. New England's last championship team began its title run six years ago.

This isn't lost on Belichick, whose crew was humiliated in last season's first-round playoff loss to Baltimore. He stowed many of the photos and reminders of those memorable teams and players at Gillette Stadium before training camp. The message was simple: The 2010 Patriots must forge their own identity.

"We're really living in the moment now," said linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, one of just seven players remaining from the Super Bowl XXXIX winner. "There's not some magical thing from the past that's going to help us win again. It's a great message, not only for guys who have been here but people new to the team, to not come in expecting anything."

The approach should prove especially helpful on a defense trying to develop a new generation of difference-makers. The unit has suffered heavy losses in recent seasons because of retirements (safety Rodney Harrison and linebacker Tedy Bruschi), trades (defensive end Richard Seymour and linebacker Mike Vrabel) and free-agent departures (cornerback Asante Samuel).

"We don't really talk too much about who was here before," Banta-Cain said. "It's hard-to-impossible to fill Rodney's shoes or Seymour's shoes. You don't try to motivate guys like that. It's more about guys trying to establish themselves and do their job to the best of their ability. Then, one day, somebody will be talking about them in those terms."

New England's vaunted offense is undergoing a minor facelift, even with the return of key components Brady, Moss and Wes Welker, whose 123-catch campaign was ruined in the 2009 regular-season finale by a major knee injury. The Patriots overhauled their tight-end position for better red-zone production by signing free agent Alge Crumpler and drafting Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

To help alleviate pressure on Brady, the Patriots are again counting on a rush-by-committee approach that includes three backs considered ancient by NFL standards – Fred Taylor (34 years old), Kevin Faulk (34) and Sammy Morris (33). New England also hopes an offensive line with three 30-something starters can make it through one more season intact.

"We have to be able to run the football, something that we are really making a point of emphasis," Brady said after practicing against the Falcons. "[We are] getting the tight ends involved. The receiving group we feel very good about. We are incorporating the new players and seeing what kind of offense we can put together."

Despite the inherent distraction that comes with his contract situation, Brady has done his part on two fronts.

Welker said Brady is sharper another year removed from the serious knee injury suffered in the 2008 regular-season opener. Brady and Moss, who also is motivated by his uncertain NFL future, were the stars of Tuesday's practice session.

"He's always had good plays, but it's his consistency this year through the whole camp," Belichick said of Brady. "I doubt if he's thrown five interceptions in 20-something practices."

Brady's leadership skills have never come into question before. But he has dispelled any doubts that may have arisen when Brady spent less time in the team's offseason workout program (losing his privileged parking space in the process). Months after publicly chiding teammates for not listening to Belichick enough in 2009, Brady seems more vocal when things go wrong during practice. New England must hope Brady's approach rubs off on younger teammates to help fill the leadership void created by the departure of so many respected veterans.

"If the quarterback won't do it, who will?" Brady said. "If it's like, 'Hey guys, that's all right. It was a (bad) play, but we'll get the next one,' that's not the way it works."

As long as Brady is clicking, New England will likely extend its streak of winning seasons to an NFL-best 10. Yet making the playoffs isn't good enough for the Patriots. Such is the price to pay for being a team that has set the bar so high for so long. Even more is expected.

That is something Belichick can't erase from memory.

"It speaks for the organization and the type of standard we set for ourselves and the team," Banta-Cain said. "We really just try to stay consistent in our approach. Whether the media and outside forces decide to hype us is out of our control. What we control is what we do inside here. It's a great working environment."

An environment with the perspective needed if the Patriots are going to achieve greatness again.