x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

NFL preview: New England barely clinging to 'The Patriot Way'

Tom Brady's top five receiving options from last year are not around to start but it is how the team finishes that matters most, writes Mike Tierney.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, has led his team to five Super Bowls, but after a tumultuous off-season for his team, the 35 year old will line up this year with a new receiving bunch and plenty of uncertainty. Matt Rourke / AP Phot
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, has led his team to five Super Bowls, but after a tumultuous off-season for his team, the 35 year old will line up this year with a new receiving bunch and plenty of uncertainty. Matt Rourke / AP Phot

It is untrue that the word "parity" was created to define the NFL, even if it seems associated almost exclusively with the sport.

At the dawn of each season, nearly every team believes they can reach the play-offs, and most envision a Super Bowl run. Only a few - owing to inexperience, a limited quarterback, an over-his-head coach or cursed luck – are deluding themselves.

Parity is an admired strand of the league's DNA. No sports entity needs a wide-angle lens like the NFL does to include all contenders in a pre-season group shot.

If there is one team seemingly guaranteed a spot in the collective pose, it would be the New England Patriots.

Attaining an after-life into January this year would mark the Patriots' 14th post-season in the past two decades. This century, they have fallen shy of double-digit wins just once, going a disgraceful 9-7 in 2002.

They have won three Super Bowls in that span and reached the championship game twice more in games narrowly lost.

Factors such as a salary cap that limits what clubs can devote to player salaries. Revenue sharing among owners, a schedule formula that punishes winning teams from the previous season and gives the worst teams the best college draft choices also are designed to spread the wealth.

Throw in the random and unpredictable nature of injuries, and power shifts are constant.

Most years, New England rises above this democratisation. Robert Kraft, the owner, tends to make decisions for the betterment of the whole.

Expert player evaluation has been a hallmark.Then there is the quirky maven in the hoodie. Coach Bill Belichick takes any road available to him in pursuit of a championship.

Sometimes, the path turns out better untrod. Improperly videotaping an opponent from the sidelines was judged by the NFL as stealing signals, which cost the Pats and their coach US$750,000 (Dh2.7m) in fines along with a first-round draft choice.

It also lowered the degree of admiration felt for them around the league. One ingredient in the Pats' secret formula is innovative thinking and bold action.

The quarterback Drew Bledsoe was thrice a Pro Bowler with New England when he was hurt in the second game of 2001. The fill-in for the former first overall draft selection was a one-time 199th pick, the unheralded Tom Brady.

When Bledsoe recovered, Belichick ignored coaching's conventional thinking that no established starter loses his job over an injury. Brady stayed in, won a Super Bowl and has yet to be dislodged.

More recently, the Pats became a pioneer of the hurry-up, no-huddle offence that maximised their on-field discipline and Brady's mastery.

Also, they departed from traditional thought and spent picks in consecutive drafts on two supersized, athletic receivers at tight end, then often deployed them concurrently. The league had never seen a pair at the position quite like Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

But as a new season blasts off, the Patriots find themselves unusually vulnerable, having been thrust there largely by the stunning predicament of one of those tight ends.

Hernandez sits in jail, awaiting trial for the murder of a man sometimes described as a friend.

As the sordid tale has played out, the Pats have been revealed as less than the meticulously prepared programme that their reputation has suggested.

In college, Hernandez's wayward conduct raised enough red flags to rival a political rally in China. Though few NFL players will ever be nominated for sainthood - an exception being quarterback Tim Tebow, who the Pats waived last week for reasons vastly different than with Hernandez - the tight end seemed in hindsight an unnecessary risk for such a stable operation.

It also brought into question the validity of "The Patriot Way," which is a neat, little headline often attached to explaining how this team does business.

The other day, Kraft described the tag, which seem consider arrogant, as "about trying to collect a lot of good people, having everybody in the organisation on the same page."

Hernandez, by all accounts, was in another wing of the library.

Media reports hint he never did straighten up as a pro player. That he was waived about two minutes after his arrest was an obvious move but one that must have made the Pats gulp, given the increasing frailty of Hernandez's position.

Gronkowski's back, which has troubled him since college, was subjected to surgery in June. Compounding his problems were four operations on his left forearm dating to November.

Whether he will have regained sufficient fitness for the season opener is unknown. Whether Gronk will last until the play-offs once he does return is doubtful.

At least Brady can lean on reliable receiver Wes Welker.

Wait, no he cannot. The Patriots did not retain the man with more catches in the past half-dozen years than anyone in the league.

Wideout Brandon Lloyd? Pass-hauling tailback Danny Woodhead? Gone and gone, leaving Brady without his five primary targets from last year. Aside from Gronkowski, who is due back soon, each wears a different uniform if you count the prison orange assigned to Hernandez.

Cast changes are one thing, a near purge is another, even for the incomparable No 12.

Some consolation for Patriots Nation: Pre-arrest, the team was planning to lighten the emphasis on passing to tight ends. Two wide receivers were drafted for the first time since 2002. Welker was replaced by a gifted body double, Danny Amendola, though he has kept medical staffs busy at other league stops.

Offensive slippage appears unavoidable. If the Patriots stay apace, Brady should be fast-tracked to the Hall of Fame before he retires.

"A challenging part of offence is when you got new guys and they're not really sure when I'm throwing it and I'm not sure when they're going to break," Brady said at the start of training camp. "A lot of it we just have to work out."

Defining his concept of the Patriot Way, Brady added, "So, it takes really smart football players to be in this system. Guys who have done well have been smart players who can adjust quickly.

"Football is important to them, they go home and they study and they work at it. That's what it's all about here."

It is not beyond Belichick to dig into the gray matter beneath the hood of his grey sweatshirt and find solutions for the offence. No shock waves would result, what with all of the stored respect, however begrudging, for the team.

"They are a great organisation," the Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in January after the Ravens floored New England in the conference championship game.

"They are led by a tremendous coach, perhaps the best coach in history. He's just done some great things. We admire them so much. We admire the quarterback. We admire the football team."

Now there is a guy you would want to speak at your funeral.

The Patriots are far from football-related eulogies. They could sleepwalk to a title in the AFC East, which is soft as a gentle breeze. They have dealt before with roster turnover and shaky characters.

But this goes beyond drawing up plays and to whether the New England system and their control freak of a coach can recover from the jolt of a high-profile player behaving unimaginably badly.

This season is about the franchise known for the Patriot Way finding its way back to normality while trying not to experience the downside of parity.


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