2010 is just about to give way to 2011, so let’s take a moment to reflect back on what was a year full of headlines and news topics surrounding the New England Patriots. The team never failed to give me and other sports writers things to write about, no matter whether it was in the middle of the season or in the doldrums of the offseason. In fact, there really were no doldrums for those following the Patriots this past year. I’ve gone through the stories, slammed my head against the wall a few times, ordered and re-ordered, and finally have come to my Top 10 Patriots Storylines of 2010. They are ranked from 10 to 1, with one being the biggest story of the year. Feel free to leave your thoughts and/or rankings in the Comments section.
10. Injuries pile up. There was some optimism heading into training camp, but much of it began to dissipate as player after player went down to season-ending injury, and it didn’t stop when the regular season started. Before Week One, Ty Warren, Nick Kaczur, Leigh Bodden, and Brandon McGowan were all lost for the season. As the season progressed, the team also lost Kevin Faulk, Stephen Gostkowski, and Stephen Neal. Expectations began to lower, and no one predicted how the season would eventually unfold.
9. Vince Wilfork franchised and then signed. In an offseason full of big-name free agents from the team, the Patriots’ first priority was their Pro-Bowl nose tackle, Vince Wilfork. A deal was not struck early and the Pats had to franchise the big man, and fans began to wonder if Wilfork would end up feeling resentment for the team and demand a trade, as has happened in the past with Patriots’ franchised players. Fortunately, the two sides found some common ground and they were able to lock up a long-term deal, keeping Big Vince in New England where he has thrived as a captain and was selected to his third Pro Bowl.
8. Logan Mankins’ holdout and eventual return. While things ended well between Vince Wilfork and the Patriots, things did not work out so well with Pro-Bowl guard Logan Mankins. The contract stand-off got ugly when Mankins accused the Patriots, and owner Bob Kraft specifically, of lying about what a new deal would offer for Mankins. Thus, he did not attend any offseason camps and held out of training camp, the preseason, and the first seven games of the regular season. He did eventually return and has shown his value to the team with excellent, dominating play on the line, and he earned his third Pro Bowl nod.
7. Bill Belichick decides to go without coordinators for the season. Despite the feeling around New England that Belichick would be bringing in a new crop of coordinators for the 2010 season, he decided in February not to name any official coordinators. He would become more involved in the defense and allow Bill O’Brien to call the offense (while not being named the official offensive coordinator). The move seems to have worked. The young defense has improved throughout the season and O’Brien has grown into an excellent play-caller for the offense. O’Brien may very well be named “offensive coordinator” officially at the end of the season.
6. The Patriots draft 12 players, many of which have a big impact on the season. It’s hard to imagine where the Patriots’ 2010 season would be without the team having the draft that it had. Seven of the players drafted have contributed this season, many of which have seen time in the starting line-up. In the first round, the Patriots selected CB Devin McCourty. At the time, the pick was somewhat frowned upon by the experts (and me) because the Pats had a huge void at outside linebacker, but the pick proved to be something special. McCourty was selected to the Pro Bowl, meaning he will be accompanying Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha to the event. Not bad company. In the second round, the Pats picked TE Rob Gronkowski, OLB Jermaine Cunningham, and ILB Brandon Spikes, all of whom have been starters. TE Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, P Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round, and DL Brandon Deaderick in the seventh round have all contributed as well.
5. Wes Welker defies odds and returns months after tearing his ACL. Welker tore his ACL during the Patriots’ 2009 season finale and missed their playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens (more on that later). Defying all of the odds and set timetables on when a player would return from such an injury, Welker showed up during training camp and suited up Week One of the regular season. His comeback has been an amazing story that has been overlooked with everything going on this season, but he did receive the team’s Ed Block Courage Award for his amazing return.
4. The Patriots trade away Randy Moss and trade for Deion Branch. It was an amazing case of out with the new, in with the old that happened during the team’s early bye week after Week 4. The Pats traded away their number one receiver, a move that nobody anticipated. The move occurred after Moss had a self-serving, rambled press conference after the Week 1 victory over the Bengals that then seemed to parlay into a halftime argument (reportedly) between Moss and offensive play-caller Bill O’Brien. That move was then followed by something that had been rumored since the offseason: The Patriots traded for Tom Brady’s old favorite target, Deion Branch from the Seattle Seahawks. The offense has since been on a tear, a move that could very well be because of these two trades.
3. The Patriots head into their final regular season game at 13-2. Who would have thunk it? The Patriots, despite fielding the youngest defense in the NFL and suffering through several key injuries, have locked up the number one seed in the AFC playoffs and are the favorites to make it to and win the Super Bowl. The team totally redefined itself offensively almost midway during the season after trading Randy Moss and the defense has steadily improved, becoming a bend-but-don’t-break ball-hawking unit. These new New England Patriots have fans feeling “Super” and are looking to begin 2011 better than they began 2010…
2. The Patriots get thumped at home during the Wild Card round of the playoffs by the Baltimore Ravens. For such a downer moment of the year, why would I rank this so high? I ranked the Patriots’ playoff loss to Baltimore at #2 because I feel that this game was the catalyst to just about everything else that happened this season. After such an uninspired performance at home, Bill Belichick felt it was time to completely re-make the team. He let go guys that weren’t your traditional Patriots-type players, such as Adalius Thomas, and began rebuilding the roster by keeping key leaders (Vince Wilfork, Kevin Faulk, Leigh Bodden) and drafting 12 players. He also decided to re-make the staff without any official coordinators and a redistribution of his time. Much of this may not have happened had the Patriots won that game and lost the following week at another team’s stadium, and who knows where we’d be at today.
1. Tom Brady. Tom Brady has been in the headlines and at the center of the Patriots’ news universe all year. It started when “experts’ began to doubt Tom’s dedication to football and the New England Patriots. There were claims that he had gone Hollywood because he had a super model wife and lived out in California. He did not spend the entire offseason at the stadium like he used to during the early part of his career. He had one year left on his contract and there were rumors that he was unhappy at where the negotiations were at and the speed (or lack thereof) that they were happening. Then, on Sept. 9, he was in a car accident in Boston. The next day, he received a brand-new, 4-year $72 million deal with the team. He has since broken Brett Favre’s record for consecutive regular-season wins at home (which is still ongoing) and set a new mark for consecutive pass attempts without an interception (now at 319 and counting). He has led the team to a 13-2 mark, scored at least 31 points in 10 games (including 7 straight), thrown 34 touchdowns to only 4 interceptions, and is the odds-on favorite to win the NFL’s MVP award. I heard Joe Thiesmann the other day refer to Brady as the “greatest player in NFL history.” He certainly will be in the discussion should he win another Super Bowl. The way that 2010 is closing, it seems that Brady will be a big part of 2011 and beyond.