Finally, some good news for the Patriots.
As the final hours of 2008 ticked away, New England learned that Jerod Mayowas named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year (Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan, from nearby Boston College, won the offensive honor yesterday).
Mayo becomes only the second Patriot to win the award, joining Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes(1976).
From the moment he was drafted by the Pats with the 10th overall pick in the '08 NFL Draft, the bar was set high for Mayo, an inside linebacker from the University of Tennessee.
Not only was his position a critical area of need for New England, but the previous two Defensive Rookies of the Year were also inside linebackers (Houston's DeMeco Ryansin 2006 and San Francisco's Patrick Willislast season). With the prestige of a high pick and a pedigree at the position, Mayo knew the pressure was on for him to perform.
Among those who had high expectations for Mayo was … none other than Mayo himself. In a conference call with the New England media the day he was drafted, Mayo told reporters that he was a "really confident" player who wanted to contribute immediately to the Patriots. Winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, he admitted, was also on his to-do list.
Almost from day one, Mayo earned his starting job in the middle of New England's 3-4 defense alongside veteran Tedy Bruschi. He wound up starting all 16 regular season games, leading the team (and all NFL rookies) in tackles with 139. All of which contributed to Mayo's winning Rookie of the Year.
Mission accomplished, right? Well, not exactly.
"That was one of my goals coming into the season. One of my personal goals," Mayo reiterated during a New Year's Eve conference call. "But the team goals came first and, you know, we fell short. We won 11 games, but my main goals was to make it to the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.
"But it's definitely an honor to get this award," he added. "Hopefully I can build off it and have a successful campaign next year."
Mayo's preparation will start almost immediately. The Virginia native revealed that he'll be spending most of his unexpectedly longer off-season here in Foxborough.
"It's a non-stop thing for me. Football's my life. I love football. I'm going to study this past season – the things I did well, the things I did poorly – and try to improve on those things. I feel there's still a lot of room for me to improve my game. I'll meet with the coaches and ask them what I need to do to get better. I'm trying to have a great season next year and make it to the playoffs and win a Super Bowl."
With the abrupt end of his rookie season still fresh in his mind, Mayo was quick to share the credit for his personal award with his Patriots teammates.
"It definitely means a lot to me. I knew when they first drafted me that I was going to a winning organization with guys that would support me. Older guys on the team that I could learn from. So, I look at it as a team award because I couldn't have done it those guys."
He went on to explain that, coming out of college, he'd heard what he called "horror stories" about NFL veterans and how they treated rookies, particularly high-profile draftees like Mayo.
But the reality couldn't have been further from the truth in his case.
"I came into the Patriots organization thinking the worst, that these guys weren't going to help me and they aren't going to want me to play, but it was the exact opposite," Mayo said.
"When I first walked through the door Bruschi was there, [Tom] Brady– they sat me down and welcomed me. They told me if I needed anything to holler at them and we exchanged numbers. From that day forward the older guys like Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, [Mike] Vrabel, Adalius Thomas– all of those guys have really taken me under their wing. I tried to learn as much as I can from them, how to be a professional, on and off the field."
The notoriously complex Patriots defense lived up to its billing, Mayo admitted. Again, however, he credited his teammates and coaches with helping him make sense of it and thereby make plays.
"It was really tough, to be honest. It was a lot of hours after practice with Coach [Matt] Patricia, the linebackers coach. A lot of hours with Bruschi and those older guys, so, I couldn't have done it without those guys helping me, spending the extra time with me on and off the field."
"Jerod has been a pleasure to coach," head coach Bill Belichickremarked shortly after hearing the news of Mayo's award.
"From the day he arrived, Jerod has been mature and extremely dedicated to his profession and those qualities translated into consistent production on the field. There are still areas Jerod can improve on, but his career is off to a fine start. I am very happy for Jerod."
The rookie agrees. Throughout the season, Mayo insisted that he never got to a point where he was completely comfortable that he knew the scheme inside and out. He relied on his athletic ability and instincts to make up any difference.
"I'm just out there reacting," he continued. "I pretty much have the basics of the playbook down."
It's almost frightening to think what damage he can do once he does master the Patriots defense.
Might he shoot for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award in his sophomore season?
"Most definitely," he declared. "I set my goals high, but at the same time we have always been told to manage our expectations. So, my main goal is to get to the Super Bowl and win it. If I do that, then, I'm sure my personal goals will fall into place."