All of a sudden it's New Years Eve. Apparently, it is the most fashionable and appropriate time of the year to take a final look back before leaping ahead. I'm not one to go with the crowd, but if everyone else is going it, then why not?
I'm back from a brief holiday comatose (which could easily resurface January 1st) to offer up some opinions on the year that was. In my hourly trip between the Think Tank and more caffeine via the soda machine, I've come up with the best story lines from the Patriots during 2004.
Drum roll please:
10. Stephen Neal
Neal is the latest of the Patriots projects along the offensive line, which once you scratch the surface is a gem instead of a lump of coal. (See Tom Ashworth, Brandon Gorin, Russ Hochstein, et al). His story was over-written in training camp, and then again at the beginning of the regular season, and will be again on a national level in the playoffs - but it's tough to ignore. A college wrestler who won two NCAA Division I titles, Neal was signed by the Patriots as a rookie free agent before the 2001 season, waived, signed to the Philadelphia practice squad and then re-signed to the Patriots active roster. He worked his way up to making his first NFL start early in 2002, only to suffer a shoulder injury that kept him out all the way through the 2003 season. For many, Neal wasn't even on the radar to start this season. But he beat out several others over the course of training camp, was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 3, and is quickly developing from a player Belichick describes as "not knowing how to put his pads on" when he started in the NFL into a starter and tenacious run blocker.
]()9. Tom Brady**
For all of the unconditional love, appreciation and awe given to the Patriots quarterback, I still sometimes feel that the full scope of what he is accomplishing is undervalued. Most of this is due to how accustomed we are to seeing Brady succeed. At 27, he's a two-time Super Bowl MVP, has been named to two Pro Bowls, has started 61 consecutive games, and has the best winning percentage (.770) of any active quarterback in the NFL. Although he is the face of the franchise and can do no wrong in the eyes of many, Brady's run has been truly remarkable. Instead of becoming bored or burned out with Brady's ongoing legacy, or taking it for granted, Patriots Nation should keep up the love.
8. Two-Way PlayThe Patriots are the rage of the NFL this season for their use of a handful of players not only at different positions, but also on both sides of the ball. The principles are decades old in football strategy, but in this era of the NFL the Patriots are the only team to fully embrace it and make it a part of the weekly game plan. Beyond linebacker Mike Vrabel (tight end) and defensive tackle Richard Seymour (fullback) seeing time in short yardage situations, defensive lineman/linebacker Dan Klecko was on his way to becoming a full-time fullback, and of course Troy Brown has been involved on offense, defense and special teams. Belichick and his coaching staff began this process as far back as the 2002 season, displaying the foresight and aggressiveness to investigate every potential game situation. In 20 years, it will prove to be one of the most memorable aspects of the 2004 season.
]()7. Adam Vinatieri**
You, Patriots Nation, have the satisfaction of watching the best kicker in the NFL every week. I've never met a more normal kicker, although it may be our Midwestern connection (he's South Dakota, I'm Minnesota), he is nonetheless more of a football player than your average step back-kick-follow through-type guy. Well on his way to what should be a Hall of Fame career, Vinatieri is also having a career season in 2004. He began the calendar year with a clutch 46-yard field goal in the bitter cold to defeat Tennessee in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on January 10, and three weeks later hit another game-winning field goal in Super Bowl XXXVIII. This season, the most accurate kicker in franchise history tossed his first touchdown pass, was named to his second Pro Bowl, topped the 1,000-point plateau to become the second leading scorer in franchise history and enters the final week leading the NFL with a career-high 138 points.
]()6. The Corey Dillon Trade**
Trades are rare in the NFL, so it's not often that you can deal a second round pick in the NFL Draft for a six-time 1,000-yard rusher. The Patriots did just that on April 19 when they acquired three-time Pro Bowl back Corey Dillon from the Cincinnati Bengals. (Side note: Think someone in the Patriots organization ought to send a holiday card to the Bengals' brain wizards?) Based solely on breaking the franchise rushing mark in his first season with the team in just 14 games, Dillon has been the Patriots MVP in 2004. He's had a bigger impact on how the Patriots run the offense than most would have imagined, reaching career-highs in rushing yards (1,519) and touchdowns (11) while reeling off eight 100-yard games. It's a good bet the best of Dillon is yet to come - think playoffs.
]()5. Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel**
What transpires in the upcoming playoffs will also likely signal the end of the notable run of the Patriots with defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Both interviewed for head coaching positions during the offseason, only to return for what appeared to be from the beginning one last hoorah with the Patriots. Crennel, Weis and Belichick have been together since the 2001 season. During that time, Belichick has the best record (53-16) of any NFL coach, posing seasons of 11-5, 9-7, 14-2 and 13-2 with three AFC East crowns and two Super Bowl titles. Weis has already accepted the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame, which he will fully take over at the end of the NFL season, while Crennel could be considered the vacancy in Cleveland and potentially San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis as well.
4. Injuries, injuries, injuries
Every NFL team faces injuries, but this season will be remembered as one which injuries plagued the Patriots from the start of training camp through the entire season. The Patriots have placed 14 players on injured reserve this season, with several others - Brown, Deion Branch, Ty Law, Roman Phifer, and Asante Samuel - missing significant chunks of time. The injuries started with rookie third round pick Guss Scott and defensive end Rodney Bailey in training camp, moved to rookie first round pick Benjamin Watson in Week 2, and extended to Ashworth, cornerback Tyrone Poole and key reserves like Klecko and tackle Adrian Klemm.
]()3. Troy Brown**
To put it simply, Troy Brown is involved in everything the Patriots do. If the organization needed assistance in scouting, stadium security, in goal with the soccer Revolution or putting together a new marketing plan, I'm sure Brown would prove invaluable there too. The story of the 12th-year player and longest tenured Patriot (1993) doing anything and everything asked of him this season is both remarkable and memorable. When he was witnessed taking snaps at cornerback during training camp, it looked like a gimmick. But weeks later he was pressed into service as a slot cornerback on defense against St. Louis, and has kept that role since, proving to be an adequate defender in a place where the Patriots had no other choices. Although he missed the first six weeks of the season, he has 16 receptions for 178 and a touchdown as a receiver, has returned 12 punts, and has 15 tackles and three interceptions at cornerback. Brown will continue to garner national attention for one of the most remarkable NFL stories in recent memory.
]()2. Super Bowl XXXVIII **If not for the Patriots extraordinary win in Super Bowl XXXVI in 2001, the second Super Bowl win in three years would have created a similar state of bedlam and celebration in New England. The Patriots won a tough defensive battle in the AFC Divisional Playoffs over Tennessee 17-14 in the coldest game in franchise history, before harassing the Colts into five turnovers in a 24-14 win to improve to a perfect 4-0 in AFC Championship games and finally a wild 32-29 shootout over Carolina on February 1. The game itself was a remarkable contest, but the second championship in franchise history put the Patriots into a new category of both success and expectations, and got fans considering what level of success for the franchise would constitute a new-era dynasty in the NFL.
1. The Streak
The numbers are somewhat mind-boggling. For over a calendar year, the Patriots simply did not lose a game. Their 21 consecutive regular-season wins, and 24 wins including the playoffs, set an all-time record in the 85 years of pro football that spanned 398 days in between losses and eclipsed the previous mark of 18 by the 1997-98 Denver Broncos before ending Oct. 31 at Pittsburgh. On its own merits, the streak established the Patriots among the best teams in NFL history, and within the context of two Super Bowl wins cements the Patriots place in NFL history. Had Belichick and the players been more willing and forthcoming in talking about the streak, we would have learned how important it really was for this team. Ultimately, the streak may not be remembered if the Patriots don't make a run through the playoffs to another Super Bowl, but it gets my vote for best story of 2004.