Bill Belichick and Tom Brady may be the best coach/QB combo of all-time. (AP Photo)
Saying that the Patriots are back is assuming that they haven't been around, which isn't very accurate of a statement. In the past decade the Patriots have been to the playoffs eight times, only missing the tournament in 2002 and 2008. During this historic run they've worn every hat a team could wear. In 2001, with America still swirling in faux patriotism from the 9/11 attacks - the country rallied behind a team of under-dogged unknowns as they went on to shock the Greatest Show on Turf in Superbowl XXXVI. It's hard to remember, but the New England region was starved for a championship at this time, and the unheralded victory swept up the region in Patriots fever.
Then the Pats started getting greedy, going on to win two more Superbowls in 2003 and 2004, gaudily making it three rings in four years. In 2003 the Patriots were starting to lose their shine to the general public, however, it wasn't until 2004 against the Philadelphia Eagles that the Patriots wore the black hat of the villain for the first time. America loves the story of the tormented underdog rising to prosperity - I like to call it the Jay Gatsby effect, and only apple pie is more American. That's why they were so popular in 2001, but by 2004 the Patriots were starting to commandeer that clean lined shiny trophy from Tiffany's - and with the Eagles recent Conference Championship woes, they were the new tormented team America rooted for, and the script was flipped on the Pats - as they were now the new bad guys.
After this third Superbowl victory you began to feel the type of venom from other fans and national commentators that only success could give birth to. It was poignant, and at times vicious (Ahem, Tom Jackson), which inevitably led to the overblown SpyGate - and that turned the Patriots from being just the bad guy, to being the evil guy. I'm not going to stoke those coals too much, however - what the Patriots were accused of were practices every other team was guilty of as well, it's just they were successful, and thus they were thrust onto the sword. The very next year in 2007, the Patriots went into full-on FU mode and were one lucky catch away from running the table on the entire league in a mean spirited fashion.
2007 was the apex of the Patriots dynasty. It was so extravagant and rich that you knew their Roman fall couldn't be too far away. Each year since 2001 players and coaches were leaving the franchise and you just wondered how long they'd be able to sustain. Their 18-1 record breaking season was a distinct FU to the entire league. "You think we had to cheat to win huh? Well, how about we beat your ass into the ground each week then. How 'bout that?" The next season in 2009 expectations were just as high for the Pats, but then the nightmare scenario happened - Tom Brady, the one irreplaceable cog to Belichick's wheel, was gone, and so thought most - was the Patriots season. While they did end up missing the playoffs, they went an impressive and respectable 11-5, making every Patriot fan proud, as the league watched in disbelief.
Losing Brady in 2008 was the expected fall of the franchise, however they rebounded with their heads held high, in possibly what was Belichick's finest year in New England. No Pats employee or fan will admit that 2009 was a success after the Ravens demolished the Pats at home in the playoffs, however, they again held steady, made the playoffs, and were a competitive team. Heading into 2010 people finally seemed to really believe that this would be the year that the Patriots would become just a "normal" team, and cross the bridge year that Theo Epstein predicted for the 2010 Red Sox. Experts were leveraging our youth as a disadvantage, especially in reference to the defense.
Something funny happened in training camp that I took strong notice of though. Throughout all of Gillette Stadium, Belichick ordered that pictures of past years success be taken down. This wasn't just a motivational ploy by a very smart coach, it was a statement to anyone paying attention in the league and beyond. The Patriots had moved on from 2001, 2003, and 2004, and most importantly, 2007. They had, for the most part, all new players and coaches, and if they wanted pictures on the wall, they'd have to get them up their on their own. Now, as we sit halfway through the season, the Patriots again are sitting alone with the best record in the league at 6-1. The experts will still point to a plethora of reasons on why the Patriots aren't that good, old habits die hard I guess. But what 2010 is showing the league is that until the combination of Belichick, Brady, and Kraft are gone, they'll continue to set leadership standards in their organization that won't allow the Patriots to become irrelevant. There's just too much pride there.
Watching the Patriots today is as fun, if not more fun, than ever before. They're still considered to be an "Evil Team" by a lot of people out there, but in the same breath they're also the underdog in a lot of those same eyes, due in large part to their youth. Seems kinda like a paradox to me, but also seems like they've come full circle. They're now winning games with second half adjustments while guys who you've never heard of make humongous plays. Rookies are congealing with wily veterans and the team over me approach is just oozing out of Foxboro, which is what New Englanders love and appreciate. They seems lucky with their schedule. They seem smart with their play. They get more experienced with each game, and they simply seem like the Patriots again, and that's why - the Patriots, are back.