While so many other Patriots teams of the decade have been easily labeled by the time the playoffs roll around — offensive juggernaut, defensive powerhouse, indefatigable underdog, etc. — the 2009 team has resisted characterizations. And as a result, the ultimate legacy of this year’s team is still yet to be written.
One thing we do know about this team is that whatever it has accomplished, it’s done largely on its own. Familiar faces who became championship cornerstones — Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Mike Vrabel, to name a few — no longer are playing for the Patriots. In their place stands a new generation, ready to write their own chapter in franchise history when they open postseason play the second weekend in January.
But before we plunge headlong into the playoffs — and beyond that, to 2010 — let’s take a look back at the 10 most important moments, events and developments of the franchise over the past calendar year.
1. TOM BRADY’S RETURN
It was the most eagerly anticipated return since Jay-Z: After spending almost a year on the sidelines because of a left knee injury he sustained in the 2008 season opener, the Patriots quarterback was back on the field in 2009. For the first time in his career, he took part in all the training camp practices, building to a pulse-pounding comeback in the season opener against the Bills where he led a fourth-quarter comeback looking an awful lot like the Brady of old.
There were some bumps on the road — he was clearly getting re-acclimated to the game as late as October, and the offense has struggled throughout the season in the second half of games — but he’s still managed to put together some lights out performances, including a six-touchdown performance in a rout of Tennessee, and a 23-for-26 effort with four touchdowns earlier this month against Jacksonville. In the end, he is not the 2007 Brady, but even after the knee injury, he remains firmly entrenched as one of the two best quarterbacks of his generation.
“I think it’s been a very rewarding year in a lot of senses,” Brady said recently. “Obviously, it’s fun to be back here playing with my teammates and it’s something I missed out on last year. And to be in the playoff hunt, our goals are still ahead of us and we have some great opportunities. Like all of us, I’ve battled some adversities and all of my teammates have too, so its really just part of what this profession is. A lot of it is being mentally tough and bouncing back from things that don’t necessarily go our way and then being able to just continue to respond.”
Good or bad, it’s the single most memorable play of the 2009 Patriots season: Late in the Indianapolis game, New England faced a fourth-and-2 deep in their own territory and leading 34-28. A short pass from Brady to Kevin Faulk came up short, and the Colts picked up a late score to come away with the win.
Depending on who you were, the move was either pure genius or absolute lunacy. Backers said Belichick was showing the ultimate faith in his offense, while some critics took it as him deliberately disrespecting his own defense. Regardless, it was certainly consistent with the way the Patriots operate — since he took over in New England prior to the 2000 season, few teams have been more aggressive at going for in on fourth down.
“We thought we could win the game on that play,” Belichick said after the game. “That was a yard I thought we could get.”
3. VETERANS DAY
In one offseason, the Patriots’ defense lost Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi (who retired) and Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour (who were traded). Five of New England’s defensive cornerstones from a decade of dominance, their departure forced a radical overhaul of the Patriots defense, which came to rely on the veterans not only for their leadership but their consistently high level of play — even in their final season in New England, Vrabel and Seymour combined for 12 sacks.
Without the veterans, the Patriots have struggled defensively at several points throughout the season to match the achievements of their predecessors, with breakdowns up front when it comes to the pass rush as well as in pass coverage.
Of the offseason moves, few were as seismic as the Bruschi retirement. At the Aug. 31 press conference, Belichick was visibly emotional when it came to talking about the longtime New England linebacker, who left the game after 13 seasons with the Patriots.
“I’ve had the privilege of coaching a lot of great players and leaders in the National Football League, and I’ll just put Tedy up there with all of them and above all of them,” Belichick said. “If you ask me to sum up how I feel about Tedy Bruschi in five seconds: he’s the perfect player, perfect player. He’s helped create a tradition here that we’re all proud of. The torch has been passed, and we’ll try to carry it on. It’s a high standard. It’s a high standard.”
4. GOIN’ TO KANSAS CITY
On Feb. 28, the Patriots swung a big deal with Kansas City, sending quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to the Chiefs for a second-round pick that New England eventually used on Pat Chung. The trade of Cassel wasn’t a surprise — on the heels of his 2008 season where he stepped in for an injured Brady and led the Patriots to an 11-5 mark, New England had to hit him with the franchise tag to keep him, a price tag of roughly $14 million that forced the Pats to find a buyer.
The fact that Vrabel was included in the deal was a surprise, considering the fact that Vrabel had enjoyed a career renaissance under Belichick and the Patriots (he had considered quitting the game and going to law school before New England signed him before the 2001 season), and Vrabel was as close to Belichick as any player on the roster.
In the end, the Chiefs got a starting quarterback, while Patriots were able to rid themselves of Cassel’s contract and get younger on defense. However, New England has struggled to replace Vrabel’s veteran leadership in the locker room, as well as some of his on-field production.
5. RANDY’S ROLLERCOASTER RIDE
He started the year against Buffalo with an electric, 12-catch, 141-yard performance, one of five games this season where he’s gone for 100 receiving yards or more. But there’s been some bad with the good in there, as well — three times, this season he’s been limited to two catches or less. Even though a back issue hampered him earlier in the season, opposing cornerbacks have alleged he’s quit, and talked about how they were able to shut him down with single coverage. He was even booed by the Gillette Stadium crowd after a one-catch performance against the Panthers.
It now appears that Moss is ending the regular season on an up note: He had a four-catch, three-touchdown effort against the Jaguars last week, a game that was highlighted by a lighthearted back-and-forth with a young fan in a Randy Moss mask that was captured by the Gillette Stadium scoreboard operator.
“There are going to be some good times and some bad times in football,” Moss said after the division-clinching win over Jacksonville. “My last performance here wasn’t really too hot, so the good thing about it is everybody had fun. I think that was just the main thing, everybody having fun. We did some good things out there today and we got the division back up here in New England, so we can hang our hats on that.”
Regardless of opinion, he remains in the Top 10 in most major receiving categories as the regular season winds to a close, and even if he’s not at 100 percent physically, he demands attention from opposing defenders every time he’s on the field simply because he’s Randy Moss.
6. THE TARDY BOYS
Days after a stunning early December loss to the Dolphins in Miami, four players — Randy Moss, Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess and Gary Guyton — were sent home after showing up late to an 8 a.m. team meeting the following Wednesday, Dec. 9. Moss did not talk about the incident and Guyton refused comment. While Burgess expressed disappointment in himself for not making it there on time, Thomas held a memorable press conference at his locker the next day, blaming the surprise snowfall for his absence and coming up with one of the great sound bytes of the year in the process.
“That’s one thing about Mother Nature, you can’t control that,” said Thomas, who has had an eventful season, complete with an early-season benching against Tennessee. “You can't run people over getting to work. There's nothing to apologize about. I don’t know what else to say. You leave home, cars sitting there. It’s not The Jetsons. I can’t jump up and fly. What the hell am I supposed to do? I don't want people to think I just didn’t show up and didn't have a reason. That’s not true. That’s not true at all.”
7. WES WELKER KEEPS GOING AND GOING AND GOING …
In his third year in New England, Welker has become an inexhaustible offensive option. This season, he broke the 100-reception total for the third straight season after catching 112 passes in 2007 and 111 in 2008, joining luminaries like Marvin Harrison (4), Jerry Rice (3), Herman Moore (3) and Brandon Marshall (3) as the only NFL players to catch 100 passes in three consecutive seasons. This season, Welker and Randy Moss became the first Patriots players to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons.
“I knew my numbers would probably go up just having Tom [Brady] and the type of offense we’re in and things like that, [but] I never knew it would be like this,” Welker said. “Definitely, I’m very blessed to be a Patriot and to be here.”
Despite missing two games this year, he still ranks first in the NFL with 122 receptions in 2009, a Patriots single-season record that eclipses the 112 he had in 2007. He also set a career-high with 1,336 yards receiving so far this season, despite taking some of the most savage hits the NFL has seen over the last few seasons.
“He’s incredible, considering how he gets hit," said Patriots tight end Chris Baker. “He gets hit hard almost as many times as he gets the ball. He always gets right back up and keeps making plays. He’s an inspiration to the whole team when he does that and get up and shakes it off.”
8. THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS
The last few seasons, contributions from a collection of rookies have been few and far between. The 2005 draft class would eventually yield five regulars (Logan Mankins, Ellis Hobbs, Nick Kaczur, James Sanders and Matt Cassel). Since then, there have been singular sensations here and there (Stephen Gostkowski, Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo), but relatively little help from an entire group.
Until this year. The 2009 draft class has become most relied-upon group of first-year players since the 2003 rookies, a group that played a sizable role on the road to Super Bowl XXXVIII (Ty Warren, Dan Koppen, Asante Samuel, Dan Klecko and Tully Banta-Cain). This year’s class includes safety Pat Chung, cornerback Darius Butler, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, long snapper Jake Ingram and defensive lineman Myron Pryor have all seen extensive action this season, and all will likely play a large role going forward this season.
“I think, as a rookie class, we’re together as a family,” Chung said earlier this season. “We’re like a big family. Those rookie meetings that we have, we’re in there, we have to be in there and see how our team is and see how they react to things. See what kind of people we have. It just brings us together.”
On Nov. 30, in an impossibly loud Superdome crowd of 70,768 — the second largest in Louisiana Superdome history — the Saints put on a offensive clinic against the Patriots on the way to a 38-17 win over New England. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees ended up 18-for-23 for 371 yards with five touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. New Orleans gained an average of 9.6 yards per play, and had eight pass plays of 15 yards or more.
Meanwhile, after a good start that had them sitting on a 7-3 lead, the Patriots could muster little offense of their own. Belichick yanked Brady with just over five minutes to play in the game as the Saints’ fans rocked the dome in celebration. At that point of the 2009 season, it illustrated the startling distance between the Patriots and the Saints — New Orleans was on a stretch of 13 consecutive wins to open the season, while New England was in the midst of three losses in four games.
“They just put it to us,” wide receiver Randy Moss said after the loss. “As simple as that.”
10. JUNIOR ACHIEVEMENT
On Oct. 14, Junior Seau returned to breathe a little life into a young New England defense. The linebacker, who will turn 41 in January, has now played parts of the last four seasons with the Patriots. He hasn’t seen a whole lot of action this season — in fact, there have been games where he has dressed but hasn’t seen action — but his presence has brought energy and enthusiasm to everything around Gillette Stadium.
That includes interaction with the media. In his returning press conference, he made a splash — in typical Seau-style, he talked about everything from the sequence on his new reality show where he went head-to-head with a bull from the fact that he was in the locker room that first morning at 5:30 with the fervor of a Baptist preacher.
On whether or not he could still play: “One thing I know is that you can’t coach courage. You can’t. You give me an A, B gap, I’m going through there, until I break glass. I will go through the A and B gap until I break glass. And that’s what I do.”
On whether or not he missed the game: “Having a tuna sandwich and playing the ukulele. There’s nothing bad about that.”
On the level of excitement: “Everyone asks ‘Are you eager? Are you excited?’ I’m too old to be excited. Can I say that? I am. I’m too old to jump up for joy. I know that the only way this is all going to be exciting to anyone is if it works. If it works. The challenge is what we do from here on out. I’m not going to blow out the cake and jump around. This isn’t the time to do that. This is the time to go to work. Gimme a helmet and let’s build the player that I can be this year. That’s all I ask.”