Trying to determine the legacy of the 2010 Patriots is a complicated process. Did they fall short of their ultimate goal, victims of the lofty standards set by their predecessors? Or were they dynamic overachievers, surpassing the expectations that pundits put on them at the start of the season? Regardless of which way you lean, there’s no denying that the occasionally brilliant regular season was marred by an abominable finish, one that will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many until the 2011 season begins.
But before we look ahead, here’s one last look back at the ten quotes that will ultimately define the 2010 Patriots:
“I really didn’t expect to lead off the season scoring a touchdown on the first drive. ... It was definitely a special deal.” —Wes Welker, 9/12/10
After an offseason of rehab, thousands of hours of work and with the help of one pain-in-the-ass knee brace, Welker returned to the field, roughly eight months after shredding his knee on the turf in Houston. He caught the first touchdown pass of the year from Tom Brady, and while he appeared to struggle at times as the Patriots remade their offense almost halfway through the season, he still managed to end the season with a team-high 86 catches for 848 yards and seven touchdowns. Welker was also clearly Brady’s most trusted target — he had 122 targets, almost twice as many as any other receiver.
“I don’t want it to be in a negative light. I just want everybody to understand, you can print it. I don’t care how you put it on your ink, I want to be here as a Patriot. I love being here. But I just think from a business standpoint, this probably will be my last year here as a Patriot. And I’m not retiring. I’m still going to play some football. I just want to get that off my chest and let you all understand that this is a business. Now I’ll open it up for questions.” —Randy Moss, 9/12/10
It wasn’t the famous final scene for Moss — that would come a month down the road when he was traded — but it certainly got the regular season started with a bang. Moments after the season-opening win over the Bengals, Moss held a remarkable Q&A with the media. In a rambling postgame session that lasted almost 20 minutes, Moss talked about the fact that he was in the final year of his contract, complained about his situation and sounded resigned about the fact that this would be his final season in New England. Less than a month later — Oct. 6 — he would be dealt to Minnesota, ending three-plus seasons with the Patriots with a legacy of some on-field greatness, but more off-the-field baggage.
“It's just ‘relax’. Don't get too hyped. Just relax. Woo-sa." —Patrick Chung, 10/4/10
The New England special teams had one of the best night’s in franchise history against the Dolphins in Miami, and a bulk of that was due to the work of Chung and his special teams’ philosophy, one taken straight from “Bad Boys II.” It worked — the second-year safety out of Oregon blocked a punt and a field-goal attempt, and had a 51-yard interception return for a touchdown in a 41-14 rout of the Dolphins. In addition, Brandon Tate added a 103-yard kick return, Stephen Gostkowski had five touchbacks and a pair of field goals and Zoltan Mesko had three punts averaging 41 yards a boot, including a 60-yarder. Woo-sa, indeed.
“They are building this team specifically to beat the Jets. You are not going to beat the Jets by taking seven-step drops and looking for Randy Moss 50 yards down the field. You beat the Jets by getting the ball to the quicker guys who can beat coverage. Between [Julian] Edelman, [Wes] Welker, [Deion] Branch and [Danny] Woodhead, that’s what they are doing. All of these changes are designed to beat the Jets.” —NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger to WEEI.com, 10/27/10
The Patriots’ offense underwent an extreme makeover in the month of October. Weeks after trading away their No. 1 running back Laurence Maroney to Denver, they dealt Moss to the Vikings and reacquired veteran Deion Branch from Seattle. Those moves, combined with the emergence of cult hero Danny Woodhead and the evolution of BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a 1,000-yard back, would dramatically alter the look of the New England offense, and pave the way for a record-setting run over the second half of the season.
“I love football and I wanted to be out there playing, but we had some other things going on. But now, I’m back and ready to go.” —Logan Mankins, 11/2/10
Mankins, who had stayed away from offseason workouts, training camp and the first seven games of the regular season because he was unhappy about his contract situation, signed his $1.54 million tender in early November and returned to the team. He instantly stepped back into the starting lineup — replacing Dan Connolly, who had done an excellent job over the first seven games of the season — and provided his usual rock-solid results at left guard, infusing the New England offensive line with his trademark attitude and nastiness. Even though he only ended up playing nine games, he landed a spot in the Pro Bowl.
"They did everything better than we did. In every single aspect, they clearly were the better team. We have a lot of work to do." —Bill Belichick, 11/7/10
The Patriots were stomped in Cleveland by the Browns, 34-14. It was a bitter pill to swallow, as the loss came at the expense of former assistant Eric Mangini, who showed New England several looks it was clearly unprepared for. In addition, the Patriots yielded 184 rushing yards to Peyton Hillis, who had two touchdowns to lead Cleveland. The unquestioned low point of the regular season, it would mark the final loss for New England until the January playoff defeat at the hands of the Jets.
“We haven’t been this happy in a long time.” —Tom Brady, 11/14/10
After getting embarrassed in Cleveland, the Patriots bounced back with a vengeance, drilling the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 39-26. It was a transcendent performance for the quarterback, who ended up going 30-for-43, 350 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and beginning a four-game streak where he went 91-for-124 for 1,203 yards, 14 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 138.6 passer rating. Brady punctuated the evening with a touchdown on a quarterback sneak — after plunging into the end zone, he put an exclamation point on the proceedings with a spike that reverberated throughout the AFC. It started an eight-game winning streak, and run of eight consecutive games where the New England offense scored at least 30 points per game.
“He was like Gale Sayers out there — a much bigger version.” —Tully Banta-Cain on Dan Connolly’s 71-yard kickoff return, 12/19/10
Connolly delivered the unlikeliest 71-yard kick return in NFL history — the longest return in league history by an offensive lineman — and helped jumpstart New England in a 31-27 win over Green Bay. Near the end of the first half, Packers’ kicker Mason Crosby pooched one that Connolly hauled in. The offensive lineman started awkwardly, but eventually tucked the ball under the arm, used his blockers and rumbled 71 yards down to the Green Bay four. The offensive lineman would suffer a concussion in the contest that would sideline him for a few weeks, but he would end the season starting at right guard after an injury to Stephen Neal.
“I’m a champion. I’ll always congratulate the guys upon victory. They beat us today. They beat us when it mattered. So the ones with class, I shook their hands. The other ones, I didn’t. They don’t deserve my nor my teammates congratulations for them to act like that. You can tell they’re not used to being in this position for guys to act that way — for some of the guys. You can tell some of the guys who have been in this position before, they act differently than the ones who haven’t been there.” —Branch, 1/16/11
The taste of playoff defeat was difficult for the Patriots, who were beaten in the divisional playoffs by the Jets. What made the loss even more difficult to stomach was the sight of the New York players celebrating on the field in the waning moments, as well as after the game. The group of celebrants included cornerback Antonio Cromartie — in the days before the game, Cromartie had lashed out at Brady, calling him an “ass----“ and adding “F--- him.” After the game was out of reach, Cromartie and several other Jets gleefully celebrated at the expense of the Patriots, doing back flips and giving the finger to the New England fans that stuck around.
“I’m not going anywhere any time soon. Coach Belichick, what he allows us to do as a team and the coaching that he gives us, is the best. There’s no one better. When you have the best coach and the best owner, you’re set up to be successful year after year playing for the Patriots. As long as we have a group of guys that are tough and resilient and work hard, that love the game of football like the guys we have this year, we’re always going to win games.” —Brady, 1/17/11
Looking forward, there are question about the future of the franchise, but at the same time, New England appears to be well-positioned to remain one of the elite teams in the NFL. The Patriots hold three picks in the first 33, and while they will face some difficult personnel decisions this offseason (Matt Light, Logan Mankins and Gerard Warren are among those who could become free agents), the nucleus of a team that went 14-2 and secured the best regular-season record in the NFL is likely to be back together when offseason activities begin this spring, and training camp for the 2011 season starts in late July.