If you think this turbulent off-season portends any sort of demise on the field for the Patriots ... well, you need a history lesson. No team in the NFL has dealt with controversy more ably than the Patriots. In fact, the Bill Belichick--Tom Brady dynasty—three Super Bowl titles, two more Super Bowl appearances and nine seasons with at least 11 victories since 2001—was launched on controversy. In the second game of the '01 season quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who had signed a 10-year, $103 million contract the previous March, suffered a ruptured blood vessel in his chest as a result of a hit from Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. When the popular Bledsoe was cleared to play eight weeks later, Belichick kept him on the sideline in favor of a second-year player who had gone 5-3 while Bledsoe was out. If you're writing a book called How to Torpedo Your Football Season, a team-dividing quarterback firestorm would be the first three chapters. The Pats went 11--5 and won their first Super Bowl title that year.
Before the 2003 season Belichick released safety Lawyer Milloy—a team captain and one of Brady's best friends—who was picked up by the Bills. Then Belichick watched Buffalo embarrass the Pats 31--0 in the opener. On most teams a mutiny would have ensued; ESPN's Tom Jackson said the players "hate their coach." The Patriots went 14--2 and won a second Super Bowl title.
During the 2007 season opener the Pats were caught taping the Jets' signals from the sideline, a serious violation of league rules. All of New England's previous success was suddenly under attack. That year the Patriots became the first team to go 16--0 in the regular season, setting the NFL record for points scored (589).
In the 2008 opener Brady suffered a season-ending left ACL tear in the opening quarter. His backup, Matt Cassel, never started a game at USC and had thrown just 39 passes in three NFL seasons. The Patriots went 11--5 and tied for the best record in the AFC East, though they missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
In 2010, All-Pro guard Logan Mankins had a messy contract squabble and didn't report until the ninth game. And Randy Moss, who had caught 250 passes and scored 47 touchdowns over the previous three seasons (but also complained about his contract and gave questionable effort at the end), was traded after Week 4. The Patriots survived on the line, changed their offense on the fly and went 14--2.
If you're scoring at home, New England was a combined 66--14 with two Super Bowl titles and a conference championship in those five seasons of turmoil. NFL people know this all too well, which is why one general manager sent me a text saying, "Teams should be scared, because this is where Bill thrives. It will be Spygate all over again."
If there's any reason to believe New England will be affected by the arrest of tight end Aaron Hernandez on first-degree murder charges, plus five other gun-related offenses, it's because of changes in the locker room. The Patriots have typically had at least one strong leader to put out fires and keep everyone in line. Whenever something needed to be said to the team or to a player who wasn't pulling his weight, guys like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Rodney Harrison said it—Belichick would never have to get involved.
You won't find many better lead-by-example players than Brady, Mankins, nosetackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive back Devin McCourty. But none of them are like, say, Bruschi, who made sure everyone did things the right way. It's as if the current Patriots have taken the Do your job mantra too much to heart. The problem with that approach is that if you're worried only about yourself, the rest of the team can get left behind.
But no need to panic. History tells us the Patriots will find a way to win.
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PETER READ MILLER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BRADY)
STAYING ON TARGET In addition to delivering on the field, Brady will have to help in the locker room, which lacks vocal leaders.