Thursday, December 30, 2010 Updated: December 31, 9:20 AM ET
Top 10 Patriots stories for 2010
By Mike Reiss ESPNBoston.com
The year began with a crushing home playoff loss that Robert Kraft called the most frustrating of his 17-year ownership tenure, but things have only been looking up from there. When putting "New England Patriots" and "2010" in the same sentence, perhaps it's best summed up this way: What an unexpected ride.
No, it never is dull when it comes to the Patriots, who are an NFL-best 13-2 entering the final week of the regular season. From contract disputes to car accidents involving star quarterbacks to out-of-the-blue trades of superstar receivers, there was no problem picking out the top 10 Patriots stories of '10. The biggest challenge, it turned out, was ranking them accordingly.
Here is one viewpoint (saving the top story for last):
10. Bill Belichick does not name official offensive or defensive coordinators. The day after a disappointing end to the 2009 season, a reporter questioned Belichick on whether he had enough people on his staff that challenged him. Belichick said he understood the question and that he felt that was important. Some analysts then forecasted big changes and new ideas on Belichick's staff ... only to be surprised when Belichick made few alterations and in early February took the step of not naming official offensive and defensive coordinators. What was he thinking? Was he trying to do too much? Was he trying to build a staff in which he wasn't challenged? This big story line turned out to have a big impact, but not the way many thought it would. Belichick's increased involvement with the defense and Bill O'Brien's growth as an offensive play-caller only seemed to make the staff better.
9. Injuries to key players pile up in training camp, lower expectations. By early September, the Patriots had lost starting defensive end Ty Warren (hip), starting cornerback Leigh Bodden (shoulder), top reserve safety Brandon McGowan (chest) and starting guard/tackle Nick Kaczur (back) to season-ending injuries. Meanwhile, the team's best offensive lineman, Logan Mankins, remained away in a contract dispute. Given the losses, the Patriots were in acquisition-mode at the final roster cutdown, trading for players who weren't part of other teams' plans. Some viewed that as an ominous sign. But the Patriots build quality depth as well as any team in the league, and they absorbed those injuries -- plus other season-enders to running back Kevin Faulk (knee), starting right guard Stephen Neal (shoulder) and kicker Stephen Gostkowski (thigh) later in the year -- to put together an impressive regular season despite a tough schedule. The injuries opened opportunities for other players to emerge, such as running back Danny Woodhead, who seized the chance to become a key contributor.
8. Vince Wilfork's contract extension/Logan Mankins contract standoff. It wouldn't be a true Patriots season without a contract dispute -- or two. Wilfork's uncertain future was highlighted at the Pro Bowl when he talked about how it would be a dream to play in Florida, as he had shifted into full business mode at that point. But Wilfork and the Patriots ended up finding a middle ground, which was important in two areas. First, it helped the Patriots retain their best lineman. Second, it put Wilfork in a stronger position to become a leader on the team, a role in which he's thrived in 2010. Things were a bit nastier between Mankins and the Patriots, a resolution not reached, and Mankins stayed away for the season's first seven games. Mankins' impact has been noticeable since his return.
7. Second half in Miami produces first road win -- 41-14. Most seasons usually have multiple turning points and the first for the Patriots came in the second half of their "Monday Night Football" road game against the Dolphins on Oct. 4. The Patriots were still dogged by a poor road record from the 2009 season, had already lost their first '10 road contest and trailed 7-6 at the half in Miami. During the halftime break, O'Brien and receiver Randy Moss had to be separated as part of a heated exchange. Things could have fallen apart at that point, but the Patriots instead turned in an explosive 30 minutes of football that was sparked by Brandon Tate's 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the third quarter. There would be other big wins -- over Baltimore (23-20 in OT), San Diego (23-20), Pittsburgh (39-26), Indianapolis (31-28) and the New York Jets (45-3), to name a few -- but there was something about the victory in Miami, when Belichick used expert predictions from media members to fire up the team, that set it apart.
Devin McCourty is tied for second in the NFL with seven INTs.
6. An impressive haul on draft day. Compare the reactions between now and April and they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. When the Patriots tabbed cornerback Devin McCourty with their first-round draft pick -- the first of 12 selections -- it was met with shrugs from many. When Belichick talked about McCourty as a four-down player, some took that to mean he had drafted a special teamer, and some analysts didn't even give it 24 hours before questioning the team's decision-making. Now McCourty is being included in the same sentence as Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha as an AFC Pro Bowler. In the second round, the Patriots just beat the clock to strike a trade to select tight end Rob Gronkowski, and they have received other big-time contributions from their rookie class, such as fourth-rounder Aaron Hernandez, another impressive tight end. The success of the season was going to depend on the development of first- and second-year players, and they've come through.
5. Ravens blow out the Patriots in the playoffs. Not all stories can have a happy ending, and this one certainly didn't. The Patriots, who had battled locker-room chemistry issues at times during the 2009 season, were crushed at home by the Ravens in the wild-card round of the playoffs. It was a loss unlike any other delivered to the Patriots at home, and it wouldn't be a stretch to call it the catalyst for the dramatic re-shaping of the roster in the offseason. Kraft said a couple of times that he believed games are often won before players take the field, and that meant creating a stronger locker room. The Patriots then moved on from some players who didn't fully buy into the system (e.g. Adalius Thomas, Shawn Springs) and imported those who were more willing to do so (e.g. Alge Crumpler, Danny Woodhead). It was commonplace to hear Patriots followers call the 2009 team one that was hard to wrap their arms around. The 2010 team, on the other hand, was called more likeable from the start.
4. Pictures are off the walls; time to create new "history". When players returned to Gillette Stadium after the few months following the playoff loss to the Ravens, they found the walls inside the facility bare. All the pictures from victories over the years had been taken down. When asked about it later, Belichick simply said, "The walls needed to be painted." That was true, to an extent. It had been nine years since the stadium opened and a fresh coat of paint was certainly needed, but there was another reason to take down those pictures and decide not to put them back up: It sent a message to players that it was time to create their own history. The first day of training camp -- in which the theme was "fresh start, fresh faces" -- reflected the new approach. And now pictures of Patriots victories are being put back on the walls again, but only those from this season. The walls have filled up fast.
3. Wes Welker's unexpected return to the field. The picture spoke louder than any words; all anyone needed to see was the devastation on Welker's face when he tore ligaments in his left knee Jan. 3 in Houston. It was chilling. The hearts of many fans were broken for a player whose spirit seemed to lift not only his teammates, but the fans who cheered him on. But now Welker was down, and not only did it mean that the Patriots would miss him in the playoffs, it probably meant he would miss part of the next season. The Patriots had to plan for that possibility, although that's not the way it unfolded. Welker was on the field by the first weekend of '10 training camp and has never looked back. Entering the final week of the season, he leads the team with 86 receptions and 848 yards, while contributing seven touchdowns. He is the team's Ed Block Courage award winner.
2. Randy Moss traded to the Vikings on Oct. 6/Deion Branch acquired via trade Oct. 11. Entering the final year of his contract, Moss had made it known multiple times that he was frustrated there hadn't been talks on an extension. His rambling news conference after the season opener against the Bengals foreshadowed the roller-coaster that was to come in ensuing weeks, and it all culminated in the still-shocking Oct. 6 trade that shipped him to the Vikings for a 2011 third-round draft choice. Few teams abruptly trade their No. 1 receiver if there aren't percolating issues that had been building behind the scenes. The Patriots moved quickly to acquire Branch for a 2011 fourth-round draft choice, and while some wondered how the offense would fare without a lethal deep threat like Moss, the attack hardly missed a beat. Some might even say it got better.
1. Tom Brady's car accident Sept. 9, contract extension Sept. 10 and his MVP-worthy season. All offseason, the story wouldn't go away. Would the Patriots sign Brady, who had never entered the final year of his pact, to a contract extension? Speculation swirled that Brady wasn't happy it was taking so long. Some wondered if Brady still had the same commitment to his craft because he wasn't spending offseasons at Gillette Stadium (how ridiculous does that seem now?). Kraft said multiple times that he was confident a deal would get done, although it was complicated. Few seemed to be buying it. Then the unexpected happened Sept. 9 when Brady was involved in a serious car accident in Boston on his way to work. Helicopters circled over Gillette Stadium as Brady practiced later that day, and then came the news the following day that Brady had inked a four-year, $72 million extension. He's since authored one of the finest seasons of his 11-year career, which included him breaking the NFL record for consecutive passes without an interception (currently at 319) as he is surely en route to his second NFL Most Valuable Player Award.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.