ATTEMPTING TO coax an illuminating remark from a Patriot is like panning for gold in a Jacuzzi. New England players are as well-coached in the fine art of saying something without saying anything as they are in the game of football. Consider the response of strong safety Brandon Meriweather when asked what a defense that ranked 10th in the league last season—and 15th against the run—must do to improve. "I think everybody needs to be on the same page," Meriweather says. Anything just a little more specific? "We need to execute our game plan to the fullest." Thanks, Brandon!
The Patriots' near-pathological adherence to platitudes originates, of course, with Bill Belichick. Why, the coach was asked during a mid-August press conference, do franchises around the NFL view his team as the one to beat this season? Have they forgotten that New England missed the playoffs last year? "I don't really know what anybody is or isn't saying around the league," Belichick said. "Doesn't really matter to me. What we're concerned about is this afternoon's practice." Other concerns, according to Belichick: "correcting mistakes," "getting some things installed" and "trying to improve day to day."
"You see a lot of teams boasting about what they're going to be and how they're going to do it," says running back Fred Taylor, who joined the team in February as a free agent after 11 seasons with the Jaguars, "but you never really hear much from this group. They just go and do it."
Just how much the Patriots will be able to go and do will depend on the health of four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, whose 2008 season ended during the opener's first quarter when a hit from Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard seriously damaged his left knee. (New England, naturally, never revealed the extent of the injury, but Brady is known to have sustained a torn ACL and MCL.) So, Fred Taylor, does Brady appear to be fully recovered? "I can't touch that."
Judging from Brady's play in training camp drills and from his confident performances in the first three preseason games (26 for 42 with four touchdowns), he appears to be much the same quarterback who set a record with 50 touchdown passes in 2007, when he spearheaded an offense that scored a record 589 points. That team went undefeated until Super Bowl XLII, when the Giants pulled off a 17--14 upset.
There is perhaps no better testament to the Patriots' system and depth than their 11--5 finish in 2008 without Brady. This year's roster looks to be even deeper than '08, thanks to another infusion of veteran role players, such as Taylor and wideout Joey Galloway, and to 12 draft picks, the franchise's most since 1996. New England, as usual, seems to have used most of those selections wisely. In fact, the most-talked-about rookie in camp was a seventh-rounder, Julian Edelman, a quarterback at Kent State whose ability as a slot receiver has the Patriots thinking they might have found another Wes Welker (though one three inches taller and 13 pounds heavier).
Last year's offense under Matt Cassel—who hadn't started a game since 1999, his senior year in high school—ranked fifth in the NFL with 365.4 yards per game, but even that paled in comparison with the previous season's Brady-directed group, whose 411.2-yard average led the league by more than 40 yards. How much better, Wes Welker, does the offense function under Brady than under Cassel? "Now you're asking me questions that are going to get me in trouble."
Finally, a gleaming nugget, sifted from the bromides and prosaism. Welker's answer alludes to the fact that the Patriots know Brady's return will make their offense, merely excellent under Cassel, spectacular once more. And that's the central reason why they should again chase 19--0.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: BILL BELICHICK
138--86 in NFL, 10th season with Patriots