They picked up the pieces in the offseason. Those shattered, splattered pieces, broken by the Ravens in a historic playoff beatdown, are the lasting memories of a frustrating 2009.
The Patriots return, aiming to prove that many of those same parts can create a more productive whole. Quarterback Tom Brady is no longer recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. Randy Moss is in a contract year, and Wes Welker (knee) is hoping to make it back by opening day. The defense, now with some long-term security, is aiming to limit big plays.
All coach Bill Belichick is doing is going into 2010 without an offensive or defensive coordinator. "I try to be kind of involved in everything," Belichick said, "because it all ties together."
After two seasons without a playoff win, can he tie enough together to return the Patriots to prominence?
Offense: Even with Brady and Moss, there is uncertainty with an offense that was third overall in the NFL (397.3 yards per game) in 2009. It's unclear exactly when Welker will be back (and then how long until he is at full strength), and the offense will be working in rookie tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Having Brady at the helm is still a gift, but he'll need some playmaking help to achieve the consistency that was lacking last year.
With Moss, 33, heading into potentially his final year as a Patriot and Welker likely to miss at least the beginning of the season because of torn knee ligaments, there is a serious need to develop more threats. Julian Edelman (37 catches, 359 yards) may be Welker Jr., and second-year player Brandon Tate has a chance to make an impact. As for free-agent pickup Torry Holt, the Pats hope he has more left than Joey Galloway did last season.
Defense: An up-and-down 2009 was spent struggling to come to grips with losing leaders such as Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison. The results were too many big plays allowed and not enough direction. Now a year older, wiser and healthier, the Patriots filled holes in the draft and free agency at linebacker and end. A renewed pass rush and the addition of first-round pick Devin McCourty at cornerback will help.
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There were times when watching the Patriots' secondary last year was downright ugly. Leigh Bodden is a ballhawk, and he had three interceptions in one game last season. Re-signing him this offseason was essential. The Patriots released veteran Shawn Springs, clearing the way for rising star Darius Butler at the other corner spot. The secondary also got younger with the selection of McCourty.
Darius Butler, CB. A second-round pick in 2009, Butler didn't start getting steady snaps until the middle of his rookie season. In the final regular-season game, he flashed big-play ability by taking an interception 91 yards for a touchdown. With a year under his belt, look for the former Connecticut star to be a force in 2010 as a starter opposite Bodden.
"I think Darius has learned a lot. He's gotten a lot of reps, a lot of practice time. I think he's learned a lot about the game, as a returner, as a defender—both in the passing game and in the running game. He's got a real good future." —Coach Bill Belichick
"I think their strength is still the offensive line and Tom Brady. I don't think they're a dominant group on the offensive line; (they) just know how to get the job done. And, of course, the quarterback is going to make that ship sail. There's no question about it. If he's good, they're going to be good. He's just got that kind of ability. …
"You know, they're getting older. Moss is getting older, Welker with the (knee) injury, some of the offensive linemen getting older, Brady is getting older. They've got to start replacing some of that older talent with young guys that can take significant roles.
"I think that's important because the draft choices they've had the last couple years, those guys have to start coming in and taking up for some of these older players or failed unrestricted free agents like Adalius Thomas. They paid a lot of money to Adalius, and it didn't work."
Without a Super Bowl victory since the middle of last decade, New England fans are antsy and so are the players. Brady, poised to negotiate his final contract, will do his best to throw the team on his back. Moss is in the final season of his contract, and he's already chatted about leaving next year.
QB: Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer
RB: Laurence Maroney, Fred Taylor
WR: Wes Welker*, Julian Edelman, Taylor Price
WR: Torry Holt, Brandon Tate
WR: Randy Moss, Brandon Tate
TE: Rob Gronkowski, Alge Crumpler
LT: Matt Light, Nick Kaczur
LG: Logan Mankins, Rich Ohrnberger
C: Dan Koppen, Ted Larsen
RG: Stephen Neal, Dan Connolly
RT: Sebastian Vollmer, Mark LeVoir
DE: Ty Warren, Mike Wright
NT: Vince Wilfork, Myron Pryor
DE: Damione Lewis, Gerard Warren
OLB: Tully Banta-Cain, Jermaine Cunningham
ILB: Jerod Mayo, Thomas Williams
ILB: Brandon Spikes, Gary Guyton
OLB: Pierre Woods, Shawn Crable
LCB: Darius Butler, Devin McCourty
SS: Brandon Meriweather, Pat Chung
FS: James Sanders, Brandon McGowan
RCB: Leigh Bodden, Devin McCourty
K Stephen Gostkowski
P Zoltan Mesko
KR Brandon Tate
PR Julian Edelman
LS Jake Ingram
*Could begin season on physically unable to perform list
CSN: Chip Kelly says he'll adapt his offense to fit the NFL, but analyst Ron Jaworski isn't sold.
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