Thinking about reviewing the 2008 New England Patriots after the regular season is not something I wanted to do. But, alas, that is what it came down to and is why it has taken me so long to write this.
Obviously the biggest story for the Patriots this year, and for the NFL as a whole, was Tom Brady being injured and out for the season during the first game. Many pundits had the Patriots winding up with a losing record and missing the playoffs. Well, we didn’t have a losing record but we did just barely miss the postseason. We certainly did much better than many thought we would.
The 2008 New England Patriots were the first team to go 11-5 and not make the playoffs since the 1985 Denver Broncos. But I am not going to complain. The Patriots, Jets, and Dolphins all had very easy schedules, which is why the 11-5 record was just not good enough to get us in. We beat the teams we should have beat, but lost to nearly every playoff team we played. Our five losses were to the Jets, Dolphins, Steelers, Chargers, and Colts. Our best wins were against the Cardinals, who before the playoffs couldn’t win on the road, and the Denver Broncos, who may not have been as good as I thought they were when we played them.
The most disappointing part of the season, other than losing Brady, was losing two games we absolutely should have won, which would have put us in the playoffs and given us at least a shot at another Super Bowl run. Unusually poor coaching decisions, a dropped touchdown pass, and a stupid unnecessary roughness penalty cost us a win against the Colts. That game sticks in my mind as the one game that broke us at the end of the season. It is rare to see the Patriots snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, but we certainly did that game.
And then of course there is the Jets game we lost in overtime where we got way behind early, but could have come back and won except for a series of stupid mistakes, fumbles, and dropped balls in the third quarter, wasting a 400 yard passing game by Matt Cassel.
Despite that, how do I feel at the end of a season where we lost Tom Brady in the first quarter of the first game of the regular season? Then most of our defense by the end of the season were backups? Add to that all the injuries we had to our running backs? Proud. I am proud that the team didn’t completely fall apart, proud of the way Matt Cassel improved steadily over the year into a fine starting NFL quarterback, and proud that our defense played as well as they did despite all the injuries. And other than the flop against the Colts, Bill Belichick proved once again what a great coach he is.
So in sum, at the end of the season, I am disappointed but proud. Seriously, what other team is going to suffer the number of injuries we did on both sides of the ball and end up with a winning record, regardless of how easy our schedule was?
Tom Brady and Matt Cassel
This has been a really tough year for Patriots fans. First we miss out on the chance to make history with a perfect season by losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants. Then our franchise quarterback goes down with a severe knee injury to start the regular season. I sat stunned to the core when I realized how badly Brady was injured and I won’t deny being a bit teary eyed and depressed for a few weeks over it. But the game must go on.
Enter Matt Cassel, Brady’s backup for the past four years who had not started a football game since high school. I have to admit I thought Cassel looked awful in 2007 when he had his brief opportunities and that he looked awful in the preseason. I was one those fans calling for the Patriots to sign a veteran quarterback to salvage the season. Good thing I am not the coach. I was not a believer in Matt Cassel and he certainly proved me wrong. And I am quite glad of it.
Cassel did start out roughly though. His first several games he held the ball too long, took too many sacks or hits, and struggled in the red zone all season long. But as the season progressed he got better and better. By the end of the year, a year in which his contract is up, he has become a hot commodity as a proven quality starter in the NFL. In fact he had back to back 400 yard passing games and would have gotten us the win over the Jets in overtime had his teammates on offense helped him out a little.
While it’s not something I wanted to experience first hand, it was fun watching Cassel mature each week as a quarterback.
Is the Dynasty Over?
I always said that as long as we have Brady, Belichick, and Pioli the dynasty is intact. The Patriots have won Super Bowls with less than stellar running attacks and a defense decimated by injury in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Now Brady has suffered a serious knee injury and it is impossible to tell how he will perform when he comes back. And Scott Pioli is in Kansas City. Meanwhile we continue to lose our coordinators as other teams try to emulate our success. This year, Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator, was hired by Denver as their head coach. So they dynasty, as we knew it, is over.
That doesn’t mean the Patriots can’t win another Super Bowl. There is still a lot of talent on the team, and if the injury bug doesn’t keep striking, the Patriots should only be better next year.
But at the same time that is why losing Super Bowl XLII to the Giants hurts. You just simply never know if you’ll ever be back.