Patriots preview: Lenny Megliola column
On Aug. 28, his first day back with the Patriots, Asante Samuel, the prized cornerback, was cornered inescapably at his locker. His contract holdout was over. He was ready to take to the practice field, ready to make up for lost time.
"Yes, he's here. I'm glad we got things worked out," said coach Bill Belichick with a straight face.
And what did Samuel conclude throughout the nerve-racking process? "I learned to be patient."
With Samuel in the fold, Patriots fans were still certain that their team was a Super Bowl contender - even when the possibility existed that Samuel might hold out for 10 games or not play at all this season. Samuel's return gave the Patriots a sense of the rich getting richer. The roster looked solid from top to bottom, which few teams in the NFL could claim.
There were starry names, mostly veterans, some newcomers. Add to that the desire to wash away the horrible second half against the Colts in the AFC title game - and we all know the Pats would have beaten the Bears in the Super Bowl - and you can see why New England had virtually no skeptics throughout the league.
Of course, with every team 0-0, the Patriots were shrewdly disguising their inner feelings.
"In the NFL there are a lot of teams, a lot of guys ready to play football," said new wide receiver Wes Welker. "But we're excited about getting the season started."
Who wouldn't be, when a team looks this good? After eight or 10 games, the Texans, Packers and Lions, to name three, will be counting the days for their non-playoff season to end. The Pats could be 8-2, 9-1 at the same time.
"You don't really know," said Welker, the four-year vet who played for the Dolphins last year. "But we have a lot of potential, a lot of talent."
The season will begin with a visit to the Jets. Pats vs. Jets has taken on a New York state of Red Sox-Yankees mind. Belichick was a Jets assistant and almost became their head coach; Bill Parcells left New England to take the Jets job; Eric Mangini, the second-year Jets coach, cut his teeth at the feet of Belichick in Foxboro. Plus, it's just Boston and New York.
So Pats vs. Jets is going to be big for a long time. Well, not necessarily for Vinny Testaverde, the 43-year-old quarterback who was released by the Pats last Saturday. He saw it all in his career, including being a starter for the Jets.
"I was never in those big rivalry things. (The Jets) are just another game. I never got caught up in the hype." What matters, said Testaverde, is that "it's a division game."
Testaverde is here for one reason: to play for a sure winner, a surefire contender for the big prize. All teams hunger for that, but Belichick and Pats owner Robert Kraft have blueprinted a formula.
"With Mr. Kraft and Belichick, you have a chance to win the Super Bowl," said Testaverde. "But there are no guarantees."
You'd think Testaverde would be a fine fit as a quarterback coach in this league when he's done playing for good. No way, he said.
"Coaching is not for me, not on this level. That's why I've kept playing for so long. I coach my son's Little League team. That's fun."
Some players might not take a snap all season, but the possibility that it could happen keeps him going. To be on a team this good just makes a player want to be around it, and during his absence, Samuel had that feeling. While his agent, Alonzo Shavers, hammered out a deal, Samuel watched the Pats play Tennessee and Carolina on TV. He was getting itchy.
"I'm supposed to be out there," he thought.
Now he is, but there was the inevitable question the day of his return whether he had to earn the job back.
"Of course. You always have to earn your spot back."
It was the right thing to say, and understandably a tad disingenuous.
When an old pro like Testaverde says "I like the attitude in this locker room, the leadership," you take it as gospel. "All of us crave competition."
Tom Brady, the star of stars, has three Super Bowl rings and, at 30, is in the midst of a Hall of Fame career. Yet he takes nothing for granted.
"He prepares harder than I thought," said Testaverde, after observing Brady's hours spent in the weight and films rooms.
Now they're ready to take it to the field, everybody's expecting a lot.
"I love my team," said Samuel. "Great players, great coaches."
For all of them, great expectations.