Patriots' perfect season a group effort
Today, we celebrate the start of a new year.
But the Patriots and their fans should be thinking of a different holiday. With an unprecedented 16-0 regular season to revel in, it's time to give a little thanks to some of the people who made this perfect season possible.
I'm not talking about the obvious guys everyone recognizes and appreciates. This isn't about record-setters like Tom Brady and Randy Moss, the dependable stars like Wes Welker and Mike Vrabel or even the unsung heroes on the offensive line and special teams. It isn't even about the guys with the checkbook (Robert Kraft) and the brainpower (Bill Belichick) to make it all possible.
Nope, we're going outside of New England and back in time a little bit to unearth a dozen guys you may have forgotten but should remember to thank for their pivotal - if not always intentional - roles in the Patriots' ongoing success.
The Jets coach, and former Pats assistant, has become Public Enemy No. 1 in New England since ratting out his old mentor back in September, casting a taint on the Pats' past accomplishments with the Spygate scadal.
But Pats fans actually owe Mangini a debt of gratitude. Without Spygate, the Pats may never have been so galvanized to prove their superiority over the rest of the league. That dark chapter may just have been the impetus that set the course toward perfection in motion.
The NFL commish just added fuel to the fire Mangini ignited by fining Belichick $500,000, the Pats another $250,000 and taking away a first-round pick. He's also yet to come out with a public statement explaining that the illegal taping in the Jets game did absolutely nothing to give the Pats an advantage in any games this year, allowing the asterisk talk to fester.
Think that imagining the look on Goodell's face when he has to hand over the Lombardi Trophy in February hasn't crossed Belichick's mind a few times as he's worked into the wee hours on his game plans?
The Pats didn't like it much when the Colts presidents whined to the competition committee to enact tougher restrictions on defensive backs after the Pats manhandled Indy's high-flying receivers in playoffs past.
Now, New England has the most gifted receiving corps in the league, and opposing defenders are having nightmares trying to defend them with Polian's hands-off policy in place.
Having those wideouts running free wouldn't mean much without the right guy to get the ball to them.
Brady's skill and poise probably would have earned him a starting spot eventually, no matter what happened. But it was Lewis' monster shot on the sidelines to knock out Drew Bledsoe in 2001 that certainly jump-started things, thrusting Brady into the spotlight and changing the course of the franchise's history forever.
The former Pats coach made an impact by helping to mentor Belichick in their time together with the Giants, Pats and Jets.
Parcells also helped turn the Pats into a respectable organization in the mid-90s, setting the stage for Belichick's elevation of the team into the all-time elite. But that's not why the Tuna made this list.
He holds a special place in Pats fans hearts for delivering Belichick here in 2000. Belichick lasted just one day as Parcells' successor as Jets coach before bolting, knowing that the only way to escape Tuna's constant meddling was to get out of New York altogether. Thanks Bill, and good luck to whomever he hires down in Miami.
Another coach was instrumental in getting this band together.
Does anyone really think Moss would have been on the move this offseason, much less at the low, low price of just a fourth-round pick, had Shell and the Raiders not reduced his value so much with their anachronistic offense and dysfunctional organization?
The other half of New England's dynamic receiving duo came at a similar low cost, as Welker was acquired for second- and seventh-round picks from Miami. Satele, the 60th overall pick, did become just the second rookie in Dolphins history to start at center.
But that didn't seem to do much for the 1-15 'Fins. Defensive end Abraham Wright, taken 238th overall with the other pick, did even less, as he was inactive for eight games before being put on injured reserve. Welker's NFL-leading (and franchise-record) 112 catches are worth a hearty thank you to Miami for seeing something in Satele that they somehow missed in Welker.
If Moss wasn't inspired to get his career back on track once he arrived in New England, a Week 6 showdown with then fellow unbeaten Dallas certainly added some extra incentive.
T.O. provided the boost with his pre-game comments slighting Moss as “the other 81” to Owens' “original 81.” This time, the copy proved better than the original, as Moss' record 23 TD catches attest. T.O. helped him get that too, as Owens' four-TD day in November provoked Moss' answer that night - four scores against Buffalo in one half.
The first serious threat to the Pats' undefeated run came from an unlikely source. A Philadelphia club struggling to stay at .500 with career backup Feeley playing in place of injured Donovan McNabb hardly seemed like much of a threat, but the Eagles gave New England all it could handle.
Fortunately, Feeley finally remembered he was A.J. Feeley, trying to force the ball into coverage in the end zone late in the fourth quarter, where Asante Samuel made his second pick of night to seal another Pats win.
The Pats were just beginning their scares, though, as the next week witnessed Baltimore pushing the Patriots to the limit.
The Ravens actually appeared to stuff New England on a late fourth down, only the play didn't count because Baltimore defensive coordinator Ryan had called timeout before the snap. Given new life (and another after a Pats false start, and another after a Baltimore defensive hold), the Pats finally moved to 12-0 with a last-minute TD toss from Brady to Jabar Gaffney.
Coming off that heart-pounder in Baltimore and facing a 9-3 Pittsburgh squad with a short week to prepare, the Pats appeared at their most vulnerable. Maybe that gave young Steelers safety Smith a false sense of security, as he was cocky enough to guarantee a Pittsburgh win.
That was all the Pats needed to shrug off the bruises from Baltimore and refocus on a new target. Smith wore the bulls-eye well, as New England victimized him on a pair of long TD throws - one off a play-action fake and the other with some razzle dazzle and laterals between Brady and Moss before a bomb over Smith to Gaffney.
Not everyone learned to keep their mouths shut after the Pats taught Smith a painful lesson.
The specter of the 1972 Dolphins loomed over the Pats all season. And with the Patriots threatening their hallowed spot as the NFL's lone unbeaten champion, the Miami old timers got quite cranky.
Don Shula brought up the asterisk talk again and gleefully rooted on the Ravens from the Monday night booth. But it was former 1,000-yard running back (and convicted felon) Morris who became the unofficial spokesman for the Dolphins. His rants and raps (yes, the 60-year-old even displayed some admittedly impressive rhyming skills) were equal parts entertaining and annoying. But most of all, they made the Pats' trip into Mr. Morris' neighborhood all the more sweet.
And that is something to really be thankful for as we look back at a magical year for the Pats, and look forward to even more history in the new year.
Douglas Flynn covers the Patriots for the Daily News. He can be reached at 508-626-4405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.