Ten years ago this week, the 2007 New England Patriots took to the field for the first time and lost 13-10 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their preseason opener. They lost the following week to the Tennessee Titans before winning their final two preseason games, all 16 regular-season contests and their first two postseason matchups. After 20 consecutive Patriots victories, the New York Giants narrowly topped Bill Belichick's team to win one of the most dramatic Super Bowls in league history.
The 2007 Patriots were not perfect. They were, however, the most fascinating and compelling football team of the 21st century. They raised the ceiling on what we believed a professional attack could accomplish, anticipating an offensive future for which they drew up the blueprints. They fundamentally ripped apart old touchstones about how to win games and raised questions about whether they did so with acceptable behavior. Perhaps most importantly, the events of that 2007 season immediately and irreparably changed the way we view the Pats and the key personnel involved with that team in ways that still resonate and recur a decade later.
This week, I'm going to take a look back at that 2007 Patriots team in two parts. On Tuesday, I'm going to break down how they made their mark on league history in terms of football performance on the field. On Wednesday, I'll transition to discuss the bigger picture and what that meant outside of the whistles and off the field.
There are plenty of ways to interpret the events of that year, a season recent enough to feature several still active players (most notably Tom Brady) yet dated enough to come from a moment in time when some NFL games still weren't being broadcast in high-definition.
How they got there
The 2006 Patriots were a wildly successful disappointment. After a 12-4 campaign, the Pats blew out the New York Jets in the AFC wild-card round before needing a remarkable fumble recovery on their own fourth-and-5 interception to launch their comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers. New England then went up 21-3 over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game before blowing that lead and losing 38-34, with Peyton Manning turning the tables and handing Brady just his second postseason loss in 14 games.
Popular perception at the time suggested that the Patriots badly needed to upgrade Brady's weapons. Belichick had traded disgruntled wideout Deion Branch to the Seahawks for a first-round pick in September, leaving the cupboard bare at receiver. New England's starting wideouts at different times included role players and backups signed from other teams, such as Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney. Second-round pick Chad Jackson tore his ACL during the AFC Championship Game. The only wideout making much more than the veteran's minimum was 35-year-old slot receiver Troy Brown, who started nine games after transitioning to a reserve role and taking snaps on defense in 2004.
The Pats were more heavily invested at tight end and running back, where they had used first-round picks on Benjamin Watson and Laurence Maroney, but they were in transition at both positions. Both Daniel Graham and Corey Dillon left during the 2007 offseason. Gabriel (cut during 2006) and Caldwell (released during training camp) left town and were out of football by 2007, and Brown tore his patellar tendon and played one more NFL game before retiring. Jackson missed most of the 2007 season with his knee injury, and he ended up catching only one more pass in the NFL.
For the unquestionable brilliance Belichick had exhibited as a defensive coordinator and head coach, he didn't yet have the reputation as a guru of reclamation projects, capable of taking mediocre or anonymous players from other team's rosters and turning them into stars. The Patriots' core consisted almost entirely of players Belichick had inherited or drafted. Rodney Harrison, signed from San Diego, was a cap casualty. Junior Seau was a limited version of his former self.
The best example of Belichick's shopping in the bargain bin was the second-round pick he had traded for Corey Dillon, who ran for 1,635 yards in his debut season before hitting the age wall. Wide receiver had eluded Belichick, however. Free-agent additions such as Donald Hayes hadn't moved the needle. Brady had claimed three Super Bowls despite completing passes in those wins to a group of wide receivers that included exactly one player -- Branch -- drafted before the seventh round.
There was also the question of whether Brady could raise his game to another level. Nobody doubted that Brady was a great player, of course, but the debate between him and Manning had devolved into an inane discussion of whether you preferred winning (Brady) or statistical production (Manning). Brady had been brilliant during the postseason, but his regular-season production wasn't that of a superstar quarterback.
Brady led the league in touchdown passes in 2002 and in passing yardage three years later, but the Michigan product hadn't come close to a signature season. Brady had ranked ninth or 10th in passer rating four times in five seasons between 2002 and 2006, finishing sixth in 2005. He was fifth that season in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), his only top-five finish to this point in that more advanced quarterback measure. Brady received eight MVP votes in 2003 and 10 in 2005, but he had never come close to claiming a regular-season MVP award to go with his pair of Super Bowl MVP nods. Brady was a great player, but after he finally vanquished the Patriots signal-caller and won his first Super Bowl after the 2006 season, Manning had a stronger case as the best quarterback in football.
All of that was about to change.
The shopping spree
Just three of Brady's top nine receivers from the 2006 season -- Watson, Maroney and the seemingly ageless Kevin Faulk -- caught passes from the future Hall of Famer in 2007. Gaffney, signed to a bargain-basement two-year deal, saw his role expand after he impressed with a pair of 100-yard games during the 2006 playoffs.
Otherwise, Brady threw 405 passes in 2007 to players who weren't on the 2006 roster. The Pats made minor acquisitions to replace departing veterans, bringing in longtime Belichick object of desire Kyle Brady as a replacement for Graham and signing Sammy Morris to fill in for the released Dillon. Morris had been a backup for the Dolphins and carried the ball just 92 times in 2006, but he racked up 85 carries in six games before going down with a season-ending clavicle injury.
Another Dolphins backup played a much larger role in the 2007 season. Wes Welker was an undrafted free agent who had spent three seasons with the Dolphins as a returner and occasional slot receiver. During the 2006 season, Welker's role expanded greatly, but he started only two games while catching 67 passes for 687 yards and a lone touchdown. He remained an ancillary target behind the likes of Marty Booker and Chris Chambers, the latter of whom suggested that the Dolphins should use their first-round pick on Ohio state wideout Ted Ginn by noting, "Our return game, which is nonexistent since I've been here for the most part, could use a boost."
Chambers did hope that the move would leave Welker fresher for receiving duties, but Welker's days in Miami were finished. The Texas Tech product was a restricted free agent, and the Patriots agreed to terms with Welker on a seven-year, $38 million offer sheet that would have guaranteed the Dolphins a second-round pick if Miami chose not to match. Before officially submitting the paperwork, though, the Patriots agreed to throw in an additional seventh-round pick to acquire Welker's rights via trade, which left them with two advantages.
First, they didn't have to wait a week and tie up their cap space to see whether the Dolphins would match. Second, without needing to structure the deal in a way that would make it tough for Miami to match, the Patriots were able to give Welker a five-year, $18.1 million contract. The Dolphins, who saw Welker as a third receiver not worth starting money, took the deal and drafted Ginn in the first round. He lasted three seasons in Miami.
Obviously, the Dolphins look foolish in hindsight for letting Welker leave, but it wasn't as if Welker was seen as a superstar at the time. Dan Le Batard, writing for The Miami Herald, couldn't believe that Welker cost more via trade than Marshall Faulk cost the Rams and told a story about Welker's next-door neighbor refusing to believe that Welker played for the Dolphins. When the 5-foot-9 Welker showed him proof, the neighbor responded by saying, "No wonder we were 4-12." Widely respected Chiefs president Carl Peterson, meanwhile, complimented Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller for the trade. "They got, for what we would consider a third wide receiver and kick-return specialist, second- and seventh-round draft picks," Peterson said. "I told him that I think a starting quarterback is worth that."
The Dolphins were linked to free-agent wideout Donte' Stallworth as a possible starter, but six days later, the Patriots added the former Saints first-round pick to their roster instead. Stallworth had been traded to the Eagles just before the 2006 season and put together a disappointing season, so in an attempt to rebuild his value, Stallworth signed a six-year, $33.1 million deal with New England that really amounted to a one-year contract for $3.6 million with a huge unguaranteed bonus in Year 2. With Welker and Stallworth on board, the Patriots could credibly say they had upgraded their receiving corps, but they weren't finished.
The biggest prize, though, nearly slipped away before the Patriots could make their move. Randy Moss was damaged goods after two disastrous seasons in Oakland. He had racked up a total of just 1,553 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in his two seasons by the Bay, a relative pittance for a player who had 1,632 yards and 17 touchdowns during his last healthy season with the Vikings in 2003. Moss' reputation was in tatters heading into the 2004 offseason, and while writers who weren't exactly diving into Raiders game tape were suggesting that Moss had lost a step or two, two teams seemed particularly interested in acquiring Moss.
One was the Green Bay Packers, whose fans Moss had pantomimed mooning in 2005. (That this was a response to Green Bay fans' actually mooning Moss and the opposing teams was left unsaid at the time.) Rumors linked Moss to the Packers throughout February and March, and the player who was reportedly heading to Oakland in return for Moss ended up piecing together a decent career for himself. Both Pro Football Talk and Michael Felger of the Boston Herald suggested that the Packers were ready to swap then-backup quarterback Aaron Rodgers as part of a deal for Moss, with Felger suggesting on March 15 that the trade was "on the verge of being announced."
Great trade rumors of the 21st century. pic.twitter.com/xcYCHE6c3U
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) September 4, 2014
The Packers denied that they were considering a Rodgers deal and obviously never made the trade, which would have ended up transforming three franchises. Moss went to Boca Raton and worked his way back an hour north of the Dolphins in Miami, with his agent publicly suggesting that Moss ran a 4.26- and 4.28-second 40-yard dash. Although plenty of representatives will suggest their star players are in the best shape of their lives, the Patriots were listening.
On the second day of the draft, new Raiders coach Lane Kiffin was desperate enough to make his move. He sent Moss to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick, which the Raiders used on cornerback John Bowie, who made two tackles over two NFL seasons. Moss restructured his deal, foregoing $21 million in base salaries over the next two seasons for a one-year, $3 million deal.
Everyone was on board. Now, the Patriots just had to make it all work.
The offense on the field
As much as history might suggest that everything clicked from Day 1 for New England's new additions, August was a turbulent month. Moss went down with a hamstring injury that cost him virtually all of training camp, and by the end of the month, things appeared to have hit a breaking point. As late as Sept. 1 -- eight days before the season opener -- Pro Football Talk had heard that the Patriots were considering releasing Moss. The future Hall of Famer eventually made the roster, stole Bam Childress' Brady-adjacent locker and made it to Week 1 with hamstrings intact.
Brady racked up 159 yards by halftime against the Jets, 87 of them going to Moss, but the season to come announced itself during the third quarter. With the Patriots up 21-7, Brady launched a 51-yard touchdown pass to Moss, who accelerated past three Jets defenders while the ball was in the air for the score. Brady told ESPN's Seth Wickersham that he overthrew the pass and assumed it was an incompletion until he heard the crowd roar for a catch.
By Monday of the following week, the Patriots were embroiled in the Spygate scandal, which would both loom over the team and arguably inspire it to greater heights. I'll write more about that and its long-term effects later in the week; in this piece, I'm going to focus on what happened on the field with New England.
What the Patriots accomplished over the next two months is one of the most impressive runs of football we've ever seen. New England won its first eight games by a combined 204 points. Its win expectancy didn't fall below 50 percent at any single moment until Week 6 of the season, when the Dallas Cowboys took a 24-21 third quarter lead at home. (New England promptly outscored them 27-3 the rest of the way.) The Patriots weren't in any real danger until Week 9 against the Colts, when Indy led 20-10 and had a 95 percent win expectancy with 9 minutes, 35 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
Statistically, the Patriots were an absolute juggernaut. Through Week 11, not only were they the best team in DVOA history, with a mark of 73.7 percent, but they were also the best team by a full 30 points. No team to that point had ever posted a DVOA greater than 50 percent in a full season, but the Patriots had posted a DVOA greater than 50 percent in every single game. They posted the best point differential in league history over their first 10 games by a whopping 59 points.
While the Pats' defense was underrated, chipping in for the scoring spree with six defensive touchdowns, the offense was a thing of beauty. The Patriots still used their traditional Erhardt-Perkins scheme as the underlying base of their attack, but they shifted their offense seemingly overnight into a version of the spread attack that had been dismissed as a college offense. Dennis Erickson had implemented the spread in Seattle with limited success, and the Patriots were implementing it with Brady, as opposed to Rick Mirer and John Friesz, but the Patriots fundamentally introduced a concept and an offense at odds with almost every other NFL team.
In doing so, the Patriots looked like a team from the future. No offense from 2007 looks more like a 2017 attack than what the Patriots were doing during their stunning campaign. On a micro level, the Patriots were comfortable moving their receivers around the formation, as they did in moving Moss into the slot for touchdowns. More broadly, the Patriots emulated modern attacks in a variety of ways:
They stayed in the shotgun. Although the Patriots were comfortable leaving Brady in the shotgun in the years before 2007, they really upped the ante during that fateful season. Brady and the Patriots took 49.4 percent of their snaps out of shotgun, and that number is low, given how frequently they were running out leads. They were in the shotgun 53.1 percent of the time during the first half of games.
Those numbers are outliers; the Jets (45.9 percent) and Packers (41.0 percent) were the only other teams in the league above 40 percent, while the 32nd-ranked Seahawks were down at 8.7 percent. The league as a whole took just 26.6 percent of snaps out of shotgun in 2007.
In 2016, the NFL basically used the shotgun as its base set. Last season, 63.7 percent of all offensive plays took place out of the shotgun or pistol, with Chip Kelly's 49ers going to the shotgun at a rate in excess of 98 percent. The Patriots use the shotgun about as frequently, given that they were at a 52.5 percent clip last season, but in 2016, that was the sixth-lowest rate of shotgun snaps in the league.
They increased tempo selectively. The Patriots were also more aggressive than just about any other team in the league, in terms of going to the no-huddle, particularly on the opening drive of the game. The NFL wasn't consistent with tracking no-huddle data before 2008, but we know no-huddle usage is up. In 2008, paced by the Ravens, the NFL went to the no-huddle on 3.4 percent of snaps. Last season, with the Giants running the no-huddle on more than 48 percent of their offensive plays, the league went without a huddle 9.4 percent of the time.
They used modern personnel groupings. Ten years wasn't that long ago, but it was still a league with plenty of fullbacks. Teams went with two or more running backs on the field 39.4 percent of the time, but the Patriots didn't bother. Hoping to stretch the field, they went with more than one back just 15.5 percent of the time, the second-lowest rate in the league. Only the Colts, who also anticipated the style of modern football and did so even earlier than the Patriots, used a second back less frequently.
The fullback was a fading breed then -- and is an endangered species now. Teams go to a second running back just 12.2 percent of the time these days.
That fullback is usually replaced by a wide receiver, and likewise, the Patriots were happy to swap Heath Evans or Kyle Eckel for Stallworth or Gaffney. Josh McDaniels' offense went with three or more wideouts 70.2 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the league. The league went three-wide (or more) 50.6 percent of the time.
Now the third wideout is basically a starter, as the average team goes three-wide 64.8 percent of the time. Here, again, the Patriots have zagged; thanks to their love of two-tight-end sets, the Pats have three or more wideouts on the field just 50 percent of the time, which is the fourth-lowest rate in the league.
Although the Patriots had enjoyed the slot work of Brown for years, placing Welker there weaponized their desire to attack linebackers and nickelbacks who were overmatched in space. They do the same thing now with Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski, but Welker was a phenomenal mismatch from Week 1 on. Teams started the season hoping to handle Welker with linebackers, which ended comically poorly and led to plenty of yards after catch. Welker had more catches against base defenses during the first five weeks of the season (11) than he did the rest of the season (10). The Patriots even used a predecessor to a common one-back run-pass option (RPO) by using play-action to free Welker for a stick route:
2007 Pats running a play-action concept that would become a prototypical RPO with Welker on a stick route pic.twitter.com/rFlrX51i1R
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) August 4, 2017
Welker and Gaffney were able to head upfield for big plays out of the slot because teams were so impossibly terrified of what Moss and Stallworth could do matched up one-on-one against their cornerbacks. While Stallworth played his part, it would be unrealistic to suggest that teams weren't treating Moss like he was a different class of receiver.
You can watch the highlights of Moss running past and jumping over NFL defensive backs like they're high school kids, and it's downright magical. What's even more telling, in some ways, is that teams were so terrified of Moss that they were essentially willing to give up easy first downs as a sacrifice to avoid being thrashed downfield:
Third-and-2 and the Bills are so shook by Moss downfield that they go 2v3 on the outside for an easy first down pic.twitter.com/LppFxkTlP0
— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) August 5, 2017
Brady came out on the other side of this change a transformed quarterback. Crucially, his interception rate dropped. Despite his (exaggerated and unfair) reputation as simply a game manager, Brady had thrown interceptions on 2.5 percent of his chances through the end of 2006. In 2007, that fell to a career-low 1.4 percent. Most quarterbacks can't keep their interception rates that low, but Brady has posted a 1.4 percent rate since then, too.
His numbers during the first of his MVP seasons are his peak, while his other rate statistics are about halfway between the pre-2007 Brady and the guy who was nearly perfect in 2007 (check out the table on the right).
The slight decline
After narrowly beating the Colts and blowing out the Bills on "Sunday Night Football" in what was arguably Brady's best performance of the season, the Patriots weren't the same. Through that Bills game in Week 11, the Pats posted a point differential of plus-254, the best post-merger mark over the first 10 games of a team's season by 59 points.
From Week 12 on, though, the Patriots weren't as dominant. They needed a late interception to seal things up against A.J. Feeley, of all people, and win 31-28 at home against Philadelphia. The following week, the Patriots survived a fourth-and-1 stuff after Rex Ryan iced his own defense and needed a series of Ravens penalties on the final drive to set up the lead-taking touchdown. Even then, they needed to stop a Kyle Boller Hail Mary attempt by tackling Mark Clayton 2 yards short of the end zone to keep their undefeated season alive.
The Pats had an impressive win over the Steelers and a pair of workmanlike victories over the lowly Jets and Dolphins before their famous 38-35 victory over a game Giants team in Week 17 to seal their 16-0 season, but they weren't anywhere near as dominant as they were during the hot start. New England finished 6-0, of course, but its plus-61 point differential over those final six games is the 138th-best of all time and is topped by nine other editions of Belichick-era Patriots.
What changed? For one, the pass defense collapsed. Dean Pees' defense allowed a league-low 31.9 Total QBR through New England's first 10 games of the season, with QBR specifically helpful here because it is adjusted for game situation. Over the final six games of the season, the Pats' defense was up to a QBR of 70.8, which was the fourth-worst in the league.
The offensive decline wasn't quite as severe, but it was noticeable and realistically inevitable. Teams developed a philosophy of targeting the Patriots with blitzes, knowing that their defense couldn't hold up in coverage and hoping to confuse Brady long enough to blow up a play. Defenses blitzed the Patriots on 29.7 percent of their dropbacks through Week 11, which was just about league-average. Afterward, though, the Pats were blitzed 42.7 percent over the time, the third-highest rate in football. Brady was also worse against the blitz; after posting an unreal 149.6 passer rating against the blitz through Week 11, he fell to the merely excellent mark of 105.8 afterward.
Likewise, the Pats were less effective on deeper passes than they had been during the hot start. The NFL defines deep passes as those traveling 16 or more yards downfield, and through Week 11, Brady was completing an unreal 61.1 percent of those bombs. For reference, the league rate that year was 43.7 percent, and nobody since ESPN started tracking this data in 2007 has topped 60 percent all season on such passes. From Week 12 on, though, Brady hit on only 31.1 percent of those throws, with his passer rating dropping from 113.8 to 75.1 on bombs in the process. Brady was also throwing deeper passes, with his average air yards per target jumping from 7.7 to 9.3 yards per attempt. The result was a less efficient offense, with Brady's completion percentage dropping from an unreal 73.1 percent to a merely impressive 64.2 percent.
Ironically, the Giants failed to execute this blueprint in Week 17. They blitzed 39.5 percent of the time, and Brady did a great job of stepping out of traffic and making plays. He was sacked just once, despite the fact that the Giants were blitzing at a rate well above league-average. Brady posted a 152.1 passer rating against the blitz that night, and his two most memorable throws were deep ones. After Moss dropped a likely touchdown, Brady went back to him on the next play on a go route for Moss' 23rd and final receiving touchdown of the regular season.
The Giants were a different team in the Super Bowl. They stopped blitzing, cutting their rate of rushing five or more from 39.5 percent to a far more reasonable 24.5 percent. It worked: They were able to get pressure with four people (particularly with Justin Tuck on the interior), and Brady went 1-of-10 for 18 yards on throws of 16 yards or more. In Week 17, the Giants had been unlucky to knock Brady down eight times while sacking him only once. Their 11 hits in the Super Bowl produced five sacks, right in line with expectations.
Of course, you know what happened at the end of Super Bowl XLII. David Tyree caught a desperate Eli Manning pass off his helmet. The Giants converted a third-and-11 on the next series and subsequently scored, sealing a dramatic 17-14 victory.
What's lost to history is what happened on the play before, when Tyree appeared to run the wrong route and Manning nearly threw a season-ending interception to Asante Samuel, who had the ball bounce off of his fingertips. It's one of the great "what if?" plays in league history, and it exemplifies the thin line between winning and losing a single game and what it means for a team's legacy. If Samuel brings in the interception, the Patriots are undefeated and they are -- without any debate -- the greatest team in football history. If Manning is ruled to be in the grasp of a defender before he gets his next pass off or if Tyree can't hold onto the catch, the Patriots are huge favorites to win.
Patriots fans might feel hard done by their narrow loss. They might be rooting for a perfect season in 2017, in part to cover up the pain of what went wrong in 2007. But just as the Patriots might have deserved some better luck late in the Super Bowl, think about everything that had to go right for them to get there. They needed late wins over Feeley and Boller. The Ravens called a timeout at the worst possible time and came up 2 yards short on a Hail Mary. The Colts were prohibitive favorites to win up two scores late in the fourth quarter. The Patriots were riding their luck to get to the Super Bowl at 18-0, as opposed to 17-1 or 16-2, too.
The best team ever?
Let's finish by asking this: With 10 years of perspective, and even with their loss in the Super Bowl, do the Patriots have a case to be considered the best team of all time?
It depends how you define best team, of course. By the simplest measure, win-loss record, the 17-0 1972 Dolphins top the 18-1 Patriots by finishing the year with a Super Bowl. I'm skeptical of that Dolphins team because they played what was literally one of the easiest schedules in the history of the NFL that season, while the Patriots played what Pro Football Reference measures to be about a league-average slate. Undefeated is also still undefeated.
If you're concerned about strength of schedule, DVOA is a useful stat for teams across the past 30 seasons. The Patriots were the best DVOA team ever during the 2007 campaign, but that was before Football Outsiders tracked DVOA going back through 1991. The Patriots posted a 52.9 percent DVOA in 2007, but even they were topped by the Washington team from 1991. Mark Rypien & Co. stacked up a 56.9 percent DVOA that season, going 14-2 before winning the Super Bowl.
Washington outscored opponents by 261 points during the regular season, including three shutouts across the first five weeks of the season. The Patriots beat their opponents by a total of 315 points, the largest difference in league history. Does that alone get them the title of best team ever?
I don't think so, if only because the Pythagorean Expectation formula prefers other teams. Even if I exclude pre-merger teams, the 2007 Patriots finish 10th in Pythagorean expectation, trailing that 1991 Washington team in ninth. The 1976 Steelers would be the greatest team ever by this metric, even though they crashed out in the AFC title game. The best Pythagorean Expectation for a Super Bowl-winning team belongs to the 1985 Bears, who projected to win 14.1 games, just ahead of the 2007 Pats at 13.8 wins.
Given the evidence, there isn't a strong argument for saying that the Patriots are the best team ever. There's plenty of evidence to say they're one of the best teams of ever, even if they lost the last game they played as a team. The Patriots feel like even more of a moment in time when you remember that Brady promptly tore his ACL during the first half of Week 1 the following season, and the Pats ended up missing the playoffs with Matt Cassel at quarterback.
Brady was limited in 2009 as he recovered from the knee injury, but the Patriots still managed to piece together the league's top offensive DVOA. Unfortunately, they lost Welker to a torn ACL in Week 17 before subsequently losing to the Ravens in the worst playoff performance of the Brady era. Moss then got off to a slow start in 2010 before Belichick stunningly struck four games into the season, trading the receiver to the Vikings for a third-round pick and beginning the itinerant end to Moss' career. The Patriots were already transitioning to a new offensive style, having used a pair of draft picks in 2010 on tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
Can this season's Patriots resemble the 2007 squad? In some ways, you can see how it might happen. They're far deeper at running back than ever before after adding Rex Burkhead and Mike Gillislee. Brandin Cooks is the best wide receiver and most devastating downfield threat the Patriots have acquired since Moss, though the 5-foot-10 Cooks is not capable of being the vertical soul-stealer the 6-foot-4 Moss was when Brady would just toss the ball up into double coverage. These Patriots, on the other hand, have Gronkowski, a far more devastating threat at tight end than Watson or Kyle Brady.
The 2017 Patriots' offense should be great. It would hardly be crazy if they turn out to be the best offense in football and if the Pats -- who will face what Football Outsiders projects to be the league's easiest schedule -- end up with 14 wins. If everything goes right, the Patriots could even flirt with perfection for the second time in a decade.
The difference, though, is surprise. We can see a world in which these Patriots are absurdly dominant, and that's because we've already seen the 2007 Patriots. Nobody saw the 2007 Patriots coming until they arrived on the field, fully formed and immediately resetting the bar of what we thought football teams could do in the modern era. Even if the 2017 Patriots go 16-0 and seal the deal by winning the Super Bowl, they won't be a shock to the system in the same way the 2007 Pats revealed themselves to the league. And as we'll discuss Wednesday, they likely won't do so amid fascinating off-the-field scrutiny, either.