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.
After looking back on Tuesday at the on-field success of the 2007 Patriots, on Wednesday I'm evaluating the ways that team influenced how we think about Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots franchise as a whole a decade later.
It seems impossible to imagine for a team that has been favored to win 85 of its most recent 100 games, but the Patriots were lovable underdogs once upon a time. The "Tuck Rule" victory over the Oakland Raiders in a snowstorm in the divisional round in 2002 really thrust Brady and the Patriots into the national spotlight, but the win that launched the Patriots dynasty came against the St. Louis Rams as 14-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXXVI.
While any team that prevails as two-touchdown underdogs is likely to engender a ton of fan support, the Patriots went a step beyond in terms of broad national appeal. They famously were introduced to the crowd before the Super Bowl as a team, in lieu of individual introductions, a move that seems downright corny today but spoke to the relative lack of stars on their roster at the time. (Lawyer Milloy, one of the team's four Pro Bowlers, said after the win that the Pats had no standout defensive players.)
This was a team named the Patriots wearing red, white and blue jerseys and winning a Super Bowl during a season interrupted by the Sept. 11 attacks. Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi was the brother of three New York City firemen, one of whom narrowly escaped the collapse of Tower 1. The NFL and Fox changed the theme of the Super Bowl that year from a Mardi Gras motif to "Hope, Heroes and Homeland." Patriots owner Robert Kraft jumped on board, saying before the Super Bowl, "I'd like to think it's part of God's handiwork we're in the Super Bowl and we have the name Patriots." After the game, Kraft let everyone in. "We're all patriots," the 60-year-old said, "and tonight the Patriots are world champions." Only people with Missouri IDs or Rams bets in their pockets were rooting against the Patriots that night.
In the years to come, the Patriots solidified their position as one of the great teams in football. After struggling to a frustrating 9-7 mark in 2002, Belichick's team established itself as a dynasty with consecutive 14-win seasons and Super Bowl victories in 2003 and 2004. Outside of the Patriots' being perceived as an overly physical team for manhandling Indianapolis' receivers during the 2003 AFC Championship Game, they weren't a team with a particularly strong personality.
The Pats were built upon depth and a middle class of talent, with just two of their players -- Brady and Ty Law -- making more than $5 million during the 2004 season. They were portrayed as the contrast to the me-first attitude of players such as Terrell Owens and Freddy Mitchell in advance of that Super Bowl. The Tampa Tribune, in a story on Jan. 24, 2005, was in awe of Brady's living large despite his "third-string personality."
Even as the Patriots fell short of the Super Bowl in 2005 and 2006, they didn't appear to have a reputation as much more than a very good football team. Neutral fans were unquestionably sick of the endless Brady-Manning/Patriots-Colts hype, but that's true of any rivalry that enjoys as much national attention as those two teams did at the time. In 2007, though, that all changed.
I don't think there's a need to reiterate in detail what happened as part of the Spygate scandal, given that it was covered at great length for many months in 2007. In short, the Jets complained that the Patriots had been taping their defensive signals on the sideline, which was against league rules. The story quickly ballooned and eventually included destroyed videotapes, a threatened Congressional investigation, and an endless stream of present and former players who had opinions to share about what happened.
The story polarized any discussion surrounding New England, particularly as it became clear that the 2007 Patriots were a special football team on the field. If you're unfortunate enough to find yourself reading a discussion about literally anything to do with the Patriots on social media, you'll encounter the same debate. The Patriots are either totally innocent of all charges and subject to a massive conspiracy in an attempt to prevent them from Doing Their Jobs or a totally fraudulent franchise that would have been relegated to the Arena League years ago if it weren't for Belichick's unique ability to cheat his way to multiple championships.
Neither side has much of a point; as always, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle. In terms of on-field impact, it's hard to argue Spygate wasn't horribly overblown. It's exceedingly unlikely that the Patriots were the only team stealing signals. As recently as this year, Tony Dungy talked about how the Colts and other teams from his past stole the other team's defensive signals, albeit without recording them on videotape.
Jets coach Eric Mangini, a former Patriots defensive coordinator under Belichick, might very well have been lobbing the complaint as an annoyance after the Patriots accused the Jets of tampering with New England's attempt to trade Deion Branch the previous year, a claim that was denied. In 2011, Mangini went on NFL Live and said he regretted ever making the complaint and that it didn't offer any kind of "significant advantage."
The story was basically used as a catch-all to discredit the Patriots' run toward the top of the NFL. Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers was concerned that the Patriots might have been taping sidelines to gain an advantage during Pittsburgh's prior playoff losses to New England, which is plausible.
Less logical were the arguments from fans and NFL executives at the time, most notably 1972 Dolphins coach Don Shula, that the Patriots' 2007 season was tainted or aided by the taping. That doesn't make any sense. The Patriots certainly weren't taping any sidelines after the Jets reported them in Week 1, given that every single one of their opponents would have been looking out toward the sideline for anything untoward. They never had a chance to use the signals they taped from the Jets. And while they might very well have had tapes from years past before they were submitted to Roger Goodell and subsequently destroyed, every single team playing the Patriots from Week 2 on that season would have changed its signals to avoid any possibility that New England would have a competitive edge. Anything less would have been suicidally lazy.
Spygate was overblown in a similar way to the subsequent Deflategate scandal several years later, with Tom Brady likely expressing a preference for deflated footballs in a similar vein to Aaron Rodgers' preference for inflated footballs. The most meaningful case of the Patriots' stretching the rules was the eligible receiver trick they ran out as part of their playoff comeback victory over the Baltimore Ravens, but that wasn't actually illegal. (It was unfair to the Ravens, but that was the officiating crew's fault for not giving them appropriate time to substitute.)
If you talk to NFL executives operating outside of New England, though, there's certainly a perception that the Patriots and Belichick aren't always operating on the level, even if they aren't specifically concerned about the Spygate or Deflategate scandals. Teams are warier of Belichick's suggestions to the Competition Committee, worried that he is seeing an angle they aren't. There is a sentiment that the communication systems between the sidelines and the offensive and defensive signal-callers seem to fail more often in Foxborough than they do anywhere else, and while the Patriots would have had to shut down their coach-to-coach communication system if the opposing team's system failed, that wasn't true for the system linking coaches and players.
The Jacksonville Jaguars had major issues with their communications in New England during the 2005 playoffs, but the only time that popped up as a problem for the opposing team during the 2007 season was in the Pats' 52-7 rout of Washington in Week 8. It seems bizarre that the Patriots would choose to employ what could offer a substantial advantage during a game they led 24-0 by halftime, though, and Belichick complained about both the Colts' piping in crowd noise and the coach-to-quarterback communication system's failure during New England's trip to Indianapolis the following week.
Regardless of whether Belichick really gained a competitive advantage from taping the opposing sideline, his public opinion cratered. Overnight, though his perception among Patriots fans barely budged, the national media and many fans of other teams found a reason to dislike the league's preeminent coach.
Consider that from the beginning of Belichick's reign as Patriots coach in September 2000 through the end of August 2007, a newspaper search reveals a total of 197 hits for stories including "Belichick" and the word "cheat" or "cheating." Many of those were stories that didn't suggest anything foul about Belichick and just happened to include one of the latter words; for reference, there were 227 articles over that time frame incorporating "Belichick" and "pizza," and nobody was implying that Belichick was secretly running a Papa Gino's franchise on the side in Massachusetts.
From Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 1, 2008, though, there were 1,210 articles including "Belichick" and "cheat" or "cheating." The word "Cheatriots" was regrettably breathed into existence as early as Sept. 14. Anyone who doubts that Belichick is a great coach is a fool -- he might very well be the best coach in league history -- but it would be equally naive to pretend that the various -gate scandals haven't colored his legacy.
Belichick always did an excellent job of fostering within his locker room the belief that his team wasn't being appropriately respected by outsiders, so it's no surprise that after Spygate broke, the story became that the Patriots were stomping their opposition as revenge for the perception that they were cheaters. Patriots players confirmed as much to ESPN's Seth Wickersham in 2013. "[It] was a matter of, we're not just going to stick it to you, we're going to stick it to you a little more than we usually have," Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said. Added cornerback Ellis Hobbs: "We're going to keep putting points on the board. We didn't care. With Spygate, we had to over-satisfy."
It's difficult to cheer as a neutral for a team reveling in running up the score, but I'm a little skeptical that the Patriots were doing anything out of the ordinary. For one, the Pats weren't under the lens of Spygate during Week 1, and they had no qualms about laying the wood to the Jets in a 38-14 shellacking at the Meadowlands.
Were the Patriots running up the score, as opposed to the time-honored tradition of successful teams running the clock down late in blowouts? There's no perfect answer, but let's estimate. If the Patriots were concerned with running up the score, you figure they would have been passing in an attempt to move the ball downfield.
Since 2001, 45 teams have taken 40 or more offensive snaps while leading by 25 or more points during the fourth quarter. Those 45 teams threw the ball just 22.7 percent of the time in the fourth quarter, which is no surprise. In those same spots, the 2007 Patriots threw the ball 27.5 percent of the time. That was slightly above league-average, but it was 14th among the 45 teams. The 2014 Patriots threw the ball nearly 43 percent of the time in those spots, while the 2003 Chiefs were throwing 38.7 percent of the time. Brady threw all of five passes in that situation all season.
Like Belichick, Brady's personality and public persona had shifted by the time the 2007 season was finished. Gone was the "aw shucks" quarterback who won without revealing much of himself. By the time the Patriots lost to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, Brady was the league's best player and its most preeminent celebrity, a path he has continued on ever since.
I wrote about Brady's dramatic leap in performance on the field after the Patriots gave him some sorely needed weapons and added Randy Moss and Wes Welker to the offense. Before, Brady was a winner; after, Brady was a winner who had produced arguably the best season of any quarterback in the history of the NFL.
Furthermore, off the field, Brady's persona changed even further. It was a process started in 2006, when Brady ended his relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan and started dating supermodel Gisele Bündchen, which complicated his public character when it was revealed that Moynihan was pregnant with Brady's child.
There's nothing morally wrong with what happened, and it isn't really anyone's place to cast judgment on Brady's private relationships, but it unquestionably attracted attention Brady hadn't received during his professional career. The Providence Journal lamented that Brady, previously a "throwback to a simpler time," had finally tainted his image. "I suspect that we will never look at him in quite the same way," Bill Reynolds wrote in the paper, "that this will exact its own little pound of flesh."
Brady was becoming a different sort of endorser, too. During New England's runs to the Super Bowl, Brady was a selective pitchman. He did advertisements for Cadillac locally in Massachusetts, eventually suing the company, but otherwise opted for everyman companies in line with both his and the Patriots' image. Brady endorsed Dunkin' Donuts, as every star athlete in Boston must during his or her career. He was part of a Hershey's deal with Donovan McNabb in advance of their Super Bowl matchup. Brady was in print ads for The Gap and shilled for Sirius satellite radio subscriptions before the company merged with the larger XM satellite radio company in 2007.
By 2007, Brady was ready to make his move. He started representing several products more in line with his future persona, including Stetson cologne, Glaceau drinks and Movado watches. This was the biggest thrust of Brady's transition from just-another-guy to The Man, giving up his past as the underdog for his new role as the preeminent football player in America.
It didn't stop there. In 2010, Brady moved on from Nike to represent Under Armour in exchange for an equity stake in the company, a game-changing move that was hardly a surprise from a player who reportedly insisted on meeting with the CEO of every company he endorsed. Years later, he started selling Uggs, transitioned from Movado to the more upscale Tag Heuer brand and swapped Smartwater and Vitamin Water for a drink that promised to aid healing from concussions and, eventually, his own plant-only food delivery service. The guy who was running ads for Dunkin' Donuts now sells an Aston Martin car he helped design.
The ways we think about Belichick and Brady now have more of their roots in what happened in and around the 2007 season than in any other year of their lives. They and the Patriots have had plenty of success both before and after that fateful campaign, but you can't tell the story of New England's dynasty without devoting the longest chapter to its most bitterly disappointing season.