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September 05. 2013 11:24PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Belichick, Brady are reasons for optimism

It was as frustrating an offseason as Patriots fans have had to endure in quite a while, new reasons to lose faith seeming to arise regularly, without many interruptions from new reasons to feel good.

Important players went to the operating table, or to a rival team, or to jail. The status of a starting cornerback has been unsettled since midsummer as he awaits a court date that could impact his season. The draft came and went, seemingly without adding a player who can make an immediate impact on the defensive side. Free agency passed similarly, too, except for a couple players who come in with equal parts uncertainty and potential.

It was frustrating because after being soundly beaten by the Ravens in the AFC championship game, and because after watching productive players leave, fans wanted to see the Patriots be more aggressive in improving and addressing the team's personnel. But as the season begins anew, any lingering frustration about who's gone, or who isn't here, should be overcome by the fact of who is.

They've still got Bill Belichick. And they've still got Tom Brady.

They've still got the coach, and they've still got the quarterback — and while that may seem oversimplified and trite, in today's NFL it's enough to justify that the expectations remain the same in New England as they've been for a decade, which is to say the mentality of the Patriots and their fans should be nothing short of Super Bowl or bust.

The potency of pairing a quality coach with an upper-echelon quarterback has long been a recipe for success, as New England well knows after enjoying a dozen years of success. But those two positions have become even more important — and impactful — as rules changes have shaped modern-day football. Just look at last season.

The Colts were the worst team in the league, and didn't dramatically upgrade their roster except by bringing Andrew Luck in at QB, plus Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians to coach, and they made the playoffs. Peyton Manning and Robert Griffin III joined good, established coaches and took the Broncos and Redskins up a level. Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick did the same for the Seahawks and 49ers, and both those teams are considered NFC favorites this season because of the playmakers behind center and the culture established by a high-energy coach.

Conversely, look at what happened to the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger missed a chunk of the season, and the Saints when Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season.

It's not impossible to have success — or even to win a Super Bowl — without a coach and a quarterback who are among the best in their profession. But having both is typically enough to at least keep a team competitive. And not only do the Patriots have a couple that are among the best, they have a couple that might in fact be THE best in their respective roles.

So until that's no longer the case, the Patriots should be considered one of the teams to beat.Other pieces come. Other pieces go. It's happened a few times since Brady and Belichick began their reign, in fact. Troy Brown gave way to Wes Welker who gives way to Danny Amendola. At different points David Patten, Deion Branch, Reche Caldwell, Randy Moss and Brandon Lloyd have all been primary targets. In the past 12 seasons the Pats have had six different players lead them in rushing.Only one player is still part of the franchise that were here for its first two Super Bowl titles — and, really, he's the only one who matters. They can fill in the pieces around him as often as needed. And as long as those guys buy into Belichick, and Brady sustains his level of excellence, so should the operation as a whole.

It's hard to envision a dramatic dropoff coming for Brady the season after he threw for 4,827 yards, 34 touchdowns and eight interceptions, even if Welker is in Denver, Aaron Hernandez is in jail, and Rob Gronkowski is in injury limbo. He and Amendola appear to have a connection, rookies Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Zach Sudfeld look ready to at least perform capably, and between Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and LaGarrette Blount, the Pats have a diverse and potentially dangerous running game.

The offensive line returns intact, and the defense comes back with another year of experience after showing some growth — particularly in the secondary — toward the end of last year. They should be better, and the schedule should help them, too, as they'll face underwhelming rookie QBs in each of the first two weeks.

Things get tougher from there, as the Pats face the Buccaneers, Falcons, Bengals and Saints the four weeks after that. Any of those teams could beat New England at that point in the year. But don't fret, Patriots fans, if they do. Over the past three years, Belichick's team has lost only one game in the second half of the season. It's always a building process for this team, which seeks to play its best later in the year — and this season that figures to be as true as ever, given the group's inexperience.

More than the record, between now and November the biggest thing to watch will be the way the younger players meet the demands put upon them. "We like to say that dependability is more important than ability," Belichick said this week, and that factor will bear itself out in the way roles and responsibilities are divvied up.

If a player proves himself and meets the challenge early, he'll win trust and opportunity. And those will be the players who shape this season later.

"The mental toughness, the work ethic, the core principles and fundamentals of the game have not been tested under game conditions," Brady said. "They've been tested in preseason, in practice and workouts, but nothing is like the games. Especially when there are 70,000 people in the stands, they're televised and there are millions of people watching on TV. That's where you see the best of the best."

And that's where, frustrations behind them, Patriots fans should expect their team to be.


Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.


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