bill-belichick-december-2013As Rob Gronkowski sat there on the cart last Sunday afternoon in Foxboro, knee ligaments shredded and a look of disgust on his face, I wondered if the Patriots Super Bowl hopes were being carted unceremoniously off the field along with their star tight end.

For as good as the Patriots are — still the class of the AFC East Division, a team that has beaten both the Denver Broncos and the New Orleans Saints this season, a team buoyed to the top of the AFC Standings year after year behind one of the best Coach/Quarterback duos in history — they’re a team that has little going for them in 2013.

Last year’s Patriots advanced all the way to the AFC Championship game before losing humbly to the Baltimore Ravens, 28-13. Of the nine best players on that team (Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Aqib Talib, Wes Welker, Jerod Mayo, Devin McCourty and Logan Mankins) a maximum of four of them will take the field when the Patriots begin this year’s postseason (assuming of course, that Brady, Mankins, McCourty and Talib make it to January).

If you want to throw in Chandler Jones as a “breakout star” holdover from last year, fine. That’s still only half of their nucleus from a year ago that will be back for this year’s run. Half of a nucleus that wasn’t good enough, albeit.

Yes, every team has injuries. Yes, the AFC is wide open this year. But nobody in either conference is missing half a playoff nucleus from last year, and (more importantly) no team other than the Broncos (and maybe the Saints) has as narrow a championship window as the team from New England.

New England sports fans have been a lucky bunch on this side of the millennium, and no one is going to feel bad when Brady and Bill Belichick finally hang it up and enter retirement. But I got to thinking more about this Patriots franchise and I wonder if New Englanders will be feeling some deja vu in the coming years.

Let me explain.

The 1985-86 Boston Celtics were one of the best teams in NBA history. The team was led by their “Big 3” of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and they won the 1986 NBA Championship over the Houston Rockets in convincing fashion.

Better yet, the C’s had the second pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Sitting there on the board was Maryland forward Len Bias, a generational talent that Red Auerbach giddily snatched up, fulfilling what Bias called “a dream come true.”

Less than 48 hours later, Bias died of a cocaine overdose.

The league that had scoffed at “the rich getting richer” were suddenly mourning the loss of one of its future stars. The player some experts thought of as a taller, better shooting Michael Jordan was gone before he ever played a minute of professional basketball.


The Celtics never got back over the hump to championship glory.

Sure, in 1987 the Celtics made it back to the Finals, only to be turned away by the rival Lakers. Losing out on Bias hurt, but how could any team that had Larry Bird not be an NBA title contender?! (sound familiar?)

While Bird was a player for the ages (like Brady), no player can win a championship in a team sport by his or her self. After Bias’ death, Bird (age 30), McHale (age 29), and Parish (age 33) were done winning titles. Injuries to Bird and McHale derailed them.

The massive minutes the Celtics’ stars had to play crippled the roster. Before anyone could blink, the championship window was closed. The Bad Boy Pistons took control of the NBA Eastern Conference for two years before stepping aside for the first of Michael Jordan’s three-peats.

The Celtics were done.

Here’s the alarming thing about this comparison: The Bird/McHale/Parish Celtics were younger than the current crop of Brady Patriots (he’s 35), and they were better too. Sure, the Patriots had a great team in 2007, but they didn’t get the job done in the Super Bowl.

In 2008, Brady’s ACL tear ended the Patriots' Super Bowl prospects in Week 1. In 2009, the Ravens slaughtered them in the playoffs. After that embarrassment, the Patriots realized they needed to make some improvements or their championship window was about to be slammed shut.

In the 2010 NFL Draft, the Patriots took chances on a pair of tight ends that fell for various reasons.

In the second round, they picked Rob Gronkowski, a tantalizing physical specimen that had missed an entire season at Arizona because of a serious back injury. In the fourth round, they landed Aaron Hernandez, a first-round talent with some off-field concerns.

Neither player had Bias’ hype or draft status, but it didn’t take long for the tight ends to endear themselves to the Patriots’ faithful.

Gronk and Hernandez were impressive, even as rookies. They were so good that Belichick decided to change his entire offensive system early in the season, shipping deep threat Randy Moss to the Minnesota Vikings and having offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien design a scheme involving more short, quick passes and allowing the team to use multiple tight ends in almost every formation.

The team was upset in the playoffs by the rival New York Jets (prompting many to blame Belichick for trading Moss), but the Patriots (like the Celtics) had a vision.

The Pats weren’t planning on rebuilding, not with Brady entering the end of his prime. They wanted to “re-load” and go for broke. While the Celtics saw Bias as the guy to limit Bird and McHale’s minutes and wear-and-tear, the Patriots saw their TE-duo as the guys to evolve their offense from the spread, pass-happy offense inspired by Moss and Wes Welker into a more balanced, versatile, matchup based offense that suited an aging Brady’s skillset better.

Brady won the NFL MVP Award, and the Patriots returned to the Super Bowl in 2011. Gronkowski emerged as the best all-around tight end in the league, and Hernandez was the swiss army knife weapon of the Pats offense — lining up out wide, in the slot, in the backfield and at the traditional TE spot.

A few plays here or there (ahem, Welker) and/or a defensive stop late in the game, and Brady wins his fourth ring. Instead, the team had to wait for 2012 to go for gold once again after getting upset by the New York Giants once again.


In 2012, the Pats traded up twice in the first round of the draft, selecting pass-rusher Chandler Jones and linebacker Dont’a Hightower in an attempt to shore up their defense. They replaced O’Brien (who left for Penn State) with Josh McDaniels, but maintained their TE-centric offensive scheme.

They advanced all the way to the AFC Championship Game, but an injury to Gronkowski decimated their gameplan and the Ravens shut them down in the second half en route their victory. Yes, it was a wasted opportunity, but the window was still open as long as Gronkowski came back healthy in 2013.

2013, as you know, was not kind to the Patriots.

Welker was lost in free agency. Hernandez was arrested on murder charges. Gronkowski had a long and tumultuous recovery from multiple surgeries and missed the first half of the season. Mayo was lost to injury for the season. One week later, Wilfork was too.

And now the events of last Sunday have ended Gronkowski’s season as well, just the latest in a series of (literally) crippling blows to the Patriots.

So now we’re here.

Hernandez has played his last down in the NFL. Who knows if or when Gronkowski will ever be healthy for any lengthy period of time again. Brady is fighting a race against time, a race that now features more turmoil than anyone could have expected.

Like Bird, Brady has had the opportunity to prolong and extend his championship days, and like Bird, it looks like it’s being snatched away. For the Celtics, they had one terrible morning followed by three or four years of agonizing realization that they just weren’t the best of the best anymore.

For the Patriots, the killer blow hasn’t been as immediate, but rather a slow bleeding wound that seems to be re-opened time and time again. Like the late 80’s Celtics, these Patriots have an all-timer at the helm, and they’ll be relevant come playoff time again in 2013.

But like those Celtics, extraordinary circumstances may have finally slammed shut the championship window of these Patriots.

Celtics fans remember Len Bias as the great “What If?” Everyone knew what was expected. Bias was destined to help Bird, McHale, and Parish win a couple more titles before they retired and he got to be the star.

Gronk and Hernandez were destined to be the favorite receivers of Brady and the offensive building blocks for the franchise when No. 12 finally opted to ride off into the sunset as the most accomplished quarterback of all-time.

Now the Patriots are a team just hoping to play well enough to get another shot at a Super Bowl.

They’re a team that’s playing chess with a roster better suited for checkers.

They’re a team that is staring the end of an era right in the face.

They’re a team may soon be asking, “What If?”


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