Saying the right thing and actually practicing what you preach can differ significantly. The 2002 Patriots found that out firsthand when they attempted to defend their world championship. Two weeks and two convincing wins into that season, safeties Tebucky Jones and Lawyer Milloy talked of "trying to be great." But after squeaking out a third win, the Patriots crashed to reality with four straight losses and eventually missed the playoffs - one of 12 defending champions that has done just that.
Why then should anyone believe veteran safety Rodney Harrison, who was not
a part of the team's last title defense, when he says that last year has been
forgotten and "no one cares about the Super Bowl."
"Everyone in the league is gunning for the Patriots," Harrison said. "Everyone. And if they think we're going to be relaxed, content and complacent, they have another thing coming. We're going to work even harder this year."
Blah, blah, blah. All those phrases were uttered two years ago as well, and while the 2002 Patriots certainly weren't complacent, they were unprepared to handle all the things they talked about in July of that year. When it was all over and the team watched its playoff hopes disappear with the Jets Week 17 win over the Packers, many of the players acknowledged as much.
So perhaps a different tact should be taken this year. Why should the Patriots forget about last season if the opponents are all using it as motivation to knock off them off? Why not embrace it and use it as a source of pride and motivation to retain it what they earned?
The reason, of course, is because that's just not Belichick's way, and he has to hope that his experience as the head coach of a defending champion and the experience of the 22 players that were on the 2001 and 2002 clubs and remain Patriots today pays dividends this time around.
"That experience will hopefully serve us well," linebacker Ted Johnson said. "We can all talk about experience, but I can only hope it helps us. We weren't complacent in 2000. Things just didn't work out for us."
The 2001 world champion Patriots came out of nowhere to win it all, and the 2002 team finished only two games worse, dropping from 11-5 to 9-7, yet still finished in a three-way tie atop the AFC East while losing the third tie-breaker for the division title.
"One play or one game and we're in the playoffs and it's a different season,"
Johnson said in reference to 2002. "All it shows is that there is a fine
line between winning and losing. If you realize that, and we do, you stay hungry
and realize everyone is evenly matched and you can't expect to slap it out there
"We'll go out there like we didn't accomplish anything. It's business as usual and that's how this team operates best."
But is anything usual for a defending champ? Doing what they did last year won't likely be enough in 2004 if teams are indeed "gunning" for them.
To be sure, the 2004 Patriots are more talented than the 2002 club and quarterback
Tom Brady's added experience and improved offensive arsenal can only help. But
what is the best way to avoid what is becoming an annual pratfall for the defending
champs - three out of the last five of which have failed to make the playoffs
in their title defense season?
Is it to forget and move on as if Carolina is the defending champ or keep it
fresh, knowing that everyone wants to knock you off the mountain, and you are
alone in taking on all challengers? The Patriots, for the most part, are taking
the fuhget-about-it approach. "Last year was last year," Brady said,
echoing Belichick's sentiments. "What happened last year, the outcome,
the way the team played ... nobody else cares. It's a new year. There are new
players. It's a different team and a different feeling."
All that is true and no right-minded soul would ever suggest resting on laurels or living off past success - the dynamics Belichick works so diligently to avoid - but can't the team work as hard as ever and re-start the "brick-by-brick" building process Belichick often describes as necessary while recalling its championship past and trying to build off of it?
All Pro Richard Seymour doesn't seem to have a problem with that. "We're vying for a spot in history," he said. "We have to play for the season and what's here right now, but when you look at the grand scheme, we have a chance to win three out of four Super Bowls (which only the 1992-1995 Cowboys have done). We have our work cut out for us and it's not going to be easy, but we have the formula for it."
Belichick would not approve of that line of thinking because the grand scheme
looks past the Indianapolis Colts - the Patriots Week One opponent. But Seymour
also understands and buys into Belichick's successful ways and won't allow that
thinking to skew his approach and preparation.
"I think he keeps everything in perspective. He has his philosophy and it's important in the way we think. He sets the tone for everything else. But I think you have to know where you are and where you want to go. We're building on it while staying focused and humble."
For some reason, it's not OK to discuss last year, but the 2004 season also has nothing to do with 2002, yet the veteran holdovers from that club are certainly trying to call on that title defense experience. So why not the Super Bowl experience?
"We have a coach that demands it be this way, that won't allow complacency. There is always pressure being on top," Johnson said, acknowledging the team's lofty perch. "People take a close look at you under the microscope. They want to see how you did it and dissect you. We aren't sneaking up on anybody and that's a big difference. That's a totally different way to play. It's going to be harder to win football games this year and it was hard last year."
So it's OK to acknowledge the difficulties of defending the title, but not OK to acknowledge the title itself. That doesn't make much sense, but then again Belichick is the one who has won two of the last three Super Bowls, which makes it difficult to question his philosophy and approach. He is, after all, a master of preparation, a stickler for detail and is quite knowledgeable when it comes to NFL history.
So it must be that he feels that bad memories serve as better motivators since he's already made it clear to his team that none of the last five champions won their division title the following season.
"We are not going to believe the hype this year," cornerback Ty Law said. "We have experience that was around to witness what happened. We didn't defend our last championship well and we missed the playoffs by one game. We will just take it one game at a time."
There it is - the old cliche. The Patriots remain on 15 one-game winning streaks as they prepare for 2004. But perhaps they should call on the championship experiences of 2001 and 2003 rather than the failed title defense of 2002. Forgetting about the 2002 title resulted in a missed-playoff season in 2002. The words uttered in July ended up hollow in December. So taken in that perspective, perhaps the 2004 Patriots have more to prove than any of its three previous clubs. After all, no one cares about last year except for all those teams gunning to knock off the champion. They aren't forgetting about it so why should the Patriots?
CAMP CALENDAR: Camp opened July 29 and closes Aug. 18.
Answer to Trivia Question: What are the other teams to win back to back Superbowls?
- Green Bay Packers 1967 - 68 (Superbowls 1 and 2)
- Miami Dolphins 1973-74 (Superbowls 7 and 8)
- Pittsburgh Steelers 1975-76 + 79-80 (Superbowls 9,10 , 12 and 13)
- San Fancisco 49ers 1989-90 (Superbowls 23 and 24)
- Dallas Cowboys 1993-94 (Superbowls 28 and 28)
- Denver Broncos 1998-99 (Superbowls 32 and 33)