O’Sullivan: Time to get excited for Patriots season

Monitor staff
Thursday, September 07, 2017

Let the rest of the country hate. Let Roger Goodell figure out how to suspend Tom Brady for the Red Sox Apple Watch escapade, or force Bill Belichick to send a second-round pick to the Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas’s bum hip.

Here in New England, it’s time to get excited for our Patriots, who crack open the NFL season Thursday night against the Chiefs … right after they raise another Super Bowl banner in Gillette Stadium. So, in honor of the sixth banner Brady, Belichick & Co. will earn this season, here are six things to look forward to as the greatest team in football history prepares to add more highlights to its reel and separate itself further from the all-time field.

1. It has to start with Brady, who, in my opinion, deserves more credit than anyone for this dynasty, including Belichick. The super-model-strict diet and high-tech pajamas are bizarre, but if that’s what it took to keep Brady at the top of his game and at the top of the league for this long, so be it.

It’s always been easy to root for Brady (at least for New England fans) – the overlooked sixth-round pick who has stayed humble, hard-working, passionate and team-first even as a superstar. And now that he’s 40, it feels even easier to get fired up for No. 12. Maybe, just maybe, some non-New Englanders will even be converted to the church of Tom Terrific now that he’s officially middle-aged. Everyone loved it when Jack Nicklaus won The Masters at age 46 and when Jimmy Connors made a run to the U.S. Open semifinals at age 39. Maybe Brady will get some of that love as he chases a sixth Super Bowl win at age 40.

2. Brady isn’t the only one defying time in Foxborough. Belichick, 65, is the league’s oldest coach. Sure, he’s only got Seattle’s Pete Carroll beat by a few months, but the average age of current NFL coaches is 52. The average age for AFC East coaches who don’t like to cut the sleeves off their hoodies is 45. And Belichick is more than twice as old as the league’s youngest coach, 31-year-old Sean McVay of the Los Angeles Rams. Think about this – Belichick began working in the NFL 11 years before McVay was born.

The worry is that older guys lose their desire, and the work ethic it takes, to dominate. Given what Belichick did this offseason, it sure feels like he still enjoys crushing the hopes and dreams of every other NFL team and fan base, which leads to my next three points…

3. Seeing new players in your team’s uniform is one of the treats of every new season, and these Patriots have some tasty new treats after Belichick’s offseason shopping. For me it starts with cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who also started the free-agent process for New England this summer. Belichick doesn’t usually make quick moves for big money with free agents, but he broke that trend when he signed Gilmore in March for $65 million.

Having Gilmore and Malcolm Butler at the corners will allow Belichick and Matt Patricia to cook up all kinds of devious defensive schemes. Plus, the Gilmore/Butler combo brings me back to my earliest days of Patriots fandom when I thought Mike Haynes and Raymond Clayborn were the coolest duo of bad-asses on the planet.

4. Watching Julian Edelman blow out his ACL in the preseason was painful, but Patriots fans could all find some comfort knowing that Brandin Cooks, another one of Belichick’s offseason acquisitions, is here to fill Edelman’s shoes. Brady has rarely had a weapon like Cooks – an elite young athlete in his prime who also has a first-class football mind.

The 23-year-old Cooks only had two catches for 15 yards in the preseason, but that just means he’s got plenty of gas in the tank to put on a show in the regular season. He may not have the connection with Brady that it took years for Edelman to build, but Cooks has the explosiveness, hands and grit that should quickly make him a Brady, and fan, favorite.

5. The other noteworthy offensive addition to this team is running back Mike Gillislee. With defenses rightly worried about Brady, the 220-pound Gillislee should find plenty of open lanes for his straight-ahead, downhill style. But what will make watching Gillislee extra fun is knowing that the Patriots signed him away from their version of the Washington Generals (the Harlem Globetrotter’s hapless foe), the Buffalo Bills. Seriously, would it surprise anyone to see Belichick throw a bucket full of confetti on Buffalo Coach Sean McDermott after the Patriots beat the Bills on Dec. 3?

6. Gronk.

That’s probably says enough for most Pats fans, but I’ll extrapolate. Honestly, what’s more fun than watching uber tight end Rob Gronkrowski roll over defenders as he rumbles down the field? It’s more fun than the combined joy of watching Isaiah Thomas in the fourth (I like the trade, but I’m still going to miss that little guy), the Red Sox outfielders dance and the Bruins … well, whatever it is the Bruins do well.

Having Gronk play just eight games definitely made 2016 less enjoyable, although a certain comeback in the Super Bowl made his absence easier to forget. The man-child still did his “Yo soy fiesta” thing in the offseason, taking part in music videos, WrestleMania and victory lane at the Daytona 500. But Gronk also went on Brady’s diet and started working out with Brady’s trainer, Alex Guerrero, in hopes of staying healthy for a full season for the first time since 2011.

“I’m super excited. I mean, we’ve been practicing now since like July 25, about 45 days,” Gronkowski told the media on Tuesday. “Just so many practices going on and on, so just super excited now to get to the game, super excited to play. It’s been a while, and I just can’t wait to get out there.”

Fortunately, the waiting is just about over and it’s time for all of New England to get super excited.

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)