SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 23, 2013

Our view: Pats face challenges on gridiron this fall


The Salem News

---- — Seems like the “Patriot Way” isn’t going quite the way we’ve come to expect.

For loyal fans of the New England Patriots, the onset of Labor Day is a time of anticipation and great hope. The National Football League season officially starts Sept. 5, with the Patriots first game scheduled for Sept. 8 in Buffalo.

But this year’s preseason has been troubling. The usual businesslike Patriots have had far more than their share of setbacks and embarrassments.

We normally look to our superstar quarterback Tom Brady to continue his reliable and impressive onfield performance. We normally expect his handful of equally reliable receivers to carry the team to the playoffs, as they have over the majority of the past dozen seasons. And then there’s coach Bill Belichick, who always has a few schemes up his sleeve. Usually he has a move or two that makes us scratch our chins in doubt, but then ultimately we entrust our faith in him that somehow he’s seen something that we don’t.

The first kickoff of the regular season hasn’t even occurred yet, and already there are signs that this won’t be our usual feast of hope and good fortune, at least at the offset.

First, it was the ongoing saga of Rob “Gronk” Gronkowski’s injuries. The reliable tight end has been one of the team’s superstars, a steamrolling ball carrier whom defenders bounced off. But he’s also been plagued with a steady diet of injuries, and it’s now highly doubtful that he will start this season.

Next, there was the shocking and sudden loss of Wes Welker, Brady’s favorite go-to guy. The speedy and tough receiver is one of the best in the league. A badly botched contract negotiation saw Welker walk to the Denver Broncos. Patriots owner Robert Kraft blamed Welker’s agent for the fiasco, but whomever is to blame, the result is the same. Old reliable Wes is gone.

Next, it was Aaron Hernandez, Gronk’s sidekick at tight end. Hernandez proved to be a solid counterpart to Gronkowski on the field, and filled in admirably when Gronk was off the field due to injuries. Hernandez has stolen the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons — he awaits his fate in jail as he stands accused of murder, and may face more charges in connection with a multiple homicide.

Then there was Belichick’s much-watched, high profile gamble. He brought in Tim Tebow, the enigma of the NFL. Tebow has great talent, strength and speed, but has yet to meet the very high expectations placed upon him. Last week, perplexed fans watched Tebow struggle at quarterback during a preseason game.

But adversity is always the 12th player on a football team. There are always injuries and setbacks to contend with. The best teams are the ones that find a way to plug in the gap, and perhaps come out stronger.

The Patriots have always been very good at this. They’ve placed great faith in Welker’s replacement, Danny Amendola. It’s expected that Gronk will return at some point this season. Hopefully Belichick has a role for Tebow, perhaps not as a quarterback. And there are some talented rookies that may emerge as surprising success stories. The team’s defense remains relatively strong, and Brady looks sharp as ever.

It is not business as usual for Pats fans this year, but perhaps it will bring us back to the days of 2001 when a bunch of unknown players rose to the occasion.