The year was 2003 and it was early September. The New England Patriots were coming off a non-playoff 9-7 season, which followed their shocking upset of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Five days before the season opener in Buffalo, on Sept. 2, head coach Bill Belichick made the decision to release popular safety Lawyer Milloy. The Bills moved quickly and signed Milloy the following day.
On Sunday, the Patriots never knew what hit them, losing to Buffalo, 31-0. Doom and gloom was the result, at least on the outside, which is why one of the signs posted in their locker room says simply, “Ignore the Noise.”
Usually the Patriots do, although sometimes that’s impossible like when then-ESPN commentator Tom Jackson said during NFL Countdown on the Sunday of the second game that Belichick had lost the locker room. Jackson added that players were so angered by the release of Milloy that “they hate their coach.” Jackson later admitted that no player had told him that.
All the Patriots did was go out and beat the Philadelphia Eagles that day, 31-10.
In an ESPN.com game story, linebacker Willie McGinest said, “We’re all here for a common goal, and that’s to win.”
Said safety Rodney Harrison to ESPN.com the next day, “I respect Tom Jackson, but that is one of the stupidest things I ever heard. He has no idea what we think about Belichick.
“Sometimes you have to make business decisions. I was disappointed that Lawyer left, but it’s business.”
Coincidentally, Belichick was an assistant special teams coach and defensive assistant with the Denver Broncos in 1978 during Jackson’s 14-year career (1973-86) with the franchise.
Asked about Jackson’s comment, Belichick said, “I am not going to dignify the comments with any type of response.”
Of course, if the Patriots had the history then that they have established in the last 15 seasons, few would have questioned them getting off to a slow start to the season.
That has happened with surprising frequency during Belichick’s tenure and is relevant considering the angst some Patriots fans are experiencing with Jimmy Garoppolo set to start at quarterback for the first four games of the season while Tom Brady sits out his four-game suspension.
In those 15 seasons, which have featured six Super Bowl appearances, 10 conference championship games (currently five consecutive), and only two seasons in which they failed to qualify for the postseason, the Patriots have an overall regular-season record of 182-58 (75.8 percent).
They won at least 10 games in 14 seasons: 10 (2), 11 (2), 12 (5), 13 (1), 14 (3), 16 (1).
Yet, they have had five seasons in which they were 2-2 or worse after four games. Conversely, they have often finished the season in stride, stringing together win after win. The proof is in the numbers that follow with the regular-season records in parentheses.
2001 (11-5): The Patriots were 0-2 and 1-3 before winning their last six games of the season and won the Super Bowl.
2002 (9-7): They started 3-0, lost their next four, and won four of the last six, but missed the playoffs.
2003 (14-2): Started 2-2, then won 14 straight games and won the Super Bowl.
2004 (14-2): Started 6-0, and won the Super Bowl.
2005 (10-6): The Patriots were 2-2, 3-3 and 4-4, and closed by winning six of their last eight with a four-game winning streak included. They lost to Denver in the Divisional Round of the playoffs.
2006 (12-4): Started 6-1, and won six of their last seven including the final three games. Lost to Indianapolis in the AFC title game.
2007 (16-0): Enough said. Lost Super Bowl to the Giants.
2008 (11-5): Started 3-2, won five of their last six. Missed the playoffs. Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener, and Matt Cassel took over. Miami, 1-15 the year before, won a tie-breaker for the division title. The Jets were 9-7 and Buffalo 7-9 during a year in which the division benefited by playing the woeful NFC West (22-42 overall) and AFC west (23-41). Had Brady been healthy, the Patriots likely would have been much better than 11-5.
2009 (10-6): Started 3-2, won three of final four games. Lost to Baltimore in the Wild Card round.
2010 (14-2): They were 1-1, won the next five and ended the season with an eight-game winning streak. Lost to the Jets in the Divisional Round.
2011 (13-3): Started 2-1, won three straight and again won the last eight game of the season. Lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants.
2012 (12-4): Started 1-2 and 2-2, won nine of the last 10 and lost to Baltimore in the conference championship game.
2013 (12-4): Started 4-0, won five of the last six and lost to Denver in the conference title game.
2014 (12-4): Started 2-2, including a 41-14 Week 4 loss to Kansas City on Monday Night Football, when again there were those that wondered if the Patriots were on the decline. In the game against the Chiefs, Brady was 14 for 23 for 159 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. They won their next seven games, three of the last four and defeated Seattle in the Super Bowl.
2015 (12-4): Won their first 10 games, but lost the last two, and lost to Denver in the conference championship game.
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi has a theory. He once said on ESPN, “They really believe that first month, September, is an extension of the preseason. They’re still really figuring out who they are, conceptually.”
Which brings us to 2016. Garoppolo and the Patriots will open the season at Arizona, and then play three consecutive home games against Miami, Houston on a Thursday (possibly without defensive end J.J. Watt), and then Buffalo. It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Patriots win three of four, even with the untested Garoppolo under center.
Judging by their history, Patriots fans should breathe easy. Even a 1-3 start won’t be devastating, considering how the team usually finishes. However, what they have to hope is that when Brady returns, the results aren’t what many of the starts of the seasons were like over the last 15 years.