FOXBORO — You can’t win the Super Bowl in the offseason, but you can lose it … For reference, check out the 2006 Patriots.
But looking at the past 168 days since Manningham’s miracle and Welker’s wobble in Indy, you have to give Bill Belichick astounding marks for what he’s accomplished with this New England Patriots football team.
Belichick was handed a semester of gut courses …
He has Tom Brady in his prime.
He had a pair of first-round picks.
And past frugality plus the ever-rising, pretty much inconsequential salary cap have afforded the Pats and Belichick absolute financial freedom to explore every option.
… And he knocked every one out of the park.
Straight A’s on all counts. Nothing lackadaisical here.
Your defending AFC champions open training camp Thursday on campus at Patriots Place and Belichick has reloaded masterfully on the fly, creating competition — quality competition, not desperation as we’ve seen the past 2-3 years in this secondary for the 31st-rated defense in the game.
Honestly, there should be an air of excitement here as camp begins like we haven’t seen here since 2003 or 2004. There isn’t, of course, simply because this franchise and its fans are still a bit shell-shocked.
This defense, until it steps on the field and kicks somebody in the chin, remains timid and untrustworthy. Forget the No. 31 ranking. Just look at the way Joe Flacco, in the AFC title game, and Eli Manning, in Super Bowl XLVI, dictated terms to this group.
Belichick went off the board in April, going for impact on defense like he never has here — two first-round picks exhausted on the front seven.
The Patriots did not shoot for a “four-down” contributor when they moved up to 21 to grab Chandler “Manhandler” Jones and slid up to 25 to nab Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower.
Nope. Jones is a pass-rusher, 3rd-down specialist, and Hightower is a hard-charging, downhill scraping linebacker, who can play anywhere in the box.
Hopefully, both will develop into stars, but Belichick can afford to bat .500 here, as long as the hit is for extra bases. No Jerod Mayo sharp singles to left here — muscle up and find a feared banger.
Elsewhere, the coach did all he could to solidify things. This camp again marks a “show me you can play or see you later” for a handful of young defenders, each of whom has shown at least a blip.
Much is expected of Brandon Spikes, Devin McCourty and Ras-I Dowling as the team puts the pads and helmets on for the first time this week, not to be just starters but to make the plays that a champion makes.
This franchise didn’t need a prayer answered back in 2003 and 2004. It didn’t have to get a Billy Cundiff choke/gift. The Patriots took what they wanted back then.
Belichick has spent the last five months-plus trying to re-develop that attitude. No job is safe on this defense. Upgrades should be made everywhere.
Even Mayo, the tackling machine and leader on this numbingly mediocre defense the past four years, has to wonder about his future status here.
Spikes’ finally got healthy and played his best football in the playoffs last year. And Hightower is primarily an inside backer. Could the rookie push Mayo out?
On offense, again Belichick showed off his efficiency. He had already prepped for Matt Light’s retirement with potential replacements in Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon.
He made the intelligent move, slapping the franchise tag on Wes Welker, allowing another year for Aaron Hernandez to transition out from tight end to the slot as insurance if Welker goes.
Brandon Lloyd has star potential outside, and the coach didn’t over-value BenJarvus Green-Ellis, allowing him to exit with a handful able replacements in place, including newcomer Joe Addai.