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Sunday, July 21, 2013

What Spygate Teaches Us About Hernandez & the 2013 Patriots

The New England Patriots face one of the biggest off-field distractions in team history. The season has barely begun, yet the team faces intense scrutiny from fans and experts alike. Media hordes descend upon Foxboro, MA looking to interrogate Kraft, Belichick or any other Patriots personnel. We are left to wonder: How will the Patriots respond to this uncomfortable and challenging situation?

If this narrative sounds immediately familiar to you, it's probably because the Patriots went through an analagous crisis in 2007.

In a scandal that was dubbed "Spygate" by the national sports media, the Patriots failed to comply with videotaping regulations set forth by the NFL. The team was fined $250,000 and docked a first round pick in the 2008 draft. Coach Bill Belichick was also personally fined $500,000 for his role in the affair. The team, already disliked/envied nationally for their recent run of success, suddenly had an even larger target on their backs.

So how did the Patriots respond? They turned their shame into one of the most memorable regular seasons in NFL football history. In many ways, their actions in 2007 could show us the blueprint for how they plan to respond this season:

1. Addressing the Controversy

THEN: In 2007, Belichick tried to squelch the issue early on the season by accepting full responsibility and apologizing to Bob Kraft and Patriots fans. He also released a one paragraph statement confirming his meeting with Roger Goodell and accepting his punishment. (Belichick would later apologize to the other NFL owners at their annual meeting.) Instead of letting the scandal linger, the Patriots coach got in front and accepted blame so the team could move on.

NOW: With Hernandez, the Patriots quickly decided they would cut the player if he was arrested in any way in conjunction with the murder case. I would expect a prepared statement and a lot of "no comment"s when Belichick holds his first press conference this week. Also, Belichick can use his favorite "I'm only talking about guys on our team" excuse when the media grills him.

2. Taking It Out On the Opposition

THEN: In the first game after the Spygate controversy, the Patriots dismantled the San Diego Chargers at Gillette Stadium. Tedy Bruschi dedicated the victory to all Patriots players, past and present, who he felt were unjustly maligned that week. It was the first of many no-mercy blowouts the Patriots would exact on opponents that season. It wasn't enough for them to just beat opponents; the team set out to make every game a statement win.

NOW: Tom Brady has lost many of his key weapons from last year. Without Welker, Lloyd, Hernandez and possibly Gronkowski to start the season, it might be difficult for the Patriots to score through the air. Their first three opponents are the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers who are all susceptible to blowouts. If the new Patriots offense is capable, they will try to make a statement that they won't skip a beat without Hernandez and others.

3. Creating New Motivations

THEN: The 2007 Patriots decided early on that they were going for 16-0. They wanted to score score as many TDs as they could, and they wanted to embarrass as many teams as they could. Tom Brady and Randy Moss set single season TD records, respectively.

NOW: This year's team will not be able to match the 2007 squad in offensive production. However, they could set some new goals to accomplish. One new goal might be to use their stable of RBs and hurry up offense to lead the league in rushing. Another goal might be to use their youth and speed on defense to create a new attacking strategy built upon blitzing and man-to-man coverage.

4. Just Win, Baby

THEN and NOW: While the Patriots have not won another Super Bowl since the Spygate controversy occurred, the team has had incredible success in the regular season. Since the beginning of 2007, the Patriots regular season record is 76-20 (.792 winning percentage). The true constant has been the Patriots success at racking up wins, before and after "Spygate."

The website created a statistic (Simple Rating System, or "SRS") that measures how one NFL team is compared to another. As you can see below, the Patriots annual ratings since Spygate have been among their highest regular season ratings in this (or any) era**:
**Note: The Patriots' SRS in 2012 was 12.8, meaning Belichick has actually produced four of his five best regular season teams since Spygate.

The 2007 Patriots became the first (and only) NFL team in history to finish the regular season 16-0 and came within a miracle catch of winning the Super Bowl and going 19-0. While the teams and circumstances may be different, it is hard not to draw a parallel between dealing with the distractions caused by Spygate and the ones caused by the actions of Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots created new motivations and channeled their anger into damage on the gridiron.

So if history is any indication, the 2013 Patriots should still be successful despite all the noise. You could argue that they should be as ruthless and motivated as ever to prove they still have what it takes to dominate. Likely this will translate into points and least in the regular season, that is. Losing Hernandez however won't make getting that 4th Lombardi Trophy any easier.

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