In a season in which the past was supposed to be forgotten, wiped clean off the walls of Gillette Stadium, it has suddenly become the centerpiece. The new hope for nouveau New England is to kick it old school on offense. Diva wide receivers need not apply.
The past was once passe at Patriot Place. Remember all the talk about the pictures of Patriots' triumphs of yesteryear being taken away and the past put away? Now, with a pass-catching piece of it back in the fold, Deion Branch, it's all the rage. It's being cited as the reason the Patriots will not only survive, but thrive without the presence of Randy Moss and his 50 touchdowns the last three-plus seasons.
The Patriots are going back to the future.
Sunday's game against the Ravens (last seen pummeling and humbling the Patriots in the playoffs) is suddenly a reason to reminisce about the good old days, and hope for a return to them. Suddenly, Branch is back in the preferred laundry, and he's the perfect piece. Moss is no longer in the preferred attire, so he's as wanted as a cold sore.
When Bill Belichick spoke to the local media the day after the Moss trade, he referenced the fact the Patriots had won more games over the last decade than any other team. Belichick is usually loath to discuss the past. In this case, it's become what he's selling, minus Moss, who had an option route this year and decided he wanted to run a go pattern, forcing Belichick's hand.
We all tend to romanticize days gone by, but the reality is there is no going back most of the time. Perhaps, Branch is the rare exception, and it's obvious that Belichick and Tom Brady are thrilled to have him. Belichick could barely suppress a smile when asked a question about Branch yesterday. But while Branch is back the teams he played on when he won two Super Bowls here are not.
It's not the same coordinator, the same defense or the same locker room.
Now, the past being erased is Moss's. It's like football meets "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" around here.
We're supposed to forget Moss was ever a Patriot. That he was ever the best player not named Brady on this team. Moss was a three-and-a-half year dalliance, the Patriots' version of those experimental college years. It never happened, sort of like all those strident arguments that not signing Branch in 2006 was really a wise decision because if they had they wouldn't have gotten the explosive Moss the following off-season.
Bet you don't hear that one anymore from the pretzel-logic loyalists.
The Patriots had to make the trade of Moss and acquiring Branch was making the best out of a tough situation. It was a shrewd move by one of the league's best managed teams. But that doesn't mean the Patriots squad that faces the Ravens on Sunday is better than the one that beat Miami. That remains to be seen. It is in the future and no one can portend what the Patriots will be without Moss and with Branch, who over the last two seasons has averaged 9.5 yards per catch.
Look, removing Moss from the equation could free up Brady to play more mistake-free football than last season. The erudite football site, Pro Football Focus, had some very revealing analysis when it came to Moss and Brady. Based on their research, of the last 15 interceptions Brady has thrown (13 last season, two this year) nine were on passes intended for Moss.
Adding Branch to the Patriots could free him up to be the smart, perceptive, playmaker he was during his four seasons here, instead of the injury-prone, underperforming pass-catcher he was perceived as in Seattle.
However, Moss was great here. That's a fact. The Patriots were 26-4 in games in which he caught a touchdown pass. When he caught two touchdowns they were nearly unbeatable (14-1). The one loss was last season's controversial collapse against the Colts.
At this point with the Patriots it's a matter of belief. Do you believe they're better off without Moss? Do you believe that Branch is the same player he was when he left Foxborough four years ago? Do you believe the Patriots' past can be repeated?
The Patriots are going to score points without Moss. If Brady could lead the Patriots to the seventh-highest scoring offense in 2006, he'll be able to score points with this group now.
Maybe Brady and Branch can rekindle their magic, maybe Brandon Tate is what Chad Jackson was supposed to be, maybe Wes Welker doesn't need Moss to catch 100-plus balls. We're about to find out.
Removing Moss takes away the deep-ball threat, but it doesn't change this offense's personnel approach. That had already happened. The Patriots morphing from a shotgun-reliant, three-wide receiver team to more of a two-tight end offense with the emergence of rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
If Moss would have been content playing in such a diversified attack then it would have been ideal. He was not, so he's part of the past. The one most Patriots supporters are now more than happy to wipe from their memory.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.