Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Challenging position

Patriots must contend with favorites role

When players and coaches enter Gillette Stadium, they are greeted by a sign on the door. It reads, "Manage Expectations."

That is the challenge for the 2007 New England Patriots, a team that has already been crowned Super Bowl champions based on a roster brimming with talent, as if the NFL were a fantasy football league. During the offseason, the Patriots added the best defensive player on the free agent market, linebacker Adalius Thomas, and completely revamped Tom Brady's group of tepid targets, capping the makeover with a draft-day deal for Randy Moss.

All this added to a team that, as owner Robert Kraft reminded at Super Bowl XLI last February, was just one minute from playing in its fourth Super Bowl in six seasons.

Gentlemen, start your expectations.

"I think maybe expectations have gotten a little bit beyond where it's reasonable," said Kraft. "We have to work real hard. Everybody is going to be gunning for us this year. I've already got that kind of feedback, so I hope our guys work hard, as they had a great offseason, and the coaches do a great job, and we don't have injuries.

"I have people coming up to me all the time, telling me how they've made plans for certain things [the Super Bowl]. We haven't played a game yet. So, I know from the past, it doesn't matter what you see on paper. It's really what happens in the locker room, the chemistry of the locker room, and then what happens.

"Our schedule is a pretty tough schedule. I'm happy it is, because it means we had a decent season last year. But one thing I learned, there are a lot of ups and downs in every football season, especially when you understand the responsibilities of running the franchise. There are a lot of things that happen that probably the average fan doesn't understand. I understand why they're excited. I'm excited. We hope we have a great season."

The best, most rewarding seasons often start with little or no fanfare and low expectations. Think the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967 or the upstart 2001 Patriots.

The Patriots long ago lost the underdog tag, even though they've clung to it as part of their identity. Underdogs don't win back-to-back Super Bowls.

"They were never the underdog team," said Hall of Fame wide receiver and former ESPN analyst Michael Irvin. "What they are is a hard-working, blue-collar team playing in a great system that helps them win.

"Underdog, they lost that a long time ago."

Kevin Faulk, one of three Patriots, along with Troy Brown and Tedy Bruschi, who predates coach Bill Belichick's arrival, acknowledged that the respect level the franchise commands has changed.

"Of course, it's changed a whole lot. The whole organization, the whole theme of the team has changed," said Faulk. "The intensity level now is real high. You expect more out of the team, the coaches, the organization."

But it's different when the expectations are bearing down on you like a 300-pound lineman, when the anticipation is hanging in the air like slow-motion NFL Films footage of a Hail Mary, when winning isn't a cause for celebration, but relief.

Highs and lows

At one point, before Rodney Harrison's four-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs and the news that Richard Seymour would miss the first six games while on the reserve/physically unable to perform list, the Patriots were listed at 8-5 odds to win their fourth Super Bowl title since the 2001 season.

Few teams can live up to such lofty demands. A recent example of an overwhelming Super Bowl favorite was the 1994 Dallas Cowboys, who were coming off back-to-back Super Bowl championships and had Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith in their primes. Aikman and Irvin are in the Hall of Fame and Smith is a surefire first-ballot selection.

Those Cowboys teams were so good that after owner Jerry Jones had a spat with coach Jimmy Johnson, leading to Johnson's departure, Jones replaced him with Barry Switzer, who had no NFL head coaching experience. Even without Johnson, the Cowboys were 7-2 favorites to win a third straight Super Bowl.

"We expected to win a Super Bowl," said Irvin. "Some people said we couldn't do it without Jimmy Johnson. Still, that third year everyone was expecting us to win our third in a row."

The Cowboys went 12-4, but lost to their archrival of the era, the San Francisco 49ers, 38-28, in the NFC Championship game. San Francisco went on to win the Super Bowl and Dallas was left to lick its wounds.

"We were the team everyone expected to win. We expected to win," said Irvin. "It wasn't just that we didn't meet our own expectations, but we didn't meet the expectations of the people, too. It was like getting hit twice. When the expectations are that high, it's not that winning isn't fun because winning is always fun. It's that losing hurts double because you're falling short of your expectations and other people's."

The Cowboys bounced back to win the Super Bowl the next season, but Irvin still remembers the somber silence of the Dallas locker room the day the 1994 season ended. "I said, 'I never want to feel that again,' " he said.

If there was ever a poster child for runaway expectations, it was the mid-1980s Chicago Bears. Many thought Mike Ditka and Co. had a budding dynasty after the Bears went 15-1 in 1985 and crushed the Patriots, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.

The 1986 Bears went 14-2 and set an NFL record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game regular season with 187 (the Baltimore Ravens broke that mark in 2000, allowing 165). But they lost to the Washington Redskins in the playoffs and Chicago never went to another Super Bowl under Ditka.

Ditka said that he didn't think that outside pressure played a part in his team's opportunity lost. He said the bigger problem was that quarterback Jim McMahon wasn't healthy that season, missing 10 games. Three other quarterbacks, including Doug Flutie, whom Ditka called "one of the best who ever played," saw time. However, the team just didn't have the same chemistry without the punky McMahon.

"You'll have people tell you it was outside distractions but it was still football as usual," said Ditka. "I didn't do anything different than when I arrived in 1982. I feel that we could have went back, but we didn't."

Forgotten memory

Expectations are in many ways the remnants of the previous season.

The Patriots' loss to Indianapolis in last season's AFC Championship game left a bitter taste with ownership, players, and fans. It was the impetus for the team's offseason overhaul. This season is in some ways a sequel to last season, similar to the 2004 Red Sox, who found redemption after Aaron Boone's heartbreaking homer for the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series.

The Patriots are all amnesiacs, at least publicly, when asked about the way last season ended. They maintain the slate has been wiped clean.

"It's done with," said Faulk. "We're practicing now to get better. Our focus right now is tomorrow's practice and that's it."

But their body language has betrayed them at times. During training camp, coach Bill Belichick was asked how long it took him to get over the Colts loss. The real answer wasn't in his words, but in the grimace across his face.

"Obviously, it leaves you with a bad feeling and a pit in your stomach for the offseason," said defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "But also, as any player or any coach will attest, you learn from your mistakes. You have to figure out what happened and why did that happen and how can we correct it and prevent it from happening again."

The expectations are that the Patriots won't suffer a similar fate this season.

Perhaps no coach is better suited to lead a team from which so much is expected than Belichick, a myopic motivational master who epitomizes the word focus. If this version of the Patriots is a souped-up luxury car, then Belichick is the GPS navigation system, keeping the vehicle on track to its desired destination, which is Glendale, Ariz., and Super Bowl XLII Feb. 3.

Expectations are wrong turns and Belichick won't allow his team to be sidetracked. Ask Belichick about expectations and you get a rote reply.

"It's not so much about expectations or rankings and all of that," said Belichick. "It's about where we are and what do we need to do to get better and that's a theme every day. That's all we're about really, is trying to find a way to improve our team and get better and do things better today than we did yesterday and prepare for the challenges for tomorrow."

As so often with the coach, you have to look beyond the banal verbiage and delivery and find the true meaning, the one he has conveyed to his players.

"We have a lot of big names, but if we don't put it together it doesn't matter," said Faulk.

That's where it all comes back to the sign: "Manage Expectations."

"It just means whatever we see in the paper take with a grain of salt and stay humble," said tight end Benjamin Watson.

Sounds easy, but a savvy businessman like Kraft knows better.

"Well, I've seen in other situations that people start reading things," said Kraft. "I'm involved in a situation in the entertainment business where I think people read stuff and see stuff, and they start believing it, and not really focusing on execution. Because in the end, it's all about execution.

"You can talk big, but you've got to deliver the goods. Everyone has distractions, but I've seen firsthand how people who are in the entertainment business get distracted by what they see the expectations being, rather than focusing and doing their work and executing the way they should."

Execution for the Patriots means lifting the Lombardi Trophy one more time and nothing less.

"Maybe, they'll be the first team to go 16-0," said Irvin. "Maybe, they'll go 14-2, but it doesn't matter if they win the Super Bowl. Nobody is going to remember they lost three games or whatever during the regular season."

More from