By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — One of Bill Belichick’s hallmarks as Patriots head coach is that the team often gradually improves over the course of the season, consistently building to a crescendo by the end rather than coming out strong and fizzling out. There’s a reason the Patriots have had many peculiarly slow starts followed by long winning streaks under Belichick and Tom Brady: in a way, it’s by design.
The same can be said for the Patriots roster in the immediate aftermath of a surprising move, whether it’s a trade or a cut. Another Belichick hallmark is making tough decisions on talented players that have shocked not only his players but the general public. The team, of course, can go in one of two directions after that.
It’s important to know that, with the Patriots set to play their first game after the surprise mid-season trade of Jamie Collins, the first impression is not always the same as the end result.
Though Belichick remains a constant in New England, every season is different and every Patriots team is different. The team has had varying results in the first game after moves with the magnitude of the Collins trade, and there’s a surprising correlation when you look at the biggest ones.
Perhaps the most notable example is 2003, when Belichick cut Lawyer Milloy just before the first game of the season. The Buffalo Bills trounced the Patriots 31-0 and it looked as if the team was headed for a disastrous season, except that didn’t happen at all – the Patriots started 2-2 before reeling off 15 straight wins and winning their second Super Bowl in three years.
Another notable, and more recent, example, is 2014, which started with the out-of-nowhere trade of guard Logan Mankins. The Patriots kicked off the season with a 33-20 loss in Miami and the offensive line looked like a disaster for the first four weeks of the season. But of course, you know what happened from there on out.
Such moves, however, have produced good first impressions before having the opposite effect in the end. The 2006 Deion Branch trade, which happened the day after the team’s Week 1 win, looked like it wouldn’t affect the Patriots when they won 24-17 to go to 2-0 and finished 12-4. But Brady’s lack of weapons proved to be their fatal flaw as Peyton Manning and the Colts outgunned them in the 2006 AFC Championship Game.
The Randy Moss trade in 2010 transformed the team’s deep aerial offense back to a short-to-intermediate throwing machine, emphasizing Brady’s true strengths and propelling No. 12 to an MVP season. But Rex Ryan’s New York Jets found a way to stifle the Pats’ re-imagined passing attack in their upset win in the 2010 AFC Divisional Round.
The point of this exercise? Don’t overreact to how the Patriots defense plays against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night in a rematch of Super Bowl XLIX. It’s likely that the defense’s first game without Jamie Collins will invite some form of gross overreaction, anyway. If the defense is lights out, the reaction will be “Jamie who? Belichick wins again!” If they play poorly, it will be “See? The defense is way worse off without him!” If history is any indication, you should do your best to avoid reacting too strongly to this one game
The Patriots may bring their A-game against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense, but it could still lead to a team exposing their lack of athletic linebackers behind Dont’a Hightower in a playoff game. The defense could look out-of-sorts in their first game without Collins in the fold, but they could also be in the early stages of a defensive resurgence that simply hasn’t materialized yet.
It will be hard not to have a strong reaction to however the defense plays on Sunday night. Try to avoid that. With Belichick, the Patriots are in the middle of a season-long process that won’t be fully realized until the end.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.