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The Patriots’ latest Super Bowl hangover is their most challenging one yet

Camp is all about rewiring and retooling for Belichick and the Patriots. Will it work this time?

NFL: New England Patriots-OTA Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Assaults on the New England Patriots from without – and even from within – is part of their fabric under Robert Kraft’s 24-year ownership. The outside shots help insulate and bond them. The inside ones, well, that’s required cunning to navigate.

Kraft insists that Spygate, Deflategate and any other mud slung the Patriots’ way originates from envy and jealousy. Five Super Bowl championships create his “they hate us cause they ain’t us” view. He and the Patriots say they ignore it all. The cheating shots. The wallops that players have “no fun,” no happiness and are robotic. The criticisms of their “arrogance.” It bolsters their spines, they insist.

But the abiding buildup is tiring and burdensome. They are human. No one likes their art, their achievements smeared.

I find the Patriots inside assaults most fascinating.

Go back to the second year of Kraft’s ownership, when they drafted controversial defensive tackle Christian Peter and then cut him a week later due to an outcry inside the franchise over his domestic abuse charges. The Bill Parcells years (1993-1996) were testy and fraught in the building and all around the Patriots.

Recently, promising backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was shipped to the San Francisco 49ers with a strange, alleged Brady-fueled dynamic. Confusion and criticism over Brady’s private workout regimen surfaced. Speedy receiver Brandin Cooks was oddly brought in for one year and then shipped out the next. Tight end Rob Gronkowski pondered retirement. Brady and Gronkowski skipped voluntary camps this offseason, creating a swirl of conjecture about their relationships with head coach Bill Belichick in particular and with the Patriots in general. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia bolted to become Detroit Lions head coach, but offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels stayed after a messy I-do, I-don’t dance with the Indianapolis Colts.

Oh, also the Patriots lost Super Bowl 52 to the Philadelphia Eagles.

In a three-day mandatory camp this week that ends on Thursday, the Patriots will find Belichick ready to do the “assaulting,” a mental and physical whip that seeks to eliminate funk and induce a fresh start.

Belichick always wraps his mind, his will all over his team.

This time, it’s essential.


Not only did the favored Patriots lose to the Eagles, they were bamboozled by them. That Eagles reverse-pass for a touchdown was a signature example of what the Patriots usually do to opponents: Get people flummoxed and win with creativity.

The Patriots used to find solace in saying that they lost two Super Bowls to the Giants but beat the rest in every other Super Bowl instance. Now, adding the Eagles to the list stings. It was cleaner the other way. More palatable.

There is nothing digestible among the Patriots players about cornerback Malcom Butler’s benching in the Super Bowl and Belichick’s inflexibility during the game on that decision. In Bill they trust, everyone around the Patriots likes to say, but the players did not trust that decision or like it. Butler’s gone, a free agent to the Tennesse Titans. Now, Belichick has to find a way to rid any remnants of player resentment and mistrust.

Or create a way that forces them to get over it.

The culture of Kraft-Belichick-Brady is an inherent start. The Patriots have always been in it to win it. Their demand for excellence and pursuit of it is a trickle-down phenomena that heals old wounds and creates fresh pathways.

But Belichick must drive it in this camp and beyond. He must set the attitude, the pitch. Then he often creates room for leaders to grab the baton.

I have talked to many Patriots players over the years who marvel at how Belichick is such an authoritarian but in practices and in games will allow them to be creative individually and as a group in their execution of his orders – as long as it works. Just the fact that he awards football instincts and creativity is a crucial bridge from getting the Patriots out of the wrong assault mode and into the right one.

This Patriots camp serves as a rewiring and a retooling.

Losing Super Bowls are hard.

It’s lousy and it can linger.


The Miami Dolphins, the Chicago Bears and the Lions are also in mandatory camps this week. The Dolphins have not won a Super Bowl since 1973. The Bears since 1985. The Lions, never. All three would take New England’s five Super Bowl titles, current hangover and assaults gladly.

Since the Patriots reside in the AFC East, their critics offer that there will be ample time during the season for the Patriots to adjust. Few believe that Buffalo, Miami or the Jets, as has been the continual case, are ready to seriously challenge the Patriots in this division.

But Belichick won’t wait. This mandatory camp serves an opportunity too ripe to miss on what Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan calls “rigid” coaching.

“My NFL experience has taught me that you need your coach to coach your players hard,” Khan told me recently. “Some coaches think they need to be more psychologist than coach. I disagree. We can hire psychologists. This is a hard game. It has to be coached hard.”

Sometimes, with a proper assault on the senses.