FOXBORO, Mass. -- The Patriots' 14-2 season of 2010 might have been shot down by a crew of Jets in January. But more than anything else, Bill Belichick's actions over the last four days show that the coach hardly sees the six months leading into that painful upset loss as lost time.
The acquisitions of Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco represent more than a potential low-risk/high-reward investments for New England. They also signal that a) Belichick now feels comfortable with his team's rocky recovery from losing the championship leadership of players like Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour, and b) he believes this new group of Patriots is ready to make a run at a championship.
For the Patriots, it's time.
Belichick won't admit this, of course, not even privately. The truth is, he doesn't have to. His actions speak louder than words.
Tom Brady might say, "It's a totally different team. It's a totally different year."
But there's no disputing what the Patriots accomplished last year, and the springboard it's providing for 2011.
To start, a tumultuous 2009 saw a locker room coming apart, once an unthinkable concept in Belchick's New England, punctuated by the December snowstorm incident in which four players were tardy for work. The coach flushed three of the four out (Adalius Thomas, Randy Moss, Derrick Burgess), and reworked the makeup of the roster.
To continue, and as part of that, the Patriots got a heck of a lot younger, with an outstanding rookie class headlined by CB Devin McCourty and TE Rob Gronkowski leading the way. That equated to a team getting better, closer and more accountable as time went on.
It's pretty clear that Belichick saw something to build off of.
You don't go get Haynesworth and Ochocinco unless you're in win-now mode. And you don't do if you aren't confident that your team can absorb their personalities. Belichick is, on both counts. His team, too, is behind him.
"I think he has expectations that every time we walk in the door he has four things listed and every time we walk out he has four things listed. And the most important one is doing our job," Brady said Friday. "So when I come in, it's actually pretty easy. I follow the game plan that he puts up there, and I think for each guy that comes in they have to do the same thing."
New England's hope is, that's just what Haynesworth and Ochocinco do, though it's no sure thing on either count.
From a personality standpoint, the Patriots know what they're getting in Ochocinco, particularly since he has existing relationships with both Belichick and Brady. The questions remaining center on his age, 33, and playing style. Known historically as a bit of free-lancer, Ochocinco will have to adjust to a stringent passing game that requires a receiver read the defense, change on the fly, and be in the right place at the right time all the time, with the demanding Brady serving as traffic cop.
Haynesworth's situation is more complex. Officials from both the Titans and Redskins reached after the deal had roughly the same reaction when asked how he'll work in New England. "No clue," they said.
The biggest question is whether he has the drive and desire to fit in a place where the head coach is looking, first and foremost, for his players to hold football as a top priority. Haynesworth's passion for the game has been called into question by both his former clubs. By the end in Washington, sources say he always brought excuses to meetings and practices, and rarely brought top effort consistently in games.
Will that change? It's not an easy question to answer. But the Patriots have the capital and, even moreso, reason now for such dice rolls.
The cost was low. Even if he isn't what he was in 2005 anymore, Ochocinco can be awfully productive with Brady pulling the trigger. Haynesworth is much more of a boom-or-bust proposition, but on the high end, could completely change the Patriots pass-rush from the inside out and make players around him better.
Is there risk? Sure there is. The kind that are only wise to take when a championship is in sight.