The New England Patriots opened the 2007 season with a blowout of the rival New York Jets. The initial Spygate story broke the day after that.
And now, the players were back at Gillette Stadium, in their Wednesday meeting to open Week 2, together for the first time since the controversy swept the franchise off its feet. An uncomfortable tension hovered over everything.
So here's what Bill Belichick did. He told a dirty joke, and the punch line lifted what had become a storm cloud of anxiety.
"The room erupted," said Heath Evans, then a Patriot and now a colleague of mine at NFL Network. "And then he tells us, 'Look, I made a mistake. I embarrassed the Kraft family, I embarrassed the organization, and I take responsibility for my actions. It's not your problem.' "
The Patriots handled it by spending the fall settling scores, and using the incident to create a cornered-animal dynamic for a team already loaded for bear. To most rational people, the mere idea of the perpetrator passing itself off as a victim like that might sound like a 12-year-old stealing someone's lunch money, getting ratted out, then going postal at recess.
But here's the thing: In professional football, many of the Code of the Schoolyard principles are present.
Five years later, the New Orleans Saints, in a different situation but facing similar scrutiny, are trying to draw from the same motivational well the Patriots did in 2007. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported Wednesday that the club would leave an empty seat in the meeting room and on the team bus for suspended coach Sean Payton. Tailback Mark Ingramtweeted a picture of black wristbands reading "FREE SEAN PAYTON" in gold letters.
Clearly, the Saints have been pushed enough this offseason to point where their entire 2012 season will be about pushing back. Evans, a former Saint himself, goes so far as to say that if he was still in New Orleans now he would "plagiarize Bill Belichick like he's never been plagiarized before." The martyring of Payton seems to be the first step in that process.
"We as players had the attitude that we were being doubted for what we'd accomplished, for the type of coaching ability our coaches had, for the football ability everyone there had as players," said former Patriot captain Tedy Bruschi. "We felt we had more to prove, just that the teams that had won championships -- and the majority of the guys from those teams were still there -- if there's any doubt about them, we were going to put an end to that. We'd end all doubts.
"And if that meant winning by 20 or 30, that's what we'd do. If we were up by 30, we'd keep the pedal down just to show how good we were, and erase all doubt."
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It didn't help them in the court of public opinion. In fact, it only worked to back up the villainous identity that had taken shape as a result of Spygate. But by then, the team had closed ranks. The way the Patriots saw it, all that had been accomplished the previous six years -- three championships, four AFC title games and five division titles -- was in question. Whether or not all that would be seen as sullied, the players decided, was out of their control. All they could do was prove how good they were.
"We had a great organization, a great coach, great players, and call it what you want -- New England's still the measuring stick," said former Patriots receiver Troy Brown. "And obviously, you wanna go out there and start kicking some major butt, and it showed in the scores. ... Our attitude was to come to work, and play the best way we knew how, and put everything into it. That's all you can do."
Brown said the motto was "Ignore the Noise," but that, of course, wasn't entirely adhered to. When there were pieces of criticism the team could use, it would draw on them. It came in the public forum. It also arrived in the trenches, where opponents would point to the banners and call them tainted. As Evans explains, "Most of the time that year they'd be down by 25, so they'd point to the banners, and we'd point to the scoreboard."
"Publicly, we never said it. It was never, 'We love Coach Belichick,' or he's this or he's that," Bruschi said. "We stayed on point. But everyone had tremendous respect for him, respect for how he did everything, and we cared about him. We felt like one of our guys was being attacked. The entire team was. It was easy to band together under those circumstances."
"Yes sir, Spygate pulled us even closer together," said defensive lineman Jarvis Green, a Patriot for eight years. "It was, 'We're gonna prove this to America, to everyone, that we can do this without anyone's help.' It was pulling through adversity. Now, with what the Saints are going through, it's gonna be tough for the team, the franchise, the city, and harder for them because of the suspensions. But it's the same idea. It's adversity. Can you perform? This is a big test."
As Green mentioned, that test is different for the Saints than it was for the Patriots. While the long-ranging consequences are the same -- Spygate always will be part of the Patriots' story; Bountygate perpetually will be on the Championship Era Saints' résumé -- the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Payton, Joe Vitt and Mickey Loomis exacerbate New Orleans' challenge.
But Evans, the one man who was part of the 2007 Patriots and knows the Saints makeup intimately, thinks New Orleans is very capable of flipping a bad situation on its head the same way New England did, with the one significant caveat being a resolution for Drew Brees' simmering contract negotiation. If that gets resolved -- "I've talked to him, and Drew can be pushed too far; he's a great guy, but they have to be careful," Evans said -- then look out.
"If Drew Brees is there, then this lion doesn't need protection, just unlock the cage and it'll come. That's what we were in 2007, and that's what the Saints are capable of," Evans said. "People think I'm crazy, but if Drew is there and he's happy and healthy, they are a 10-12 win team, even if the defense gives up 20 points a game. And with (new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) there, they aren't gonna give up 20 points a game."
All that might seem like a tall order with what's in front of the Saints. But as New England proved in 2007, even in falling short of the ultimate goal, these circumstances are not a death sentence.
In fact, if channeled properly, they could prove to be just the opposite.