Heading into training camp 2008, just over five months removed from falling victim to one of the great upsets in Super Bowl history, the Patriots were seen as one of the NFL's top teams simply looking to shore up a variety of spots, mostly on defense.
A month later, and with the Kansas City Chiefs and Sept. 7's season opener on the horizon, New England has at least as many questions, maybe more, than it did in late July.
The first order of business in New England these days is Tom Brady's health. The reigning NFL MVP and record-breaking passer didn't take a single snap through the first three weeks of preseason. He missed the second and third games with what was described as a "sore foot," although some reports indicated the team originally feared the right foot issue might be a stress fracture.
With Brady sidelined the New England offense could barely get out of its own way as infinitely inexperienced backups Matt Cassel (fourth year), Matt Gutierrez (second year) and Kevin O'Connell (rookie, third-round pick) did little to build any faith in their skills should Brady -- who has never missed a game as a starter -- go down to injury at any point.
But Brady indicated during a contractually obligated appearance on a Boston radio station that he expected to be ready for the opener.
"I wish I could have shown more in the preseason, but it's going to have to wait ... then we'll see what happens when we play KC," Brady said.
Assuming Brady is ready to go, the rest of the focus on the offensive side of the ball turns to the line. All-Pro left tackle Matt Light missed the bulk of camp with an undisclosed injury. Starting right guard Stephen Neal started camp on PUP and will be lost for at least the first six weeks of the regular season as he was placed on reserve/PUP at the 75-man roster cut-down. Throw in injuries to backups Ryan O'Callaghan (IR), Billy Yates and Russ Hochstein and the Patriots' line was a patch-work effort throughout the preseason that certainly contributed to the offense's exhibition struggles.
"We're just trying to work to get better. We haven't been as consistent as we'd have liked," Pro Bowl center Dan Koppen said. If you are not playing well and not consistent, you are not going to be able to put drives together. We haven't done that lately, to this point, and we have to start doing that."
Defensively, the major questions heading into camp revolved on the back two lines of Bill Belichick's 3-4 scheme. An aging linebacking corps finally got a top prospect with No. 10 overall pick Jerod Mayo. And a slew of veteran free agents and draft picks were brought in to fill the void left by the departure through free agency of key secondary contributors Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson.
The Mayo addition could pay immediate dividends. He's expected to start at inside linebacker next to Tedy Bruschi and while it's early, looks to be a star in the making. The secondary additions have been far less impressive. Fernando Bryant has been only OK, second-round pick Terrence Wheatley has shown some promise, Jason Webster was hurt and released and returning starter Ellis Hobbs continues to trail receivers with regularity. Beyond Brady's health, the secondary concerns remain primary in New England as the group may have to lean heavily on the front-seven to get plenty of pressure on opposing passers to cover for limited talent and aging bodies in the back end.
So the Patriots broke training camp, headed toward a season in which virtually all the "experts" are projecting at least 12 wins and looked to improve on a preseason that was inconsistent, fundamentally lacking and, at times, almost embarrassing for a team that was a perfect 16-0 last regular season. That record-breaking march from a year ago will keep fans from wide-spread panic.
"Season is too long for that," Hobbs said of panicking and putting too much stock in the preseason struggles. "I'm not going to sit here and make excuses for us. But one thing we as professional athletes do, and I think you learn this as you are in the league after a couple years, the player must remain with an even keel. We can't be up and down with the media, with fans and everything. Because that's what it is, it's a roller coaster.
"Not saying that we don't have problems we have to correct, but having the sense and poise to say, 'You know what these things can be corrected and it's not too late. Right now as far as we are concerned, yeah, we (struggled) in the preseason but we're still 0-0."