FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 06: Dan Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots carries the ball in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants on November 6, 2011 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts. The New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots 24-20. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Kordell Stewart was the starting quarterback for part of the last season in which the New England Patriots won less than 10 games. Dating back to 2002, their impressive run of AFC dominance has taken on several forms.
It all starts with their quarterback, and one could say it ends with Tom Brady as well, if not for 2008, when they managed to win 11 games without him, yet, missed the playoffs.
Even that one year blip on the radar doesn't remotely compare to other shifts and changes the team has made in the last decade, and will evolve once again in 2012.
In 2009, two years after SpyGate burned its way through the league the same way the Patriots offense torched opposing defenses, Patriots TE Ben Watson led his positional group on the team with 29 catches.
Head coach Bill Belichick decided he was going to involve that position a bit more.
Kind of like TV Networks decided they were going to involve Reality TV "a bit more." He went out and drafted Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round. Fast-forward to 2011, Gronkowski led Patriots tight ends with a jaw-dropping 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 touchdowns. Hernandez was second with 79 catches that went for 910 yards and seven touchdowns.
A far cry from the Ben Watson days.
Belichick looks to make 2012 another shift of focus, drafting six defensive players with his seven picks, two (DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont'a Hightower) in the first round. While Gronkowski and Hernandez had pretty solid rookie seasons, they didn't blossom into the freaks of nature they are now immediately. Perhaps the 2012 draft will mark the return of the once-feared Patriots defense, but the fact the Patriots defense, not its high-octane offense, was more responsible for the team's playoff success in 2011 (completely dismantled Denver, stripped a touchdown pass that staved off elimination against Baltimore, held the Giants' offense in check in a losing effort).
And it may have gotten a little bit better.
Getting six total games against what looks to be one of the weaker divisions in football certainly helps.