It's been said enough times what a crushing disappointment the 2020 Patriots season was, and doesn't bear repeating. We all bore witness to as many losses as we saw the previous two seasons combined. And the three seasons before that, 2015-17. More than any two back-to-back seasons since 2009. I ran out of synonyms for "sucks" to describe the losing.
But then again, you hear this postgame audio from the locker room after the final game and you get some needed perspective about how tough a road this team traveled down. How they were hit harder by Covid than any other team. As Belichick pointed out this week, they basically never had a bye. As Matthew Slater said, the struggle and the defeat are part of life. (Even if we hadn't seen much of those for a long time before this.) And as Julian Edelman said, the team fought through it all without caving in, which is very much to their credit.
So while I'm not trying to put a layer of varnish on this turd, the time is right to look at the good things about this past season. Call me an optimist. Maybe I'm being too positive. Or perhaps it's just the Irishman in me who's been to a lot of funerals that turned out to some of the best parties ever, but I'm tired of mourning. It's time to look for some bright side to all this. The 2020 season wasn't nearly good enough, but it wasn't all bad. So here's celebrating some of the best performers of the year who give us reason to look forward to a better 2021. In no particular order:
Damien Harris and Sony Michel
While the two weirdly seemed to take turns being injured and rarely dressed for the same game, they still managed to establish themselves as one of the best 1-2 combo of young running backs in the league. Harris is 23, Michel is 25. Harris averaged 5.0 YPA while Michel did some of the best running of his career with 5.7 YPA. Both did so mainly against defenses stacked to stop them because as D-coordinators figured out they had the luxury of not worrying about the passing game. According to Next Gen Stats, Harris was third in the league at running into 8+-man tackle boxes, 39.42% of his carries. Michel was not far behind at 37.97 on a smaller sample size. Harris established himself a between the tackles running threat after basically redshirting as a rookie. And Michel showed more power and burst than he had since his rookie year, finishing 8th in the league at average yards after contact. Plus this gem In addition, he showed more skills as a receiver than he ever had before, and might be able to compliment Harris as a versatile back in a sort of Rex Burkhead role.
The Offensive Line
You don't run the ball that effectively without great play up front. In the first season after Dante Scarnecchia's re-retirement, there was a lot of turnover. Starting with Marcus Cannon's decision to opt out, continuing through having to shuffle the interior line midseason to Isaiah Wynn going on IR after Week 11 and David Andrews missing the last game. Despite it all, according to Pro Football Focus, they graded out as the 6th best run blocking unit in the league. Which brings me to:
Onwenu was a revelation. An absolute steal in the draft by a franchise that wrote the book (shameless plug) on getting a steal out of Michigan in the sixth round. After seeing time at both guard spots, he was tried out at right tackle just as an experiment to get the five best linemen on the field at the same time. It worked better than anyone could've dared to dream, given the fact he never played on the edge for the Wolverines. He not only made PFF's All Rookie Team, he was their fifth highest graded tackle (minimum of 900 snaps) and sixth best in the run game. Getting a guy who can play virtually anywhere along the line at a high level on the last day of the draft is like finding a million dollar scratchie in the trash. He'll be a 10 year starter for this team, minimum.
As an UDFA rookie out of Bemidji State in his training camp, Olszewski was that guy that made you think he might become a Wes Welker-type folk hero or maybe make you regret you put in the time learning how to spell his name. And while he made the roster, his rookie season was pretty much a wash. But he made the coveted Year 2 bounce. At least in the return game, which is good enough. He firmly established himself as a guy you can trust on punts, which is a luxury this team has been missing for years. Instead they've had to rely on top receivers or running backs. Until now. Olszewski is more than just dependable, he's a legit threat. On the season, he finished with 17.3 yards per return, the second highest average in the Super Bowl era (Leodis McKelvin, 18.7). And higher than the best total Devin Hester ever had. On a team that is only too willing to use up roster spots for strictly special teams players as long as they make impact plays, that is job security.
It's not just being snarky to say Bailey had the best season of anyone on the team. It's fact. On a team that absolutely had to win the field position battle in order to compete, he finished fourth in the league in average (48.7) and first in net (45.6). And of his 55 punts, 31 were downed inside the 20. And there's this that nobody could've seen coming:
Umm … MVP?
If there was any question Dugger would struggle to make the jump from the Catawba Indians to the Buffalo Bills, consider it asked and answered. He lined up all over the field in his 14 games, finished fifth on the team in tackles, contributed on special teams and finished the season playing 100% of the snaps in the final game. He demonstrated a versatile skill set with PFF grading him third among rookie safeties in the pass rush, fourth in run defense and fourth overall. In coverage, mainly drawing the assignment of tight ends, he managed this:
If next year he does that to Rob Gronkowski, the Earth might split open.Josh Uche
OK, so the DROTY will no doubt go to Chase Young and not Uche, the way Peter King predicted.
And while he's got a relatively small sample size because he missed seven games with injuries, Uche still established himself as an impact pass rusher and edge defender. In his nine games he managed a sack, seven QB hits and five hurries. He still needs to improve against the run in order to get reps as more than just a passing down specialist. But he can already line up anywhere along the front and put stress on a protection scheme. And as long as you can do one thing really well, this coaching staff will find a place for you.
Like I said, this was in no particular order, but I still saved the best for last. Here's probably your MVP. Another UDFA cornerback success story. In his third year, Jackson did nothing less than finish second in the league in interceptions with nine, break up five more and finish with the fourth best passer rating against with 62.7 when targeted. It's hard to imagine how much better that stat would be if he wasn't forced to stay with Stefon Diggs in solo coverage in Week 16. But that's how corners make the big money. And like Malcolm Butler before him, he's about to get PAID.
Honorable mention (because again, this was a bad season and I don't want to pump everyone's tires): Chase Winovich, Adrian Phillips, Nick Folk
Maybe tomorrow I'll do a "Worst of" list. But I hate to kill this buzz.