FOXBOROUGH — Patriots coach Bill Belichick was in a nostalgic mood on the first day of training camp Thursday, skipping down memory lane with reporters to recall what training camp used to be like with fewer coaches and more hitting. Usually, you can’t go back to the way things were.
Let’s hope his team is an exception.
It’s hard to believe it has been nine seasons and counting since the Patriots won a championship, capping the 2004 season with their third Super Bowl title in four years. At that time, a fourth Lombardi Trophy looked like a fait accompli. But there remains an empty space in the trophy case.
Despite their metronomical NFL excellence, the folks in Foxborough have the longest championship drought — applying the term liberally — of the Big Four pro sports teams in town. The Red Sox (twice), Celtics, and Bruins have all hugged hardware since the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXIX.
One reason this season could finally have the desired ending is that for the first time in a long time the Patriots went to camp with more certainty on the defensive side of the ball than the offensive side of the ball. An offseason spent accessorizing the defense with incomparable cornerback Darrelle Revis, rugged ex-Seahawk corner Brandon Browner, and veteran pass rusher Will Smith, coupled with the return to health of stalwarts Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, has the Patriots’ defense creating excitement normally reserved for Tom Brady’s side of the ball.
The defense could be outstanding, period, while the offense is littered with question marks. Does Brady have enough weapons at wide receiver? Is the interior of the line stout enough? Can Rob Gronkowski make it through a full season without some body part disintegrating? (Gronk participated in the first day of camp, wearing a brace on his surgically repaired right knee.)
It might be trite, but it’s true. Defense wins championships. The Patriots haven’t had one with the potential to be this good since the almost-perfect 2007 season. The Patriots’ defense features so many first-round picks (eight) that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is speed-dialing Gillette Stadium right now at the mere mention of the unit.
Of course, none of the Patriots players wanted to discuss the defense’s potential championship pedigree on Thursday. It was all carefully crafted bromides and phlegmatic one-day-at-a-time pledges. We were to believe that there was no difference between No. 12 (Brady) and No. 13 (University of Maine rookie free agent receiver Derrick Johnson).
Everyone is just trying to earn a spot on the team.
Despite Brady barely even looking Revis’s way in practice and New York media members on hand to chronicle Revis’s apostasy, you would have thought Revis was one of the rent-a-corners the Patriots employed the last time they won a Super Bowl, not a game-changing coup.
“I’ve had good defense and OK defenses,” said Wilfork, back from his torn Achilles’ tendon. “Our goal always is to put the best team on the field, however it may be. I don’t care how we look on film, how we look on paper, you have to be able to put it together on the field. The steppingstone from that is now. It’s the start of camp.
“We have a long way to go. I’m not going to sit here and say how great we’re going to be or how this person looks. It’s a building process, and we’re in that building mode right now.”
Duly noted, big man.
Let’s be honest, though, there have been seasons — 2011, when the Patriots ranked 31st in the NFL in total defense and passing defense, comes to mind — that Brady could have claimed the defense as dependents on his tax return.
It’s not that Brady, who turns 37 on Aug. 3, has gotten significantly worse from his championship days, even if he is in some sort of negligible decline. It’s that the teams put around him by Belichick were overly reliant on Brady’s right arm.
A team more reliant on stingy defense, or what passes for it in today’s offensively partial NFL, would be a welcome sight.
The strength of the Super Bowl-title teams was that they could win any type of game you wanted to play — low-scoring, high-scoring, whatever. But recently the Patriots have been a team that has to light up the scoreboard like the Las Vegas strip if they want to win the big games.
The lone, post-2007 Patriots playoff victory that hasn’t featured Brady and the offense dropping 40 points was the 2011 AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots won, 23-20, thanks to the fortuitous convergence of nonchalance from Baltimore receiver Lee Evans and hustle from Sterling Moore negating Baltimore’s go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Blame Wes Welker and/or Brady all you want for The Incompletion in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants, but the only way the defense could get the ball back to Brady was Belichick ordering them to lay down and let the Giants score a touchdown.
The need to upgrade the unit was hammered home in last season’s AFC Championship game, when the Denver Broncos punted on their first drive and then scored on their next six.
The only thing that stopped Peyton Manning and Co. from scoring on seven straight drives was the end of the game. They ran out the clock at the Patriots’ 12-yard line against an injury-depleted defense that ranked 26th in the NFL during the regular season.
Time running out on the Patriots at the 12 was apropos because the backdrop of this season is time running out to take advantage of TB12’s all-time talent.
The Patriots can’t provide Brady with the same weapons as Manning, but maybe they can give him what he used to have — a defense that can stop Peyton when it counts.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.