Running back Corey Dillon in 2004. Randy Moss in 2007. Albert Haynesworth in 2011. Josh Gordon in 2018.
The Belichick-led Patriots have often been a team where players viewed as malcontents — or in the case of Gordon have battled larger forces such as substance-abuse — can revive their careers and reputations.
Belichick has been able to take such risks because, now in his 20th year as head coach, a football-first, team-centric, disciplined culture has been a foundation to the franchise’s success. There has annually been a strong core of veteran leaders in the locker room, led by quarterback Tom Brady. And Belichick’s iron fist, with the authority to hire and fire, usually plays a major role in keeping players in line.
In Brown, Belichick has taken on arguably his biggest challenge.
Dillon and Moss had fallen out of favor with the Bengals and Raiders, respectively, before they arrived in New England. They were fierce competitors who had grown tired of losing, and craved the chance to win a Super Bowl. Because of this, they both initially fell into line quickly and later would talk about how they appreciated being able to blend into the team, instead of always being singled out as the star.
Dillon rewarded the Patriots with a franchise single-season record 1,635 rushing yards in 2004 en route to a Super Bowl XXXIX championship.
Moss, of course, dazzled in his first season in New England, with 98 receptions for 1,493 yards and an NFL-record 23 touchdown catches. The Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season before losing in Super Bowl XLII.
Taking a chance on both Dillon and Moss paid off big time.
The same couldn’t be said of Haynesworth, whose heart never truly seemed to be in it and was released after six games. He is an example of a Belichick gamble that didn’t pay off.
Now, with Brown, it will be compelling to see the result of two powerful forces colliding: The Patriots’ team-first, no-nonsense culture vs. Brown’s actions that often come across as self-centered and entitled.
Taping a conversation with Belichick and posting it on social media, like Brown recently did with Raiders coach Jon Gruden, would likely lead to immediate discipline that could be as severe as Brown being released. So can Brown submerge his ego in those situations?
The Patriots’ investment of a $9 million signing bonus as part of Brown’s contract — which is significant — shows Belichick believes there’s a good chance it can work.
If it does, the possibilities for on-field fireworks are intriguing, similar to Moss in 2007.
Moss (three times) and Rob Gronkowski (five times) are the only players to record double-digit touchdown receptions for the Patriots since 2001. Brown has recorded double-digit touchdowns in four of his last five seasons, including a league-leading 15 in 2018.
Brown is a downfield threat unlike any other since Moss. Since 2011, he has totaled 204 receptions and 33 touchdowns on throws at least 15 yards downfield. Over that same span, Brady has completed 44.5 percent of his passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield.
One thing Belichick often says is when a player comes to New England, he does so with a fresh start. It’s a blank slate. In his Instagram post in which he showed himself pictured with a Patriots jersey, Brown referred to the situation this way: #RewriteStory.
It was fitting because perhaps more than any other team in the NFL, the Patriots have helped players rewrite their career stories in emphatic fashion.