As my small group was wrapping up Tuesday evening I opened up my laptop at the kitchen table to take a look at the possibility of seeing a movie before I had to be in to work at midnight, since i had a couple of hours to kill (a fairly regular Tuesday night routine for me). I happened to have left my browser on ProFootballTalk.com from earlier and it updated to show me a startling headline that the Patriots were in serious discussions with the Vikings to trade Randy Moss. To say I was caught off guard is a bit of an understatement. The most exciting player in the history of my favorite franchise was in the midst of a contract dispute with the team, yes, but why would they just send him away to another organization and basically write off the season like this?
The trade was completed the next day and the Patriots received a 3rd round pick from the Vikes as compensation. And during that time and the next day, news whispers began to trickle out that Moss was a bigger problem behind the scenes than he had been in public. Not entirely shocking, given his history, but in his time with the Patriots he had always said and done all of the right things, with the one exception being after the first game of this season when he complained during the postgame press conference about not feeling wanted by the organization.
The news trickled out that Moss and his agent had requested a trade and maybe forced the team’s hand by indicating that they could be a bigger distraction to the team further down the road. Moss got into an argument with the offensive coordinator during Monday night’s game against the Dolphins. And there was a rumor that Bill Belichick had gone back to talk to Randy on the plane ride home to talk and was denied (Coach Belichick flatly denied this later, but maybe the report had the wrong Bill involved in the story and it was the offensive coordinator, Bill O’Brien, trying to smooth things over with Moss).
Regardless of the possible reasons why the Patriots pulled the trigger on this trade, the Patriots traded away their biggest offensive threat. A lot of fans, newspaper columnists, sports talk radio personalities, and TV sports show talking heads, and were upset and/or perplexed by the move. Trades in the NFL, compared to other leagues, are rare. Trades made during the season are even rarer. Trades in season involving star players are almost unheard of. Guys like Ron Borges, a reporter with a well-known dislike of Bill Belichick, pounced. Belichick has always been cryptic with the media and is notorious for hardly ever giving them anything useful during his press conferences; they hate it. So anytime something like this happens where the Patriots are famously tight-lipped about and won’t disparage someone publicly, they see it as their opportunity to get their shots in on someone who goes out of his way to not help them out. Thankfully, not every local reporter is like this.
While I was initially caught off guard and confused by the whole situation, I was not upset or angry as some of the insufferable callers and hosts were on Boston sports radio (I’m looking at you, Gerry Callahan). The popular meme from the media was that Belichick always says he makes moves in the best interest of the team and to make the team better; in this case, the team was clearly not better. Obviously, the goal of every season is to put together the best possible team you can to win as many games as you can and possibly win a championship. But a sports team also has to balance the present with the future. It’s a delicate balance. And sometimes you have to make sacrifices in the short term to be successful in the long term. This is what eases my mind about the trade.
The Patriots have been an elite franchise since 2001. They have won more games since Bill Belichick became their coach than any other team. They’ve won 3 Super Bowls in 4 appearances. QB Tom Brady just became the quickest QB to win 100 career starts this past Monday night, in only 131 games. Joe Montana, the man he surpassed, took 139 starts to get 100 wins. Peyton Manning needed more than 150. On top of winning three Super Bowls, they were seconds away from winning a fourth and completing a perfect season. They put up a perfect regular season in ’07. They also have two of the longest winning streaks in NFL history. That is some impressive stuff. The Patriots know what they are doing. They also know that they need to make hard decisions to continue to sustain this excellence.
When they came up short of the perfect season in Super Bowl XLII, the Patriots had a great team, but they also had an old team. The offense was electric and record-breaking. The defense was experienced, but slow. This became more evident in the ’08 season when Tom Brady went out with a knee injury in the first game of the year and they couldn’t just rely on their offense to put up big points and allow the defense to play with a comfortable lead. The common cry among fans and in the media was that the Patriots needed to get youngest and faster. A couple of bad draft classes from ’05-’07 gave the Patriots little young depth to train to replace the ageing starters. So in the ’09 and ’10 drafts the Patriots stocked up on talent with a handful of 2nd round picks, selections that the teams sees as more valuable than high first round picks because they still have good talent and you don’t have to pay them nearly as much as a top draft pick.
Most teams go through a cycle every couple of years. They’ll have a core group of players they will build around who will be competitive for a few years and will pay a lot of moey out to make a run with them. This means a couple of big free agent signings, a lot of money paid out in signing bonuses, and some players really cashing in short term. But a bill always comes due. After a few years the team will have to blow things up. This was a regular occurance when the league had a salary cap. Most contracts were backloaded, so the money paid out would get bigger each year, and with a cap in place, that would mean that teams had to either rework the contracts or cut players. So they would have to vut their expensive players to make room for cheaper, younger talent that they could then coach up to make another run in a few years. One team in particular that has always stood out to me as a perfect example of this is the Tennessee Titans. Take a look at their record year-to-year under head coach Jeff Fisher. They’ve been a pretty successful team with quite a few season where they’ve gone 12-4, 13-3, or 11-5. But every couple of years they would drop down to 8-8 or 7-9. Those 8-8 and 7-9 seasons were transition years as they restocked their roster. A lot of teams aren’t able to pull it off as quickly and with little mess as Tennessee does. It’s not at all uncommon to see a team go from 11-5 one year to 5-11 the following year because of this.
The Patriots, last year and this year, are in the process of restocking their roster. Unlike most teams, though, they have managed to remain competitive in spite of it. They went 10-6 last year and won their division. This year, they are 3-1 after four games. They should be competitive and have a good chance to make the playoffs too. Unlike most of the previous decade where the Patriots were perenially considered one of the elite teams that were Super Bowl contenders, this year they are probably just outside of the elite. They’ve moved back to the pack in the last couple of years, but they have done so in order to rebuild their roster and to be elite going forward. They have sacrificed some short term rewards in order to be competitve long term. And unlike most fans who call into talk radio, I’m ok with this. They have turned over their old roster for a younger one without having to blow up the team.
There are 32 teams in the league. It is unrealistic to think that your team should win every year. The best you should hope for is that your team remains competitive year in and year out. The Patriots are consistently competitive. They have been since 2001. It resulted in three Super Bowl titles and almost a fourth. By sacrificing a bit in ’09 and ’10, the Patriots have put themselves in position to remain competitive well into this new decade. They have two picks in each of the first four rounds of next year’s draft. They own Oakland’s first round pick, which could be a top-5 pick. They own Carolina’s second round pick, which could also be top-5, so it would be like having another late first round pick. So the Patriots could have 3 of the first 35 picks of the draft to address real needs on their team.
And getting rid of Moss, while he is an exciting offensive player, does not mean that the Patriots are now suddenly inept on offense. When they won their three Super Bowls, the Patriots offense was about balance and having Tom Brady spread the ball around to everybody. They have shown signs of getting back to that philosophy this year with the influx of two really good rookie TEs in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Instead of 4 or 5-WR sets, they have run a lot more 2-TE formations. And they still have Wes Welker.
Still, I will miss Randy Moss in a Patriots uniform. He was the most exciting player to ever put on a Patriots uniform. Look at some of the highlight reel catches he made. There are few things more exciting in pro sports than a QB dropping back and uncorking a deep bomb to a sprinting WR. Brady and Moss were one of those special, once-in-a-lifetime QB/WR combos. I’ll never forget the first TD that Moss caught in a Patriot uniform against the Jets when he outran 3 guys in coverage across the field. Watch this YouTube clip of his TD catches from ’07. The very first TD is the Jets game. But one of the most impressive one’s I can remember is #5 where he extends his arms fully to the right without breaking stride to haul in the TD pass. Simply amazing. There were a lot of other ones, but this year was the incredible one-handed catch over Darrelle Revis in week 2. The highlights will be missed. But they probably were not going to bring him back next year, given his age and how much money he was looking for.
I’m more than willing to be patient with the Patriots because of the success they have had and how they have managed to remain competitive every year because the promise is there of being able to remain competitive in the future and the potential of returning to elite status. They have done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt in my eyes. I have ssaid before that I am living in the moment with Patriots and this time because it won’t last forever. Fans of the Boston sports teams have become ridiculously spoiled by the success of our Patriots, Red Sox, and Celtics in recent years. It won’t last forever. All good things end eventually. Better to enjoy it for what it is an appreciate it when you can because you never know when it will end. Just ask any 49ers fan during their Walsh-Montana-Young-Rice hay days. Or a Steelers fan from the 70s. I recognize that I have been blessed beyond my wildest imagination by the success of my favorite teams in the last decade. 6 titles is an embarassment of riches. But let’s not get spoiled by it. Appreciate it for what it is and enjoy it.