Bill Belichick Is Bold

ESPN writer Tim Keown wrote an opinion piece on about the end of the Super Bowl.  He says that while the decision by Belichick and the Patriots defense to allow the Giants to score a go ahead TD in order to get the ball back with enough time to have a chance to score was the right call, it was not a fitting end to the Super Bowl.  While he makes an interesting case about how it is a situation unique to the game of football, I think his argument fails to be compelling because he doesn’t accurately understand what kind of coach Bill Belichick is.

His premise about Belichick being the “great defender of all that is manly and stoic and arrogant in the world of the National Football League…” is flawed to a fault.  As a Patriots fan, there are plenty of examples of Belichick playing the percentages and doing what seems counter-intuitive over doing what is deemed conventional wisdom.  There are two prime examples.

First, the 4th-and-2 play against the Colts back in 2009.  Conventional wisdom was to punt, give the ball back to Manning, and take your chances with a struggling defense that was tired and had been shredded in the 2nd half by Manning as he charged back to make it a close game.  They went for it, and failed, but the percentages at that time, according to people who do the numbers crunching on percentages for these things said he was actually making the right call based on the percentages.

My favorite example, however, remains the Monday night game against the Broncos in Denver back in 2003. The Pats were going to have to punt out of the end zone, down by one, late in the 4th quarter.  Belichick instructed his long snapper to snap the ball over the punters head and out of the end zone for a safety, putting the Broncos up by 3 points.  This eliminated the possibility for the Broncos of a blocked punt recovered for a TD at best or excellent field position at the very least.  Instead, the Pats were able to free kick from the 30 and change the field position, get a stop, and come back and score on a TD pass to David Givens to win the game.  It remains one of my favorite games of the Brady-Belichick era.  It seems obvious that it was the right move, aside from the favorable outcome, if for no other reason than the change in field position, but the conventional wisdom is to never put points on the board for the other team.  There is nothing arrogant, stoic, or manly about giving away free points, whether 2 or 6.

The fact is Belichick has the freedom to do things unconventionally because of his success.  It’s a luxury that few coaches probably do not feel like they have, which is why more teams do not do things like this.  But Belichick has never been a completely conventional coach either.  It’s why he plays Troy Brown or Julian Edelman at CB, Mike Vrabel as a goal-line TE, or Dan Klecko as a blocking FB.  It’s why he played nearly an entire second half against a Drew Bledsoe-led Bills offense with nobody on his defense in a 3 point stance.  He takes chances all the time, whether the rest of the league, his critics, or the Patriot fan base thinks it’s emasculating or wrong, because he doesn’t care about the perception of things.  He’s interested in putting his players in the best position to actually win the game.



Super Bowl XLVI Preview

The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl.  I am very excited.  I did not expect them to make it this year, because of how porous their defense was.  In fact, as recently as a few weeks ago, I was saying I did not want the Patriots to even make it to the Super Bowl, because I figured they would be playing the Green Bay Packers or the New Orleans Saints, and would get blown out in such a matchup.  But you never can predict what will happen in football.  And the Patriots are going to be heading into the Super Bowl in two weeks as the favorites to win.  But to win it, they will have to go against a good New York Giants football team that matches up well with them.

This is going to be a tough couple of weeks for me.  I still can’t properly deal with what happened in Super Bowl XLII.  As far as I’m concerned, the game never happened.  I treat the 2007-2008 NFL season and playoffs like I do the 1994 baseball season.  I just say that the Patriots went 16-0 in the regular season, breaking all kinds of records.  And then I choose to believe that as soon as the season ended, there was a strike and there was no Super Bowl, just like there was no 1994 World Series in baseball.  It’s a coping mechanism and it helps me get by without having to think about the football atrocities I witnessed.

But now I am forced to acknowledge my Voldemort.  I am forced to recognize the game-that-must-not-be-named.  Not just because it will be all over the news for the next two weeks and there will be countless replays of the worst moment of my life as a sports fan.  But I will have to acknowledge it because I want revenge and redemption.  Any true competitor wants to beat the best in the game to be champion.  And while San Francisco or Green Bay or New Orleans would have been exciting matchups, I think any true Patriots fan wanted to meet the Giants in this Super Bowl because of Super Bowl XLII.  We want another shot at them.  I don’t know what the outcome will be this time.  The Patriots could get their revenge or they could lose.  We’ll see in two weeks time.  But they’ve got a shot at it at the very least, and that is all you can ask for.

One theme that Pats fans have been talking about a lot in the last week or so is that this playoff run is shaping up to be a “Godfather scenario” where the Pats settle all family business, Michael Corleone-style.  The Broncos beat the Patriots in 2005 to hand Brady his first playoff loss.  The Ravens handed Brady and Belichick their worst playoff loss and the team’s worst home playoff loss in 2009.  Now they have vanquished both of those opponents.  All that remains is the Giants.  And they will have the chance to do it in Indianapolis, on the home field of their nemesis, Peyton Manning and the Colts.  The only thing missing from this playoff run is the New York Jets, but even the fact that they didn’t even make the playoffs is sweet and savory.

I don’t know what will happen in two weeks.  I do know that, win or lose, another Super Bowl appearance further validates the Patriots and this amazing run of dominance they have had.  Tom Brady will be playing in his fifth Super Bowl.  Only John Elway can say that.  The next two weeks are going to be torturous for me, but I hope the end result is worth it.  And even if it isn’t, it won’t be as devastating as XLII.  So I got that going for me, which is nice.


The Newest Front in the Culture War: Tim Tebow

Back in the day, the culture war in this country revolved around simple things like abortion, evolution, prayer in school, gay marriage, the death penalty, assisted suicide or the size of government.  Today, apparently, it is about how one man’s ability to read a defense, throw a tight spiral on a 10 yard out pattern and whether any of this is directly attributable to God.  Tim Tebow is the latest hot button issue in the culture war of America.

Tim Tebow is a Christian.  Tim Tebow is also an NFL quarterback.  Somehow, his ability to play his position has become a referendum on God by proxy.  You see, Tim Tebow does not play the QB position particularly well by the typical standards that QBs are judged by.  He does not have a strong arm.  He has a long throwing motion instead of a more ideal quick-release motion.  He does not have good mechanics.  When he was coming out of college, a lot of experts thought he was more suited to be an H-back or a halfback than a QB because of his running ability.  They believed he would have to unlearn all of the bad mechanical habits he had that came as second nature to him.  They believed this was going to be practically impossible because in the pressure situations of the NFL that QBs typically find themselves, unless a QB has had the right mechanics ingrained into them early enough, guys like Tebow will revert to their natural throwing motion.  In short, they didn’t think there was any way that Tim Tebow could be a successful NFL QB.

Except that now that he has been given the chance to be a starting QB for the Denver Broncos, he is 7-1 as a starter this year, and 8-3 as a starter including the 3 games he started at the end of last season.  And in doing so, there has been a clear division of fans into the Pro-Tebow and Anti-Tebow world.  And the debate that has arisen makes it seem like there is no room for middle ground.  Either Tebow is the greatest or the worst thing ever.

Tebowmania has taken hold of the NFL and even beyond the sports world.  He has become the ultimate Rorschach test.  Do you see only the good (wins) or the flaws (mechanics)?  Presidential candidates (I’m looking at you, Rick Perry) are name-dropping him in their debates, hoping that the mere mention of is name will be enough to engender themselves to potential voters in the primaries; talk about pandering.  People have gotten to the point where they seemingly cannot talk rationally about him as a player.  “Tebow Magic” has become a way of explaining his 4th quarter comebacks.  Other people are just completely incredulous, chalking him up to being nothing more than a product of the ESPN hype machine.

I feel like I am in a unique position.  I’ve never actually seen Tim Tebow play a game of football.  I have seen some of his highlights in recent weeks, but I’ve never watched a full game in which he has played from start to end.  I do not watch college football, so I never even saw him play when he was at Florida.  The only thing I have to go on is what I have heard everyone say about him, what I have heard from him personally, his pro-life Super Bowl commercial from two years ago (no doubt there’s a bit of latent animosity out there towards him for that for some people), and fantasy football analysis of him.  I’ve been fascinated and perplexed by everything surrounding the guy.  Just this past Sunday I was checking scores and stats online and noticed that the Broncos were down 10-0 to the Bears, Tebow was 3-for-18 and had an INT entering the 4th quarter.  And I thought to myself, “Well, this is about when it’s time for the Broncos to turn it on.”  And they did!  As a sports fan, moments like that are exciting and are what makes sports so enjoyable.  But apparently not everyone can fully enjoy these things because they are so blinded by their perceptions and their entrenchments.

The divide between the pro- and anti-Tebow forces has gotten to the point where it very much like how entrenched people have gotten in this country about certain politicized issues.  Neither side is willing or able to listen to anything the other side has to say, nor are they willing to engage in a productive conversation of any kind, they just want to get their talking points out there and prove that the other side doesn’t know what it’s talking about.  And everything is dealt with in absolutist terms.

Well, I’ve got news for everyone, the truth about Tim Tebow as an NFL quarterback is somewhere in the middle between the two entrenched sides who remain steadfast in their opinion of the guy.

As a Christian, I think it is great that he is upfront and open about his faith.  He isn’t afraid to say what he believes, and he believes very strongly that his professional success has afforded him a unique platform to spread the word about something he believes passionately.  This is not unique.  All kinds of athletes and other various celebrities use their celebrity status to get the message out about various causes or topics that are near and dear to their heart.  Curt Schilling is an outspoken advocate of finding a cure for ALS.  Lance Armstrong is very vocal about cancer.  Tom Cruise has his Scientology.  Barbara Streisand has things which she is outspoken about.  No one in the general public is faced with the choice of having to choose between buying into what a celebrity’s cause or dismissing their professional output.

Countless people in the public eye also take time at the beginning of their acceptance speeches or postgame interviews to “thank God.”  Too often, I find this to be incredibly cliché and an insincere throwaway line.  Tebow is one of the few people who say that and seems genuine when he says that, which is unsettling to some people.

On the flip side of that, people who take umbrage with the “Tebowing” phenomenon need to realize that when you make your faith so public, you put it out there for public consumption and all that comes with it.  Personally, I find the Tebowing fad entertaining, but that’s just me.  Also, how public is too public with your faith?  Jesus said in Matthew 6:5-6, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”  How does an athlete like Tim Tebow balance this with routinely kneeling to pray in celebration?  This is not necessarily a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that I think is worth asking.  And as a counter to that, you could just as easily toss in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

I think it is ridiculous to think that Tebow is winning because he has God on his side.  I am sure that there are plenty of Christians on other teams and that the outcome of a sporting event is of eternal significance.  And too many people are willing to give all of the credit to Tim Tebow for the Broncos winning with him as a starter.  In reality, the team as a whole has stepped up.  The team has won, in part, because of Tebow, but as much if not more credit could be given to the Broncos’ kicker, Matt Prater, who made two 50+ yard field goals in the 4th quarter and in OT last week to complete a comeback win, by no means an easy task.  And their defense has been playing very well too, led by stud 1st round pick Von Miller and one of the best corners of all time in Champ Bailey.

However, I think, indirectly, God does have something to do with what is going on in Denver.  Tebow, for all of his faults as a quarterback, has belief in his abilities and an unwavering confidence, and has an ability to get his teammates to believe in their ability to win too.  And that is a huge thing in sports.  This is the same team that was underperforming with Kyle Orton as their quarterback.  And the quarterback position, fair or not, is often as much about the intangibles and the ability to lead than it is about the stats and the arm and how you play the position.  He’s an elite QB now, but Tom Brady was not the Tom Brady we know today when he first took over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001.  But he had a similar confidence and belief in getting the job done that rubbed off on his teammates.  And when a team starts to believe in its ability to get the job done, the sky is the limit.  It is at moments like that when a team’s sum truly becomes greater than its parts.  And as a Patriots fan who has never seen him play before and whose team is facing him in just a few hours, I am terrified of what he might do to the Pats porous defense.

To me, the biggest thing the Tebow critics don’t get and refuse to accept is that he gets better in crunch time.  A lot of QBs can put up great numbers, but when the pressure situations come, they falter and fall apart.  That is a criticism that has been made of Tony Romo over his career.  Tebow can put up some awful numbers through the first few quarters, to the point that it looks truly ugly, but he believes that his team can keep it close, they can find a way to pull it out.  There is something to be said for that.  And it is something I don’t think he gets enough credit for, especially since everybody wants a player who gets better in the big moments.  Tebow gets better in crunch time.

At the same time, you cannot turn a blind eye to his poor play leading up to crunch time.  I don’t believe you can consistently succeed in the NFL if your only have two completions for an entire game, or after three quarters of another game you find yourself 3-for-16 throwing the ball.  That is an area he needs to improve.  Right now, he is able to get away with it, but he cannot do this forever.  He is proving a lot of doubters wrong right now and challenging conventions that have been held for forever in the NFL, because he is finding a way to get it done and win games, but one convention he cannot change is that of the scrambling QB.  Scrambling QBs have a shelf life.  They need to adapt or die.  Eventually, his running ability will not be the asset it is right now.  Age or injury always take their toll on scrambling quarterbacks, and once the running ability is not what it once was, they need to have the passing ability to get by without it or be more judicious with it.  That was true of Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Steve Young, and, currently, Michael Vick.

Here is where Tebow should consider himself really blessed by God: His GM is John Elway, one of the greatest, most clutch QBs who ever played the position.  And he could run too.  If I was Tim Tebow, I would tie myself to John Elway’s hip as soon as the season is over, and spend the offseason trying to be a sponge and soaking in as much knowledge and whatever help I can gain from Elway.  You can’t ask for much of a better situation than that.

Lastly, people should keep in mind that how they feel about Tim Tebow is not a referendum on God.  Christians should not feel like they are obligated to support him blindly without reservation or criticism.  And non-Christians should not feel like rooting for Tebow is a tacit endorsement of God.  At the end of the day, it’s a helpful reminder to keep in mind that it is sports and it should be fun.  It’s a game where adults are being paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game.  Sit back and enjoy the spectacle of sport unfold.  If you’re a Broncos’ fan, you’re within your right to be over the moon with what is happening.  If you’re a fan of another team, you are well within your right to root on or jeer Tebow and the Broncos and not have it be about his beliefs.  And if you want to embrace him because of his faith, that is fine too.  What isn’t fine is to accept or reject his play based solely on his beliefs.  Don’t unnecessarily simplify what is happening and dig in just because you feel like you have to be pro-Tebow or anti-Tebow.  There is a wide middle ground.


Handicapping the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes

With a little over 1/3 of the regular season completed, it is shaping up to be an interesting final 11 weeks of NFL football.  And not just for the teams that are fighting for a playoff spot and have a legit shot at the Super Bowl.  There is a special prize awaiting the team with the worst record at the end of the year in the form of Stanford QB Andrew Luck, the consensus #1 pick in the coming 2012 Draft.  The hype surrounding Luck is growing every week, and it is making him out to be the most highly touted, can’t miss #1 pick quarterback to come out of college since Peyton Manning.  I’m not suggesting that teams will blatantly tank their seasons in order to try to get the #1 pick for next Spring by using the term “Suck for Luck” here, but there are a number of teams in the race for the #1 pick and more than a few teams that need help at QB.  And landing an elite QB can turn around the fortunes of a franchise.  Based on a combination of record, overall team talent, division strength, team need, and remaining schedule, I think there are 11 teams that are in play right now for Andrew Luck.  Here’s a look at them:

12. Carolina Panthers (1-5) – They are listed here because of their record only.  The bottom line is that even if they do end up with the #1 pick, they won’t take Luck, because they’ve already found their franchise QB in Cam Newton, who is better than anyone thought he would be this soon.  Even though Newton is a talent, the Panthers still need more talented players on their team.  And even if they wouldn’t be interested in Luck, they could trade the pick to the highest bidder for a pretty big ransom.

11. Cleveland Browns (2-3) – Their wins have come against Indianapolis and Miami.  Not impressive.  Colt McCoy is serviceable as a QB, but they have to play a ball control style of play because he just can’t chuck it all over the field.  They’ve still got two games against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore.  They could climb up this list in the coming weeks.

10. Washington Redskins (3-2) – They may have a winning record right now, but I don’t think any objective observer wouldn’t consider them the worst team in the NFC East.  And they’ve just made a QB change from Rex Grossman to John Beck, neither of whom is a desirable option.  Honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they only won one more game the rest of the year.

9. Seattle Seahawks (2-3) – A well-earned 2-3 with a tough starting schedule.  Still, their lack of talent, particularly when Tavaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are your QBs, is low enough to keep them in the running for the season.

8. St. Louis Rams (0-5) – Talk about a tough schedule.  Philly, NY Giants, Baltimore, Washington, and Green Bay to open the season?  No wonder they’re 0-5.  What makes it bad, though, is that they’re not even averaging 10 ppg.  Dallas and New Orleans are next, which likely means 0-7.  But then their schedule gets easier.  And the Rams are probably in the same situation as the Panthers, with Sam Bradford as their franchise QB.

7. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) – The Chiefs are threatening to make a move off of this list.  I thought with Jamaal Charles going down for the season and the way they played the first two weeks that they would be a front-runner in this.  But even though they were the quickest out of the gate due to injuries, they have fallen back to the pack.  And with Oakland this weekend without Jason Campbell, they could be on the move.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-5) – They dumped their incumbent starter at QB before the start of the season, and handed the reigns over to rookie QB Blaine Gabbert.  He’s shown some flashes, but this is a bad team with a bad coach.  The question is whether Gabbert is the QB of the future for them of not.  If they bring in a new head coach for 2012, he will not be beholden to Gabbert in any way.

5. Minnesota Vikings (1-5) – The Donovan McNabb Era was incredibly short-lived.  He does not have anything left in the tank.  Minnesota plays in a tough division (NFC North), has turned the offensive reigns over to a rookie QB (Christian Ponder), and their only consistent offensive weapon is Adrian Peterson.  That and a decent defense should be worth a few wins, but no more than a few.

4. Denver Broncos (1-4) – The time that America has been waiting for with bated breath is here: Tebow Time in Mile High.  Tim Tebow takes over at QB for the ineffective Kyle Orton.  Denver seems to be in the best position they could hope for.  Tebow is talented and dynamic, but might not be a legit NFL QB.  Lucky for them, Tebow fans and Broncos fans don’t seem to care, because they have worked themselves into such a frenzy over him.  The Broncos are in a win-win situation because they can give the fans what they want by starting Tebow, and make an actual evaluation on him in the process.  If he is a wild success, it’s great for them.  If they keep losing, they can say, “I told you so…” to their fans and move on.  Also, they traded their #1 receiver this week in Brandon Lloyd, the leading receiver in the league last year.  The Broncos are under a new regime in John Fox as head coach.  And, oh yeah, a former Stanford QB is also their president: John Elway.

3. Arizona Cardinals (1-4) – Sure, it may be too early to close the book on the Kevin Kolb Era in Arizona, but it might not be in a few weeks.  So far it looks like they got fleeced by Philly in that trade.  Their division is arguably the worst in the league, so I don’t expect them to win too many non-division games.  And San Francisco seems to have a firm grip on that division, and they’ve got to play them twice still.

2. Indianapolis Colts (0-5) – Of all the years that Peyton Manning has a serious injury that knocks him out for most, if not all, of the season.  This could be shades of the San Antonio Spurs landing Tim Duncan the year that David Robinson was injured.  It’s stunning how absolutely awful the Colts are without Manning.  Not just on offense, but their defense too.  When you play against Manning, he has an impact on both sides of the ball, because opposing offenses have to play against his ability to put up points and move so quickly up and down the field.  Their head coach seems out of his depth even more so than he used to.  Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne look downright pedestrian without Manning.  It’s interesting to see the difference between the Patriots without Brady (11-5 in ’08 without Brady) and the Colts without Manning.  You may think it speaks about the players and their value to their teams.  But it really speaks volumes about the organizations and the value of team depth vs. putting all of your eggs in one basket, so to speak.

1. Miami Dolphins (0-5) – Even though the Colts are bad, I think Miami has a legit shot at 0-16.  They lost their starting QB for the year recently.  Replaced by Matt Moore, who was atrocious in a few starts for Carolina last year.  Their coach is clearly on the hot seat and seems a little combative about his team losing.  Reggie Bush is expected to play a prominent role in their offense, when history has shown he should only be touching the ball 10-12 times per game.  The worst part, though, is that they are awful at home.  For some reason, the Dolphins are 1-11 in their last 12 home game, dating back to December 2009.  That’s unbelievable.  Not playing well on the road is one thing, but not being able to even hold your own at home is not a good sign.  Miami, right now, is the front-runner for Andrew Luck.


Patriots Draft Needs

The NFL may not have a season to get ready for anytime soon because of the lockout, but, thankfully, there is still a draft this week.  After an impressive 14-2 season in which they overachieved, my Patriots enter the draft with a bounty of riches once again.  They own two picks in each of the first three rounds, six picks in the first 94 picks of the draft, and 3 of the top 33 picks. 

Usually, the Patriots are wheeling and dealing on draft day.  Coach Bill Belichick moves up and down the draft board like he’s playing Chutes & Ladders.  This year, it may be a little harder to make moves, since teams cannot trade any players on their roster because of the lockout, so only picks can be traded.  On the plus side, though, teams have no had the benefit of free agency prior to the draft, so teams may feel more inclined than usual to make moves to go get a player they want with the uncertainty of what may be available in the eventual free agent period.  Regardless, the Patriots will be major players on draft day as they always are.  Most experts do not expect the Patriots to stay in their top 3 spots and make selections, and they probably will most likely trade down or trade out of either the 28th or 33rd picks for later picks or for a pick in 2012.  They almost always seem to make a trade that rolls over for next year’s draft.

No matter where they are drafting, though, they should be in position to add some much-needed talent to some positions.  Here is where I think their biggest areas of need are:

1. Defensive End – The Patriots won three Super Bowls not just because they had Tom Brady at quarterback, but because they controlled the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively.  Richard Seymour, Ty Warren, and Vince Wilfork made for as impressive and imposing of a D-Line as any other in the league when they were together.  Two years ago, they traded away Richard Seymour to Oakland for the Raiders 1st round pick this year, which turned out to be the 17th pick.  They could very well find his replacement with that very same pick.  And this is supposed to be a draft that is very deep with defensive ends.

2. Offensive Line – Stephen Neal has retired, Logan Mankins is franchised but unhappy, and Matt Light is a free agent and up there in years.  Dan Koppen is under contract, but also getting older.  Again, controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball is of utmost importance.  And nothing is of greater importance than protecting Tom Brady.  The Patriots have always done a good job of coaching up talent on the O-Line and getting more production out of lesser talent than most teams.  Dante Scarnecchia is a great position coach.  But there are holes that will need to be plugged.  I would expect two or three draft picks to be used on this area, including at least one of the higher picks.

3. Outside Linebacker – As great as the Patriots defense was when it was winning championships, they never possessed an elite pass rusher.  Mike Vrabel and Willie McGinest were the closest things, and they only showed flashes in that area.  And in the years since they have left, the Patriots have struggled to get to the opposing QB.  Their pass rush is in dire need of talent as most of their pass rush is scheme-based.  Last year they selected Jermaine Cunningham from Florida and, when healthy, he showed some good potential toward the end of the season.  But they need to find one more guy who can pressure the quarterback.  Finding an OLB to play in a 3-4 is difficult, because many of them are college DEs who convert to the position, and it is difficult to project how they will do.  The Patriots have never invested higher than a 2nd round pick on a OLB under Belichick.  Does that change this year?

4. Running Back – As impressive as it was that BenJarvis Green-Ellis ran for 1000 yards last season, he is not a long-term answer at the RB position.  He is replaceable.  And if they can find a talented running back that can help carry the load, then I hope they would do it.  It seems unlikely, after being burned by Laurence Maroney, that the Patriots would invest a 1st round pick on a RB.  But anything from a 2nd or 4th round pick wouldn’t be out of the question.  The RB position is not one of great need or importance, necessarily, in the Patriots offense, and they tend to go with RB-by-committee more often than not.  However, one needs only to look at the 2004 season and see Corey Dillon run to see how impressive this team can look if it is truly balanced.  So it is possible that Mark Ingram is on their radar in the first round.

5. Wide Receiver – The seemingly unthinkable happened early last year.  The Patriots traded away Randy Moss.  Even more unthinkable was that it made the Patriots better.  Despite the gaudy numbers he put up with Moss, Brady has always been at his best when his best receiver was “the open one.”  They have some quality talent at this position, but could still use one more body.  Wes Welker should be better ever further removed from knee surgery.  Deion Branch returned to the team after exile in Seattle and looked like he never lost a step.  Brandon Tate has shown some signs of being good, though more in practice than on the field.  Taylor Price is still very raw.  They don’t have a “stud” like when Moss was at the peak of his powers, but if they find someone who is a big play threat to spread the field, or someone with size who can be a possession receiver that should be enough.  I don’t see them using a high pick on a receiver, but maybe something in the middle rounds.

6. Cornerback – When the Patriots selected Devin McCourty last year in the first round, it was met with sharp criticism and derision.  All he did was make the Pro Bowl his rookie year and would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year if not for the force of nature known as Ndamukong Suh in Detroit.  Outside of him, they could use another player.  Leigh Bodden missed 2010 due to injury.  If he can come back healthy, he is an immediate boost to talent and depth.  Kyle Arrington surprised with his strong play in 2010, earning a starting spot through the course of the season.  Darius Butler, sadly, has not been the player he was hoped to be when he was drafted two years ago.  There is some depth in this draft in terms of corners too, particularly for corners with some size.  I would expect a high mid-round pick to be used on this position. 

7. Safety – Not a huge area of concern, but James Sanders is under contract for one more year and Brandon Meriweather, despite being named to the Pro Bowl the past two seasons, has found himself in the doghouse on a few occasions because of his poor play.  Patrick Chung seems like the real deal.  So a pick here may be necessary to prepare for a lack of depth in the near future.


Patriots Post-Mortem

I wrote this in an e-mail after a friend goaded me into expanding on my thoughts about the Patriots 2010 season ending by comparing my reaction to Pete Carroll.  Since the Patriots are my most beloved team, I am going to also post later on about what I’d like to see them do in the offseason heading into (hopefully) the 2011 season.  Here we go:

Wow.  You keep you head down, push forward, and limit what you say to just a few comments on Facebook and suddenly you’re compared to Pete Carroll.  The gall, I say!  Very well…

Yes, I was disappointed that the Patriots lost the game to the Jets.  They did not play the way they are capable of playing, and they did not play the way that had been playing heading into the playoffs.  If you make mistakes in the playoffs, you lose. 

But I refuse to be too broken up about it or the fact that they have lost their last three playoffs games.  Because there is a lot to be optimistic about as a Patriots fan.  But there are definite reasons why they lost those games.  And there are signs that they are turning the corner and correcting those things that they need to work on.

I think the biggest reason they’ve lost the last few years is because they did not have good drafts from 2005-2008.   If you look at the drafts of 05, 06, 07, and 08 the Patriots only have eight guys (out of thirty three picks) from those four drafts still on the team.  That is not good.  You need to replenish the talent on your roster as age and free agency take their toll.  And the Patriots were not able to do that because they drafted poorly.  However, look at the last two drafts: at least 16 of 24 players are on the team, and a lot of those guys are contributing and/or starting.  But those poor drafts have an effect on the production of the team 3 or 4 years down the line.  Conversely, good drafting will have a good effect three or four years down the line, and they are already reaping the benefits from players like McCourty, Hernandez, Gronk, Vollmer, Edelman, Cunningham, Spikes, Chung, Tate, and Mesko.

So they have been able to replenish their roster a lot in the past two years, and get significantly younger in the process, without taking a dramatic step backwards.  As I’ve said, most teams will scrap things and end up with a 6-10 season as they flush out their roster and rebuild.  The Patriots dropped down to 10-6 in ‘09.  Simply amazing.  Now, having said that, because they got younger, they had to sacrifice experience in the process.  So while you do still have veterans like Brady, Welker, Light, Mankins, Koppen, Wilfork, et al., you still have a lot of guys who do not have the playoff pedigree and experience of those guys.  Even someone like Jerod Mayo is gaining experience.  I’ve been onto this since back in last season (the dead giveaway was noticing how all of a sudden teams were able to fool the Pats D on halfback screens that the Vrabels and Bruschis and McGinests of the past would have sniffed out), and because I was able to recognize it early, I’m able to keep my expectations for the team level.  The experience will come. 

The other thing that kept me from getting too down about the loss was the kind of NFL season it has been.  This has been a wide-open, anything-can-happen kind of year.  For the past however many seasons, there has been one or two elite teams that stood out.  There has been a team that jumped out to a 9-0 record or something.  This year was not the case.  Everyone had a loss after Week 5, I think.  No team established itself early.  The Jets, Packers, and Ravens were considered the top teams early.  Then Philly for a while.  Then Atlanta or Pittsburgh for a while.  And then New England at the end.  So it doesn’t surprise me that the Patriots, in a “down” year like this year, managed to overachieve with a 14-2 record, which they really did considering the talent level of their roster.  And so, in turn, it doesn’t surprise me that they would then also lose in their first playoff game.  It’s been that kind of a year.  I mean, look at the Super Bowl matchup.  How many seasons can you think of where the #6 seed in a Conference was arguably the best team in its Conference, let alone being favored in the Super Bowl? 

They’ve got 3 picks in the first 33 picks of the draft, and 6 picks in the first 92 picks.  If they hit on talent the way they have the last two drafts, they’re going to improve themselves.  They’ve positioned themselves well in terms of free agency.  Their biggest free agents are Logan Mankins and Matt Light.  Just about everybody else is good but replaceable.  Look at the decisions in player personnel that the Jets need to make.  The Jets were really built to win this year.  That doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t retool for next year, but they’ve got a tougher road to travel.  The Patriots are in a position to be competitive year-in and year-out for the foreseeable future. 

So, yes, I am optimistic and positive.  But not in a Pete Carroll, “Golly gee whiz you guys!” kind of way.  My optimism and hope is grounded in tangible things that I can point to and say “I’ve seen what Belichick and Brady have done in the past with the right team to work with.  They may not be there yet, but based on what I’ve seen, they are on their way and can get there again.”

Favre. Real. Uncomfortable. Jenn.

One of the most annoying subplots of football for the past several years has been the offseason speculation of “Is Brett Favre going to retire?”  Even before he has retired and un-retired for the past three years there was the regular offseason carousel of speculation for probably four years before that.  And I hate to lend any more space to Brett Favre than is necessary because, frankly, I’m sick of him and just want him to go away, but I am loving that what is happening this season is basically taking a hatchet to his legacy. 

Athletes, especially superstar athletes, understandably have a hard time letting go of the limelight that they’ve existed in for so many years.  But Brett Favre has taken it to new heights of ridiculousness.  He’s been known as a gunslinger who is just having fun playing the game and was adored by nearly everyone in the media and by almost all fans.  But that has slowly eroded the last few years when he left Green Bay for the New York Jets and then the past two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.  Nothing is more damaging to a players legacy, at least in the short term, than jumping ship and going to play for their rivals.  In time, the Packer fans will probably forgive him and welcome him back with open arms, but he has taken a flamethrower to his popularity among one of the most devoted fanbases in the league. 

Not only has he alienated the Packer fans, and countless other NFL fans, but the media has started to turn on Favre.  Even as I’m typing this, ESPN’s Sportscenter anchor Brian Kenny opened the show by saying, “You thought you were Favred out, but…”  The praises of him being a “gunslinger” and someone “just out there having fun” have been replaced with criticisms of him being reckless with the football, taking too many chances on the field, and not being committed enough to practicing and learning the playbook and system. 

Now, finally, on top of all of this, there are now allegations from a former New York Jets employee, Jenn Sterger, that Favre sent her inappropriate voicemails and text messages and explicit photos of himself back in 2008.  The NFL is investigating the allegations, and it has been reported that Favre admitted to the league that he left the messages but not the pictures.  If it turns out that he did in fact do this and sent the photos, he’s opened up a huge can of worms for himself.  There is the possibility of a sexual harrassment lawsuit.  It could even open up the league or the Jets to a lawsuit.  And then there is the dreaded “violation of the NFL Personal Conduct Policy” which could lead to the league suspending Favre.  If that were to happen, then he’d probably just retire.

Which is maybe what he should have done in the first place.  If he had just simply stayed retired after the 2007 season instead of coming back in 2008 with the Jets and then two more times with the Vikings, this whole can of worms never happens.  So now the chickens have come home to roost for Brett Favre for being such a drama queen for the last few years.