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.


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.”

Out of the Blue: Or How I Was Caught Off Guard by the Patriots Trade of Randy Moss

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 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.