LONGSHOTS: Patriots marching toward an off-season rebuild
by Dave Long
I was wrong about the Patriots squeaking out a win Sunday vs. the Ravens. Instead they got pounded by Ray Rice, Ray Lewis and company 33-14 in what was the exclamation point on the notion a major retooling is needed for the once Super Bowl Patriots. It showed the team of today isn’t the same caliber of the guys we’ve all been so spoiled by. And while that’s no disgrace, it will speed the process to an even higher gear now that could lead to big names walking out that door. Here’s my take on things that really need to be looked at.
Style of Play: What were the words used to describe the Super Bowl Patriots? Tough, smart, resilient, physical and clutch? Do any fit the bunch that blew four fourth-quarter leads in 2009? While certain people may still fit that description, as a whole they do not. In fact, they’ve become a finesse team, which is about two steps away from soft. I never could imagine a Bill Belichick team being called that. Thus they’ve completely gotten away from what their identity was. I lay the blame on so thoroughly falling in love with the passing game. In the glory years they ran it down your throat with Corey Dillion in 2004 and earlier with Antowain Smith, who was not a top back, but when you needed it on third and short he seemed to always get it. And if he had been on the team this year, I bet he would’ve gotten it on that fourth and two vs. the Colts. You can’t bring back yesterday, but you can keep getting players who fit that type. Look at the Steelers — even in the down years they’ve had the same kind of physical players year in and year out for 20 years.
Randy Being Randy: I’m not laying this on Randy Moss in any way, as he’s done great things here. Most notably his record 23 touchdown receptions in 2007. But having said that, it’s time for the Moss era to end for two reasons. The first: he’s played in four playoff games and been a non-factor in all but the final drive when they lost the Super Bowl. And second: it’s unsettling seeing him dive when he sees contact coming after catching a ball over the middle. David Givens or David Patton couldn’t do the things he can, but they’d never take a dive and that sets a tone for who teams think the Patriots are.
Tom Brady: Falling in love with the pass has affected Brady too. Even though he was phenomenal in record-setting 2007, his greatness was never a product of stats. And while he gradually threw the ball down field more often after his first year, what made him the player he is was making the right decision at the right time. He won the MVP in the first Super Bowl even though Ty Law should have after scoring the game’s first TD on a pick and shutting down the Rams’ vaunted greatest-show-on-turf passing attack. That’s because he led that last drive into field goal position — when he didn’t throw a ball more than 10 yards — by making great decisions. This year his decision-making in some key moments was suspect. And while I’m sure he was dealing with injuries, he made big mistakes more than he ever has and they figured in losses to Denver, Indy, Miami, Houston and Sunday vs. Baltimore, and part of that is the risk-taking that comes from chucking it way down field so often. He also used to spread it around. Now it’s pretty much Wes Welker, Moss and Kevin Faulk, and as good as they are, it makes it more predictable in moments that count, which may also be playing a role in his mistakes.
Brain Drain: When you lose the kind of talent they have in the front office and coaching staff, sooner or later it has to catch up to you. Maybe along with the predictability that’s why they got killed in the second half as opponents made the better adjustments. So maybe it’s time to spend some money to bring in some fresh ideas.
Spend a Little: The biggest mistake Belichick the GM made was letting Law walk and it’s not necessarily because he left, as it seemed to say the system was more important than the players. As you may recall Duane Starks stepped in for Law and was a disaster and now it’s five years later and they haven’t come close to filling that hole. And while Asante Samuel was more of a play-maker than shutdown corner, after repeating the mistake by letting him walk too, it’s pretty obvious he hasn’t come to grips that his system of “player values” may need to be a little more flexible because some guys are worth more than you want to allocate. This is the year to do that and it should come in the form of a pro bowl corner and a bona fide pass rusher.
The General Manager: If he does spend his money that way, it’ll help if he doesn’t blow it as they did with Adalius Thomas, who hasn’t lived up to the money. Talent evaluation needs to get better, as the first five years of the Belichick era were far superior to the last five. Just five ’09 starters came in the draft since 2005. Compare that to 2001 (Richard Seymour and Matt Light), 2002 (Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Jarvis Green and David Givens) and 2003 (Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Samuel, Dan Koppen and Tully Banta-Cain). Although it should be pointed out the ’09 draft has at least three keepers in Darius Butler, Sebastion Vollmer and Julian Edelman.
Foresight vs. Hindsight: You may recall this time last year I was saying they should consider shopping Brady for a godfather offer that could speed the retooling process. That was met with universal disapproval then. But how’s it looking now? It had nothing to do with Brady himself. They were in a totally unique position given the surprising season turned in by Matt Cassel that showed the understudy could play. It just seemed given the gaping holes on defense in the pass rush and secondary along with creeping age at linebacker they needed a larger overhaul than Cassel could bring (which turned out to be safety Patrick Chung). I’m not saying they’d have done it, but the sample deal I used was with the Niners for Patrick Willis, two firsts and two seconds. So going forward, would the Pats had been better off with Willis, Michael Crabtree (the Niners’ first round pick) and SF’s first and second pick in the coming draft? That opportunity is lost, but that’s called being creative and is how I think you have to manage a franchise to keep it at the top in the age of the salary cap.
There’s more to consider — but that’s a start.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.