Friday, January 26, 2007

First and 10: Sunset on a season

1. It was natural, in the mournful aftermath of the Patriots' loss to the Colts, to be tempted to put the franchise's days as an NFL power in the past tense. We longed for the not-so-long-ago days when Tom Brady was infallible and Peyton Manning could be counted on to swallow his chin strap in the clutch. We lamented a lost opportunity, and wondered, with a supersized dose of self-pity, if it would ever be so good again. Hey, it was devastating loss. We were appropriately devastated. But now that the defeat has had a week to fade farther away in the rear-view mirror, our perspective is again one of logic more than emotion. And while we still ache from a game that was two minutes too long, we can't help but feel optimistic about the Patriots and the direction in which they are headed. Oh, sure, some are eager to declare the dynasty dead, and while two years without a Super Bowl is absolutely a step back given what they accomplished in previous seasons, I believe with some minor tinkering this team will rise again before they fall. Think about it: Belichick is still here and still hungry. Brady is in his prime. Laurence Maroney looks like a dynamic ballcarrier. They are strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball and deep in the defensive backfield. We all know they need an impact linebacker and a wide receiver or two, but with two first-round picks and a few dollars to spend, those holes can and will be plugged. Further, we must applaud them for doing what was thought to be impossible during this salary cap era - they have replenished their talent base without sliding down the standings. The Patriots are a younger team now than they were in 2001, and if you take a look at some of the names on the roster that humbled The Greatest Show On Turf that glorious night, you'll realize they're a far more skilled team too. Contrary to current public opinion, they are not going the way of their closest peers in NFL history, the dynastic Cowboys of the '90s, who failed to surround its Hall of Fame core with a quality supporting cast once free agency took its toll. (And we won't even get into the impact of Barry Switzer's involvement.) The Patriots are not beginning a slow descent into mediocrity; they went 12-4 and lost in the conference championship game undergoing personnel transitions that would constitute a full-fledged rebuilding job for most franchises. That is an astonishing feat, and even with the abrupt ending, it was a hell of a season. Good health willing, there are even better seasons ahead.

2. It's trendy, particularly among the suddenly giddy Belichick Bashers, to say that Tony Dungy outcoached the Hoodied One in the second half, and maybe there's some truth there; even the likes of Andy Reid and Herm Edwards must be tempted to question the inept way the Patriots (mis)managed their timeouts in the final two minutes. But to say the Colts made a shrewd adjustment when they decided to stop throwing deep to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison and instead started targeting the tight ends and running backs over the middle is to ignore the fact that everyone who watched the Patriots this season wondered why the Colts didn't do this sooner. Even a know-nothing bagpipe like Glenn Ordway knew Dallas Clark would be a tough cover for the Patriots' linebackers, who developed a collective case of rigamortis (oh, right . . . cramps) as the season progressed. The second half certainly was hideous for the Patriots; I shudder to think how many points Peyton and the Ponies might have produced had they been shrewd enough to attack the Patriots' glaring weakness from the start.

3. Obviously, an agile linebacker or two should be atop Belichick's grocery list in the offseason. Chicago's Lance Briggs and Baltimore's Adalius Thomas are the notable names in free agency, and while both are accomplished players (Thomas strikes me as a Willie McGinest clone), I'm not going to pretend to know how either would fit into the Patriots' complex scheme. Another intriguing possibility is Buffalo's London Fletcher-Baker, a fireplug whom Belichick has gone out of his way to compliment this season. I wonder if he's setting the stage to try to acquire him; it reminds me of the praise Belichick heaped on Rosey Colvin the season before he lured him to New England. I'd also like to believe the mock drafts are on the money and the Patriots will spend one of their first-round picks on Ole Miss's Patrick Willis. He can run, played his heart out for a hopeless team, says he's more suited to playing the 4-3, and has the maturity Belichick desires. In other words, he just what they need . . . presuming he fits their system, of course.

4. It's all well and good that the NFL kinda-sorta admitted it's mistake on the phantom Ellis Hobbs "face-guarding" call, but I'm still waiting for an explanation why no flag was thrown when Reche Caldwell was fondled, mugged, and mutilated in the end zone on a crucial fourth-quarter fade pattern. Had that happened to one of the Colts' delicate flowers, that nut Bill Polian would have stormed the NFL offices in a tank.

5. All right, Asante Samuel, I'm a believer. After the Law-like job you did on Marvin (Please Don't Touch Me!) Harrison, you deserve the title of Shutdown Corner, and the appropriate eight-figure signing bonus that comes with it. Here's hoping you're all right with becoming acquainted with another title: Franchise Player.

6. Samuel is obviously the priority among the free agents, but I do hope the Patriots find a way to retain Daniel Graham. Not only is he a devastating blocker and a respected voice in the locker room, but in my opinion he's the best all-around tight end on the roster by a Wilfork-wide margin. Ben Watson had a decent season numbers-wise, but the inconsistency of his hands and route-running was maddening, and I got the sense Brady's faith in him shriveled as the season progressed. Graham, meanwhile, made crucial catches in both the San Diego and Indy games, receptions I'm not sure Watson would have made since he struggles to hang on to any throw that doesn't hit him between the 8 and the 4 on his jersey.

7. So, has anyone heard from all the would-be personnel wizards who claimed the loss of Adam Vinatieri would cost the Patriots at least one game, if not two? The reality is that the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history was not missed for one moment this season, and for that it's time to give Stephen Gostkowski his due: after some early hiccups, the kid ultimately handled every challenge during a fine rookie season. Like his decorated predecessor, he saved his best moments for the playoffs, hitting all eight of his field goal attempts, including a 43-yarder that gave the Patriots a short-lived 34-31 lead against the Colts. And his final kickoff was a bomb - had the Colts not marched 80 yards down the field for the victory, he'd be getting his just due as an unsung hero.

8. That certain whinnying talk-radio metrosexual who claims that Rashad Baker's walk-on role in the Indy game is proof that the Patriots lacked roster depth? He's a lotion-slathered idiot. Anyone with a shred of perspective realizes Baker wouldn't be anywhere near the field if Harrison, Wilson, Artrell Hawkins, Tebucky Jones, Don Davis, and perhaps even Mel Mitchell hadn't been hurt. Including James Sanders and versatile Chad Scott, Baker is the Patriots' sixth-string safety at best. Quick, tell me one other team that is even four-deep at the position. Hell, the Colts' season-long defensive problems were in large part due to injuries to starting safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss - they simply had no one capable of replacing their best two guys. If anything, it's a nod to the Belichick and Scott Pioli's roster-building skills that they had one of the elite defenses in the league while playing without Harrison and Wilson almost the entire season.

9. Because we're shaking off our Patriots hangover and slowly transitioning back into baseball mode here at TATB headquarters, I suppose we should weigh in on the rumor of the day, that the Sox are in "high-level" negotiations with the Rockies to acquire first baseman Todd Helton. Our take: Good god, please let this be fiction. Helton is 33, has a bad back, is coming off a season in which he hit 15 homers with a career-low .476 slugging percentage playing half his games at Coors Field, and is due $90.1 million over the next six seasons. Even if the Rockies pick up half of the contract and take Matt Clement off the Sox's hands, I fail to see what the appeal is. Sure, he was a premier hitter not so long ago, but at this point, Helton's a line-drive hitter who sees a lot of pitches and plays a fine first base. Sounds like John Olerud circa 2005 to me. Pass, Theo.

10. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Gee, think the Fridge will be the subject of any "Where Are They Now?" stories the next two weeks?

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