logoroundtable2When last we left the New England Patriots, they were blowing an 18 point lead to lose the first AFC Championship Game in franchise history.

Today, as training camp opens for the 2007 campaign, they begin the long road back. The mission is clear and direct. The Patriots must get off the gym floor and start scrambling back up that rope, ignoring twenty-five weeks of the inevitable burns and blisters, just to get to the same point they were when they lost their grip last January.

Then, they must grab those last few handfuls of rope – the hardest ones – and touch the ceiling.

Such are the expectations in New England these days, more so this year than any other. The Pats went buckwild – literally – with trades and free agent signings this spring, to the point that their mad spree spawned a cottage industry of eager conspiracy theorists with colorful suppositions as to the miserly Patriots’ largesse. I don’t know whether to believe any of them, but just in case – beware that grassy knoll by the practice field when you travel to camp.

This seems like a good time to call in our august panel for their thoughts as another season begins. Remember boys, back…..and to the left!

What’s the deal with this past off-season? Was this simply a harmonic covergence of a bigger pocketbook and good timing, or are the Patriots ‘loading up’ for an alleged final hurrah?

Greg Doyle: I think the bigger pocketbook and timing. They had a lot of room due to the new CBA and there were guys who fit who were out there and available. It’s as simple as that. Any other explanations are pretty silly. If they were “loading up” for one big year, why did they trade away a first round pick for a future pick? Why would they simply not sign Asante Samuel to whatever he wants? After all, future years don’t matter if Belichick is heading to parts unknown after this season.

Tim Jordan: Bob Kraft said that the team wanted to be able to take advantage of market inefficiencies. Adalius Thomas most definitely represents that.

Greg: I think the Patriots looked at the newly available money they got under the new CBA and said, lets use this…but only on the players we want. Why spend it just to spend it? And the way they evaluate players, ones they want aren’t necessarily going to all be there in one free agency cycle or even two, three or four. It’s simply a question of supply. There weren’t enough good guys who fit their system in 2006, this off-season there were a few.

Tim: As for the WR’s, it’s pretty clear that they felt it was the team’s biggest weakness last year. I don’t think they planned for Moss, but when they saw what it would take to get him, they again took full advantage.

Dan Snapp: I don’t get the “last hurrah” stuff. Let’s say Belichick thinks he’s accomplished all he can in New England, and wants a new challenge. He’d get total control and a slew of money. He’d lose the security blanket of a hands-off owner, a first ballot Hall of Fame QB, and an established elite organization. He’s headed for the Hall of Fame, but a couple more titles, and he’s crowned the best ever. The only guarantee in the new job is the challenge. So is Belichick about his legacy, or about seeking new challenges? If he’s about legacy, he’s best served cementing it in New England. The man’s a unique individual, though; maybe seeking the challenge elsewhere isn’t so far-fetched. More likely, its crap someone threw at a wall.

Scott Benson: I had an e-mail correspondence with a guy recently who said: “He’s had a good run, all those SB should be more than enough… the good times have to end sometime…” It struck me then that most of these theories come from someone with a dog in the hunt. This particular e-mailer was a Jets guy, which he failed to mention at any point in our exchange. Look, you and I both know that Bill Belichick can’t coach the Patriots forever. He may not coach them next year. Who knows? This I DO know……why rush it? You’ll deal with it when it happens. Until then, what’s the point? Unless your own dog has been coming up dry.

Kevin Thomas: I would think a key indicator of the head coach’s future in New England is what we hear about the relationship between Belichick and the Krafts, which is essentially nothing, save for the usual, largely meaningless public platitudes between coaches and ownership. However, the rumor mill and the modern-day Will McDonough’s of the world never even hint that there might be trouble between Belichick and the Krafts–which would seem to be something of a rarity when it comes to high-profile coaches and their equally high-profile owners in today’s NFL. Even the media-types who seemingly just throw crap against the wall when it comes Belichick and his future plans don’t cite tension with ownership as a reason for leaving, as far as I’ve seen. And one would think Belichick is particularly sensitive to this issue, given his history in Cleveland, his issues with the Jets’ ownership situation in ’99, and of course his first-hand experience with the Parcells-Kraft split in the mid-’90s. If there were a developing rift between Belichick and the Kraft family, I have no doubt someone would find out and report it. Because we hear almost nothing about it, I think its fair to assume that Belichick’s working relationship with his boss in New England is pretty good, at least by modern NFL standards. Unless that changes, I don’t see him giving that up and walking into an uncertain situation elsewhere.

Speaking of Samuel, where do you guys see the situation going from here? Will he stay away from camp and try to sit out a portion of the regular season, and will he ultimately sign his franchise tender and set himself up for another run at free agency? And could the Patriots have done something different to avoid the whole mess?

Kevin: I think he will make his “statement” by sitting out most, if not all of training camp, but he will almost certainly show up in time to earn his first game-week paycheck. It’s tough to say whether the Patriots could have done anything differently to avoid this situation, since we really don’t know what has gone on during negotiations and what kinds of numbers have been traded by either camp. In retrospect, it does seem like the time period they should have tried hardest to sign Asante was between the Branch trade last season and the franchise tag deadline earlier this year. Just days after Samuel was given the franchise tag by the Pats, Nate Clements signed his monster deal with the 49ers, which probably sealed Asante’s fate here in New England.

Travis Graham: The only thing I’m sure about with regards to the Samuel situation is that he will NOT be allowed to hold out for any regular season games. He’ll sign or be traded before it comes to that. How many Patriots players under Belichick have missed one regular season game by holding out?

Greg: Branch missed the opener last year by holding out and the situation was resolved between weeks one and two when he was traded, I believe.

Travis: Doh! Well, in that case I’ll have to rephrase my point to not letting him sit out until week ten. I’ll assume that it took the Pats a little while to get the Branch trade in place. I can’t see them letting this thing drag out. I think Belichick feels that it’s too much of a distraction during the season. He’d probably never say that publicly, because he leads his players to believe that there is no such thing as a distraction.

Dan: Belichick’s first priority is to do whatever helps the team win. I think he’d see the Samuel holdout differently than past holdouts, since Samuel’s technically not in breach of his contract. Samuel playing, be it Game 1 or Game 11, helps the team win. Their realistic options are to sit and wait to see what Samuel does with the tender, or to try to negotiate a one-year deal with him like Seattle did with Shaun Alexander a few years back. The fact that he’s not under contract – and thereby lessening the team’s options at this point – is a blessing in disguise. The onus is totally on Samuel at this point. The only realistic options rely on his cooperation. I honestly don’t think Belichick’s worried about the distraction. This team has persevered, and flourished, through worse distractions than this.

Greg: I think he’ll sit out part of camp because who wants to be doing two-a-days in August? But then he will sign the franchise deal during camp and come back in time to get in decent shape and play two exhibition games and then will play out the season quietly. Whether he gets a new deal with the Patriots, gets franchised again or is allowed to test the waters as a complete free agent will depend on his play this year. Nothing more, nothing less. Meanwhile, he earns nearly $8 million for this season. What’s the problem?

Tim: I have no answers to this question, but I do have a question of my own. Who is more dense, the local media for reporting that Samuel had the two words “Get Paid” tattooed on his arm when it actually read “Get Rich To This” (I am left wondering why they didn’t add “B!TCHES!”, if they were going to make something up without seeing it) or Samuel himself for tattooing lyrics on his arm and not knowing who sang them? It’s a pretty poor performance all around here, but a tie goes to the media because they have made it a point to try and ruin sports for me while Asante is just musically illiterate.

What do you see as this team’s strengths, as they begin the season?

Tim: Coaching. It will always be coaching until Belichick hangs them up. Oddly, I think the expectations this year are higher than they were to begin the 2004 season. That was the last time I can remember the Patriots being prohibitive favorites and he handled it masterfully then, but I am guessing that’s an accomplishment Belichick feels very proud of since it is so rare. He also had historically great coaching in place then.

Bruce Allen: The passing game is going to be a strength, though it might take a little while for everyone to get in sync. Josh McDaniels has shown over the last two years that he prefers the passing game, to the consternation of some observers of the team. However, the problem the last couple of years was that Tom Brady didn’t have an abundance of reliable options in the passing game. Now, opposing defenses are going to have a hard time accounting for everyone, which should make things easier for Laurence Maroney.

Dan: Barring injury, Tom Brady’s going to win the MVP. I say his percentage goes up, his TDs will clear 30, and he’ll throw for over 4000 yards. There’s your team strength: an extremely motivated MVP candidate with a bunch of new toys to play with.

Bruce: I’m not sure I buy into it, but there’s a segment out there that questions Brady’s work this offseason. All we read about was him jet-setting around the world. He’s got the baby thing, plus a superstar girlfriend to deal with. I think Brady can rise above it all, but you know if there are any blips this year, the cries will be raised about his personal life impacting his play on the football field.

Kevin: I am concerned about Brady standing in the pocket 45-50 times per game and taking more than his fair share of hits while playing with all his new “toys.” Let’s face it, if Brady goes down for an extended period, the season is sunk. They aren’t going to win many grind-’em-out ball-possession affairs with Maroney and Morris carrying the load, and Moss/Stallworth/Welker won’t be worth squat if it’s Cassel or Vinny T throwing them the ball. For six years, we’ve been incredibly lucky that #12 has been behind center for virtually all meaningful snaps. At some point, that luck will likely run out. And the offense the Patriots have apparently designed for 2007 if anything only amplifies that risk.

Scott: Everybody talks about the passing game, understandably, but this was the second best defense in the NFL in points allowed last year. Holding the other team to a few points: Strength* (the asterisk is for the final 30 minutes in Indy).

Greg: They are a good team for a lot of reasons…coaching, depth, veterans who’ve won before mixed with a good crew of promising youth. I’d say their biggest strength is experience and know-how throughout the roster. They have guys at virtually every position who are at the very least solid players and, at the top of the scale, upper-echelon players who have been successful before and know how to do it again.

What do you see as team weaknesses?

Bruce: I confess to still being a little nervous about the state of the linebacker unit. If all goes well, they may have solved their issues for another season. Thomas can move into the role that Ted Johnson filled, and Bruschi can slide over to his old inside role, with Vrabel and Colvin on the outside. Counting Junior Seau and Chad Brown, this is an old group. Thomas is a huge addition; hopefully he can help slow down the hands of time for this unit.

Dan: Like Bruce, I’m worried about the ‘backers. Adalius Thomas was a great pickup, but I wanted to see a high draftee too. The position has some old legs. Their inability to cover ground was exploited by the Colts tight ends, and San Diego was running right at Tedy Bruschi. Is Thomas enough to overcome these shortcomings?

Travis: I think that we all agree that the LB depth is a top concern. One thing the Patriots could do to help with the aging LBs would be to mix in more 4-3 coverages. The emergence of Mike Wright with Jarvis Green and the rookie Kareem Brown could allow them to play more linemen. This could give Bruschi/Colvin/Vrabel/Thomas to take a play off here and there.

Greg: I think there is some question whether their cornerbacks are good enough, particularly if they are without Samuel for any length of time. Its not that I don’t like the guys there, they are mostly solid players, there are just no great players among them. And, really, that includes Samuel too. I have no expectation at all he’ll this year or ever have as good a year as he did last year, particularly down the stretch. He is a good, but not great player. The rest of the corners, Randall Gay, Tory James, Ellis Hobbs, Chad Scott, etc. are mostly solid vets. But again, they are not the best group in the league nor close. Can they be covered up by the strength of the rest of the defense, the good coaching and schemes and their own experiences on successful teams?

What player will perform better than expected?

Dan: I believe Adalius Thomas’s presence will be a boon to Rosevelt Colvin’s play. Last year, he had his best season since recovering from the 2003 hip injury, and game up big in all three playoff games, with the tipped lateral against the Jets, the acrobatic interception against the Chargers, and a sack in the Indy game. Keep an eye on Colvin this year.

Bruce: When he comes back from injury, I think David Thomas has a big future at tight end. I think his potential was another reason they didn’t make a huge offer to Daniel Graham and brought Kyle Brady in as the blocking tight end. Brady may become a nice goal line target for the other Brady…that Tom guy, but as the season goes on, I see Thomas’ role expanding alongside Benjamin Watson.

Greg: I’d say Eugene Wilson. He seems almost an afterthought now, but we forget he was a borderline Pro-Bowler the last two Super Bowl seasons. And I thought reports on his allegedly poor play in 2005 and early in 2006 were greatly exaggerated by angle-seeking media types, though I will concede his play appeared to drop at least a bit in those seasons. If healthy (certainly a question), I think the forgotten Wilson will come around and play well in 2007, whether it be at corner or safety, and surprise everyone.

Travis: I think that Maroney could benefit from the rumors of the Pats switching to a zone-blocking scheme (think Denver) for the OL. Zone-blocking is said to help the quicker-athletic RBs more than a power RB (Dillon). Also, I wonder if the new (alleged) blocking scheme had anything to do with them drafting three OL this year. All of them were smallish for the position at 310, 297 and 288 lbs. (think Broncos).

Scott: Wes Welker is going to be HUGE. A drive-extending machine. The other guys will get all the play at first, but when the games count the most, my money is on the proposition that Welker was born to be a New England Patriot.

Dan: Welker’s gonna be a monster in this offense. He runs precise routes, he gets open, and he hangs onto the ball – coincidentally, three things Tom Brady looks for in a go-to receiver. Speaking of receivers, how is this all going to flesh out? We expect Moss, Stallworth and Welker as locks. Troy Brown’s also a lock because you simply find a spot for a guy who saves the season like he did against the Chargers. Who among Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Kelley Washington is the odd man out? How much will special teams abilities play a part?

Scott: They always seem to play a part when it comes to the end of the roster, which is what we’re really talking about. We’re talking about the fifth and six receiver. Not to diminish those positions, but it seems to me that the important question is who the first four will be. Will Moss, Stallworth and Welker make the impact we expect? Is Washington any more than a bottom of the roster guy? How will Caldwell and/or Gaffney respond to the challenge of the New Edition (Ooooooh – watch out!)? Will they produce enough to bump their way in? And does Troy Brown truly have a lifetime pass to the Patriots roster?

What player won’t live up to expectations?

Tim: Moss, depending what the expectations are. I see more 2-3 catch games then 5-6 catch games. I think that’s what the Patriots expect, but maybe not what the fans will expect out of such a high profile player.

Bruce: I’d like Tory James to be a nice fit here, but I think he might have lost a couple of steps. Can he be used in a big role if Asante doesn’t report? We’re going to have to see. Also, one of the wide receivers might not work out and be cut. Will Moss have a training camp meltdown? Will Kelley Washington struggle to adjust? The potential is there for one in this group to be a disappointment.

Travis: Donte’ Stallworth. Gut feeling.

Scott: That’s exactly what I was going to say. Eerie. I’ll go instead with Adalius Thomas. This is no slam on the player; I just wonder if his contributions will be quieter (re: different) here than they were in Baltimore, and what the reaction to that will be. What if he ends up more Roman Phifer than Willie McGinest? Will it be appreciated, or will it be greeted with howls from Section “I thawt he was gonna be moah of a pass rushah!”?

Dan: If he’s Roman Phifer circa 2001, I’m all for it. While you may have a point, Belichick didn’t pick up such a versatile performer so he could lock him solely in at the Mike.

Greg: Sad to say, but probably Rodney Harrison. Among my favorite players on the team, I doubt he can regain his elite status at his age and with all the injuries he’s had recently. I think best case scenario is a merely good Rodney Harrison who can still contribute with his knowledge, toughness, leadership and smarts.

What do you think about the schedule? What’s the toughest stretch? Conversely, where can the Pats make some hay?

Bruce: I think the schedule itself is pretty balanced this season, you don’t have a 3-4 game run where you’ve got cupcakes or killers. That said, the toughest challenges might be right out of the gate, where they open up in New York against the Jets and then come home to face the Chargers. How would an 0-2 start be received around here?

Tim: Games 3-8 seem to have good early season matchups: Bills, at Bengals, Browns, at Cowboys, at Dolphins, and Redskins. After the break there is a tough stretch in games 10-14: at Bills, Eagles, at Ravens, Steelers, then Jets. Brace yourself for this stretch – I think each game will be big.

Travis: I like that the bye week is week ten, but I’m not a big fan of just eight 1PM games.

What AFC teams pose the biggest threat to the Patriots this fall?

Travis: I think the Jets are going to fall back to earth, Miami has a new coach and the Bills…well, maybe I like the Bills to come in second. I like the RB they drafted and Jonathan-Paul is able to beat lesser defenses, but I don’t like him in crunch time and especially against a decent defense.

Greg: I’d say the Jets made a nice pickup at running back in Thomas Jones, but still, I agree they played a bit over their heads last season. They’ll still be similarly solid to last season, but certainly not a great team. I like how Buffalo looks, except for their quarterback. They have an improving team and at some positions are laden with young talent.

Bruce: You’ve got to consider the Colts still right there. They may have lost some contributors this off-season, but they’ve still got that offense that has shredded the Patriots in their last three meetings. The Chargers are again extremely talented – did they learn something from the playoff loss to the Patriots? A lot of people think the Jets will take a step back this season, but you know that the two games they play the Patriots will be among the most intense of the season.

Tim: The teams I most feared last year, Baltimore and San Diego, seemingly didn’t improve enough. I don’t think San Diego will seamlessly transition an entire coaching staff without some growing pains and Baltimore stubbornly refuses to find the right QB to make their offense a threat. I think it’s the Denver Kryptonites and the NY Jets that will be interrupting my sleep this season. That’s what fan-boys do after all. Speaking of, how did it become a legitimate insult to take a noun and just add “boy” to it? I mean, being called a “fan” isn’t something that anyone takes offense to – but you add that smarmy “boy” to it and they are fighting words used to discredit just about anyone. I just spent the last ten minutes trying and it actually works for any other noun, like “Hooker”, “Life Coach”, and “Dinosaur Columnist”. You add “boy” to anything and be prepared for fisticuffs or, at the very least, hurt feelings.

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