by Scott A. Benson, Senior Foreign Correspondent
July 29, 2010
For me, the opening of Patriots training camp is the day when summer finally gets good. The weather gets better (eventually) and suddenly the days fill up with football again. If you don’t get mired in the details, it’s the most pleasant way to ease your way from the last hurrah into the fall. Then again, I don’t work for the Globe.
Here are the things I’m thinking about as the seasons begin to change. Perhaps you are too.
Unless you’re going down to camp every day (sorry, that would be weird) you’re going to have to rely on the broadcast, electronic and print media to know what’s up. Just so happens that along with training camp, we have labor unrest on both the micro (Brady, Mankins, Moss, Gostkowski, others) and macro (NFL v. NLFPA) levels, and let’s face it, until the unrest is put to rest, it will cast a pall over everything. Worst case: millionaires on picket lines (a visual nearly as compelling as oil-soaked birds). Best case: we have to put up with some cable news-style posturing by both sides for awhile (interesting that the Commissioner has a new series of ‘fan forums’ debuting on his network soon) and professional football will go on uninterrupted in the United States of America.
Quarter-back to the Future
Tom Brady will be the quarterback for the Patriots this season and, right now, I guess that’s enough for me. Long-term, you’d have to go some to convince me that over the next 3 to 5 years, he won’t be among the best players at his position in the NFL. Certainly, he’s the most preferable to me. You’d also have to work overtime to prove to me that this sort of thing is easily replaced.
So that’s what it’s about to me – what’s the future of this team over the next 3 to 5 seasons? Or what we may reasonably anticipate as the terminus for the Belichick Era? What’s the plan? If The Plan includes taking a hard line with a player they can’t replace without despair, I’d like to know. So would 60,000 other people, at least.
Now, I think I already know and like the answer to these questions, and as surely, I think we’ll soon forget that we ever doubted it, so as to prepare for the next crisis unencumbered by nagging history. The problem is that takes time.
Left of the Dial
Any derelict with enough time on his hands could certainly comb the PD archives and find me – on more than one occasion – making the case that Logan Mankins is the Pats’ best offensive lineman since Hannah. So as annoyed I am at the “man of principle” storyline that’s been crafted, I don’t want to the Pats roster to be one Fresno State alum lighter in the future. God knows he’s not perfect (yeah, I know, Super Bowl XLII) but with the combination of durability, nastiness and agility he’s, as Judge Smails might say, top notch. Top notch! And he’s young enough to sustain it though our 3-5 year plan. The Patriots are better with him than without him.
That said, if I hear any more if this shit about broken promises (the players have become the worst offenders of “every time we say it’s a business, you say it’s a game. Every time we say it’s a game, you say it’s a business”) and if they think anything less than a premium is a slight, I’ll vote firmly for his ass out of town toot sweet. You may sign that guy, but you’ll be hearing from him again. And again. And you’re not the only one who will be hearing from him (see item 5 below). A left guard? It’s not worth it.
Tired of Waiting
Brady or no, this team is cooked if some (or most) of these players they’ve drafted over the past few seasons don’t step up and become players who have a consistent impact on the game. Start with tearing down the Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi posters if you like, but the end result will be altered, for better or worse, by how you coach production from not just the Mayos and Meriweathers but the Edelmans and Butlers and Chungs and Tates and Vollmers and Braces. The Prices and Cunninghams and Spikes and McCourtys. Significant resources have been spent and the immediate need is every bit as significant. This isn’t an organization that can afford to be wary of young people anymore, and none of these nascent newcomers can afford to take the Shawn Crable Path to Greatness. Even though this is placed fourth on my list today, no other issue facing this team gets me as fired up as this one. The time is now.
Let’s Stay Together
I’ll start by saying that I buy whole hog (not a second Hannah reference, believe me) the narrative that says there was not adequate coagulation in the Pats locker room last year. Granted, I have never been there, but I can’t imagine any organization can succeed when you have veteran players who openly and frequently question the on-field and off-field decisions made by their superiors. When you have the highest paid players show stubborn unwillingness to pay the price we all have learned must be paid. That kind of environment doesn’t breed success for anybody, in my experience. Don’t tell me I didn’t see what I saw here in the salad days of 01-04.
Anyway, the Vince Wilforks and Leigh Boddens and others like them (this time, see item 4) must begin to slip the surly bonds of leadership from the hands of the Bradys and Faulks and Lights and Neals and Warrens, and their words must have ever more passion for what can be out there for them and these kids they are surrounded by, and their actions must have ever more urgency about what it takes to get there. They have to show the way, before somebody forgets the map. That said, Brandon Meriweather can’t be whiffing tackles every so often if Wilfork is going to get any positive reinforcement for his effort. Here too, the time is now. Otherwise, the Patriots will one day (soon) become just another lonely outpost on the NFL’s vast landscape of middle class mediocrity. No pressure, though.
Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Positions Are In)
We can talk about training camp’s ceaselessness, but things do get addressed in the dog days. We’ll know more about these hot spots in thirty days than we do now: Running Back – can anybody here play this game? For more than a few weeks, I mean? Fact is I like many of the players in this group, but collectively, they give me the heebie jeebies. You can’t move away from being a pass-happy bunch of lightweights if you can’t possess the ball and make fucking first downs. Tight End – I’m oddly optimistic about this group. For me it feels like they have the Role Model (Crumpler), the Immediate Contributor (Hernandez) and the Every Down Player of the Future (whatever his name is. I’m working on this). Short of throwing a bunch of money and a second round pick at a (then) 33 year old Tony Gonzalez, what do you want? Ben Watson? Left Guard – again, optimistic in an odd fashion. I think Nick Kaczur to LG might be passable – it takes him off the edge, where he struggled with speed and athleticism, and drops him inside, where he encounters less of both. It, in fact, plays to his strengths, which seem to me to be in the close area. Do your worst as far as the Oxy goes, and the kill shots on Brady, but he’s an experienced guy that has (if extensions are any indication) obviously signed on to The Program. Nobody wants the Mankins thing but your have to make the best out of it, and this seems like the best option right now. Plus it opens the door for full-time work for a guy – Sebastian Vollmer – the Patriots have to be counting on in a big way for the seasons to come. Defensive Line – honestly, the Pats should be better on the defensive line. They have upper echelon players in Ty Warren and Wilfork. I guess the problem lies because the rest of the rotation is a confusing mess. Mike Wright is a steady back-up (and that’s a great thing, by the way), but someone(s) from the Warren-Lewis vet cartel and someone(s) from the underclassmen (Brace, Pryor, Richard, even Deaderick and Weston) play to a higher level. If they don’t, they may as well have kept Jarvis Green. You know what they need – a Tony McGee type. Somebody that drives a dent in the pocket every time they’re called. McGee was a fantastic, and sometimes forgotten, Patriot. Linebackers – Sigh. I’ve already written reams on this. Look – they have one linebacker truly capable of playing every down. That cannot stand. They’ll nearly gone all in on the kids – so they’ll be measured on that. All of them. Secondary – again, no pressure, but if Darius Butler doesn’t get his starter bona fides in a hurry, there’ll be a disconnect in Foxborough all right. No doubt the lethargic pass “rush” of 2009 shouldered its share of the blame for the Pats defense being 21st in passing yards, but it seems to me that’s not helped by guys who can’t get into position to play the ball. If I had a buck for every time a Patriot defender draped himself over a receiver who ultimately caught the pass, I’d have a shitload of bucks. By the way, like Butler, Patrick Chung’s “patient supportive nurturing environment” window is closing. Their safeties suck. Somebody’s got to do something, and that somebody is Chung.
Fixing A Hole
About Shawn Crable, who was released yesterday in his third season of ignominy with the Patriots; it’s easy to blame the kid (BTW, I defy you to see his bio pic without laughing like hell. He comes off as the ultimate sad sack), but I again reflect on what a shit show linebacker development was in New England after 2001. Somebody missed something pretty big when they were scouting this player, and somebody after them failed to ask the pertinent questions. Most aggravating is that this was the 78th pick in the draft (only Mayo and Cunningham have been picked higher as LB’s by Belichick), and they pooched it at a position that needed the most help. The position that was once central to their very identity as a team, and they got it WAY wrong, and wasted a lot of time. I’m sorry, but that’s almost worse than two Chad Jacksons. If a lesson can’t be learned from this episode, then this whole fucking thing will be a complete waste.
Scott Benson is enjoying semi-retirement in glitzy Augusta, Maine, hobnobbing in suits made of linen with ambassadors and their attachés. He can be reached by carrier pigeon, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Better yet, follow him for occasional bursts of Tweeted profanity at http://twitter.com/scottabenson