By George Cain, Guest Author
I don’t know when Bill Belichick lost his fastball on defense.
Maybe it was in 2008 at about the same time Josh Beckett lost his. After another pathetic performance by the Patriots defense this past Sunday against the Bills, I am left wondering when and if he is going to get it back.
I mean this is Bill Belichick, who was canonized this month by NFL Films in “A Football Life.” He is the defensive guru with five Super Bowl rings, two coming as a DEFENSIVE coordinator. He has been a successful defensive coach wherever he has been. But he has FAILED to field a championship defense since he shipped Richard Seymour out of town three seasons ago.
So let’s just stick to facts. The Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years; they were the undisputed “Team of Decade.” It has been seven years since their last Super Bowl Championship, and three seasons and counting since they got out of the first round of the playoffs. The bar is high for this team, but that’s what comes with greatness.
- Fact: Bill Belichick has won three Super Bowl titles as a Head Coach and two titles as a Defensive Coordinator.
- Fact: The Patriots are going to have their 11th winning season in row. They have already won eight AFC East titles under Belichick.
- Fact: Bill Belichick is going to the Hall of Fame.
- Fact: Since the night we never want to talk about in Glendale, Arizona this pass defense has gotten progressively worse.
- Fact: The Patriots have not been to the Super Bowl since 2007 because their defense is not championship caliber.
- Opinion: You could give Tom Brady about 20 other team’s defense and he could win the Super Bowl THIS year. But, Bill cannot even field a top 20 defense right now.
Here are three reasons why:
#1 – Good Players Out, Bad Players In
It was inevitable that Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison, Ty Law and Tedy Bruschi were going to get old and retire. They were all Pro Bowl players who made significant contributions to the three Super Bowl titles, and are not easily replaceable. But, the Patriots also let go of Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour. They were two All-Pro players under the age of 30, and the Patriots had no one to fill the void. Seymour was the Patriots last pure pass rusher and their best defensive player of the last 10 years. He commanded a double team and could create his own rush from a four man front. They let him go for a draft pick 2 years later, who turned out to be Nate Solder. The Pats could have found another tackle; a pass rusher is a little more difficult.
With both these players the spin was that the Patriots couldn’t afford them under the cap. Well, I subscribe fully to the Michael Felger “Cap is Crap” mantra. Somehow the Steelers are able to pay Big Ben, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Casey Hampton and James Farrior. If you’re creative you can make it happen. The Patriots spent just spent 25 million guaranteed, on big Vince Wilfolk. Vince is an All-Pro and one of the top nose tackles in the league and yet the Patriots defense still is horrible. So, if we are going to buy into the salary cap argument maybe 25 million on a nose tackle wasn’t the wisest allocation. But if you still believe that the Patriots couldn’t afford EITHER player then explain to me, what was the backup plan? This segues into my next point, horrible drafting on defense.
#2 – Horrible Drafting on Defense
When it comes to drafting, there is luck, chance, and a thousand other variables involved. But the 2011 Patriots just don’t seem to be very talented despite spending a tremendous amount of draft currency to improve the
team. I wanted to highlight just a few obvious misses in the last four drafts.
2007 – Brandon Meriweather, made a couple of Pro Bowls, but never lived up to his potential and never made it through his rookie contract. The thing is though, he might be better than what they are starting right now.
2008 – Jerod Mayo has been a very good player, but so far he isn’t the play maker that Tedy Bruschi was. He has been worthy of his #10 overall draft selection, but needs to be more than just a tackler. The rest of the defensive players drafted that year -Terrence Wheatley (bust) Shawn Crable (bust), Jonathan Wilhite (bust), are all no longer with the team.
2009 – I unlike some, give them a pass on Clay Matthews. There were steroid concerns with him that I think deserved attention. But this draft had plenty of impact defensive players in the first two rounds -Vontae Davis, Ziggy Hood, James Laurinaitis, Conor Barwin, the Patriots didn’t draft any of them. They instead spent their four second round picks on Pat Chung, Ron Brace, Sebastian Vollmer and Darius Butler.
Chung has been solid, not great but solid. Brace has been out of shape, hurt and basically a non-factor. If you watched any Boston College football games you might have noticed a lot of Brace’s success was based on the fact he played next to All-American BJ Raji, now with the Super Bowl Champion Packers. Darius Butler, was a great athlete, but not an instinctual defensive back and after showing glimpses, faded and was cut.
2010 – This was a great draft, with a big miss. McCourty was spectacular last year, and although he’s exhibited somewhat of a sophomore slump, you still have to be confident he’ll turn it around. The offensive players drafted in 2010 have been phenomenal, but it’s the Jermaine Cunningham selection that should have Patriot fans seething. Remember, Bill spent a lot of time scouting Jermaine while he was at Florida playing for Bill’s buddy Urban Meyer. During that time Bill should have noticed Cunningham’s teammate, All-American Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap had 9 ½ sacks in 7 games last year with Cincinnati. He’s off to a somewhat slow start this year while battling a knee injury but was in Alex Smith’s face several times Sunday despite not figuring heavily on the stat sheet. Dunlap did have off the field issues but with Albert Haynesworth on the team you can’t really use that as an excuse anymore. So if you’re keeping track that’s a miss on Matthews (pass) and a miss on Dunlap. Please don’t give me this scheme crap -if you can rush the passer you can rush the passer. If it is about the “reading and reacting” then Jermaine Cunningham doesn’t do that either.
2011 – I think Bill walked away from the Jets loss with a different view than most. He saw a Patriot team that needed tweaks on offense to beat the Jets. He saw his offensive line getting pushed around in another playoff game. So I agree they needed depth on the offensive line.
But I also saw a team that couldn’t make stops on defense when the team needed it. Bill called the 2011 draft one of the deepest defensive line drafts in recent memory. He then decided not to draft a defensive lineman or linebacker till the 6th round. Their depth chart at the end of last season was Ty Warren, who was on IR, Vince Wilfolk and Mike Wright coming off a concussion that knocked him out the second half of the season. The Pats had the currency to trade up and get an impact rusher.
Ryan Kerrigan was there at 16, the Pats were at 17. They decided to sit tight, draft Solder and then for some ridiculous reason, trade their second number one pick to the Saints for a pick next year. The Redskins traded up offering Jacksonville a second round pick, got Kerrigan and he looks like Clay Matthews redux. Shane Vereen, who the Patriots drafted with their other second round pick, has been in street clothes every week. Solder is going to be a solid offensive lineman but they could have drafted Gabe Carimi with that second first round pick to fill the Solder role, and still had Kerrigan.
Also, in the second round, Bill decided to draft Ras-I-Dowling, and passed on Jabaal Sheard a DL who looks very good for the Browns. Dowling has size, speed and the physical tools to be a shutdown corner. But he played in only 5 games his Senior year in college and has injury history going back to high school. Football is one sport where oft-injured players seldom shake that history. Predictably, Dowling has missed most of training camp and got injured in game two.
#3 Bad Free Agents Signings and Bill’s Arrogance – Maybe it was that great 2004 team winning it all with a secondary that consisted of a rookie, Asante Samuel at one corner. Another undrafted rookie, Randall Gay at the other corner and a journeymen like Earthwind Moreland in the dime package. Did it give Bill a false sense that it’s all scheme and talent is less of a factor?
After the 2006 loss to the Colts they spent big money on free agent Adalius Thomas. It was a massive failure and seemed to scare Bill off big time free agent acquisitions. Free agency is a risk, but if you’re not going to draft pass rushers, then don’t you need to make a play for guys like Julius Peppers, Justin Babin, or Cullen Jenkins. This offense is so superior; the Patriots just need ONE, ONE guy on the line that can strike fear into an opposing quarterback. But this is what you got instead:
- Shaun Ellis – 13 year veteran cut by the Jets, mostly unproductive through the first 3 games.
- Vince Wilfolk – Let’s be honest, he’s been quiet, and he is not a pass rusher, and that is the MAIN problem right now.
- Albert Haynesworth – He’s come as advertised, out of shape, unmotivated, injury prone and a waste of time.
- Andre Carter – Looked good in a preseason game but maybe now we know why he was cut loose.
- Mark Andersen – His last good season was 2006.
- Mike Wright – Always a good role player, now unfortunately because of concussions, a weekly scratch.
- Brandon Spikes – Good against the run, but horrible against the pass, and hasn’t had a huge impact on this defense.
- Rob Ninkovich – He’s a JAG. He works hard, but just isn’t strong enough or fast enough to get to the QB from the outside.
- Devin McCourty – really struggling, but he is their best pass defender.
- Ras-I Dowling – Has never shown an ability to stay healthy.
- Leigh Bodden – Hasn’t been the player he was in 2009 after missing last season.
- The Patriots Safeties – I group them together. Pat Chung is their best player, but he’s hurt. They cut Brandon Meriweather and James Sanders in favor of Sergio Brown and Josh Barrett. Brown and Barrett thus far have been major downgrades from Meriweather, Sanders and Jarrad Page. All three, started for other teams Sunday.
So don’t give me complexity of the defense or any of that other baloney for those of you still chanting “In Bill We Trust.” This offense is Super Bowl caliber. The Patriots have Tom Brady, he is once in a lifetime player, and they are letting his prime slip away. This defense is not average, it’s not middle of the road, it’s just plain bad. Bill Belichick is supposed to be a “defensive genius” but yet we are going on four years that this defense hasn’t been Super Bowl caliber. Rex Ryan, was a defensive coach with the Ravens. He came to the Jets and immediately the Jets defense became top tier in the league. The Steelers and Ravens consistently have top-notch defenses and Don Capers (a Patriot assistant in 2008) has done a superb job in Green Bay. All three teams get after the quarterback. Isn’t that what we should expect from Bill?
You get what you pay for and right now they are PAYING for lack of talent on defense. I think this team wins 11 to 12 games behind the greatness of #12, but right now I doubt they play in the Super Bowl. If Bill wants to reinforce his genius status he’ll get this band of average players to be able to play “some” defense. Otherwise, from the Kool-Aid drinkers you’ll hear the same excuses. There were injuries, they are still young, the scheme is too complicated, Brady’s made some mistakes etc.
And it will be another year that the Patriots failed to win a Super Bowl despite having the best player in the league.