Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Building the Patriots

How does one achieve perfection? How does one grab the monolith that zaps them from being very good, to being invincible? With one more win, the Patriots will have done that. Want to know how? I'm here to tell you.


Before the start of the 2000 season, the New York media assembled to be introduced to the new Head Coach of the Jets, Bill Belichick. Although Belichick's previous NFL head coaching stint in Cleveland was a poor one that ended in the franchise leaving town in 1995, he had redeemed himself as an assistant with Bill Parcells. He was assistant head coach for the 1996 AFC Champion Patriots, and served as defensive coordinator on the Tuna's Jets' coaching staffs from 1997 thru 1999. His becoming the Jets head coach seemed part of the logical succession plan after Parcells kicked himself upstairs to the GM position.

What promised to be a boring press conference took a shocking turn when Belichick stepped to the podium, and instead of saying hello, said goodbye. He announced he was resigning as the head coach of the New York Jets.

Before anyone had a chance to pick their jaws off the floor, the Patriots announced that their new head coach would be Bill Belichick. Belichick would replace Pete Carroll, who after posting a 33-31 record in 3 seasons as New England coach, was fired by owner Bob Kraft. Carroll, of course, has gone on to become a mega-successful coach at the University of Southern California.

Of course, Parcells and the Jets were furious at the Patriots, and demanded that the league provide compensation for stealing him away when he was still under contract. The league agreed, and the Jets received a first round pick in the 2000 draft from the Pats as compensation.

In case you were wondering, the Jets traded that draft pick to the 49ers, to move up to #12, where they drafted DE Shaun Ellis. Ellis has given the Jets 7 seasons, and made the Pro Bowl once. His best season was 2003, when he had 12 1/2 sacks. Other than that he's gotten about 5 sacks a year. Not so good for a defensive end taken with the 12th pick in the draft.

Belichick's first season in Foxboro was like a replay of his lousy tenure in Cleveland. The Patriots went 5-11. Second year running back Kevin Faulk was the primary running back on that team, which wasn't saying a whole lot. Faulk, the younger brother of Marshall Faulk, who at the time was the dominant running back in the NFL, was drafted in the 2nd round in 1999. In college at LSU, Faulk rushed for more yards than anyone in SEC history besides Herschel Walker.

With that kind of pedigree, Faulk was expected to be, if not as spectacular as his brother, at least capable of being a feature back in the NFL. He led the 2000 team with a paltry 570 rushing yards, but was very versatile, catching 51 passes for 465 yards. It was becoming clear that he wasn't going to be a 1000 yard running back. But it also was clear that he was an offensive weapon who had value. Along with workmanlike linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who was a 3rd round rookie on the 96 Super Bowl team, he's also the only player from Belichick's first Patriots team that was a contributor on the 2007 team that is 18-0 as I write this.

There was another guy on that team that couldn't really be called a contributor on Belichick's first Patriot team. A QB they drafted in the sixth round in the spring of 2000. To give you a sense of where he stood in the QB pecking order in that draft, consider he was drafted only after these QBs were:

Chad Pennington (the only QB to go in the 1st round that year)
Giovanni Carmazzi (3rd round pick by the Niners. Helps explain how they got where they are)
Chris Redman (Resurfaced this year, somehow)
Tee Martin (Has a street named after him in Knoxville, doesn't in Pittsburgh)
Marc Bulger (Hey, not too bad here for another 6th rounder)
Spergon Wynn (I used to call him "Spoogin" Wynn)

He attempted 3 passes that year, and completed 1 for 6 six yards. His name was Tom Brady.
In March of 2001, the Patriots signed Drew Bledsoe, their quarterback and face of the franchise since he was the first overall pick in the 1993 draft, to a 10 year, 103 million dollar contract. It was, at the time, the most lucrative contract in NFL history. If anybody's job in the NFL was secure, Drew Bledsoe's was.

Of course, nobody's job is secure in the NFL, and Bledsoe's wasn't either.

In Week 2 of the 2001 season, Bledsoe was blown up by the Jets' Mo Lewis (again, the cosmic connection between the Jets and Patriots franchises) while trying to get out of bounds on a scramble. The hit punctured Bledsoe's lung, and meant that the Patriots would now have to turn to their second year QB, Tom Brady, who had 3 NFL pass attempts on his resume.

Since destiny is a funny thing, the Patriots rebounded from an 0-2 start under Bledsoe, and went 11-3 the rest of the regular season. Then they won the Super Bowl. Bledsoe was traded in the offseason to Buffalo for the Bills' first round pick in the 2003 draft, and Brady has been ensconced as the Pats' QB ever since.

While this season will always be remembered for the ascent of Brady, the Pats also made some other acquisitions that have contributed heavily to their perfect 07 season.

The Pats had a high draft pick in 01 thanks to their dismal 2000 season. They used the seventh overall pick in the 01 draft to select defensive lineman Richard Seymour out of the University of Georgia. Seymour has gone on to be a five time Pro Bowler.

Seymour was the second D-lineman selected in that draft. The Browns selected Florida's Gerard Warren with the third overall pick. Warren was traded by the Browns three years later, and now is with his third NFL team. For the third overall pick in the draft, he's been a bust.

In the second round, the Patriots made a trade with the Detroit Lions to move up and select Matt Light, an offensive tackle from Purdue. Light became the starting left tackle in his rookie season, and this year has been voted into the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career.

While none of the Pats later round draft picks from 01 panned out, they did make a wise move in picking up undrafted free agent Steve Neal from unknown Cal-State Bakersfield, who didn't even play football there (he was a wrestler, who won two NCAA Division I titles and owned a win over Brock Lesnar in compiling a 151-10 career record). Neal rattled around the Pats' practice squad and bench for 3 years. In 2004, he won a starting spot after the free agent departure of guard Damien Woody, and he's been there ever since.

The Patriots made a shrewd pickup in free agency before the 2001 season. Belichick saw a player that could start for him in Steelers' backup Mike Vrabel. Vrabel had spent 4 seasons in Pittsburgh as a reserve, but was put on the field immediately with the Pats. He has 12 1/2 sacks for the 07 Pats, and at age 32 was selected to his first Pro Bowl, and also to the All-Pro team.
The Super Bowl title took the whole football world by surprise. How a team could come from absolutely nowhere, under a coach most people thought wasn't very competent, and a virtual rookie at QB, and win it all was a mystery to most people.

The Pats' mediocre 2002 season did little to dispel the feeling that the 2001 Patriots were a fluke. The defense was horrible, the running game non-existent, and the defending champs limped to a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs. Simply put, the Pats were being pushed around in the trenches. Their defense ranked 31st in the league against the run, and the offense ranked 28th in rushing offense. Changes would need to be made in the offseason to make the team a contender again.

That change came in the form of free agent safety Rodney Harrison. Harrison had been to two Pro Bowls in nine seasons with the San Diego Chargers, and had earned a reputation as one of the biggest hitting and dirtiest players in the game.

The signing of Harrison allowed the Patriots to play hardball with safety Lawyer Milloy. Who had been selected to the Pro Bowl 4 out of his last 5 seasons. Milloy had an acrimonious holdout in the summer of 03 when the Patriots tried to cut his salary, culminating in his release from the Patriots a week before the 03 season started.

Milloy signed with the AFC East rival Bills, and the ESPN town fathers rended their garments. Surely, they warned, the cold-hearted treatment of a guy who had been a star for them since 1996 would tear this team asunder.

It didn't. The move galvanized a defense that was soft as cream cheese in 2002. The Patriots D improved to 4th in the league against the run thanks to the addition of Harrison, veteran DT Ted Washington, and a career best year from Seymour. The Patriots had a renewed focus, went 14-2, and won their second Super Bowl title in 3 years, proving that 2001 was no fluke.

While the signing of Harrison was a "right now" move, the Patriots also laid some groundwork for their future in the 03 draft. They used the first round pick they got from Buffalo in exchange for Bledsoe to trade up with Chicago, and select defensive lineman Ty Warren, who they saw as a Seymour clone, out of Texas A+M. Warren has been a solid complement to Seymour throughout his career. In the 4th round, they chose Central Florida corner Asante Samuel, who has blossomed into possibly the best corner in the game.

The Pats reshuffled their offensive line in 03. In the 5th round, they nabbed Boston College center Dan Koppen, who stepped in and immediately became a starter, moving 02 Pro Bowl center Damien Woody to guard, and replacing Kenyatta Jones, an 02 draft pick who failed as a starter with o3 undrafted free agent Tom Ashworth. Koppen has remained Tom Brady's center, battling back from a bad injury in 05 to earn a contract that could keep him in New England thru 2011.
to be continued..

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