The Cold, Hard Football Facts like to get their hands around things. Usually those things we like to touch are filled with frothy golden liquid, coated in delectable Buffalo sauce or constrained so suggestively beneath a skimpy bikini top.
In the case of the Patriots, the thing we all need to get our hands around as we head into the 2009 season is the state of the New England pass defense. We also need to come to grips with, as we do below, the massive turnover in the Patriots secondary since last year.
We talked about this issue here on WEEI.com several times during the 2008 season. But it remains no less true today: even with a healthy Tom Brady at the helm of the offense, the Patriots live and die on the strength of their pass defense.
In fact, most teams do.
The historic importance of pass defense
The best way to measure the success of a pass defense is NOT by the number of yards its surrenders -- the useless measure typically cited by the TV networks and other so-called pigskin “pundits.” The best way to measure the success of a pass defense is by its Defensive Passer Rating -- that is, applying the very same formula we use to rate quarterbacks to rate pass defenses.
It’s an incredibly telling indicator of success -- especially when paired with a great quarterback. In fact, all of the great dynasties in history had great Defensive Passer Ratings (DPR) on one side of the ball and great quarterbacks on the other.
Pittsburgh’s great Steel Curtain of the 1970s, for example, boasts the single best defensive passer rating of the Super Bowl Era: their 1973 team produced an incredibly miniscule 33.1 DPR. Four of the 15 best pass defenses of the Super Bowl Era (as measured by DPR) were fielded by the Steel Curtain of the 1970s.
This great pass defense, paired with one of the best big-game quarterbacks in history in Terry Bradshaw, carried the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s.
The 1960s Packers, meanwhile, routinely produced defensive passer ratings in the 40s, led by the Super Bowl champion 1967 Packers (41.5 DPR).
This great pass defense, paired with the best big-game quarterback in history in Bart Starr (his postseason passer rating of 104.8 is the NFL record), carried the Packers to five NFL or Super Bowl titles in the 1960s.
The Patriots provide further proof of the need to pair stingy pass defenses with great quarterbacks.
In fact, the Bill Belichick Era Patriots have proven that when you pair a legendary quarterback with a solid pass defense that you usually fight for, reach and win Super Bowls.
•The Patriots have reached the AFC title game five times in the Belichick Era (2001, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007). Their average defensive passer rating in these five seasons was 68.9 -- much better than the average modern pass defense (about 80).
•The Patriots have failed to reach the AFC title game four times in the Belichick Era (2000, 2002, 2005, 2008). Their average defensive passer rating in these four seasons was 85.5 -- worse than the average modern pass defense.
In other words, the Patriots are Super Bowl contenders when they have a decent pass defense. They are not Super Bowl contenders when their pass defense sucks.
The state of the 2009 Patriots
All of which brings us back to the issue at hand: the state of the Patriots pass defense in 2009.
Put most bluntly, even if Brady had played last year, the pass defense was not good enough for the team to win or even reach a Super Bowl (a dreadful 89.8 DPR). Even if the team had reached the playoffs, the pass defense was not good enough to win a Super Bowl.
Belichick and Patriots management were painfully aware of this situation. In fact, they made an all-out assault on revamping the pass defense since the season ended after just 16 games.
Here’s a look at the members of New England’s dreadful secondary from 2008 and their status in here 2009:
Rodney Harrison: The great safety retired after making just six appearances in 2008; he’s now an analyst for NBC Sports. Impact: arguably the best safety in Patriots history, he was plagued by injuries late in his career and his best years were already behind him.
Ellis Hobbs: A great kick returner but frequent target of fan ire for his suspect play at cornerback. Traded to the Eagles in April. Hobbs caused a firestorm this week by accusing his former Patriots teammates of faking injuries. Impact: Hobbs was a liability on pass defense who will not be missed.
Brandon Meriweather: Started 11 games last year while leading the Patriots in INTs (4); likely to start at safety in 2009. He had a breakout season last year, but the first-round pick from 2007 has yet to live up to expectations. Impact: The Patriots desperately need Meriweather to come through in his role as the Rodney Harrison of the future.
Deltha O’Neal: Picked off three passes in an otherwise underwhelming mercenary season with the Patriots. Signed with the Texans in August. Impact: He was a warm body on a defense in which a beating earned you a starting job.
James Sanders: The fact that he started 14 games at free safety, more than any other Patriots DB, was symbolic of the discontinuity that plagued the secondary last year. He nabbed one INT and 42 tackles. Impact: Perhaps will be paired with Meriweather at safety in 2009, at least early in the season.
Lewis Sanders: A veteran free-agent pick-up last year who started four forgettable games at cornerback. Currently an unsigned free agent. Impact: In a recent survey, 9 out of 10 hard-core New England football fans thought Lewis Sanders ran a fried chicken empire.
Antwann Spann: A three-year role player for the Patriots who made token appearances in the secondary. He was waived this summer and has kicked around in the Bills and Broncos camps. Impact: Antwain who?
Terrence Wheatley: The second-round pick in the 2008 draft made one start before suffering an injury in November that sidelined him for the season. He’s the type of high draft pick that the Patriots need to come through to reverse a several-year trend of bad selections in the secondary. Impact: He has not impressed anyone in the preseason and right now is trending toward a bust.
Jonathan Wilhite: A rookie fourth-round pick in 2008, Wilhite replaced O’Neal as the team’s starting cornerback for the final four games. Perhaps coincidence, but the Patriots defense was at its best with Wilhite in the starting line-up (13.5 PPG). Impact: A possible starter in 2009 and another in a long line of Smurf-like corners (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) for Belichick’s Patriots.
Here’s a look at the new faces:
Leigh Bodden: The veteran cornerback was the top player in Detroit’s defensive backfield last year. But that’s like being the most sober guy at the Cold, Hard Football Facts company Christmas party: the 2008 Lions fielded the single worst pass defense in the history of the NFL (110.8 Defensive Passer Rating). Impact: Bodden could start at cornerback, but he’s not the type of player who will help Patriots fans forget Asante Samuel.
Darius Butler: The former star cornerback at Connecticut was drafted by the Patriots in the second round (No. 41 overall). Impact: It’s a bad sign that a team that drafted two cornerbacks in 2008 needed to use another high pick at the position in 2009. One of them must prove a great cover corner for the Patriots to improve.
Patrick Chung: The former second-team All America safety at Oregon was New England’s top pick (second round, No. 34 overall) in the 2009 draft. He’s among the team leaders with 10 tackles in the pre-season. Impact: The Patriots either envision him as an impact safety someday or just need to put pressure on one of their other under-performers at the position.
Herana-Daze Jones: Jones was a career special teamer with the Bengals and Broncos. He’s currently taking up space in training camp. Impact: Not likely to make the team.
Jamar Love: Undrafted rookie free agent already cut once this summer. Impact: Not likely to make the team.
Roderick Rogers: Spent two years with Denver as an undrafted free agent before signing with the Vikings early this year, who then waived him after testing him out as a wide receiver. Impact: Not likely to make the team.
Shawn Springs: A one-time Pro Bowler (1998), the cornerback is entering his 14 year in the NFL. He picked off one pass in seven starts with the Redskins last year. Impact: Great defenses are not built around 34-year-old journeyman cornerbacks.
Essentially, the Patriots played a giant shell game in their secondary this off-season. They lost plenty of faces from last year -- but none of whom made a major impact on the team’s ability to play pass defense. And they gained plenty of new faces -- but none of whom is a proven NFL impact player.
That’s more like treading water than swimming with the current.
So even with a healthy Brady, the 2009 season comes down to two things:
1) The team’s ability to perhaps put more pressure up front on opposing quarterbacks, thereby making life easier for a secondary that remains suspect until further evidence proves otherwise. The Patriots struggled to pressure quarterbacks last year.
2) The ability of at least two of the high draft picks of recent years to prove that they have what it takes to become an impact player. Whether it’s Meriweather or Chung establishing themselves as the next Rodney Harrison, or guys like Wilhite, Wheatley or Butler turning into shutdown corners, two of these guys need to step up and become the type of player that opposing quarterbacks fear.
If nether of these events unfold in New England’s favor, the Patriots will not be a serious Super Bowl contender in 2009 – and Patriots fans will be left in January grasping at nothing but those beers, wings and skimpy bikini tops.
Actually, that’s not a bad deal, is it?