Depending on which pundit you listen to, the Patriots are either the very best team in the league when it comes to the draft, or they're the absolute worst.
The truth, of course, is that they're neither. They don't suck, obviously. But they also haven't quite lived up to their lofty standards recently, either.
In fact, for those who have chosen to take a hard look at the Pats' selections since the last title in 2004, there has been an ever-so-slight slippage in the “In Bill We Trust” mantra. I read it every week here at the mailbag. Fans want to know how the defense could have fallen so far, so fast. They want to know why the Pats were so reluctant to draft linebackers prior to last year and why they've long had a problem finding defensive backs. They wonder if they should remain bullet-proof confident in the ability of Belichick and his staff (now without Scott Pioli) to find the solutions.
Make no mistake, this is a huge draft for the Pats. It's one that will help determine just how long the Pats' window of opportunity will remain open.
And if you believe the folks in Forbes Magazine, we're toast. Last week, the business mag claimed the Pats were the worst drafting team in the NFL over the past three years. That's worse than the Lions. Worse than the Raiders. Thirty-second out of 32 teams.
How absurd. While there have been some serious mistakes made by the Pats on draft day in recent years (see below), to say no one has done it worse is just plain dumb. The methodology of the report was seriously flawed, weighing heavily towards the teams whose drafted players remain on the roster. That's why the Texans, with their paper-thin roster, ranked first. You'd have figured that any model that ranked Houston first and New England last in anything would have been thrown out with the bathwater. But not this one.
Not quite as ridiculous, but inaccurate nonetheless, was a ranking done by longtime national writer John Czarnecki for Fox Sports. According to the Czar, the Pats were the best drafting team in the NFL since 2003 (the Pats were the only team to get an A+ grade). That's No. 1 out of 32 teams. This despite a defense that has crapped out in each of the last four seasons and last year finished 26th in the league on third downs, 31st in the red zone and 31st in touchdown passes allowed. You would think that the best drafting team in the NFL wouldn't have to start Deltha O'Neal and Ellis Hobbs at corner, but apparently the Pats still qualified.
Most everyone aside from Forbes would agree that the Pats are much closer to the best than the worst when it comes to the draft.
But those who believe the Pats have done nothing but hit it out of the park in April for the last six years just haven't been paying attention. Either that, or they're the type of fan boy/sychophant who blathers about the “big picture” and Belichick's “master plan” whenever a personnel decision is questioned. Never mind that some of Belichick's master plans have been flat-out failures. What, for example, was the master plan at receiver in 2006? Reche Caldwell? What was the master plan at corner in 2008? O'Neal? Fernando Bryant?
Belichick, as it turns out, doesn't have all the answers. He's human, and that extends to the draft. Notice those gaping holes in his defense? They are the direct result of poor decisions made on draft day the past few years, and they're the reason the Pats remain in a scramble mode to rebuild what was once a championship-caliber unit.
The 2006 draft was a killer. Not only did the Pats forsake the defense for the offense in that one, they wound up getting the wrong guys. Laurence Maroney in the first round. Chad Jackson high in the second round, after a costly trade. Dave Thomas in the third round. Garrett Mills in the fourth. As we all know, Jackson and Mills are long gone. Maroney and Thomas could soon follow. Take out kicker Stephen Gostkowski in the fourth round (a very good pick), and that draft is getting dangerously close to being a washout.
The 2007 draft looks even worse, with safety Brandon Meriweather the only starting-quality player to emerge from it. Of course, that was the year the Pats sent a second-round pick to Miami for Wes Welker and a fourth to Oakland for Randy Moss, so while those deals also focused on offense over defense, at least the Pats got the right guys in return.
The jury is out for 2008, although the selection of linebacker Jerod Mayo at No. 10 looks like a grand slam. The depth of that class will depend on the development of guys like corners Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite and linebacker Shawn Crable.
But unless (or until) those players improve, the fact is that there are only two guys who the Pats have drafted the last three years who will be counted on as sure-fire starters and potential impact players on the defense in 2009: Mayo and Meriweather. That's three drafts to produce just two good players on defense and few others we're not sure about yet. That's not good enough.
We could go a bit deeper. In 2004, the Pats decided to add some youth at safety with Rodney Harrison advancing in years. So they tabbed Guss Scott in the third round and Dexter Reid in the fourth. Neither stuck. That was also the year that tight end Ben Watson was taken at the end of the first round, the late Marquise Hill was taken in the second, the pathetic Cedric Cobbs was taken in the fourth and the eminently forgettable P.K. Sam was taken in the fifth. If not for the no-brainer selection of Vince Wilfork with the 21st pick in the first round that year, the 2004 class would have been looked at as one of the big failures (face it, Watson is a disappointment).
So the pressure is on for next week. With six selections in the top 97 and a class that is said to be the deepest in years, Belichick has the opportunity to restock his defense in a heartbeat. If the non-Mayo elements of 2008 pan out and some more legit talent comes in April 25-26, then the Pats are in business. They will have covered for the failures of 2006 and 2007 with hauls in 2008 and 2009. But if Wheatley and Wilhite turn out to be Scott and Reid redux, or if next weekend is spent taking skill position players who can't play, forget it. The Pats will continue to peter and sputter on defense, and it won't matter how many yards Tom Brady throws for. The Pats won't be able to stop anybody when it counts, and that will doom their chances just as it has for four years running.
Oh yeah, the mailbag. We've got playoff hockey Thursday night, folks. Enough said. A few quick B's emails to get us in the mood....
I’ve been watching you for years now on the Comcast show. You work with a bunch of guys who know nothing about hockey. In fact, one guy, and I won’t mention his name, has permanent dodo stains on his head from shoving his face so far up the Celtics' tuchus.
You, yourself, never took the lead way back to get hockey and the Bruins more air time on the show. And your pessimism is way off course about this current team winning in the first round. I’m tired of hearing the negativity from people who don’t know what they are talking about, and only talk when there is a bandwagon to ride.
Let it be clear: the BRUINS HAVE EVERYTHING IT TAKES TO PLAY HOCKEY IN JUNE THIS YEAR FOR LORD STANLEY’S CUP. Most importantly, they have a Bill Belichick-like coach in Julien to ride the ship, and direct his crew gently and intelligently up the stream.
CALL THE DUCK BOATS AND CLEAR COMM. AVE TO THE NORTH END, BECAUSE THE GREATEST PARADE CELEBRATION THE HUB HAS EVER SEEN WILL TAKE PLACE IN JUNE THIS YEAR, AND IT WILL BE BLACK AND GOLD!!!!!!!! HOW COME MILWAUKEE NEVER GOT AN NHL TEAM? GO PLAY PEEK-A-BOO W/YOUR TUCHUS PACKERS!!
Michael T Klepper
A: Have I mentioned that I love Bruins fans? The best.
Anyway, I strongly dispute your contention, Michael, that I never tried to bring Bruins talk to our TV show. Au contraire. If not for me you'd be hearing even more about Tony Allen's backup minutes than you do currently. In fact, I've been pitching a Bruins-specific show to management for months. The working title is “Sniffing the Cup.” Seriously. If the B's can avoid a first-round choke maybe I'll be able to push it through. Anyway, thanks for the clarification on what happened to Dickerson's hair.
Subj: Turn it up a notch, would ya?
Since the last time I tried to light a fire under your ass (calling you the last of the Mohican's, and the best football writer since Will McDonough) your work has been sub par at best.
Male MILFs? Fitzgerald's tush?? Pujols for Buchholz???
What the hell's going on with you? Are you completely off your rocker? (Don't answer that). You used to write insightful articles day in, day out. Now you barely have one a month and have replaced articles with what you think is comedy on late nite TV. The only funny part is watching your career tank. It's a shame to watch you go down like this, although you do get paid handsomely to do it. Reggie Dunlop would put it to you straight: “You've been a clown. A goon. You've been a freak on f-ing side show.”
Tell your editor or producer, or both, that you want to hit the hard stuff (no, not Miller Lite on the rocks). But, rather, serious coverage on a serious sport. The B's are the second-oldest club in this town, and they deserve to be recognized for finally dumping Sinden (as the last decent article you produced a few months back stated) and putting together their best team since the Penguins dropped 'em in the '91 Wales Conference Finals. It's going to be OLD TIME HOCKEY in the first round. So take off the clown outfit, stop talking about tushies and get down to brass tacks of how the B's three-deep lines, solid top-four defensive core, hard-hitting play, excellent puck movement, the addition of Recchi and Vezina consideration Timmy Thomas are gonna make a run.
I've heard you repeatedly question Thomas' reliability, which fair or not, is wrong. The reason the B's have won only ONE playoff series since 1994 is because they never were able to replace Andy Moog. No goalie = no playoff hope. And all you need with this roster is four solid games out of seven per series from Timmy -- and he can give you that. Hell, he maybe can give you five out of seven.
Plus with Chara, Savard, Ward, Recchi, Yelle, PJ, Thornton and Ference -- they ain't exactly as ripe as everyone thinks. And while the team is growing, let’s be honest, the time is now. Sometimes you don't get a second chance, whether it be because of free agency, age or something else. So you take it when it comes.
Gone are the days of “dump and muck” and “Harry, it's all your fault!” And here are the days of Chiarelli and Neely. Write about that!
A: Can I do it after they win a round?
I was reading your recent article about you being scared of the Canadiens, and it got me thinking. I am one of those true Bruins fans. One of the greatest things happened to me the other night was when my youngest son, who is eight, was watching an old Bruins-Habs playoff game before we started watching last Thursday's game. Right out of the gate when the rough stuff started, he looked at me and said this is playoff hockey. He might have watched a total of two games all year, but he understood that both teams were posturing for dominance and trying to humiliate the other team. This is all a Bruins fan could ask for, that his child could actually get the sense of emotion that is playoff hockey. Do I believe the Bruins will beat Montreal? Yes, but it will be a dog fight.
A: What does your son think of the goaltending matchup? I can only hope Thomas will be half as good as everyone assumes he will be.
I was at the Montreal game last week and was hoping for a quiet, uneventful, no-injury game -- yeah, whatevah.
The crowd was jacked and the game was unreal. There is no other Boston sporting event, and I'm including football and Yankees, that is more exciting than hockey vs. Montreal. Only those 17-thou know what I'm talking about. Two hours of screaming. I was hoarse Friday morning and it ain't even the playoffs yet.
PP's were 8-4 Montreal in that game. What do you think they'll be in Round 1, 7-3? It's actually a disgrace to the league how blatantly obvious the referees' compasses always sway due North. Not to mention how the Habs are going to use Lucic as their rallying cry....please. Accusing him of gooning it up? With a team full of Komisareks, Kostitsyns, O'Brynes, Kostopoulos's and D'Agostinis? Please, they invented cheap shot artistry. I saw so many hacks in the back of the legs of the B's defensemen it wasn't even funny. But no refs saw it.
A: Get used to it, Don. I predict we're going to be bitching about the refs so much in this series Tommy Heinsohn will be jealous.
If the Bruins playing January 1st at Fenway Park should fall through (contractually, which you mentioned Friday night on Comcast SportsNet as a possibility), then why not keep it local anyway, and schedule the game for HARVARD STADIUM? Besides, the Patriots could well be playing playoff football that weekend, and it's quite likely a certain football coach we all know and respect (love?) wouldn't allow the considerable distraction at, or on, his home field. Just a thought.
John R. Hester
A: I get the sense that the NHL would want a more modern facility, one that could handle not only the crush of people, but the TV production needed for the event. So Harvard is out. To me, it's Fenway or nothing. If they were to move the game to Gillette (and, to be honest, I haven't heard that as a viable possibility -- just an emergency fall-back), then let's just call the whole thing off. This isn't about the game itself. It's about the venue. It's about the celebration of a sport. It's about a party. Who wants to schlep out to Foxboro again? That game belongs in front of the Green Monster, at a place where we can walk to. I mean, Gillette sucks for football, never mind hockey.
Felger You DB!
Again, the Masters delivers as appointment viewing for golf fans. On Sunday we got to see Mickleson channel Jack on the front nine and channel himself on the back nine all while out dueling Tiger Woods in a final day pairing that surely had NBC execs busting out the Lubriderm. And can those two being forced to play together get anymore blatantly uncomfortable short of them rounding out a foursome with Mia Farrow and Woody Allen?
On the subject of uncomfortable, where do you think the atmosphere was worse this weekend: On the Perry Family charter home after the Masters, or in the Miami of Ohio locker room before OT started? In terms of family discussions, hashing out Kenny's Masters debacle would be probably be on par with a Utah polygamist revealing a case of herpes. And what does the coach of that Miami team tell his players as they're waiting for OT looking like someone filled their water bottles with Colonoscopy prep? Eddie Shore? Old Time Hockey?
And of course, once again, our Terriers re-assert their dominance of the Boston hockey landscape in a spectacular fashion that BC could never hope to duplicate. Not that BC is an inferior team mind you, but that half the kids on the Eagles probably would have had Miami and the under.
A: In my mind, the Masters is a top 5 sports viewing event on TV every year. Doesn't even need Tiger and Phil -- although that was nice.
And I almost forgot. The national champion Terriers. Funny, I didn't hear from any BC folks this week.