New England fixed the only hole on their roster last season by bringing in three new wideouts, Randy Moss and Donté Stallworth among them. Installed as prohibitive favorites now to go all the way and win their fourth Super Bowl title in seven seasons. Will Bill Belichick, Tom Brady & Company follow through?
The Beatles. The Plastic Ono Band.
The NFL’s working-class heroes, the New England Patriots, hope their 2007 season resembles the former more than the latter. Not that there was anything wrong with the Plastic Ono Band, a loose association of musicians formed around John Lennon. There also wasn’t anything wrong with the 2006 Patriots’ offense, a loose association of football players formed around Tom Brady.
Enter the New Fab Four. Joining Brady in New England this year is a trio of talented wide receivers: Randy Moss, Donté Stallworth and Wes Welker. Their arrival has Pats’ supporters and the betting public thinking dynasty; New England is a clear 8-5 favorite to win Super Bowl XLII, down from an already-chalky 2-1 earlier this month. The defending champions from Indy are 7-1, while the San Diego Chargers are sandwiched in between at 5-1.
There is no question that the Patriots have upgraded their receiving corps. But what real impact will this have on the 2007 squad? Despite losing top wideout Deion Branch to a contract dispute, New England had the No. 7-ranked offense in the league last year in terms of efficiency, with the sixth-best passing game. The 2005 offense with Branch and David Givens downfield? Also ranked No. 7.
Wide receiver is one of the true marquee positions in all of professional sports. But it is also one of the easiest positions to fill. Players like Chargers’ castoff Reche Caldwell (61 receptions) and tight end Ben Watson (49 receptions) picked up the slack in 2006 with little fanfare, propelling one of the most public teams in the NFL to a 10-6 record against the spread — up from 8-8 in 2005 and within four points of yet another Super Bowl appearance.
It’s considered not merely a backhanded compliment, but an insult to say a quarterback has a ‘management’ style of play. The inference is that he doesn’t possess NFL-caliber athletic skills and is getting by on craftiness alone, as if being clever is somehow a form of cheating. Fan-friendly Brady is one of the few quarterbacks who can get away with it. His leadership skills, mechanics and intelligence not only make up for his lack of mobility or cannon arm, but also allow him to get the most out of his teammates. Brady’s numbers in 2006 (24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, 61.8 percent completion rate) were right up there with the rest of his stellar six-year career as the Patriots’ starting quarterback.
The Pats have had many of the earmarks of an overvalued franchise ever since Brady first took them to the Super Bowl, yet they’re 48-24-3 ATS over the past four seasons, including the playoffs. Mitigating Brady’s popularity and the whole ‘dynasty’ bandwagon has been New England’s superior management of the salary cap. By refusing to pay big money to players like Branch, Patriots’ coach and GM Bill Belichick has done an excellent job of maximizing his resources.
For example, the $7.79-million tender offer that cornerback Asante Samuel is turning down for 2007 is enough to pay ex-Dolphins running back Sammy Morris for four years. Or to re-sign a dozen or so other potential free agents at ‘non-skilled’ positions from last year’s roster.
This spending spree at wideout is a little different for New England. Contracts in the NFL are rarely as big as they look, but check out these numbers anyway: Stallworth gets $33 million over six years. Welker, $18.1 million over five years (half of that guaranteed). $22 million for WR Kelley Washington’s five-year deal. And Moss has three years left on his eight-year, $75-million contract signed before the 2002 season, albeit with an $18-million signing bonus. That’s a lot of eggs in one basket.
Still, that big-time WR makeover fixes the only hole in New England’s roster. This is now a team with no obvious weaknesses in the starting lineup and depth at nearly every position. The Patriots may not be good value on the futures market, but in the end, the football world is at their command.
Here’s my take: Sure the Pats make a good preseason favorite, but favorite’s are never really safe bets. In the world of preseason bets, Murphy’s law usually holds true: If something in Belichick’s world can go wrong, it will. And who likes favorites anyway? Weren’t the Panthers the chic pick last year?
Please excuse me while I curse Tom Brady, as I once cursed Steve Smith: all that needs to happen for the Pats to go from favorite to a 6-10 team is for Mr. BabyDaddy to go down in week 5 with an ACL tear or some similar season-ending injury. This is true for any NFL franchise, but especially so for the Pats.
Sure, New England isn’t a one-man show. And sure, Tom’s legend looked vulnerable throwing a late pick last year in Indy to seal one of the worst playoff c0llapses. But without #12 taking the field following many a Bledsoe injury back in the 2001 season, the Patriots would still be a franchise with the silly helmet from the 80s you forgot were even in the NFL.
Final analysis: don’t bet on the Pats. If anything can go wrong, it will. I like the Bolts at 5-1. With the recent AFC dominance in the big game (Denver, Baltimore, New England, Pittsburgh, Indy) it’s our turn this year.
Spending money on Randy Moss doesn’t make you a Super Bowl team, but hungry players returning after a tough home loss in January might.