With the news coming that Rob Ninkovich plans to retire after 11 NFL seasons, my immediate reaction was “will the defense be alright without him?” He was been a mainstay of the New England Patriots defense this decade, a decade in which they have reached three Super Bowls. But my secondary reaction falls more along the lines of “in Bill we trust” as much of a homer and a brainwashed, used to winning fanboy as that makes me sound. Patriots fans have this inherent belief in the organization and the head coach because of guys like Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Purdue University, and was picked in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He bounced back and forth between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and even attempted to convert to the long snapper position as a means of football survival before being released by the Saints in 2009. He did not record his first NFL sack until he was with New England.
Ninkovich was one of those pleasant surprise Patriots. I knew nothing about him before he was here, and my first reaction to him was “Who is this white guy who kinda looks like Mike Vrabel wearing Vrabel’s old number? He’s pretty good.” Vrabel was a favorite of mine and many from the run of Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 Bradyless Except For One Quarter Of One Game season. Ninkovich embodied Do Your Job.
Out of nowhere, Bill Belichick found a useful player where other teams could not, and found a younger, cheaper option to turn over an aging defensive unit. Rob Ninkovich is what the Patriots do, and moves like that are what has made them so consistently successful. For every Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, or Rob Gronkowski (who only fell to the second round because of very real injury concerns), there are a dozen humble beginnings guy, lower level prospects, and castoffs from lesser teams who find important roles with the Patriots from Tom Brady to Ninkovich to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman to Malcolm Butler to LeGarrette Blount to Alan Branch to Kyle Van Noy. Belichick is the master of filling out roster depth with competence at every position, and occasionally, that competence gets developed into greatness. Until he stops being able to do this, I have faith Bill Belichick can continue to do that. Call me a homer.
I can understand why Ninkovich would want to retire, even if I didn’t see it coming. He’s 33 years old, has injuries in his history, and plays a sport that maims everyone who plays it long enough. He can walk away now now with two Super Bowl rings and his head held high. Football is important, especially for guys who can play it at the highest level, but that it hardly the only important thing in life.
Unfortunately for Ninkovich, his second career as a rapper might already be over. He participated last week in Toucher & Rich’s Celebrity 98 Mile rap battle tournament, and got his butt kicked by Pete Frates in the court of online fan voting. Nobody can be good at everything.
Good football teams have to make tough decisions about good football players. That fact will always be true as long as they want to continue to be good football teams. The Indianapolis Colts did not want to release Peyton Manning, but it’s what they felt the had to do when they were sitting atop the NFL’s draft board and Andrew Luck was theirs for the taking. The Green Bay Packers loved Brett Favre and everything he had done for the organization, but by 2008, Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback of the present, and not just the future, so they did what they had to do. Years ago, the San Francisco 49ers had to make the difficult decision of trading Joe Montana, who had led them to four Super Bowl victories, to the Kansas City Chiefs, because it was Steve Young’s team now. It’s never easy, and it’s never fun, but that kind of cold decision making is what keep good teams from becoming bad teams as time goes on.
The New England Patriots are not strangers to tough personnel decisions. Their first Super Bowl championship in February of 2002 came as a result of Bill Belichick deciding to start an unproven second year backup out of the University of Michigan named Tom Brady ahead of the former #1 overall pick and face of the franchise in Drew Bledsoe, once Bledsoe had returned to health. Two years later, Belichick parted ways with Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, and although Milloy played many more years at a high level in the NFL, even outlasting his replacement, Rodney Harrison, the Patriots went on to win back to back Super Bowls with one of the best defensive units in recent memory. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded away (Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Seymour to the Oakland Raiders) when they still had plenty of good football left in them. Wes Welker and Aqib Talib are now both playing for the Denver Broncos, the one team in the AFC that was better than the Patriots last year, because their price got too high. This week the Pats made another tough decision.
The Patriots traded All Pro offensive guard Logan Mankins, who had played his entire professional career with New England, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Mankins was maybe the toughest player I have ever seen in a Patriots uniform and he was an easy guy to like. He was a leader, and one of the real heart and soul guys in the Pats’ locker room for the past decade. In a year when it looks like the Patriots can really make some noise, and the defense can potentially return to the form they had when they were winning Super Bowls a decade ago, it would have been nice for Logan Mankins to be a part of that team, and he had been to the Super Bowl twice in his career, but they were the two times the Patriots lost to the New York Giants. Now it’s time for the Pats and for Mankins to move on, and move forward. I think Mankins will eventually get his red jacket as a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, and his Patriots career speaks for itself, but for now, they’re going in a new direction.
Mankins is over 30, and was the highest paid guard in NFL history when he signed his current contract. The Patriots did not feel he was worth that kind of money anymore, and they traded him. In return, the Pats got a second year tight end named Tim Wright and a 4th round draft pick. Wright, and undrafted player who played college ball at Rutgers, signed with Tampa and played his rookie season for his former college coach, Greg Schiano. He played well, making 54 receptions for 571 yards, and scoring five touchdowns in an offense that lacked a true starting quarterback, but when the Bucs fired Schiano last winter and hired longtime Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Wright soon fell out of favor with the new regime. Belichick has familiarity with the Rutgers football program, since his son went there, and he has drafted Devin McCourty (a two time All Pro in four professional seasons), Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon in recent years. The Pats are also thin at the tight end position, without many pass catching options if Rob Gronkowski is unable to suit up. Wright is only 24, so there’s a chance he can contribute the New England’s offense years after Mankins has retired from he NFL.
Maybe the most overlooked aspect of the Patriots’ offeseason has been the retirement of offinsive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia first started working for the Patriots in 1982, before the team’s first trip to the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears, and ten years before Robert Kraft bought the franchise. Withe the exception of a two season stint coaching the offensive line of the Indianapolis Colts, Scarnecchia had been on New England’s coaching staff ever since, coaching tight ends, offensive line, and special teams among other responsibilities. Since 2000, when Bill Belichick became head coach, Scarnecchia also held the title of Assistant Head Coach, running team practices in he rare cases when Belichick could not be there in person. Scarnecchia was one of the most important contributors to the success of the New England Patriots in the last 30 years, but did not get nearly as much attention as the other people that high on the list like Kraft, Belichick, Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, and Troy Brown. The Patriots’ offensive line has been as consistent as any line in the NFL the last 15 years, and even before Mankins’ departure, there would be questions about the offensive line because someone other than Dante would be coaching it for the first time in a long time.
For years, the offensive line in New England was anchored by Mankins, left tackle Matt Light, and center Dan Koppen, and now none of them are here anymore. This is Nate Solder’s offensive line now, and now it’s time for the kid to show us how good he is. Nothing lasts forever, especially in a sport as physically demanding as football. The Patriots will probably be really good this year, and will probably win at least 12 games, but it will be without some of the mainstays we’ve grown used to seeing on the team. That’s football.
Well, so much for paying Jon Lester. So much for extending John Lackey. So much for Jonny Gomes getting a chance to break the record for most pinch hit home runs in a Red Sox uniform, a record set by the great Ted Williams. We’re having a fire!!!! …sale. This is not what I expected less than a year removed from the Red Sox winning the World Series, but I’m working my way through the stages of grief as the Red Sox attempts to rise from the ashes of this fire sale.
When I first started writing this article, only the news items about the Jon Lester (along with Jonny Gomes) to the Oakland Athletics and John Lackey to the St. Louis Cardinals trades had broken, but that wasn’t all. Relief pitcher Andrew Miller and shortstop Stephen Drew within the division, with Miller being dealt to the 1st place Baltimore Orioles for minor and Drew going to the New York Yankees, who will be in Boston to face the Red Sox this weekend. In addition, starting pitcher Jake Peavy was dealt to the San Francisco Giants last weekend, and former starting pitcher (recently demoted to the bullpen, much to his dismay) Felix Doubront was sent to the Chicago Cubs earlier this week. That’s seven players who contributed to the team that won the World Series ten months ago, including the pitchers who earned all four World Series wins (Lester won two games, Lackey and Doubront each won one). Lackey, Lester, Gomes, Peavy, and Miller are joining teams that will be playing in October in all likelihood, and while the Yankees are having their struggles this year, Drew is joining a team that will have a vacancy at the shortstop position to fill this winter for the first time in nearly 20 years, so it’s a good place for him to be. I thought the Red Sox would be making trades this summer, but I am pleasantly surprised by the return they got on the players they traded away.
In Yoenis Cespedes, the Red Sox acquired an All-Star power hitter, who was batting cleanup on the best team in baseball this season, and who has won the Home Run Derby each of the last two years. Cespedes is part of the major surge of Cuban-born talent we have seen emerge in Major League baseball in the last few years along with Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, and Chicago White Sox first baseman (and likely 2014 American League Rookie of the Year) Jose Abreu. The biggest issue I had with moving on from Jon Lester (besides deciding that a guy who has proven he can perform at the highest level at Fenway Park, in October) is that the return wouldn’t be worth it. I was afraid of giving away Lester for minor league prospects that would never be successful at the Major League level. Cespedes has proven it. He’s already there. He’s 28 years old, and still hasn’t reached his ceiling. I had no idea A’s GM Billy Beane would give up his team’s biggest power hitting threat in a year when they have a reach chance to win it all, but that’s exactly what he did. For all the books and movies written about Beane over the years, he is still a general manager who has been in the same city for over a decade, yet has never won the World Series. He needs to win it to truly validate his reputation. Other teams have caught up and used the player evaluation practices he made famous in Moneyball, the Red Sox being the most successful example, but he still hasn’t broken through. Beane is hoping a two month rental of Jon Lester can outweigh what Cespedes could bring to the batter’s box in the playoffs.
Oakland can now go into October with a pitching rotation of Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and Jeff Samardzija (acquired last month in a trade with the Cubs), which is just about as scary as the rotation the Detroit Tigers have, now that they have acquired David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays and not have the last three American League Cy Young Award winners (Price, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander) on their roster. It should make for a great playoffs, even without the Red Sox.
For Lackey, the Red Sox got bespectacled right-handed starting pitcher Joe Kelly and former All-Star outfielder Allen Craig. It’s amazing to see the exchanges of talent that have taken place between the two teams who faced off in the World Series last fall. I was impressed by Kelly in the playoffs last year, and Craig was a major reason why the Cardinals had been able to let Albert Pujols, who is right up there with Stan Musial and Bob Gibson on the list of all time Cardinal greats, walk in free agency and follow his departure with a trip to the NLCS in 2012 (before falling to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants) and a trip to the World Series (before falling to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox). Kelly was off to a great start this season before getting injured, and Craig’s production had taken a dip this season, but the acquisitions of these two players help the Red Sox going forward, adding offense to an outfield that has struggled mightily at the plate this season, and adding a quality starter to a rotation that saw its top two pitchers traded away this week. In my opinion, this is a huge haul for John Lackey, who asked for a trade as soon as the trade rumors for Jon Lester, and who would be playing for only $500,000 in 2015 and if he didn’t get an extension, he might decide to retire. Now, that’s St. Louis’ problem, but their a contender again this year, and they know as well as anyone how good Lackey can be in the playoffs, since they were on the losing end a year ago.
Before the trade deadline, the narrative was one of a wealthy, but overly thrifty baseball club squeezing every dollar out of a franchise southpaw, who they did not think was worth it. I was ready to hammer them if the return was not great enough, and I fully expected it to be. The Sox had made big deals at the deadline in the past under this ownership, but when they traded away Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez, they got pennies on the dollar in return. In both cases, they were not going to bring the star player back, and in Nomar’s case, they went on to win the World Series, an we were all okay with it.
I heard Mike Felger talking on 98.5 The Sports Hub before the deadline talking about the way fans view the Red Sox compared to the Patriots, and he brought up an interesting point. Whenever the Pats cut bait with a star player (like Wes Welker or Richard Seymour, for instance) fans call into the radio station defending the move and proclaiming their trust in Bill Belichick, and saying that it’s all part of his master plan. When the Red Sox decide to part ways with a guy like Lester, the fans panic and think the team has no idea what they are doing. The thing is, the Red Sox under John Henry and the Patriots under Robert Kraft have been the most successful franchises in their respective sports since buying their teams. After decades of futility, these two 20th Century punchlines have become models for how to win in baseball and football in the 21st Century, and you could argue that the Red Sox have actually been more successful. The Patriots never finished in last place after hiring Belichick, but the Red Sox have been a playoff team more often than not in a sport where it’s much harder to make the playoffs. We’re quick to second guess the Sox because of Bobby Valentine, because of the ten years Roger Clemens pitched after leaving Boston, because the Red Sox ownership will put their team’s logo on anything to sell it, but act like they have the spending power of the Oakland A’s or the Tampa Bay Rays when one of their home grown stars approaches the open market, and because the 86 years without a title began when the Red Sox traded the greatest baseball player of all time to the New York Yankees to finance a Broadway show.
More than anything, baseball is an easier sport to second guess, because I have more hands-on experience playing it as an organized sport (eight years of organized baseball to only one year of organized football), and a lot of people are the same way. Half the fun of watching baseball is trying to play skipper from the living room couch. I didn’t like the idea of dealing away Lester, and I’m still holding out hope that he’ll be back in Boston in 2015, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed by what the Red Sox pulled off this week.
What if Wes Welker and the New England Patriots had reached an agreement last February? Danny Woodhead? What if Aaron Hernandez wasn’t an alleged murderer? What if Vince Wilfork was healthy? Jerod Mayo? Sebastian Vollmer? Tommy Kelly? Rob Gronkowski? What if Aqib Talib hadn’t been injured by Wes Welker in the AFC Championship Game? These are the questions that will haunt Patriots fans until the start of training camp. If a year where so many “what ifs” broke the wrong way for them, there was still a lot to love about what they accomplished.
Peyton Manning is going to play in his third Super Bowl instead of Tom Brady getting to play in his sixth. The Denver Broncos are going for their third franchise Super Bowl title instead of the Patriots going for their fourth. Peyton will get to play for the the top of the football mountain in his little brother’s city and home stadium in two weeks. At 37 years of age, he’s put together one of the best seasons a quarterback could ever have. He proved today that sometimes the best defense is offense by maintaining possession of the ball for so long that Tom Brady could never get in any kind of rhythm. The Pats started the second half playing from behind, but the 3rd quarter was halfway finished before Brady even got to touch the ball. It was one of those days. The Pats had made improbable comebacks on a few occasions this season, including the biggest one against the Broncos in New England, but it wasn’t going to happen today.
The window is closing on the Manning/Brady Era, but we’ve been saying that for a solid five years now, so I’m not going to speculate about when it will slam shut. Both teams should be contenders again next year, but the new wave of superstar quarterbacks are already here. First there was Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Eli Manning. Now it’s Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III who are knocking on the door. Before we know it, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Football will be in the mix as well. They’ll meet again in the regular season for sure, since they both won their divisions this season, but this was their first meeting in the playoffs since January of 2007, when the Pats played their last road playoff game before today and lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. A game like this might never come again.
The Patriots need to address some issues on defense. The secondary shouldn’t rely so heavily on Talib that Pats fans spend eight months what iffing for eight months about back to back AFC Championship Games. The offense should be better with a healthy Gronk, but that’s something that seems to get said every year, too. At some point, Bill Belichick will need to draft Tom Brady’s successor, and maybe that year is this year. Aaron Rodgers was Brett Favre’s understudy for a few years, and Steve Young did the same for Joe Montana. If the Pats want to contend in life after Brady, they should look into doing the same. You can’t rely on getting lucky (pun intended) in the draft like the Colts did.
Another Patriots season is over, and the result is not the desired one, but at least they were in it, despite all the reasons they had not to be.
The NFL regular season has come and gone and the Patriots find themselves where they always seem to be: atop the AFC East Division with some time off during Wild Card Weekend. They will play again in Foxboro in the second weekend in January while teams around the league are firing their coaches. Bill Belichick, who became the longest tenured NFL head coach this time a year ago when the Eagles fired Andy Reid, is preparing for a playoff game while the only coaches who have beaten him in the playoffs during his Patriots tenure–Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh, and Mike Shanahan–are all either out of the playoffs or out of football.
The Patriots will face either the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, or Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks. In a year full of flawed teams and devastating injuries, the Pats have as good a chance as anyone to reach the Super Bowl. None of the QBs on those teams have had a ton of January success, while Tom Brady won three Super Bowls in his first three trips to the playoffs. Last year the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, but this year they are already finished. Two years ago, the New York Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl, but they will not be there this year when the big game is in their home stadium. The Patriots are always there, which means they always have a chance. It’s been nine years since the Pats won the Super Bowl, but the road to get there looks as good as any year since then.
Playoff wins are no sure thing, and despite what the Patriots have accomplished, neither is getting there. This season was no cake walk for the Pats. They played most of the season without Rob Gronkowski. They lost key defensive personnel in Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly midway through the year. Wes Welker is playing for the Denver Broncos, and Danny Woodhead is playing for the San Diego Chargers now. Aaron Hernandez is in prison and awaiting trial. The Patriots had every reason to pack it in and not answer the bell this season, but they’re still going to play in January. Bill Belichick put together one of the greatest coaching performances of his career in 2013. Julian Edelman deserves a lot of credit for bailing out the offense and filling the void left by Wes Welker. Tom Brady deserves credit for continuing to make it work with the offense he has to work with. LeGarrette Blount, who I wrote about during the preseason, was one of the biggest acquisitions of the year for the team despite being one of the last players to make the roster in September. Blount has added another dynamic to the offense, and the running game could be the key to winning in January. This is not the most talented Patriots team we’ve seen, but they’ve shown a lot of toughness overcoming the adversity they were dealt this season. There’s a lot of football to be played and a lot of stories to write about in the coming weeks, but it’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what the Patriots have accomplished…yet again.
The NFL season has started and the New England Patriots have the same expectations as they have every year: win the last game of the season. The Buffalo Bills are trying to rebuild…again. They have a rookie quarterback fresh from the college ranks, and a rookie head coach who is also fresh from the college ranks. E.J. Manuel and Doug Marrone are learning together, and maybe this time the Bills have the recipe for a championship team. The Bills have a solid running game so the pressure was not all on their young QB. The Pats had a lot of new personnel to get acclimated into the system, and this game was their first test. I thought this game wouldn’t be close, and the Patriots really made me nervous.
When the teams kicked off this afternoon in Orchard Park, New York, it was the start of a new season and a new era in Patriots football. The Pats have a very different look on offense. With Wes Welker in Denver, Danny Woodhead in San Diego, Dieon Branch and Brandon Lloyd on the couch, Rob Gronkowski recovering from offseason back surgery, and Aaron Hernandez in prison, it was going to be different. I’m not sure the new look is a good look. Through one game, the primary targets were Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, two receivers who could be described as a “poor man’s Welker” who gave been injury prone in the past. After fumbling a ball that became a Buffalo touchdown, Stevan Ridley rode the bench for the rest of the game while Shane Vereen became the primary running back. The Patriots were helped out big time by the Bills’ uncanny knack for taking dumb penalties, which is still there under new management.
The best aspect of the game for New England was the way the defense played. Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles, and the defensive unit kept the offense in the game. Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are two big impact guys on the line who can really cause trouble for opposing offenses. When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls and not just getting to them, the defense was winning games for them. They didn’t have to rely on Tom Brady to win every game by himself. Hopefully the team is trending back in that direction.
Manuel looked calm and confident taking snaps for the Bills. More experienced QBs have certainly looked a lot worse against this New England defense that was playing in the Super Bowl a year and a half ago. I don’t know if he’s the savior in Buffalo, but the Bills have something to be excited about for now. For all his trash talk, Stevie Johnson couldn’t hang onto the catch he needed to make late in the game.
There are fifteen games left in the regular season, including one more against the Bills. Both teams have a lot of room for growth, but the Patriots are the team with higher expectations. The Bills can leave this game feeling better about themselves than they did before, but the Pats have their work cut out for them if they want to compete with the elite teams in the NFL as the have for over a decade. Bill Belichick has taken disappointing starts to the season against the Buffalo Bills and used them as motivation before, and this time, they didn’t even lose the game. Football season is finally here, and I already can’t wait for the next game!