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    March 20, 2007
Optimism Runneth Over in the Offseason; is This Year Different?
By:  Stan Jaksina
PatsFans.com Fan Columnist

There is so much to feel good about the 07 season, so unlike last year or even the year before. It seems different in many ways, but while this shopping spree has fans buzzing, has the overall Patriot approach really changed or are conditions a bit different this year?

I do have many thoughts on this and looking back at the last five years may help in deciding if that is true, or give more of a clue as to what has happened this year.

Firstly, I must comment on the differences between building a roster now and of what was like in the past. They are not at all the same. In the years past, one could build it brick by brick, position by position, building it as high as one wanted and as wide. The blocks were all the same size and shape and there were no limitations as to the width or height. If and when the bricks got old and broken and started to deteriorate, they could be replaced by new ones. Some lasted far more than others and some seemed to turn to dust quick. Now, the bricks are of different sizes and there is a real limitation on width and height so sometimes bricks do not fit and have to be discarded even though they are still intact and strong. And sometimes, a brick magically grows bigger or smaller depending.

That is not a great analogy to what is happening now with the salary cap, but it adds another dimension to the equation. Fielding a team is so much harder now as it is always in flow, never at all static. It is harder than any type of 3D puzzle and there are elements of time and of money as well as the usual 'team psychology and character elements' and of football ability.

So let's look at the last few years to get a perspective of what has gone on and to more or less see what the differences have been.

As an aside to this, it seems again that every year there is a question as to what the Patriots front office has done. Last year, they spent little money and their approach seemed to be so opposite of this year, when they have been on a big shopping spree. Last year many questions were asked and the front office took many hits, but this year, it's all different with the signing of many free agents.

Did the front office finally get it or are conditions just a bit different this year. There are just so many factors to take into consideration in all of this, from team needs and what free agents the team has to sign of its own, to the money the team has available and other factors. There might be no free agents that fit the bill one year and there might be other teams with more cap room and money to spend. There are league situations such as the CBA that was not signed and then there are the jokers and wild cards, that throw things amiss, so that even the most well thought out plans sometimes have storms, roadblocks and alternative paths.

Looking at the past five years is interesting, but I think even more telling will be the last two years, the two after the last Lombardi.

In 2002, although they were coming off a Superbowl win, there were still things to be done to strengthen the team. And that is what they did that year. The team brought in tight ends Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland, wide receiver Donald Hayes, defensive linemen Steve Martin, Bernard Holsey and Rick Lyle and defensive backs Tom Knight and Victor Green. They also drafted tight end Daniel Graham, wide receivers Deion Branch and David Givens, defensive end Jarvis Green and quarterback Rohan Davey. With over fifteen percent of the cap in dead money, the large part the departed Bledsoe's, they couldn't really go for the big names, but they did get a number of solid players in the free agent market.

Unfortunately, most turned out to be busts and the team struggled, especially on defense, against the run. They had a down midseason and then fought back hard, only to lose out by a tie breaker from getting back into the playoffs.

Conclusion:The Patriots front office brought in players they thought would fill the holes, but unfortunately they were not pieces of the puzzle that fit.

In 2003, the team had a bit more money available and with few big ticket free agents of their own to sign, they used their money wisely. After signing cornerback Tyrone Poole, they went under the radar to capture the best defensive free agent, linebacker Rosie Colvin, and bad boy safety Rodney Harrison.D backs Terrell Buckly, Victor Green and Tebucky Jones were replaced by Harrison, Poole and draftee Asante Samuel. Defensive linemen Martin and Holsey were out, replaced by draftees Ty Warren and Dan Klecko. Fullback Marc Edwards was out, replaced by free agent Fred McCrary. Offensive lineman Greg Randall-Robinson was traded and draft pick Dan Koppen added. They also added linebackers Colvin and draftee Tully Banta-Cain and confused wide receiver Hayes was replaced by the swift Bethel Johnson. During training camp they traded for nose tackle Ted Washington and also added vet fullback Larry Centers. The joker in all of this was Lawyer Milloy, who was cut 5 days before the opening game because of a high cap number.

The team was pummeled in the first game, but only lost another game the whole year. Despite many injuries, the team returned from Texas with another Lombardi.

Conclusion: The front office was proactive, made the right moves and the team had another championship.

In 2004, the team had a bit more money, but they went out to specifically fill holes and look toward the future. They released running back Antoine Smith and quickly re-signed running back Kevin Faulk. Cornerback Ty Law, who was still under contract, caused some problems mouthing off that the contract offered (26 Million/4 year) was insulting. They tendered an offer for defensive end Rodney Bailey, signed punter Josh Miller, nose tackle Keith Traylor and traded for running back Corey Dillon. They also added nose tackle Vince Wilfork, tight end Ben Watson, defensive end Marques Hill, safeties Guss Scott and Dexter Reid, running back Cedric Cobbs and wide receiver PK Sam in the draft.

Besides, Law's verbal outburst, the season started where it left off, with the team piling up a number of wins. There were many more injuries to the team with the defensive backfield taking a big hit, to the point that wideout Troy Brown played some nickel back. In spite of many injuries and missed games, the team only lost two games and became back to back winners of the Lombardi trophy.

Conclusion: The front office addressed the immediate needs of the team as well as being proactive as to the future and the result was another championship.

(As an aside to all this is that Ty Law's insulted feelings and total rejection of the Patriots proposed four year contract for twenty six million in retrospect, seems pretty silly. He will be lucky to accumulate two thirds of that amount in the four post-Patriot years.)

In 2005, less than two weeks after the Superbowl win, Tedy Bruschi suffered a mild stroke which left his life and career in jeopardy. That sent shock waves through the organization as he had just played in the Pro Bowl a few days before.

Among the first moves were three cuts, cornerback Ty Law, who was scheduled to have a cap hit greater than ten million and linebacker Roman Phifer, who had undergone surgery and was possibly going to retire and vet wide receiver and Troy Brown, who also had a high cap number.

The big shock of the first days of free agency was an offer the Patriots put on the table to wideout Derrick Mason. Even though they had Super Bowl MVP Branch and tough possession receiver Givens, they still wanted a big play threat. The unfortunate thing about this was that he took less money and signed in Baltimore. That was unsuccessful, but they did make a trade with Arizona for cornerback Duane Starks, who had been injured a lot of the previous year. It was noted that the team had the third lowest amount of cap space, so the team was a bit limited in signings. They did re-sign running back Patrick Pass and later in May, Troy Brown, and free agents wide receivers Tim Dwight and David Terrell, linebackers Monty Beisel, Wes Mallard and Chad Brown. Offensive lineman Victor Levay, vet quarterback Doug Flutie and defensive backs Chad Scott and Antuan Edwards. They also had franchised kicker Adam Vinatieri, but a multi year deal was not worked out as was hoped. The big signing was the extension of Tom Brady and that was of utmost importance to the team. Thus, they did their best with the cap situation, bringing in second tier players to help plug holes. The draft brought In offensive linemen Logan Mankins and Nic Kaczur, defensive backs Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders, linebacker Ryan Claridge. quarterback Matt Cassel and tight end Andy Stokes.

During this timeframe of spring, there was a great concern about the new CBA not being ratified and extended and that an uncapped year and other poison pills were very possible in the near future. The big stumbling block was revenue sharing, between the 'have' franchises and the smaller ones.

There was also a lot of talk about whether Bruschi should even try to make a comeback. Many compared his situation with that of Celtics's star Reggie Lewis who did not heed his doctor's warnings, kept playing and died.

Conclusion to this point: The team did the best they could with the money available. Offensive linemen Joe Andruzzi and Adrian Klemm were been replaced by draftees Mankins and Kaczur and free agent Levay. Wideout David Patton was replaced by free agents Dwight and Terrell. Defensive backs Ty Law and Earthwind Moreland were replaced by free agents Starks, CScott and Edwards and draftees Hobbs and Sanders. Vet QB Jim Miller was out, hometown Flutie in. Clearly, in most of those positions, there was an upgrade, even in the defensive backfield, where Law was out for most of the year.

The one position of question was at linebacker with both Bruschi and Phifer out. My thought was that they speculated that the starters would be TJohnson, Vrabel, Colvin and McGinest, with Vrabes moved into the inside to start. Chad Brown would be situationally used for the rush outside and both Biesel and draftee Claridge could slowly work there way in, noting that Bruschi took a few years to make the transition to linebacker. Biesel seemed very similar to him, being an athletic defensive end.

The fact that they did not go after a big time linebacker was not a surprise as there were a number of factors against that, from those seeking the big bucks, to the majority being more outside backers and not really fitting into a 3-4 defense. From Pierce to Coakley to Hartwell and many others, I really do not think any were a good fit for the team.

There were rumblings that standout defensive lineman Seymour would stay out of camp and he did for a few days, but it was another quick twist that hit the team hard; the retirement of linebacker Ted Johnson. This basically meant that the two starters and first backup at inside linebacker were gone from the team. They had to scramble, even thinking about lineman Klecko as an linebacker or using backups DDavis, Chatham or Alexander or moving outside linebackers Vrabel, CBrown or Biesel inside. The Patriots extended definsive lineman Jarvis Green as insurance and also to bolster the line, but the situation with Seymour ended quickly with a raise and a promise of an extension in the offseason.

The linebacker situation became even trickier as the preseason games got under way as rookie Claridge was put on injured reserve and starter Vrabel injured a knee. The fact that he was on the shelf meant that the linebacking corps, depleted as it was, would have no time at all as a unit going into the season. This overlooked fact may have had a great influence on how the season turned out, maybe more than many understand.

And there it was, the toughest schedule for any team starting off, four games away two home and five of six games with tough physical teams. To win three straight, it was going to be tough and injuries hit the team early on with wide receiver Andre Davis, special teamer John Sanders and tackle Brandon Gorin all out for the first few games. Rodney Harrison had a severe knee injury in the 3rd game and was quickly on IR, but Matt Light also had a broken leg and Kevin Faulk, a broken foot. By week 6, the defensive backs had a few more hits as Tyrone Poole, Chad Scott and Guss Scott were all out for the year. But the incredible news was that Tedy Bruschi was returning to play. They had split the first ten games, but were trying to get a handle on things as so many players were injured. Three more at that point had been added to IR, defensive backs Duane Starks and Randall Gay as well as center Dan Koppen. But as much as it was season ending injuries, it was also the ones that kept players out a few games that hit hard. Running backs Faulk, Dillon, Pass and Evans were out for a few games at different points in the season and Dillon played the last part of the season quite hurt. The defensive backfield was decimated but there were also injuries to wideouts and tight ends. Despite the mixing and matching that had to field a team, the Patriots got it together and lost only two of their last six games, one of them, the closer, a throwaway variety loss. They went into the playoffs with momentum, taking the Jags at home, but falling a bit apart in Denver to end the season.

Conclusion: While it was disappointing to end the season like that, the fact they got that far was a triumph. The front office took care of their best players on offense an defense with extensions or raises and despite all kinds of unpredictable events (Bruschi's stroke and Johnson's retirement the day camp started) and many injuries, they fielded a strong team that got into the second round of the playoffs and with less turnovers might have been able to host the AFC championship game. The team made the most of things with little money and a few large twists of fate.

When Ted Johnson retired, what was the team to do, but make do with who they had as there were no options of players that would fit into his spot. There were hardly any inside linebackers earlier in the year, but finding a run plugger in early August was impossible. The team made some good acquisitions during the season, special teamer Michael Stone, safety Artrell Hawkins and power back Heath Evans. Although, there were some misses, including running back Amos Zereoue and safety Arturo Freeman.

I really wonder how the team may have faired if Duane Starks was actually played a bit better at corner or if Chad Brown had adapted a better to playing the inside linebacker position or if Vrabel hadn't been injured in the preseason and the linebacking unit actually had a few games to get to play with each other before the season started.

And then there were the injuries, which made the team look like a MASH unit. Clearly, this was one of the worst years in the last ten, with over seventy percent of the inactives not playing due to injury; a far cry from the 02 season when that number was a bit over thirty percent.

Because of the team's fiscal situation, I do believe they were hampered in making some deals and extensions and this was hampered more by the non-ratification of the CBA. Even though the team did not make the playoffs, one had to conclude that the front office did a fine job considering everything.

Yes, it was in some ways like 02, with most of the free agents missing the mark, but with many, many less injuries, things may have turned out differently.

In 2006, what were just rumblings on the back pages of a newspaper were now the headlines as the new CBA was stalled and in jeopardy. By mid-February, it seemed like many things were not falling into place and that the poison pills and uncapped years that were far off in the distance, were getting closer to reality. And as March rolled around, it was obvious that the revenue sharing issue was the sticking point to the whole CBA extension. Luckily, intelligence won out, the sides came together for a new agreement and free agency was only delayed a short time.

During this period waiting for the CBA extension, the Patriots had cut cornerback Starks and re-signed offensive lineman Ross Tucker and defensive backs Artrell Hawkins and Hank Poteat. The salary cap was raised a significant amount and thus, there would be big bucks for many players. Unfortunately, the Pats would not be making a large splash in the market as prices for players would be a bit inflated and not at all of value.

Just as free agency started, the Pats cut linebacker Willie McGinest, who was scheduled to make nearly 7 million in 07. The Patriots seem to watch as their free agents were signed away. Wide receivers Andre Davis and David Givens went to Buffalo and Tennessee respectfully..Davis was signed early with a two year deal while Givens shopped himself around and hit Titan paydirt with a bigtime contract. Wide receiver Tim Dwight and linebacker Matt Chatham followed ex-Patriot DCO Mangini to New York's Green. Linebacker McGinest went to Cleveland and signed with Romeo's Browns.

The Patriots it seemed had a some money available, but made only small moves; letting go of linebacker Chad Brown and cornerback Tyrone Poole and signing wide receiver Reche Caldwell.

There were more disappointed fans as kicker Adan Vinatieri was signed by the 'enemy' Indianapolis Colts. Lastly, offensive lineman Tom Ashworth went to Seattle with a big multi-year deal.

Many fans were down on the team, but the Pats slowly responded with a number of smaller, but smart player moves. They re-signed defensive back Chad Scott, wide receiver Troy Brown, offensive lineman Stephen Neal and running back Heath Evans. They also signed kicker Martin Gramatica, special teamers Tebucky Jones and Mel Mitchell, cornerback Eric Warfield and linebackers Barry Gardner and Jeremy Lloyd. But the big signing that was needed was the extension of defensive lineman Richard Seymour.

As the draft approached, wide receiver Javon Walker was let go by Green Bay and this created a big stir. The Patriots made a run for him on draft day, but fell short.

And while many thought the Patriots were going D, they instead beefed up the offense with running back Laurence Maroney, wide receiver Chad Jackson, tight ends David Thomas and Garret Mills, offensive linemen Ryan O'Callaghan and Dan Stevenson and kicker Stephen Gostkowski. They also drafted linebacker Jeremy Mincey, defensive lineman LeKevin Smith and defensive back Willie Andrews.

After the draft they traded wideout Bethel Johnson for defensive lineman Jonathon Sullivan. But in June, the fire that was hidden, finally burned in the open, as Deion Branch refused to come to the Patriot's passing camp or mini-camp.

Conclusion to this point: The team did have money to spend, but should they have done used it for their own players or on some of the blue chip free agents? I think that the front office was very wise with what they did not do in the early days of free agency. Andre Davis, Tom Ashworth, Christian Fauria, David Givens? All received offers that were far above what the Pats thought was fair, so the team was not in a bidding war over any of them. Dwight's deal was one of four years, far more than a much injured receiver in his thirties usually gets paid and Chatham was looking as much for playing time as well a solid contract. Willie McGinest was cut because of the large salary cap hit that was going happen in 07. That was a fairly common practice in back-loaded deals; the player renegotiating the money as an extension to keep the deal cap friendly or be cut and possibly re-signed at a lower price. In the two previous years, both Troy Brown and Ty Law had been cut similarly. The deal that Willie received from the Browns was one he just could not refuse.The toughest one to see go was AdamV, but I really have to wonder how much he wished to stay in Foxboro. I tend to think the lure of kicking in a warm climate or in a dome were of a more importance than first thought. The fact that he could have retired in New England and been a folk hero for life was thrown away with the grab for money. He also was in his thirties, had had back problems and wasn't kicking off all that deep at times. Those were also reasons not to run the price up high.

On the other side of the ledger, the team was really not in the market for wide receivers such as Korean Robinson, Joe Jurevicious, Antwaan Randle El, Antonio Bryant, Eric Moulds or Keyshawn Johnson, although when Javon Walker became available, they did try to snare him. (As was learned later, one of the factors involved in him not even coming to New England to talk was Deion Branch, who threw a lot of harmful dirt at the team.) Nonetheless, Walker never got out of Denver without signing. They also did not make a rush to get a linebacker like Lavar Arrington or others.

On the other side, the did extend Seymour and went into negotiations with wide receiver Branch as well as re-signing eight of their own free agents. The free agents that they signed were all second tier and of good value. Caldwell was similar to Givens, a good replacement. Gramatica was in the running for kicker position; the vet and the rook. Mitchell, TJones, Gardner and Lloyd were all solid special teams players and Gardner was a possible inside linebacker backup. Warfield was the corner/safety combo guy, but also in the running for a starting role. The BethelJ trade made sense as he was out of the picture and just did not get it so that a change to another team might help. Sullivan had been a real blue chip defensive tackle, but had gotten his money and not lived up to what many thought he was capable of.

The team had money but wished to spend it wisely. A big part of what they needed to do in the offseason was extending Seymour, which they did as well as negotiate with wide receiver Branch, who was on the last year of his contract.

And so this firestorm continued burning in the background as the debate raged about whether Branch was in the top ten receivers or not.

It also was learned that the run for cornerback Ty Law was going to fall short.

It became clear as camp opened and Branch holding out that this was going to be a major problem. He had said before that if a new contract was not in place that he would report to camp, but apparently that statement was false. It was reported that they had given him a few offers and that there was no counter offer and that the only response was one during camp that he would only report if the franchise tag was not to be used on him.

Injuries again plagued the team not only starting off camp, but during it. Linebacker Junior Seau, who had just retired, was brought in to fill an inside linebacking hole, but as players came in, others were out. Three special team players were lost for the season in successive weeks of the preseason; Mel Mitchell, Tebucky Jones and Barry Gardner with bicep, hamstring and leg injuries.

As Branch held out, the fans were on both sides of the issue, some supporting him and others thinking he was making a big mistake. And then, when it seemed things were at an impasse, they gave Branch a week to make a trade, thus basically ending his time with the team. Again, this was debated amongst the fans; many clearly upset that the team had not extended him. As they were going into the start of the season, they traded for Oakland's wideout, Doug Gabriel, but it seemed like the team was starting the season with limited firepower at wide receiver. With no trade finalized it looked again like things were in limbo. Branch's agent filed grievances against the Patriots and the team made motions against his.

The Patriots came from behind and won their first game, but many fans were still commenting on how weak the offense looked.

A day before hearings in the case, the Patriots traded Branch to the Seahwaks for a first round draft pick and again, fans took up sides on the issue.

The team lost a big rematch to Denver, but then responded with a big win against the undefeated Bengals. The team was up and down and many were still upset with the weak passing attack. They lost back to back games against the Colts and Jets, the first time in 4 years and again, it seemed like the team was in a bit of disarray. But they responded by losing only one of their last seven games, a loss in Miami. The team again had many injuries, from season ending ones to Seau and Yates, as well as another to defensive leader Harrison, that put him on the shelf for a half dozen games, only to suffer another injury in the final game against Tennessee. They lost two punters to injured reserve and again, the inactive list was over half filled with injured players, not as bad as the year before, but more so than in other years. The team played hard down the stretch and went into the playoffs with tough away games against the Jags and Titans, both of who were gaining momentum for playoff runs. They took on the Jets at home and then beat the Chargers away in a classic big time game, knocking off the team many thought was the best in the league. Unfortunately, they lost a heartbreaking game in Indy to end the season, having led most of the game and just wilting in the end. The travel, four out of five games on the road, injuries and flu, all were part of the reasons the team lost and did not get into the Superbowl.

Conclusion: It was a tough time for the front office and they took a lot of heat and nasty words from many fans and pundits. The big issue was the Branch situation and I really think they did their best with it. They tried to negotiate early and get a contract done and Branch and his agent refused to make any counter offer in anyway. What is a front office to do when dealing with a player that does not wish to negotiate? Should they give in totally to a player that holds out and is under contract? What it came down to was that Branch wanted to ignore the contract that existed for the current year, something that did not happen with either Seymour or Brady in their extensions. To me it is hardly fair for a player to demand that which was not given to the two best players on the team. To come from a player that is NOT even in the top 10 in his position and demanding terms not given to those ON the team who are in the top FIVE in THEIR positions is just silly. Should they have given in on that point of his playing with the current contract, there would have been more trouble from other players. In other words, they would have given in and kept Branch, but lost a lot of leverage in negotiatiing with other players going forward. The front office made the right decision. I also think that they tried their best to keep Branch, the reason why they did not go after another wide receiver until after they realized a trade was the only option for the team.

That in the long run may have been a mistake, but I think they wanted to make it clear to him that the team wanted him to be part of the team. We may never know how close they came at various points in the negotiations in August of getting him signed, but I truly believe it may have been very near at times. I would have loved to have seen him in a Patriot uniform, but not with the terms he was seeking. If they had not traded him and waited, who knew what the outcome of the hearings would have been. I also think the front office knew it was a large distraction and wanted it to vanish, once it was clear he was not going to give in an inch. What was the team to do? Many were not satisfied with the trade, but giving him up for a first rounder was a great deal for the team. Branch got the money he wanted and the Patriots removed a distraction and got a first round pick. Seattle overpaid for him and lost a big pick in the draft, so they may have been the loser in all of it.

The front office though did their best, bringing in linebacker Junior Seau as a run plugger and his enthusiasm and experienced helped a lot, until he went down with a broken arm. Wide receiver Gabriel ended up not helping a lot, but later in the year, when it counted, Jabar Gaffney began to bloom. I am not sure at all what players were available at that point in the season but I have to believe that they really thought that Branch would play or that the chances that he would return much greater than 50-50, to not make a move for a wideout until the end of the preseason. I think they wanted him to return and firmly believed that they would be able to come to a reasonable settlement. Unfortunately, reasonable was not in the cards and they really had to scramble. But who was available for the team to pick up?

I know many threw darts at the team because they had so much money left over, but while that was true, very little was ever said as to who those free agents were that they should have signed. I think given how far the team had progressed the year before with so many injuries, that they really needed only a few key parts. They did have money for Seymour and Branch as well as free agent Ty Law and if the latter two deals would have been made, the cap money would have been lowered considerably. But since those deals were never completed, what should they have done with the money? Should they have spent it on players over valued and not to their liking? But doing that just to spend to the cap, so that fans would see that they WERE doing something just seems stupid.

They did get a deal done with center Koppen and ended up spending the money in other ways, actually preparing to have more money available this year. The team had three special teamers go down and yet they were improved in that position overall. First year players Willie Andrews, Corey Mays and Pierre Woods filled in nicely with the other vets. Other additions to the team, wideout Jabar Gaffney, vet quarterback Vinnie Testaverde, vet cornerback Ray Mickens and punter Todd Sauerbrun, also helped the team.

Given the situation they were thrown into with Branch and the loss of some key players, the team almost went to the Superbowl. And with as many injuries as they had, the team overcame a great deal of adversity. Many still would question the front office on their moves or lack of moves, but again, what ones should they have made?

I am sure that team officials made mistakes and looking back may have done things differently, but I think to condemn them outright in what they did and did not do is missing it totally.

They did make the correct moves in not re-signing some of their own players, signing them for over valued large contracts. I also think that they did the best that they could with the Branch situation. That they did not spend money when there was plenty of cap money available was also correct as it has given them more money this year when some free agents they wished for were available. Instead of being down on this front office, I think the fans should see how they spent money wisely and with that came within two minutes or so of another Superbowl.

Yes, it's quite easy to claim that with money left on the table that the front office wasn't doing enough to win it all. It's rather simple to say that in retrospect. 'You see, if they had spent more money they would have gotten to the Superbowl.' Many of the Naysayers said that. It's so easy to sling that arrow at the team. But when that same one is asked to name the players the team should have signed WITH that money and tell WHY their presence would have made a difference, the silence is deafening. No one really can come up with who the money should have been spent on and why that one or two players WOULD have made a difference.

Instead of this total negativity against what the front office did, I think fans need to recognize their great accomplishment in getting the team as far as they did given all the bumps, twists, hurdles, injuries and other obstacles that they faced.

This offseason, they have made some shrewd moves, from franchising cornerback Asante Samuel to going after free agents quite early. There was a big move to get Adalius Thomas, the most gifted defensive player in the draft. It was a big one, but it may have been helped by the fact that CoachB was at the Pro Bowl. Having some of the best players see him in a new light, I believe helped with this. Letting go of running back Dillon whether it was more done by the team or by him or his agent, was the right thing to do. Immediately, it seemed that running back Morris was signed to take his place. Whether they bring in a power back as well or not, getting Morris was a solid signing. He had been on the Pats radar for a few years, as his versatility was something that CoachB liked. Tight end Kyle Brady was also signed quickly as I believe the team saw that Graham would be valued highly and would get a contract much above what the Patriots were willing to pay. Brady is probably the best blocking tight end in the league and I am sure in a year or two, a much younger blocking tight end will be with the team. I also think they believed that Miami made a mistake by not tendering wide receiver Wes Welker higher Thus, their move to get him was made possible by this mistake. Welker is a prototype Patriot player, doing anything and everything to help the team win. He'll even be a backup kicker as he filled a few years ago when Mare pulled up lame just before game time. Those were solid moves, but they also made two with wide receivers Dante' Stallworth and Kelley Washington. Both deals could be a short as one year, but there is a promise for bigger money and a longer contract as well.

Getting some standout wideouts had to have been a priority for the team. Welker is a smart third down slot receiver, while Stallworth is the downtown threat, the burner that this team has not really had in years. Washington has been behind three solid receivers in Bengalland and will have a chance to show what he has this year. A tall speedy receiver is also something the Patriots have not had either.

They have also signed cornerback Eddie Jackson, who had a torn ACL. He has been more of a special team player, but is someone who could also catch on in a nickel situation.

The franchising of Asante Samuel was also a shrewd move and hopefully a long term agreement can be worked out to keep him a Patriot for some time.

These have been great moves by the Patriots and it seems like it has been done vengefully, but have conditions like this existed in other years? In 02 and 03, there was plenty of dead money on the table and one year, they spent early when players were available, despite limitations. The next year, 04, they went after players to fill the holes they needed filled. The next year, 05, they did the same, although what they really needed shifted with a last minute retirement, but yet did not do all that bad with the curveballs thrown at them. Last year, they had money but did not get the free agents they wished for and also had to deal with a holdout situation. So, this offseason was quite different in many ways. This year they were one of the top teams in money under the cap and the only playoff team in the top seven of eight teams.

This has been the first time this has happened in many years, so that makes it quite different than in the past. I think also that this year, there are more players available that they feel would fit in with the team than in other years. Each year it seems there is a different strategy with money and needs and who is available. Sometimes, they go for the players and get them as in 03 and this year and other years, like in 05 and 06, it all falls short. Some years, the top tier players do not really fill the bill. so it is more the second tier players where they seek value. Some years they may have little cap room and have to do their best, other years they may have a lot more money to spend. But isn't that yearly decision making what makes a front office great?

I tend to think that with the past two years of all kinds of wild cards and jokers thrown into the mix that many front offices would have made wrong decisions and the teams would have not gone as far as the Patriots did. With many injuries the past two years, the two most in the last five, it is a tribute to what the front office and coaching did that the team went as far as they had. One can only wonder that with less injuries, how much further they may have gone.

But let us get back to the optimism of this year. While they have used a few draft picks, they will get a few compensatory picks for free agents lost last year, so they will still have the two number ones as well as a bunch of other picks. Another thing that is important is that those that have signed are not at all out of step with the pay structure the Patriots have. That is certainly important, for if that was the case, that might cause some problems along the way. That they have done this without overpaying or changing that is just another reason why what they have done is so remarkable.

And then there are some, like Mr Felger who think this year is VERY different and that it has to do more with a real change in policy as opposed to the many factors involved. Firstly, if they had spent more money last year, they would have had less to spend now. And then there was the statement about signing bonuses this year as opposed to last year. That is one of the silliest comparisons I have heard. Caldwell, Gramatica, Gardner TJones, MMitchell and Warfield. They were all basically second tier players. I am not sure ALL did not get signing bonuses, but do you really think any of those players should have? Compare those players with AThomas, KBrady, Welker, Morris, Stallworth and KWashington. Clearly, these are first tier players and SHOULD be getting bonuses and anyone who can not understand the difference is just not paying attention. As to the team not going for Stallworth last year, I really wonder first if he was available after a decision was made on Branch or had he been traded to Philadelphia at that point. Would he have been here under the same terms as this year?

All these points seem to be ignored in any comparison made between the two years.

I really believe the Patriots mantra of signing free agents at a value price is the bottom line of it all and what they have done this year is no different.

Feeling optimistic about this year is a really good thing, but it needs to be done with the understanding that every year is different and that because things lined up in a way that going after free agents early was the best way this year, that other years, other approaches might work best. If one looks at the last years, one sees different things done each year as the many variables shift and that this front office has done a magnificent job adjusting and changing to those changes.

That is not to say that they have operated without mistakes, for the players signed/drafted may not have fit perfectly or at all, but at least this front office has tried and has done a rather remarkable job given many of the parameters and limits.

Can one think of another front office that has come close to that over the past five years? I can not think of a front office and a team that has come close. Bottom line is that this front office is always looking ar wats to imptove the team.

I am looking forward to their next moves, the draft and the tough training camp of the summer.

As for Troy Brown, the increase for active game day players from 45 to 47 may indeed help him keep a spot on the roster here in New England. His versatility alone would make him a perfect candidate for an extra slot and it would be GREAT for him to have had his entire career here in New England.

Both these recent deaths have hit me hard in the past few weeks.

RIP--Alan Greenburg--Sad that a young sportswriter died way too young. His dry humor and standout character are sure to be missed by so many. The most interesting words about him were from Mr Felger; something I will remember for many months.

RIP--Brad Delp--Although not connected with sports, he too was 55; too young to end it all. That it was a suicide makes it even more tragic. The voice of Boston will live on; 'It's more than a feeling...'.

 Stan Jaksina
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