By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 18, 2005

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Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2004 New England Patriots. Today: linebackers.

It's not the same as Len Bias, but it perhaps feels like it.

The Celtics were basking in the glow of one of their finest seasons in history in June of 1986. They rode a 40-1 record at home to their 16th NBA championship, beating the Houston Rockets in six games in a boring NBA Finals famous only for some cowardly acts by Ralph Sampson which led to him getting his tail whipped by Bill Walton. Not long after, thanks to the NBA abomination known as the Draft Lottery, the Celtics found themselves with the second pick in the NBA Draft that year.

Philadelphia had the top pick, traded it to Cleveland, and the Cavs selected North Carolina center Brad Daugherty. The Celtics then pounced on Maryland forward Len Bias, who was going to be groomed to take over for Larry Bird when he was ready to retire. Bias was so psyched over getting drafted by the world champs that he went out and partied his guts out. He took one too many snorts of cocaine, and subsequently died.

The Celtics have never gotten over this jarring loss. Reggie Lewis' mysterious death in 1993 also hurt, but the Celtics have never been the same since Bias' death. No titles, only one finals (1987, a six-game loss to the Lakers), and nary a whiff of the elite of the NBA (sorry, but that nice East Finals appearance a few years ago does not qualify as "elite" unless you are under the delusion that the Celtics would have fared better in the NBA Finals than the Nets did, losing in four straight to the Lakers).

Now, the Patriots are coping with the likely loss of Tedy Bruschi. The spiritual leader of the Patriots suffered a stroke February 16th, and went back to the hospital this week to repair a hole in his heart, which is now believed to have caused the stroke. Everyone is still more concerned over Bruschi merely surviving the ordeal and being able to spend quality time with his family than the linebacker situation for the Patriots, and rightfully so. Nobody cares if Bruschi ever plays again unless he is one hundred percent okay to play with no danger attached.

Bill Belichick has to be considering the retirement of Bruschi, and how to replace him. In addition to the practically inevitable retirement of Bruschi, Belichick also cast off aging Roman Phifer. Phifer could return for less money, but at age 36 he may be replaced instead of rehired. Ted Johnson still remains, but inside linebacker may have suddenly become priority one in the Patriot War Room on Draft Day.

There are those who think that cornerback may still be top priority, but that perception changed the day Heidi Bruschi escorted her ailing husband from the hospital after his first hospital visit for his stroke. Belichick has to be thinking along these lines, and with Kendrell Bell off the market (signed as a free agent with Kansas City), this is a position that will suddenly have to get younger despite the fact that Belichick likes veterans at this position.

In Belichick's defense, linebackers are the biggest keys. The linemen down low occupy gaps and blockers, while the backers make the plays and get all the glory. The Patriots have had plenty of experience all during this dynasty, such that veterans like Phifer and Willie McGinest did so well despite being rather aged for the position. Add Mike Vrabel and Rosevelt Colvin to the mix, and you have solid veteran experience across the backers which explains why the Patriots continue to do so well on defense.

McGinest, Vrabel and Colvin form a terrific outside linebacker corps, all of them being smart as well as great quarterback sackers. Colvin came back from a debilitating hip injury in 2003 and began to show the promise he showed when he was a free agent coming out of Chicago last year. Vrabel remains one of the most versatile players on the team, as he continues to get decent production as a tight end, but his incredibly smart play has everyone talking him up as a future coach some day.

If Bruschi retires, it will be interesting to see how McGinest handles the situation. McGinest is the kind of veteran leader the Pete Carroll Patriots never had, someone who polices the clubhouse and helps make things go out on the field. He has shown leadership examples through the years with his continued contract restructures so as to help bring in more talent to the team.

Two players to keep a sharp eye on in 2005 are Dan Klecko and Tully Banta-Cain. Klecko was being groomed as an inside backer before getting hurt last season, and could step in in Bruschi's absence. His problem is that he hasn't shown that he can be great at a position, just merely good as a linebacker and an occasional fullback. He is a tweener, like Bruschi, who merely needs to find himself, and in 2005 he will probably get that chance. Banta-Cain seems to be getting more playing time, but remains down on the depth chart at outside linebacker. While he seems buried on the depth chart behind Colvin, Vrabel and McGinest, Belichick seems to like him a lot and got him some more playing time in 2004. He remains a special teams stalwart, but if injuries ever present him with an opportunity, he may grab a starting job and not let go.

And whither Ted Johnson? As long has he remains on the cheap, he'll remain a Patriot. He'll be the top run stopper if Bruschi does not come back. But he is getting up there in years (33 in December), and is injury-prone. He is another reason why Belichick may have to go with youth at inside linebacker.

Meanwhile, the vigil continues on Bruschi. The team will take a staggering hit if he cannot come back. But it is a hit the team will gladly take if it means that Bruschi will enjoy a nice long and happy life with no future worries about this circulatory problem. The consensus feeling remains that Bruschi's health is more important than his football career, and that Belichick and the Patriots will need to move on and deal with it if Bruschi has indeed played his last NFL game.

And all you have to do is read the stories. Partial paralysis. Slurred speech. Hole in heart. Return to football? Bite your tongue. Let him return to his family, that's good enough for all of us.

And if the Patriots happen to win a championship without Tedy Bruschi, the man on the sidelines cheering the loudest will be Tedy Bruschi.

Next installment: secondary.


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