By: Bob George/BosSports.net
March 23, 2005

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

Oh, for the days of the Patriot legal team.

In Los Angeles, you had Leland MacKenzie and Douglas Brackman. In New York, there's Arthur Branch, Jack McCoy and his latest of a myriad of token female assistants (and please don't look at brand new Alexandra Borgia and constantly wonder if she is a lesbian). Down in Atlanta you had Ben Matlock, but you looked at him and thought :"ťAndy Taylor's a sheriff, not a lawyer!"ť

And in Foxborough, you had Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy, of counsel.

Now both Patriot stalwarts for the defense are gone. Milloy has sat by in Buffalo and watched his former mates win two straight Super Bowls without him. Law is now both a castoff and damaged goods, his broken foot still not fully healed and whispers abounding regarding whether or not he is finished in the NFL.

As Jerry Reed once sang, "When you're hot, you're hot!"ť

Doesn't it just figure that the Patriots simply know when to cut bait, and when not to? You let Milloy walk, then bring in someone who is actually an upgrade and who takes over as quarterback of the secondary en route to two Vinces. You ignore Law when he and his truculent agents mouth off over wanting a new contract, carry his huge 2004 cap figure anyway, and get what was left of a stellar career before an October 31 foot injury ends his season and maybe his career. The Ty Law we all once knew may be a thing of the past, and the Patriots got exactly all of the best of one of the two best cornerbacks in team history.

Until Tedy Bruschi's stroke, cornerback seemed to be priority one on Draft Day. Having to play Randall Gay and Asante Samuel for most of the season at cornerback instead of Law and Tyrone Poole seemed to spell doom for the defending champs. Instead, Gay and Samuel filled in marvelously, the Patriots won their second straight Vince anyway, and position coach Eric Mangini got promoted to defensive coordinator for his trouble. This one area turned into the most remarkable story of the year for the 2004 World Champs.

And we haven't even gotten around to Troy Brown yet.

Poole, who like Law spent most of the year on the shelf, will probably join Law as needing change of address cards for next year. It stands to reason that Gay and Samuel could well be the starting cornerback tandem for 2005. Another scenario has the Patriots drafting a free safety, allowing Eugene Wilson to move back to his collegiate position and pairing with Samuel at the corners.

Or, you might see Guss Scott, a 2004 draftee who was injured in training camp and spent the whole year on IR try and bump Wilson to cornerback. Dexter Reid, still another 2004 draftee who did see action in 2004 and was burned for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXIX, probably won't be the one to do the bumping unless he has one heck of a training camp and shows that he can play centerfield (to be fair, the Patriot coaching staff took the heat for the Super Bowl touchdown Reid gave up, saying that they had the wrong defense called for the play).

The one staple you can count on in any non-injury scenario is Rodney Harrison at strong safety. He remains the quintessential "love him if he plays for you, hate him if he's on the other team"ť player, much like old Celtic Jungle Jim Loscutoff from the late 1950s. The team's hardest hitter, and maybe the entire league's, Harrison had his second straight standout season for his second NFL team, and led the team in tackles and total defensive plays. Most important, he has assumed a leadership role on the team, and continues to provide veteran stewardship for the younger players. There will always be opponents complaining about him, but in Foxborough those complaints will continue to ring hollow.

Moving Wilson to corner may turn out to be imprudent simply because he has become such a great free safety. Another hard hitter, Wilson led the team with four interceptions in 2004 and has great deep range. If he has any downside, it is staying healthy; for the second straight Super Bowl, he was unable to finish the game due to injury. In both cases, his replacements (Chris Akins, Reid) were burned late in the game. Wilson borders on the underrated simply because he is not well known outside of Foxborough, but his work in replacing Tebucky Jones has been first rate.

Duane Starks was brought in from Arizona as a free agent after winning a Vince in Baltimore. He will compete for a starting cornerback job. The seven-year veteran has 25 career interceptions, and may be another "second tier" free agent the Patriots are so famous for picking up over the years.

Bruschi tied for the second most interceptions with three. He was tied with whom? Did you say Brown?

If Brown does come back to the Patriots after essentially being released, it will likely be only to catch passes instead of picks. This was a one-year anomaly which worked out better than it ever deserved to. Brown was burned in the Miami loss by Derrius Thompson for the winning touchdown, but otherwise did a serviceable job in trying to offset the losses of all the injured corners. His personal season highlight had to be his first pick, victimizing his former teammate Drew Bledsoe. Bledsoe was sent packing to Dallas in the offseason, the Brown pick probably the low point of three years of pure purgatory in Buffalo.

You probably won't see much of Earthwind Moreland anymore. He was stopgap help, nothing more. If Dick Vermeil had wanted to, he could have thrown to Eddie Kennison all night long during the Monday night encounter in Kansas City. Moreland could do nothing with Kennison, but Trent Green threw only one scoring toss to him during the game. Moreland was okay with second and third tier wideouts, but against the very best, the Patriots were very lucky the opponents didn't try and expose him like they should have.

It goes without saying that the same applies to Brown. The same also applies to the opposing managers who refused to bunt with an injured Curt Schilling on the mound last fall. You're thrilled that the opposing coaches didn't try, but you also wonder why.

Scott will bear watching in August. He was having a great camp last year before his injury, and he might actually be the answer at free safety. If he can bounce back and regain his August 2004 form, he could send Wilson to cornerback and Gay to the bench. Samuel should keep his starting job for a while, and Wilson could be a shutdown corner once he regains the flow and understanding of his old position. But can Scott come back? Mark this down at or near the top of your list of what to look for in camp in August.

Reid will probably be a backup, and remain a special teams commodity. He needs to learn the NFL game just a bit more, but he could very well step up and make bigger contributions. He hits hard and has good upside, but was put in a position to fail last year. He will get a fresh start in 2005.

Gay might seem like the forgotten hero here. In the Super Bowl, sideline cameras caught Terrell Owens salivating over being covered by Gay. The bottom line is that Gay's side won, not Owens'. Gay did have a decent, albeit not spectacular, 2004 season where he made all undrafted free agents stand up and believe that their day in the sun will come true even though they never got that coveted phone call on Draft Day.

Meanwhile, wherever Law winds up someday, he won't ever be forgotten. Being compared to a Canton, Ohio resident named Mike Haynes is no small thing.

But the Foxborough law firm is now closed. Down comes the gavel. Case dismissed.

Next installment: special teams.


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