SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Did any of you catch Bill Belichick sitting in the center of town the other day?
There he was, right there at the bus stop, sitting on this bench. He was holding in his lap this box that said “2001 New England Patriots” on it, with some candy factory logo over it. Someone was sitting next to him. Belichick began to ramble on about that box, and that his momma once told him what was inside that box was a lot like life in general.
You never know what you gonna get.
Belichick may not be Forrest Gump, but his team definitely belongs inside that box of chocolates. Nobody out there knows what he’s gonna get. Even Belichick himself has to wonder about the box. He must also pause to consider the wisdom of Mrs. Gump as well.
Belichick was one of the more active general managers in the offseason. Like a little child in the Hebert Candy Mansion, he took this goodie and that goodie. He put them inside this box and took them here to Smithfield. Now he finally gets to see what he really got.
This really is how the Patriots are at this point. In picking up the pieces from last year’s 5-11 trainwreck, Belichick has been as proactive as any Patriot fan would want him to be. He raised plenty of eyebrows with his curious draft strategy, but more than made up for it by bringing in an eclectic mishmash of mid-level veterans, much the same way his former boss did it a few years back on his way to Super Bowl XXXI.
No marquee stars are coming to Foxborough this fall. But an infusion of fresh new faces is better than an unthinkable status quo. How good will this infusion be?
That’s where Forrest’s box of chocolates come in.
With the AFC East literally thrown into a tizzy this year thanks to widespread transition and an Indianapolis team that doesn’t play defense nearly as well as it plays offense, the Patriots could very well win the division. Or they may be okay. Or they may bring up the rear again. Nothing like hedging your bet.
But that’s the way things are at this point. Right now, the only things Patriot fans are gonna get are smiles and worries. Whereas in other years the smiles outnumber the worries, and vice versa, this year it’s about dead even.
Right now, we’re going to open up Belichick’s box of chocolates and begin to explore. We’ll look for the ones with vanilla or chocolate cream in the middle, and toss out those yucky ones with fruit or coconut on them. The delicious ones get a “smile”, and the others get a “worry”.
How exciting. This is better than Willy Wonka opening the doors to his secret chocolate factory.
Smile: Belichick has taken great pains to upgrade the offensive line. On Sunday night’s Sports Final, Steve DeOssie talked about the new guards as “upgrading a rather non-glamorous position”. Right now, glamour is important only to people like Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears and J-Lo. Bringing in Joe Panos and Mike Compton to replace Sale Isaia and Joe Andruzzi was huge for the team. With Damien Woody between them, they provide a much improved run-blocking front. Besides, guards and glamour do work for New England, as the greatest player in franchise history (at least for the moment) is a guard.
Worry: The offensive line still has question marks, mostly at the tackle position. Greg Robinson-Randall will be given every opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke, as he had arguably the best season of any Belichick draftee last year. The right tackle job will be his to lose, but it will not be handed to him. Left tackle is even more problematic, as Adrian Klemm will need to show that he is over his injury from last year, and that he can keep Drew Bledsoe from getting killed. A huge catch-22 is the drafting of Matt Light, late of Purdue and Drew Brees’ main bodyguard. If Light wins the left tackle job, and does turn out to be the next Bruce Armstrong, that’s great. But it then makes Klemm a huge waste of a draft pick unless he surfaces elsewhere on the line.
Smile: Richard Seymour is finally signed. Seymour will swagger into camp as the new big stud on the block. He will provide immediate help on the defensive line, and will be counted on heavily (no pun intended, the guy weighs 300 pounds) to tie up blockers so that Ted Johnson can make tackles without tearing bicep muscles. If somehow the Patriots retain Henry Thomas, who is an unsigned free agent, Thomas will provide a mentor figure for Seymour and teach him the pro game quickly. Barring some unforeseen injury (hello, Kenneth Sims), Seymour should be a fixture for many years to come.
Worry: The Patriots have still not replaced Chad Eaton, and may have grossly underestimated his value. Belichick’s moves this offseason lead one to believe that the Patriots will go back to a 4-3 defense this year. They will almost have to, as no one on the roster is a bona fide nose tackle except Garrett Johnson. Bobby Hamilton, free agent Anthony Pleasant, Seymour and Willie McGinest (who will miss all of training camp) figure to be the front runners to start. But both McGinest and Brandon Mitchell are on the physically unable to perform list, Thomas remains unsigned, and those who remain are either situational or too far a dropoff in quality.
Smile: Troy Brown can look forward to going back to being a third down slot receiver. Like his punt return skills, he is one of the best in the league in that capacity. The Patriots will bring four new receivers to camp to compete for the number two wideout spot. In Torrance Small, Charles Johnson, Bert Emanuel and David Patten, the Patriots may have uncovered another Shawn Jefferson in this bunch, and maybe more than one. What would really blow the Patriots away is if Tony Simmons plays here like he did in Europe. Simmons may wind up a salary cap casualty, but if he ever brings his route running and hands up to par with his blazing speed, the Patriots will be infinitely better for it.
Worry: One of the aforementioned receivers may also be competing for the number one spot as well. The Terry Glenn saga is being considered as a new story line for Guiding Light or One Life To Live. Glenn is finally expected this week to meet with team officials regarding his legal problems. There will be haggling in the days ahead over Glenn’s signing bonus, and how it relates to the morals clause in his contract. But rumours persist that Belichick is fed up with Glenn, and would love to ship him out. Glenn is still way too good to just give up on without some thought, but the glut of wideouts in camp make Glenn’s departure more than just folk whimsy.
Smile: Someone named Edwards will make the Patriots this fall. The nice thing is that is may be two Edwardses and not just one. Marc Edwards, picked up from Cleveland in the spring, looks to be the heir apparent to Tony Carter at fullback. This represents a major upgrade from Carter, the only problem being that the fullback is not a central figure in Charlie Weis’ offense (if it were, might Sam Gash have been brought back when he was released from Buffalo?). Robert Edwards continues his valiant comeback, and now figures prominently in the mix. When the hitting commences, things may change quickly, but Robert has at least made it this far.
Worry: Will even a healthy Robert be enough? Antowain Smith has left Buffalo and come here, and he takes dead aim on J.R. Redmond and Kevin Faulk. Absent of his gruesome Pro Bowl mishap, Edwards would be the fixture at running back, and bringing in Smith would have been totally unnecessary. Redmond was injured during camp last year, which slowed his development. Faulk is a fumble machine which negates all of his potential and his positives. Who will emerge from this pack? The answer is that someone had better. If all four of these men either fail or merely stagnate, the Patriots are in for another long and woeful season.
Smile: Back to the offensive line again for a second. The tackles are largely responsible for pass blocking, especially the left tackle. Okay, so let’s assume that this newly assembled bunch of blockers (and include Marc Edwards in the mix here) gives Bledsoe better protection than each of the bunch of clods every year post-1996. Gosh, imagine the possibilities. With all those new wideouts out there who know how to behave and run correct routes? If Bledsoe has even two or three more seconds to throw, yikes. We can all once again think of Bledsoe as the second coming of Dan Fouts. This is not to say that this will happen, but dreaming about it is fun.
Worry: So it happens. The line jells. Bledsoe has the time to throw. Except that it’s third and seven. All his wideouts are covered. Bledsoe then instinctively looks for Ben Coates. Whoops, Coates split for Baltimore, and didn’t even start there. Largely overlooked these past few years is the importance of Coates in Bledsoe’s career. Coates could make that seven-yard first down catch, even with two guys holding him. The Patriots have nobody that can do that now. Rod Rutledge is likely on his way out the door, and draftees Arther Love (product of a run-oriented offense in college) and Jabari Holloway (primarily a blocker) don’t look like quick fixes. Right now, the man at tight end has to be Jermaine Wiggins, who showed some promise late last year. He is no Ben Coates, but he’s the best clutch receiving tight end the Patriots have right now. While it is something, it is a far cry from Bledsoe’s former security blankie.
Smile: Ty Law will play left cornerback. Lawyer Milloy will play strong safety. After that, it’s a crap shoot. But there will be no dearth of competition for the remaining two secondary spots. Booting out Antonio Langham was a no-brainer. What’s left are veteran retreads like free agents Terrell Buckley and Terrance Shaw, Otis Smith and Kato Serwanga. If not for Steve Israel’s injury last year, letting him go would have been still another personnel blunder for the Patriots, who really never should have let Jimmy Hitchcock go. But one of these four men ought to emerge as the new RCB of Belichick’s dreams. This writer makes Shaw the favorite, but Buckley makes this battle suddenly interesting. The drafting of Hakim Akbar looks redundant, but he may wind up pushing Tebucky Jones for the starting free safety spot. If Tony George ever makes his way into Belichick’s good graces, Jones will be buried even deeper in the depth chart. Whatever the case, the Patriots have four decent, hard-hitting safeties who will also impact special teams as well.
Worry: It would be nice to have such depth at linebacker. But this position may turn out to be the Achilles heel of the Patriots in 2001. Andy Katzenmoyer is coming back from back ailments, Johnson made it through a year in which he actually did not tear a bicep muscle, and the unit’s best player right now is Tedi Bruschi. Chris Slade was a cap casualty. Mike Vrabel was brought in from Pittsburgh as a situational pass rusher. That’s pretty much it. This unit is one injury away from a huge team liability. Free agent Larry Izzo can help, but he was brought in primarily to replace Larry Whigham as the chief special team goon. What good will Seymour’s work be if no one behind him can do an adequate job of tackling? Belichick may have an ace in the hole if free agent Bryan Cox can still be had.
Smile: The team plays another last place schedule, but it is far easier than the albatross handed to them last year. Giving the Patriots the opening eight weeks it got last year was like going to Africa and giving flat tires to the Red Cross trucks bringing in relief and aid for famine victims. The Patriots begin at Cincinnati and Carolina, both winnable games. They also go to Atlanta, a shell of their Super Bowl team. They get San Diego, St. Louis and New Orleans at home, games that are winnable only because they’re at Foxborough. There will be no blistering of Tampa Bay and Minnesota to have to deal with right off the bat.
Worry: Again, the Patriots have to play at Denver. Yikes. Yeah, they won there last year, but the Broncos will be in a new stadium and Brian Griese is vastly improved from last year. They still have to play the Jets twice, and they still employ Curtis Martin. The Colts will leave the AFC East after this year, but will still feature Peyton Manning throwing deep to Marvin Harrison this year, the only guy in the league that Law can’t consistently cover. And that bye week on Week 17 is a true insult to this organization. If the Patriots have any playoff implications going into Week 17, they will have to sit at home and watch. Historically, if the Patriots need help for the playoffs, they usually don’t get it (those of you who remember the pain from 1980 will certainly agree).
There you have it. For every strength there is a weakness hiding behind it, and vice versa. That is why the 2001 Patriots belong in a box of chocolates.
And no, you most definitely don’t know what you gonna get.
Posted Under: 2001 Patriots Offseason
Tags: 2001 Patriots Offseason Bill Belichick New England Patriots