Don't give Patriots the trophy just yet

Posted: May 06, 2007

The NFL team that truly has been the 21st-century gold standard put the cherry on top of its off-season during last weekend's draft.

In fact, you almost wondered whether commissioner Roger Goodell would close the draft by handing the Vince Lombardi Trophy to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

That, of course, didn't happen. Kraft wasn't in New York, and the commissioner made the difficult decision to play out the 2007 schedule anyway.

What did happen during the draft was cause for frightening contemplation among the rest of the NFL's franchises, including the Eagles, who have a prime-time road meeting scheduled with the Patriots on Nov. 25 at Gillette Stadium.

The Patriots already beat the Eagles last week when they plucked University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather off the draft board two picks before the Eagles' scheduled 26th selection. That domino - Meriweather was the player the Eagles really wanted in the first round - triggered the trade that brought Kevin Kolb and a quarterback controversy to Philadelphia.

But this isn't about the Eagles. This is about the almighty Patriots, winners of three Super Bowls in the top half of this decade and apparently hell-bent on making sure they don't go a third straight season without hoisting a Lombardi.

Meriweather's selection in the first round wasn't even big football news in New England by the end of the draft because of the next day's addition: star receiver Randy Moss from Oakland in exchange for a fourth-round draft pick.

That meant in the span of two months, the Patriots had given star quarterback Tom Brady three new receivers - Moss, former Eagle Donté Stallworth and Miami's Wes Welker.

That's quite a contrast from a year ago, when Brady's top targets were Reche Caldwell, Doug Gabriel, Jabar Gaffney and aging veteran Troy Brown. Now, Brady has two deep threats in Moss and Stallworth, a solid slot receiver in Welker and an outstanding tight end in Ben Watson.

Add in Kevin Faulk's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, second-year running back Laurence Maroney's expected emergence, and one of the league's best offensive lines, and you have the potential for a lot of 30-point games from the New England offense. Opposing defenses against the Patriots feel a lot like the Washington Generals defending the Harlem Globetrotters.

Before fitting Brady for his fourth Super Bowl ring, however, it should be pointed out that a lot could still go wrong for the Patriots, who play in the same conference as the defending champion Indianapolis Colts and the equally talented San Diego Chargers.

Look on the defensive side of the football and you'll see some potential problems. Yes, they landed the biggest defensive prize in free agency when they signed Baltimore Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas, who has recorded 28 sacks the last three seasons, including 11 a year ago.

But the Pats' four-man linebacker corps will not have a single player under the age of 30 when the season begins, and there is absolutely no experienced depth behind the starting four. Tedy Bruschi, who will be 34 next month, is not nearly the player he was during the Patriots' three Super Bowl title runs. Mike Vrabel, who will be 32 in August, is playing inside linebacker, but is better equipped to play on the outside.

The addition of Meriweather gives New England depth at safety, but it would be a stretch to think he can immediately be as good as a rookie as veteran Rodney Harrison, who is 36 and has missed 19 games the last two seasons because of injuries.

Remember, this is a defense that collapsed in the second half of the AFC championship game against the Colts.

The other factor that could drag down the Patriots is their decision to bring in a guy like Moss, whose personality has the potential to be every bit as poisonous as Terrell Owens' was in Philadelphia. What the Pats are doing goes against everything they have said they are about in the past.

Before the Pats won their second of three Super Bowls against Carolina in 2004, Scott Pioli was asked whether he'd ever consider adding someone like T.O. to the New England roster of overachieving team players. Pioli, the Pats' vice president of player personnel, didn't need any time to think about his answer.

"No," he said. "That's not the kind of guy we're looking for here. [Coach] Bill [Belichick] and I understand how demanding his program is. I know his personality well, and I understand what he's willing to tolerate and what he's not willing to tolerate. We make sure we don't bring in the kind of people he's not willing to tolerate. People who are lazy, people who underachieve, people who don't get it, they aren't going to make it. People who are high-maintenance are not going to make it in our program. We're just not going to have patience with those kinds of people."

Something has changed. Perhaps it's nothing more than the same urgency the Eagles felt to land T.O. after three straight NFC championship losses. Perhaps the Pats really think Moss can be a team player on a team filled with such animals. Whatever the reason, Pioli and Belichick decided to take the high-risk player in an attempt to recapture the league's highest award.

Forgive the commissioner for not handing over the hardware just yet.

Words from the past

Before the 2003 season, a 26-year-old Donovan McNabb was asked at the post-draft minicamp how he felt about the team's decision to let a long list of 30-something players walk away as free agents. The list included Hugh Douglas, Brian Mitchell and Sean Landeta.

The quarterback's interesting response: "As the years continue on, you try to sit back and learn from it because you never know. In a couple of years, it could be you. You learn and see how they go about it as far as the players are concerned, and you see how the people in the organization go about it. It's tough to swallow to know that you're losing guys like that, but those guys are moving on and continuing on with their career."

McNabb, of course, isn't going anywhere right now, but for the first time in his career he can see the horizon that leads to the end of his time in Philadelphia.


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577

or bbrookover@phillynews.com.

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