Clint's Corner Archive

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The source for back issues of Clint's Corner. Forget a trade? Were Clint's predictions correct? Here's every edition, verbatim.

For 3/12/2001

Right back where we started from...

It was 5 years ago this week that I began writing Clint's Corner. The Patriots were coming off a very disappointing 6-10 season, were making a minimal splash in free agency, and were preparing for the April draft as holders of the 7th overall pick. The Patriots defense finished the 1995 season ranked 28th. Who back in March of '96 was picking the Patriots to win the AFC East and go on to play in Super Bowl XXXI? Not a sole. Not even me.

Five seasons later, what a long, strange ride it's been. The Patriots have an AFC Championship, two division titles, three playoff appearances, and just one losing season. They've had three head coaches, four offensive coordinators, and six 1st round draft choices, with just two of them projected to start in 2001. Stadium rumors took the Pats from Foxboro to South Boston to Hartford and finally back to Foxboro, where today 16 stories of blue steel stands adjacent to a grossly outdated Foxboro Stadium, by far the worst stadium in the NFL.

Today, in March of 2001, the Patriots are right back where they were five years ago. The 2000 season was a disaster, and there is little hope among NFL prognosticators that the Patriots will be competitive in the AFC for years to come. While it's true many bad decisions in coaching and personnel have been made over the past five years, the "circle of life" in the NFL is as much to blame as Bobby Grier or Tuna-gate. Of the six AFC teams who went to the playoffs in 1996, just two, Denver and the Colts, went to the playoffs last season. They each went in as wildcards, and each failed to win a single playoff game. Even the Green Bay Packers, victorious over the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI, are on their third head coach and have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.

So how bad is it? First the bad news...

How far away are the 5-11 Patriots from being a playoff contender? There are two schools of thought on that. The over-analytical approach would say the Pats are years away, while a more simplistic look at the state of the Patriots and the rest of the NFL says the Patriots can close out their final season in Foxboro Stadium with a bang.

The offense last season scored 20 or more points just 5 times, and was held to fewer than 14 points 6 times. They have no #1 running back and an immobile pocket passer behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. There is just one playmaker in the person of Terry Glenn, who has not proven capable of making "the" play when defenses are geared to stop him (ala Randy Moss, Eric Moulds, Marvin Harrison, Keyshawn Johnson). The guard and tight-end positions were manned all season by waiver-wire quality players, and at left tackle, Bruce Armstrong was a shadow of his former self and will not be back. The #3 wide receiver (Curtis Jackson), critical in the Charlie Weis system, was plucked from the waiver wire in week 15 of last season.

The defense is laden with large contracts producing less-than-large results. Ty Law, Willie McGinest, and Ted Johnson are all fine players capable of Pro Bowl seasons in their future, but none have played up to the promise of their recent mega-deals, and are collectively crippling the Patriots salary cap. The corner spot opposite Law and the safety spot opposite Milloy continue to be question marks, and the front-7 are completely incapable of generating a pass rush, even on obvious passing downs. They repeatedly showed a knack for blowing the few leads the offense was able to give them, and for making journeyman backup quarterbacks look like Hall of Famers. The Patriots offense is certainly the worse-off of the two units, but the defense is not far behind.

Collectively there are simply too many holes to fill on this roster, and not enough draft picks or cap room to fill them any time soon. At the 6th spot in the April draft, the Patriots will come away with a quality day-one starter without even trying, but they'll need to make a huge splash in rounds 2 through 7 and in "middle tier" free agency in order to significantly improve their roster in just one season.

What's more, the Patriots are led by Bill Belichick, who after last season has a career 41-55 record, winning more than 7 games just once in six seasons as a head coach.

Now the good news...

Last season the 5-11 Patriots lost only 2 games where they did not have a chance to win deep into the 4th quarter. Those two games were the 34-17 home loss to the Jets, and the 34-9 Thanksgiving blowout at the hands of the Detroit Lions. You could make a very strong argument that a single play determined the outcome of their other 9 losses, two of those to the 11-5 AFC East champion Miami Dolphins.

In their 10-3 loss in Miami, Kevin Faulk fumbled the ball away at the 1-yard line, and the game ended with the Patriots inside the Miami 5-yard line. In their 27-24 season ending loss in Foxboro, Miami was fighting for their playoff lives while New England was playing out the string. In a 24-24 game inside of two minutes to play, the Patriots were driving for the winning score when a tipped pass resulted in a Zack Thomas interception on or around the Miami 35-yard line. The Dolphins won the game seconds later with an Olindo Mare 45-yard field goal. A very fine line indeed between worst and first.

What about the severe chokes on the road to the Jets and Colts? The Patriots enjoyed two-score leads deep into each of those contests, needing just one stop on defense or a bit of clock control on offense to win the game. In the home overtime loss to the Bills, not even a sadly ineffective John Frieze, who threw an awful interception in the end zone from the 1-yard line, could prevent the Pats from taking the still playoff-hungry Bills into overtime. Had the Pats just won four of those nine "almost" games, you're looking at a 9-7 season. Five of those nine and the Pats were in the playoffs.

Going into next season, you could also make the argument that the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins will all be worse off than they were a year ago. This is especially true of the Bills, who did the entire AFC East a tremendous favor by kicking Doug Flutie out of the division and naming Rob Johnson their starter (well, at least until he's knocked out of a game anyway). Gone from the defensive side are Ted Washington and Marcellus Wiley, two of the best DL's in the division. The Jets in the course of one season have a new owner, a new GM, a new team president, and a new coaching staff. All of these positions have been filled competently in New York, but such turnover cannot bode well for the 2001 season. Gone as well are Dedrick Ward and Brian Cox, with NT Jason Ferguson seemingly next in line to sign elsewhere. In Miami, the defense remains solid, but you have to wonder if their offense can continue to get by with smoke-and-mirrors and Jay Feidler as the #1 signal caller.

Talent? Who needs talent to win in this league? How many of you are predicting the Ravens or Giants to repeat as conference champions in 2001? How many of you think the Giants will even make the playoffs next season? What of the Eagles or Saints in 2001? Each season in the NFL teams rise from the ashes to become bona fide playoff contenders and teams who were "Super" the year before fall sharply back to mediocrity. The '00 Giants, '99 Rams, '98 Falcons, and yes, our '96 Patriots all went to the Super Bowl one year after a season not unlike the 2000 New England Patriots.

Are the 2001 Patriots headed to the Super Bowl? Probably not, but to say they'll make the playoffs next season is not at all out of the question if you're willing to throw logic out the window and study recent history and trends in this league instead. If Trent Dilfer can win a Super Bowl, anything is possible.

Numbers games...

Is Drew Bledsoe indeed the beneficiary of the richest contract in the history of the NFL? Only if he plays all 10 years under this agreement, and there's a better chance of Chris Canty going to the Pro Bowl than that. To read between the lines, the Patriots have agreed to pay Bledsoe between $30 and $31 million over the next four seasons, an average salary of just over $7.5 million per year. Because of salary cap ramifications entering the 5th year of the deal, the Patriots will be forced prior to the 2005 season to tear up the contract and renegotiate. Should the Patriots decide at that time, as the Dallas Cowboys did last week with Troy Aikman, that their "lifetime" agreement is no longer valid, Bledsoe will be cut from the team. Such a move would deal the Patriots a huge blow to their salary cap, but prevent them from having to pay Bledsoe the $72 million balance of his contract.

By agreeing to the terms in years 5-10, both sides are protected even though it's a near certainty the current contract will not be honored. Should Bledsoe lead New England to four consecutive undefeated seasons, he will still be contractually bound to the Patriots and will not be permitted to test the free agent waters. Even if the existing contract were to stand, Bledsoe would be a bargain. On the other hand, if Bledsoe never again lives up to the promise of his '94, '96, and '97 seasons, the Patriots will still find it difficult to part ways with him given the salary-cap expense inherent with an outright release (although Troy Aikman will not play a down for the Dallas Cowboys next season, he will cost them a whopping $10 million against the $67 million dollar salary cap in 2001). Bledsoe and his agent could play hardball during renegotiations, forcing the Patriots to choose their poison by either releasing him or honoring the original deal until a new deal can be reached.

While the face value of $103 million is indeed the largest contract ever signed, Bledsoe is still not even the highest paid player in the league. Brett Favre's $100 million dollar deal will actually pay him $2 million more than Bledsoe over the next four seasons. Mark Brunell is renegotiating his deal as well, and will likely also average out above Drew's numbers for the next 3 to 5 seasons.

Is Bledsoe deserving of even the four-year numbers? 31-year-old Elvis Grbac just signed a 4-year deal with Baltimore for $30 million, while 33-year-old Brad Johnson turned down the same contract in Baltimore for $28 million over 5 years in Tampa Bay. If these guys are worth $6 million per season, isn't Drew Bledsoe worth $7.5? Even John Kitna, who's horrible, managed to get a 4-year deal from the Bengals that will pay him between $7 and $12 million.

While Bledsoe is not among the top-5 quarterbacks in the NFL, and depending on whom you ask not even in the top-10, it's hard to argue with the wisdom of Robert Kraft for locking up Drew Bledsoe with this contract. If Bledsoe were to hit free agency next season, the offers he would receive would dwarf the one he has "settled" for in New England. Bledsoe has his critics, and leaves a lot to be desired when compared to the Elways, Marinos and Favres of the NFL, but there are at least 20 other teams in the NFL who would just love to have the same quarterback "problem" that we have here in New England.

I for one am and always have been a huge fan of Drew Bledsoe. Personally, I dismiss the "lets trade him for draft picks" banter as pure idiocy. If you think it's been difficult to replace Curtis Martin here in New England, just you try to go out and replace Drew Bledsoe. Michael Vick may indeed prove to be the real deal, but what of Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, and Rick Mirer? For every Peyton Manning success story, there's 3 GMs who lose their jobs picking quarterbacks in the top 10 of the 1st round.

Bledsoe is a tough-as-nails quarterback who, simply put, takes a beating and keeps getting back up for more. He has proven during his career that he not only is a difficult quarterback to injure, but that he'll play through any injuries he does sustain. He played virtually the entire 1995 season with a separated left shoulder, and was amazingly effective in the '98 and '00 seasons with severe and painful injuries to the finger(s) on his throwing hand. You can question his talent if you wish, but you cannot question Bledsoe's "win at all costs" attitude. There is no one in New England more willing to do whatever it takes to bring a Super Bowl championship to the Patriots organization and it's fans.

Bledsoe has proven that when surrounded with the proper cast, he's almost unstoppable. If the Patriots in the next few years are able to give Drew a running game and some time to throw the ball, he will pick apart defense after defense. With no threat of a running game whatsoever, no time to throw the ball, and no one to throw it to, Bledsoe's game is toast. He is not able to create his own offense like Favre, Brunell, Flutie, McNair, or McNabb. This does not make Drew Bledsoe a lesser quarterback, simply less exciting. Could you imagine if Bledsoe were to have quarterbacked the Vikings or Bucs last season? Scary. Put Drew in the right situation and he'll earn every penny of that contract.

Thanks for coming back to visit in the offseason. My draft preview and free agency update should be up the first week of April.