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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 8/27/2002

What if...

As we close in on Kickoff 2002, there are lots of questions surrounding the defending World Champions. Were they a "fluke" in 2001? Will Tom Brady prove to be a dink-and-dunk one-year wonder? How will the Drew Bledsoe deal look next April as the Patriots prepare for the 2003 draft? Will the suddenly vogue Belichick/Pioli player acquisition model stand the test of time?

While each of these questions is indeed compelling, here's one more: what if Adam Vinatieri's miraculous 45-yard field goal into the driving snow had fallen short? Rather than entering this season as defending World Champions, they'd be entering as defending division champions who failed to win a single playoff game. Would the Patriots have settled for a 2003 first round draft pick in exchange for Drew Bledsoe? If not, would Bledsoe still be a Patriot? Would Tom Brady? Would Patriots fans and ownership be pleased in 2002 with simply "making the playoffs" in year 3 of the Belichick regime? One thing I can tell you - the Patriots would not be opening the season on Monday Night football playing host to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

That kick - arguably the greatest kick in the history of the NFL - not only helped propel the Patriots to dramatic wins in the AFC and World Championship games, it set into motion a 2002 off-season that will shape the Patriots franchise for years to come. With the Vince Lombardi and Super Bowl MVP trophies in tow, Belichick and Brady are considered bulletproof until proven otherwise. Hand over a big contract to a 30-year old running back who after two years of obscurity in Buffalo enjoyed his finest ever season as a pro? Sure! Trade away picks to move up a few spots in round 1 to draft a tight end who may-or-may-not be able to beat out journeyman Christian Fauria for playing time? Why not? Let key role players such as Bryan Cox and Terrell Buckley sign elsewhere for minimum contracts? Of course! Trade the greatest quarterback in franchise history to a division rival for the rough equivalent of the aforementioned tight end? No argument.

As a lifelong fan, I for one am not going to question any of these moves given that the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Trade your soul for a World Championship? Where do I sign? Had that kick in the snow fallen short, however, each and every one of these decisions would be scrutinized tenfold, and Belichick and his staff would be on the hook to produce in 2003, even if Vegas has them listed at 8 1/2 on the over/under. As it stands now, the Patriots could go 0-16 this season, Belichick would be back in 2003, and I'd still renew my season tickets in a heartbeat.

Grain of salt...

You'll be hard pressed to find a fan who pays less attention to preseason outcomes and statistics than I do. I have written in detail about the preseason in years past (see the Archive), and to do so again would be nothing less than repeating myself. To sum it up, suffice it to say that it's not close to being as good, or as bad, as it looks when the games don't count. Winning will be the #1 priority for every coach in two weeks. Right now? While the final score and the box score may be #1 for guys like Steve Spurrier, it's far down the list for coaches like Mike Shanahan, Mike Martz, and Bill Belichick.

Drew Bledsoe is having a great preseason. The "new" Drew has completed 25 of his 39 pass attempts, thrown 3 TD's against 2 INT's, and enjoys a stellar 93.4 QB rating. Our man Brady has struggled mightily. What few long passes he has completed are more the result of his receivers adjusting to poorly thrown balls than his accuracy. Overall Brady has completed 34 of 55 passes for 423 yards with 2 TD's and 3 INT's. One of those interceptions occurred in the endzone on a brutally under thrown fade pattern from a goal-to-go offensive set.

Does any of this indicate Bledsoe will return to his '96 form and Brady is in fact a flash in the pan? Maybe, maybe not. Not only can we not go on what we've seen so far, but you really won't know the "who's who" of the NFL until week 4 or 5 of the 2002 season is in the record books. Recall that last season the Patriots were 1-3 after four weeks, while the Chargers were 3-1. Even the Bengals started off 2-0, defeating the defending World Champion Ravens at home in week 2. Where did those three teams end up?

It never ceases to amaze me that every year around this time, the February Pro Bowl is projected to be filled with rookies and other 2nd and 3rd teamers who are putting up big numbers in the preseason. If any of it meant a damn, then no one should have any argument with starting Damon Huard and Kevin Faulk against the Steelers on September 9. When Pedro Martinez gives up 6 earned runs and walks 5 runners in 2 innings of grapefruit league ball it doesn't get a mention beyond the box score, but when the Patriots running game can't get untracked in the first quarter of preseason football contests, it's front page news. Is it September 9 yet? I for one can't wait.

Define Irony...

When Patriot Nation is forced to root against Drew Bledsoe and for Terry Glenn in 2002, something is wrong, but that's just the way it is. The beloved Bledsoe and the ostracized Terry Glenn were each traded away for 2003 draft picks. There's a big difference in the language, however.

For the Patriots to get the most value from Buffalo's #1 pick in the 2003 draft, the Bills have to lose a lot of games. That's going to be hard to do if Bledsoe plays even remotely close to what he showed in '94, '96, and '97. To move up from round 4 to round 2 with Green Bay's selection, Terry Glenn would have to have a season not far off from the success he enjoyed in his rookie campaign.

Every time Glenn hauls in a catch for big yardage, it helps the Pats. Every time Drew throws an interception or gets sacked, it helps the Pats. Why couldn't this have been the other way around? I'll be traveling to Buffalo for the Pats first meeting with the Bills on November 3 (don't tell my wife and 3 kids, but of the Pats first 8 games, I'll be attending 7), and how can I not root for Bledsoe? Given that the tattoo on my arm is of the Patriots and not the #11, the choice is clear - but not an easy one.

The Bills faithful may remember me as being the loud mouth in the upper deck last season on December 16 screaming for the Pats to put Bledsoe in the game as Brady couldn't hit the ocean from the beach during a field goal fest the Patriots eventually won in overtime 12-9. As I knew the Patriots could not hear me from the upper deck, I made way to the front row in the 4th quarter of an empty Ralph Wilson Stadium to ensure they could. As nuts as I went in the Superdome when Vinatieri's 48-yarder sailed through the uprights, I was more emotional when Bledsoe hit Patten in the corner of the endzone in the AFC Championship game.

Before my point is mistaken here, let me be clear that I am 100% on board with the Patriots decision to trade Drew Bledsoe (I bet that's a relief to Kraft and Belichick). You will not find a bigger Bledsoe fan than I, but given the circumstances of the 2001 season, there really was no choice to be made. Even if Brady fades into oblivion while Bledsoe leads the Bills to their first ever Super Bowl title, the wisdom of this trade should never be second-guessed.

Had Brady been dealt and Bledsoe started for the 2002 Patriots, Drew could have gone 16-0 and lost the Super Bowl 53-54 despite throwing for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns, and be dubbed a loser for failing to deliver what Tom Brady did. New England was and is a no-win situation for Drew, and that's why there's a $9 million dream home on the market in Medfield. I wish him the best of luck - well not really - you know what I mean.

Going on the record...

I'm not sure why anyone would be interested in my prediction given that last season I predicted the Patriots would be a 7-9 team, but here goes nothing...

Surprise, surprise, but I for one do not feel as though the 2001 Patriots were "lucky." I touched upon this in my last column, but if you're going to point to a play here and a play there that could have made a difference, I'll do that for any previous Super Bowl champ sans the '85 Bears.

Didn't the 2000 Ravens score on a blocked field goal in the AFC Championship on the road in Tennessee? Didn't the Steelers, whose fans should be the last ones to complain, win a playoff game after the "luckiest" play in NFL history? It's not called the "Immaculate Reception" for nothing after all. Bill Parcells was deified after his '90 Giants team won it all, but let's not forget Scott Norwood's contribution, nor the critical fumble in the NFC Championship game as the '49ers were simply killing the clock.

Did the failure of the 2000 Rams to win their division or a single playoff game mean their '99 championship was a fluke? How about the defending-champion Ravens going a collective 1-3 against the Browns and Bengals the following year? What of the "Tuck Rule"? Don't get me started on Ben Dreith and the '76 Patriots. Despite the success of the 2001 Pats, the '76 Pats were undoubtedly the best in franchise history.

The 2001 Patriots won their division by dominating the runner-up Dolphins in the final regular season game in Foxboro Stadium. The final score may not indicate as such, but there was no doubt that the better team was clearly as such in that game. The 3rd place New York Jets also qualified for the playoffs, but the Pats prevailed in the Meadowlands in a crucial week 13 match-up that in hindsight cost the Jets the #2 seed in the AFC.

As Eastern Division champs, the Patriots then went on to defeat the Western Division champs and the Central Division champs on their way to defeating the "juggernaut" Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. In '96 the Patriots were fortunate not to have to have traveled to Denver to get to New Orleans. In 2001, no one can argue that they beat the best to become the best.

So what has changed since then? The Pats will return 20 of 22 starters, with the missing two being absent by design. Jermaine Wiggins and Brandon Mitchell were big parts of the 2001 team, but few can argue that those positions have not been upgraded with the editions of Christian Fauria, Daniel Graham, and Steve Martin. The lone remaining incumbent starter who stands to be beaten out is RT Greg Robinson-Randall, who has faced stiff competition from 2nd year tackle Kenyatta Jones.

When you look for depth, the Patriots have it at nearly every position. They may not have superstars, but across the board you'd be hard pressed to find a weakness. In addition to what's sure to be increased production from the TE spot, the Pats have added Donald Hayes and Deion Branch at WR. The only battle of this camp is for the 5th spot, with 7th round pick David Givins my guess to win the job in a tight race with Fred Coleman. Among the offensive lineman on the roster, most can play multiple positions along the line and there appears to be quality on the bench in the form of Adrian Klemm and Robinson-Randall.

At Defensive End and Linebacker, former starters Willie McGinest and Ted Johnson are filling reserve slots. Not bad. In the secondary, the addition of Victor Green gives the Pats quality depth at both the safety and corner position. If there's a weakness, it's in the middle of the defense, where after Richard Seymour there is a huge dropoff. Steve Martin is an upgrade over Brandon Mitchell, but the bench is journeyman quality at best behind the two starters. Should anything happed to Seymour, the Pats would undoubtedly leverage their depth at linebacker and move almost exclusively to the 3-4.

So, on paper at least, the Patriots are better. Looking at the competition, what did the rest of the AFC do to close the gap? Pittsburgh is the same team who feasted on sub .500 teams and struggled against the likes of the Rams and Patriots, and even split their divisional series with the Bengals and Ravens. Simply put, if the Steelers defense is an "A", our Patriots are no worse than an A-, and if the Steelers offense is a B, the Patriots may very well be a B+.

Miami? Sure they added Ricky Williams, but how did he fare against the Pats last season in a crucial matchup in Foxboro? The Dolphins have indeed upgraded their tailback position, but questions abound along their defensive line, offensive line, and QB Jay Fiedler. Oakland is an old team that's a year older, and Jon Gruden is gone. Who's left?

My picks for surprise teams in the AFC are Indy and Tennessee, with Cleveland also getting a mention. To me the 2001 Colts and 2001 Titans are just like the 1995 Patriots - a good team on the verge of putting it all together. The Colts in particular should benefit greatly as a result of realignment. Three of their division opponents in 2001 made the playoffs. Two of their current divisional rivals were not even close, and the third didn't even exist.

Bottom line? I expect the Patriots to quickly put to rest the "fluke" talk in 2002 with a win on September 9. With injuries of course being the big dependency, I see no reason why the 2002 Patriots can't win 10 or 11 games and get back the playoffs. From there, as we saw last season, anything can happen.

Now that I'm back in the saddle, you can count on GoPats.com to resume it's weekly in-season update schedule. See you after the Steelers game.