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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 7/26/1999

Expectations...

To read the papers, listen to talk radio, or just ease-drop on conversations around the workplace, it is odd that there is such a broad range of expectations for the 1999 Patriots.

Coming off the 6-10 season of 1995, no one expected a Super Bowl season, but most were in agreement that the team could make the playoffs. Even going into 1997 and 1998, the staunchest Pete Carroll bashers had to acknowledge that the team was a legitimate playoff contender. The difference between the believers and the non-believers in the recent past has been centered on how far the team would go in the post season, not whether or not they would get there.

As countdown to training camp ’99 is in full swing on the heels of three consecutive playoff berths, there are as many people out there who feel the Pats will finish last in the division as there are those who feel they will win it. 6-10? 11-5? It depends on whom you talk to. We won’t know who is right and who is wrong for quite some time, but what this does reaffirm for all in Patriot Nation is that the Patriots are the official enigma of the AFC East.

Caught standing still?

The consensus among the malcontents is that while every other team in the division has gone out in the offseason and improved, the Pats have done nothing. While the Patriots have indeed been quiet in free agency, I’m not sure that means they’ve fallen further behind their 4th place finish of last season.

The Colts, in part because they had the most room to improve, seem to have made the greatest strides on paper. Edgerin James is certainly a promising rookie, but Faulk will not be easily replaced. The Colts biggest improvements will come on defense, and in the fact that Peyton Manning has a year of experience under his belt. The Colts were a much different team in the 2nd half of last season, reminiscent of the 1993 Patriots. Indianapolis was the only AFC East team to beat the Jets last season, and that was no fluke.

The Jets signings are a solid indication that Bill Parcells, despite what he says publicly, feels his team is a bona fide contender. You don’t go out and sign aging veterans like Eric Green, Roman Phifer and Steve Atwater unless your intention is to win right away. All of these veterans have seen better days, but still have plenty left and are improvements over what the Jets had on the field last season when they went 12-4. When these three are added to the starting 22, the Jets will have one of, if not the oldest starting teams in the NFL. Couple that with rumors that 1999 is the Tuna’s swan song, and "1999 or bust" is clearly the battle cry from the Meadowlands. Without question, the Jets enter 1999 as the favorites to repeat as division champions.

As sure as geese fly South for the winter, Jimmy Johnson revamps his offense and declares that the team will be much improved. Despite having no better success following Don Shula than Pete Carroll has had following Bill Parcells, J.J. still can do no wrong in Miami while the New England press is already circling like buzzards over Pete Carroll. The Dolphins will certainly have a lot of new faces in camp this season, but aside from OG Kevin Gogan, none will turn any heads. Miami’s running game in 1998 was worse than that of New England’s, and they have attempted to address that problem by drafting James Johnson and Rob Konrad. However, until we see those guys out on the field, they are no better than Lamont Warren or Kevin Faulk in New England. The Dolphins have a very favorable 1999 schedule after week 1, and if their defense picks up where it left off last season, Miami is certainly capable of winning this division.

Buffalo has done little more than the Patriots in the offseason, and in my opinion New England had a much stronger draft than the Bills. Perhaps I’m guilty of oversight, but I feel the Bills were overachievers in 1998 in going 10-6. They were relatively free of the injury bug, and their biggest injury, to starting QB Rob Johnson, was the best thing that ever happened to the ’98 Bills. 1999 will once again depend on Flutie Magic, which last time we saw Doug was a little tarnished as his poor decision making was a big reason the Bills were eliminated from the playoffs. If the Colts have passed anyone in this division, it’s the Bills.

(They) shall return...

Imagine if you will a team that finished 9-7 in what many believe to be the toughest division in the entire NFL. They lost a road playoff game to a superior team after trailing by just 2 points entering the 4th quarter to end their season. This team had many holes in it’s roster that day, as it did the previous week in a 21 point loss to it’s chief division rival.

Now picture that same team with the following new veteran starters on opening day, 1999: Drew Bledsoe, Ted Johnson, Willie McGinest and Terry Glenn. Add to that a healthy Troy Brown, Bruce Armstrong, Chris Slade and Brandon Mitchell and that’s a hell of an improvement in the offseason. There is also a very real chance that the Pats 1st three draft selections, C Damien Woody, OLB Andy Katzenmoyer, and RB Kevin Faulk will all start on opening day.

In short, the Pats will have more new starters on September 12, as compared to the end of last season, than any other team in the division. Bobby Grier did not have to make a big splash in the offseason – his impact "free agents" were already on the roster itching to get back on the field. Losses such as Dave Wohlabaugh, Todd Collins, and Tom Tupa will not be that difficult to overcome.

Even with the offensive line and running back situation still in flux, the biggest question facing the 1999 New England Patriots is health. If Bledsoe, Glenn, McGinest, Johnson, Slade, Armstrong, Brown, and Mitchell can rebound from their injury setbacks and stay on the field this season, the Pats still have the best roster in the division, and that should show up in their play, beginning September 12 in the Meadowlands against the Jets. If not, the Buzzards (i.e. Will McDonough, Steve Buckley) will be in position to see Carroll’s head roll.

Musical Chairs...

As pressure mounts to get the rookies under contract before the start of training camp, the music is going to stop and there will be a highly paid veteran (or two?) left without a seat. As I write this, the Patriots do not have enough cap room to sign their remaining picks. Names being thrown around are Zefross Moss, Todd Rucci, Willie Clay, Vincent Brisby, and Shawn Jefferson.

Of those mentioned, the Pats could most easily do without Brisby. He has not contributed to the team at all since 1995, and it continues to amaze me that he’s still on the roster. The Pats recently redid his contract to free up cap room, but I still say he’s the most likely veteran to get the ax.

Rucci is never going to the Pro Bowl, but he is a decent starting guard. Do "decent" starting guards deserve $10 Million contracts? Perhaps. Like him or hate him, Rucci is probably the best guard on the Pats roster. Also to Rucci’s credit he’s in tremendous shape, has always been a participant in the offseason program, and many NFL guards do not enter their prime until their late 20’s or early 30’s. With untested talent behind him on the depth chart, Rucci’s job is probably safe.

Moss was probably the best lineman on the roster last season despite his annual habit of showing up in July out of game shape. Armstrong had his worst season in many, many years, and Moss was there to pick up the slack. He was easily the best run blocker in the group, and his pass blocking skills were also up to par. Moss has one year left on his contract, and like Rucci, there is really no one behind him to take his place at RT unless you move Max Lane back there from the guard spot. Even though Moss is certainly a better lineman than Rucci, he is probably more expendable given his age, contract status, and the presence of Max Lane.

Cutting Willie Clay or Shawn Jefferson is nothing short of foolish. Yes Clay has been a malcontent of sorts since Parcells left town, but he is still the leader of the secondary. Ty Law and Lawyer Milloy went to the Pro Bowl, but Clay is like having another coach on the field. All the talent in the world is not going to help you in the secondary if you aren’t in position to make the plays. Willie Clay will never wow anyone with a workout, but his game smarts and leadership make him a better safety than superior athletes Tebucky Jones or Tony George. Although Jones is said to have a come a long way this offseason and Steve Israel will enter camp healthy, the corner spot opposite law is still the biggest question mark on the entire defense. Clay was able to mask a lot of Canty’s deficiencies a year ago, and will be critical in the development of Jones should he become the starter. Unless the NFL abolishes the salary cap, 1999 will be the final year that Law, Milloy, and Clay play together on the same team. It would be a mistake to make that happen a year earlier than is necessary.

The wide receiver position has killed the Patriots offense for the past two years. With Bledsoe taking the snaps, New England will always be a passing-oriented offense. In Zampese’s timing-oriented attack, it’s critical that the receivers are healthy throughout camp to learn their role, and remain healthy to carry out the game plans throughout the season. When Troy Brown, Terry Glenn, and Vincent Brisby all went down last season, Shawn Jefferson was the only reliable receiver left on the roster. Tony Simmons showed a lot of promise, but too often he was unable to get open to make the plays he is capable of. Shawn Jefferson is a no-nonsense guy who comes to play hard every Sunday and every day at practice. He is in peak physical condition throughout the year, and has made some mighty big plays late in games since coming over from San Diego in 1996. There is not a single Patriot who wants to win more than Shawn Jefferson. Whenever I hear his name as a potential cap casualty I cringe. To cut the most reliable player in your most handicapped position makes even less business sense than a $1Billion Hartford stadium deal.

Thanks for visiting GoPats.com. The offseason once again has been far too long and I’m really looking forward to another exciting season of Patriot Football. Look for Clint’s Corner to be updated bi-weekly throughout the preseason, preceeded by my annual AFC East predictions in late August. We will return to weekly columns once the season begins.