EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 9, 2008

Wait 'til next year


On Pro Football

Hector Longo

FOXBORO — Sorry folks, but without Tom Brady, I'm not buying it.

Quarterback play means everything in the National Football League and when Bernard Pollard's helmet tore through Tom Brady's planted left knee here Sunday afternoon, the Kansas City Chiefs safety shredded any chance of a championship season in New England.

The team announced yesterday the reigning NFL MVP needs season ending surgery.

The region has been spun into a state of shock. How else can you explain the wild, fanatical range of responses to the injury in the news, on sports radio and the blogosphere?

A great football team is now good, possibly even good enough to contend for supremacy in the AFC East.

But that's all. There are no title hopes here. Win the East, lose in January and Bill Belichick gets the commendation without the reigning MVP.

The reason? Simple, ordinary talent.

Take the quarterback, be it Matt Cassel, Kevin O'Connell, Chris Simms or whoever, out of the equation. New England's roster is nothing more than solid.

This is not a 2003, 2004 or even 2007 Patriots kind of roster, mainly because of the defense.

New England combined to go 44-4 in those three seasons. Even with a healthy Brady, this was not destined to be one of those overwhelming seasons. At least, a 14-2 in 2008, with the league's easiest slate, wouldn't have meant as much.

How far has the defense fallen?

It barely survived the Kansas City Chiefs!

The Chiefs netted 4.6 yards a snap and were the fourth of four Dwayne Bowe drops away from overtime | at hostile Gillette Stadium.

Bend-but-don't-break was fine when Brady was the Cinderella kid in 2001. It was even more palatable a year ago when Brady and Randy Moss authored their own chapter in the NFL record book.

Don't expect similar results with Cassel, starting this week when Eric Mangini orchestrates his constant stream of blitzes and masked coverages.

A special team needs a special component. Defensively, the Patriots lived up to that in 2003-04. They may not have been the 2000 Ravens, but they played close to that level.

How much confidence can you have in this defense?

First, the secondary questions linger on, in spite of their impressive performance Sunday.

Nobody, not even the notable, quotable Ellis Hobbs, has stepped into the shutdown corner cleats of Asante Samuel.

As for the rest, you must admire Rodney Harrison, not for what he is now but for the player he once was.

Across from him, James Sanders can usually be found at least a step or two behind most every crossing route his way.

And the No. 2 and 3 corner spots?

Deltha O'Neal's opening-day highlight was chasing down Devard Darling on a 68-yard gain. Rookies Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite couldn't wrestle a starting spot away from Lewis Sanders, who in eight pro seasons elsewhere had totaled a whopping 25 starts.

"I am confident in all of the players that are on our team," said Belichick yesterday. "If I wasn't then they wouldn't be here."

Normally, he'd deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, he's the one that's gone repeatedly to the scrap heap starting last March, trying to fix the secondary woes.

Fernando Bryant, Victor Hobson, Tank Williams, Jeff Shoate ... .

Was signing, and then releasing 36-year-old John Lynch ¬­— now retired — a vote of confidence for James Sanders?

Five of this defense's front seven are as good as you'll find in the game right now, led by the defensive line trio of Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren.

Linebackers Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas might be on the downhill slide, but they remain playmakers, at least near the top of the game.

The inside under-belly of Tedy Bruschi and the rookie Jerod Mayo won't upset many offensive coordinators' stomachs.

Bruschi has never been a Ray Lewis. Mayo might someday be, but not yet for the rookie from Tennessee.

On the bright side, this season intrigues me. Between Brett Favre's arrival and Brady's departure, a 6-0 run through the AFC East won't happen again. At Buffalo, at the Jets and at Miami are gimmes no more.

Harrison has made the "no respect" chant his calling card upon arriving here from San Diego.

For the first time, it actually applies.

He, Vrabel, Thomas and the monster trio up front will be challenged by Belichick like no other time in their careers.

If all those blowouts last fall got a little tedious, strap in for the ride.

But if you dreamed about a February getaway to Tampa, I'm just not buying.

Hector Longo is an Eagle-Tribune sportswriter. E-mail him at hlongo@eagletribune.com.