By Bill Burt
---- — FOXBORO — In this multi-billion dollar professional football industry, $694,500 for six weeks work is akin to a bag of potato chips for a middle class family.
But those “chips” may have changed the course of the 2012 season and possibly several seasons going forward for the dynasty-driven New England Patriots.
It was the amount the Patriots had to pay for Aqib Talib — along with a fourth round pick in the 2013 draft to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In retrospect, it if was 10 times that amount it would still have been a bargain.
It is ironic that Talib, the master of tumult for his first four and half seasons in the National Football League, has brought a yoga-like influence to the Patriots laugh-a-minute pass defense since the November trade.
The Patriots defense now is — I cringe when I am about to say it — pretty darn good. And the correlation with Talib is unavoidable.
Heck, he not only picked off an errant pass from Andrew Luck in his first game as a Patriot on Nov. 18, but he brought it back to “the house” inducing the rout.
“I don’t think people realize how good of a football player Aqib is,” said Patriots backup wide receiver and special teams wizard, Matthew Slater. “He’s got size. He’s got athleticism. He added a dimension to our defense that we didn’t have. He’s not only brought a lot to our defense, but he’s brought a lot to our team.”
The question with Talib hasn’t ever been talent.
He was a first-team All-American at the University of Kansas in his final season as a junior, and capped his career off with an MVP performance at the Orange Bowl (a 60-yard TD interception return keyed win over Virginia Tech, 24-21). Not to mention size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and speed (4.38 in the 40 yard dash). While he was ranked a top 10 prospect, he was chosen 20th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft (Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo was selected 10th).
As to why Talib was dealt while Tampa Bay was in the midst of a Wild Card run, for pennies on the dollar, has nothing to do with his ability on the field — four-plus interceptions average over his first four seasons despite missing an average of 2.5 games over that stretch.
It has literally followed Talib his entire National Football League career.
In fact, at an NFL rookie symposium, before he signed his first contract with the Buccaneers, Talib got into a rock ‘em, sock ‘em fistfight with another Tampa Bay rookie (Cory Boyd).
Since then, sandwiched around some impressive football — the NFL Alumni Associated voted Talib the Defensive Back of the Year after the 2010 season (six interceptions, 1 TD) despite him not receiving a Pro Bowl berth — many of Talib’s news flashes have been related to his poor performance off the field.
His punching a taxi driver (in 2009) and his pointing a gun at his sister’s boyfriend (in 2011) were incidents that got him jail time. He was indicted for the gun issue, but the charges were later dropped.
The final straw for Tampa Bay came earlier this season when Talib was suspended by the NFL for four games for using a performance enhancing drug. He apologized, saying he mistakenly took an “adderall” pill without a prescription.
“Nothing against you, but I don’t want to talk about those things,” said Talib. “That’s old news.”
Ironically, the “old news” and ensuing four-game suspension earlier this season, said Talib, ended up being the “best thing” that ever happened to his football career.
Three weeks into the suspension, he became a Patriot.
Recalling the day, he smiled from ear to ear.
“I had heard about the Patriots and the way they do things, all that stuff,” said Talib. “You know what? It’s true. This is heaven. This is football heaven.”
Talib was not here the first 12 weeks when the Patriots pass defense looked more Bad New Bears reruns than paradise. ]
The Patriots led the NFL in allowing 42 completions over 20 yards, more than any they’ve allowed an entire season under Bill Belichick.
He was not there when the pass defense allowed identical long touchdown passes to Seattle (a 46-yarder to Sidney Rice, which beat the Patriots with 1:18 remaining, and to St. Louis, which scored (a 50-yarder to Chris Givens) on its first possession on the same exact play two weeks later.
While the Patriots won the game over the Rams, 45-7, he apparently had seen enough. Five days later, Belichick and the Patriots announced the deal for Talib.
Over the last five games, the Patriots have played better on defense, particularly against the pass. Through 11 games, the Patriots allowed 293 yard passing per game. With Talib in place and understanding the defense, over the last five games the team allowed only 221 yards per game, and that includes a misleading 343-yard day from Jacksonville’s Chad Henne, who also threw three interceptions.
Over that same span, the Patriots run defense allowed only 93 yards per game, and that includes a 180-yard whopper against the 49ers, which would rank the Patriots fourth overall.
Which brings us back to Talib.
To call his addition a stabilizing force would be an understatement.
”I love him. Everybody here loves him,” said Patriots safety Patrick Chung. “He has fit in really well. He has a lot of confidence. He can cover. He can tackle. I couldn’t say enough good things about Aqib. He’s the real deal.”
Apparently, the feelings are more than mutual.
”As soon as you walk in the building you notice it,” said Talib. “It’s all about team here. Everybody is a professional. I have never experienced anything like this. I see the owner, Mr. (Robert) Kraft every day. That’s amazing, man. Coach Belichick treats everybody like a man, with respect. He’s a cool guy.”
Talib could go on. And he did.
”I am a Patriot,” said Talib. “It feels like I was meant to be here ... The coaches here are so good, too. It’s all about football. It’s one day at a time. It’s the perfect place to play football. I don’t know what else to say.”
Even coach Bill Belichick, a man of few words, sings Talib’s praises.
“There’s no doubt that Aqib has helped our secondary,” he said.
“He’s a very smart and confident player who works hard. He has a good attitude and he fits in well. I’ve enjoyed coaching him.”
While it’s only been short of two months, the “trouble” that followed Talib around since he became a pro football player has been nowhere to be seen.
Like other big-name trade acquisitions before him, with similar reputations, including Corey Dillon (2004) and Randy Moss (2007), the Patriots may have gotten another steal for their Super Bowl run.
”I don’t want to talk about the future,” said Talib. “I’m only focused on today. And when I come here tomorrow, I’ll be focused on tomorrow ... But if you ask me if this is where I want to be? Of course, I do. Every player should play here.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.
Did you know ... ? -- Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib played a few games at wide receiver during his final season (as a junior) at the University of Kansas, catching eight passes, including four for touchdowns. -- In his final season in 2007, U of Kansas coach Mark Mangino called Talib's acrobatic interception against Florida International, and the impending 102-yard return, the greatest play he had ever seen in his football career. -- His 2012 salary was $1.852 million, which ranked only 44th among cornerbacks.