So let me get this straight: the New England Patriots spent roughly 10 years rebuilding their secondary to championship-caliber – that’s 10 – and they won the Super Bowl. And then on Tuesday, in the span of hours if not minutes, the Patriots ripped it apart as if it were some type of lab experiment gone terribly wrong.
And so Darrelle Revis is a New York Jet today, a decision that concluded a wild flurry of activity on March 10, which is to the NFL calendar what New Year’s Day is to the rest of us. The reset button. In the span of hours yesterday, Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks, Haloti Ngata was dealt to the Detroit Lions and Sam Bradford was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles. Then Revis agreed with the Jets, highlighting a fact that often gets overlooked from Sunday to Sunday every autumn and winter.
Some NFL coaches – many of them – are obsessed with their own power. Calling them control freaks doesn’t begin to do it justice. When it comes to the hunger for power – and the willingness to then use it – they are insatiable.
At the core of this, too, is the age-old NFL question of talent vs. system.
Let’s start with Belichick, who is, by most every account, the very best at what he does, maybe the best ever. During the five-year span from roughly 2008-12, New England’s secondary play deteriorated badly. The Patriots went so far as to acquire Aqib Talib in a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to see Talib knocked out of consecutive AFC Championship Games against the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos, respectively.
So what did Belichick do last offseason? He went out and signed Revis. And he complemented him with Brandon Browner. New England subsequently played a stretch of regular season games during which they faced some of the more talented passing-game players in the league, from Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Calvin Johnson to Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck, and Aaron Rodgers. Know what they did? Save for a loss at Green Bay in which the Pats forced the Packers to go to Davante Adams, New England won ’em all. They finished 10th in the league in defensive passer rating, no small accomplishment given their competition. They got home field advantage throughout the NFL playoffs. And then won the Super Bowl.
So what did Belichick and the Pats do then? At a time when NFL revenues have increased to the point where the salary cap increased by another $10 million – and at a time when USA Today recently reported that the Patriots have cash to burn to become compliant with latest NFL collective bargain agreement – the Patriots asked Browner to needlessly restructure … and sent him into free agency. They fell short on Revis. New England’s defensive backfield now seemingly consists of Malcolm Butler at left corner and Logan Ryan on the right side, which is a rather sizable drop from Revis and Browner.
Wow. Talk about getting a little too comfortable after a Super Bowl championship. With all respect to Butler, who made a brilliant play to win the Super Bowl, he’s still an undrafted player from West Alabama. If Butler turns into a star, Belichick will be right. But that’s a big gamble to take as Tom Brady approaches his 38th birthday.
You tell me: was it Belichick’s system? Or was it Revis and Browner?
Bill Belichick is betting yet again on his vaunted system, which only seems to win Super Bowls when he has the right players.
All of this brings us to Kelly, a Belichick wannabe who now has full control and power – there are those words again – of the Philadelphia Eagles football operation. Kelly seems to be rebuilding the Eagles in the image of his famed Oregon Ducks, which is certainly costing him a lot of talent along the way.
Good grief. LeSean McCoy? Gone. Jeremy Maclin? Gone. Trent Cole? Gone. Then Kelly swapped Nick Foles for Sam Bradford, who might indeed be a more accurate passer and a better fit for his system, even from injured reserve. But you get the idea. Kelly seems so intent on rebuilding the Eagles that he’s willing to sacrifice good players to do it, which triggers a rather important question.
How good is the system if good players don’t fit into it? And isn’t part of good coaching to modify the system to accommodate your talent? (Belichick, to his credit, did this with Revis and Browner, playing far more man-to-man to best utilize their skills.)
In a vacuum, Belichick and Kelly are easy to pick on for the way they’re currently running their operations. But contrast them with what else happened yesterday. Having lost Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions went out and traded for a suitable replacement in Ngata, a 6-foot-4, 335-pound behemoth who has been at the center of the Baltimore Ravens defense for years. The Seattle Seahawks, who lost the Super Bowl, needed better options for Russell Wilson in the passing game and acquired tight end Graham from the Saints. The Lions and the Seahawks both appeared to have rather specific backup plans based on talent, and nobody in either of those markets is spewing anything about the system.
For that matter, the Seahawks also replaced Byron Maxwell, whom Kelly overpaid, with Cary Williams, who is a suitable second corner behind the brilliant Richard Sherman.
In the end, here’s the point: systems count for something in football. They absolutely do. But on days like yesterday, you can’t help but wonder if some coaches take the system a little too far, to the point where their teams suffer because of it.
I mean, when you get right down to it, would you rather have Logan Ryan or Darrelle Revis?
Tony Massarotti covered sports in Boston for more than 15 years for both the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, and now serves as a co-host on afternoon drive on 98.5 The Sports Hub in Boston. He was a two-time Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year as voted by his peers and has written four books, including “Big Papi,” the New York Times-bestselling memoirs of David Ortiz. You can follow Tony @tonymassarotti.