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Maza's Musings

Unsolicited sports opinion and insight

Five injured 2015 Patriots that could help the 2016 Patriots

We’ve all already heard about the high profile injuries that hurt the Patriots’ chances in 2015. There has already been plenty of talk about what New England should or could do in terms of acquiring talent to bolster the 2016 version of the Patriots. But the team already has some internal options who had minor or non-existent roles in 2015 and ended up on the shelf, but shouldn’t be forgotten when building your way-too-early depth charts.

The disclaimer here is this: None of these players can be considered locks to make the roster in 2016, but could prove something in order to carve out a role.

Trey Flowers, DE Largely forgotten due to the relative success of Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard on the ends of the Patriots’ defensive line, Flowers didn’t spend much time on the field in New England, prompting some to think his placement on injured reserve was more a way for the team to stash him for a year and clear room on the roster to address other needs (the Patriots picked up running back Trey Williams the same day). He’s a former two-time All-SEC athlete whose 48 career tackles for loss are the second most by an SEC defender since 2005. He would still have to prove himself, but could have value as a run-stopping defensive end, or move inside in smaller sub-packages.

AJ Derby, TE The Scott Chandler experience did not turn out as expected and there’s a decent chance the veteran will be released to relieve some cap pressure, which opens up some opportunities at the tight end position. Derby spent the entire season on IR with an undisclosed injury, which suggests maybe the Patriots were simply hoping to stash him away for the season as he learns a position that he had just switched to in his final year at Arkansas. He’s 6-foot-5, 255 pounds with good athleticism, including a 4.72 40 time, which would have placed him third in the 2015 Combine, had he not been suffering from a stress fracture in his foot and sidelined for the event. Considered more of a pass catcher, he could act as that second tight end split  out off the line in an effort to create mismatches.

Tyler Gaffney, RB If he can stay healthy, the six-foot, 220-pound late-round pick out of Stanford the Patriots plucked from the Carolina Panthers in 2014 could have an opportunity to play a role as an internal option to take some of the workload previously shouldered by LaGarrette Blount, who may leave via free agency. He’s ended up on IR each of the last two seasons and has never had a regular season snap, but is someone Bill Belichick is said to value, especially for his work ethic, evidenced by the team’s willingness to hold onto him for another lost season. He’ll certainly see some manner of outside competition, but as the roster currently projects, he would be the team’s best in-house option as a between the tackles runner.

Brandon Gibson, WR Did someone order a big-bodied receiver on the cheap? Gibson was an inexpensive one-year signing after a forgettable tenure in Miami that included a patellar tendon tear. He was having a strong preseason, catching 12 passes for 98 yards before getting hurt in the second preseason game and ending up on season ending IR. Granted, preseason stats don’t mean a lot, but reports were good out of Foxboro. Gibson is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but could return on a short money, incentive-laden kind of deal. He has experience in McDaniels’ system, posting his best professional season under the direction of the Patriots’ signal caller in 2010 with the Rams. Gibson has always been known as a guy who knows how to use his size (6 feet, 210 pounds) to his advantage and has played the slot for a good portion of his career, which, along with his size, could make him an asset in running interference in the underneath pick plays the Patriots love so much. At 28 and coming off of multiple knee injuries, he might not have anything left, but could be worth another flier.

Chris Jones, DT Jones started the year on the PUP list after offseason calf surgery and was never taken off, so his season was lost to IR. The Patriots had depth at the position in 2015, they face the prospect of losing Akiem Hicks and Sealver Siliga, and Jones would add a body at the position. He also isn’t a lock to make the team, but it helps that Jones also has special teams experience. He was the guy who committed a penalty on a Jets 56-yard attempt that cost the Patriots a game in 2013, he also blocked what would have been a game-winning kick against New York in 2014, probably his biggest claims to fame thus far in his career.

 

Protecting Brady

As Tom Brady’s pass found its way into Rob Gronkowski’s hands in the waning seconds of the AFC Championship game, Tony Burton’s voice was in my head.

I saw you beat that man like I never saw no man get beat before, and the man kept coming after you.

That sentence, uttered by the actor while pleading with Apollo Creed to avoid a rematch with Rocky Balboa in Rocky II epitomized Tom Brady’s day against the Denver Broncos.

Hit 20 times and harassed countless others by the Broncos’ elite pass rushers, the Greatest Of All Time still managed to put together one last drive and had the Patriots within a two-point conversion of forcing overtime. It was an admirable performance and one that proves a level of grit that those outside of New England rarely give Brady credit for. It was also a scenario that can never be allowed to happen again.

Tom Brady dropped back and was hit 16 times, sacked four, hurried somewhere around 20 others. It’s an unacceptable stat line for any quarterback, but especially a 38-year-old.

Yes, injuries had a lot to do with it. A lot.

Entering the season, the Patriots figured to return the majority of its line from a year earlier that had allowed Brady to get hit just 14 times in three games on its way to winning the Super Bowl. Projected to start we (left tackle to right tackle) Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork, Tre’ Jackson and Sebastian Vollmer. The unit that started the AFC Championship game? Vollmer, Josh Kline, Stork, Shaq Mason and Marcus Cannon.

This was nothing new for the Patriots, who used more starting line combinations than any other team in the league and, in fact, more than any in a couple decades. In the past, the Patriots have had some fluid situations along their line, but the depth of the unit was tested in a way maybe never seen before. Stork was on the short-term injured reserve list with a severe concussion, then Solder tore his biceps in early October and Wendell barely played at all between a mystery illness and a leg injury, putting Brady’s blindside in peril early on and Jackson suffered a significant knee injury in late October.

Eventually the “next man up” way of doing business doesn’t work when you, well, run out of men. By Week 9, Stork, fresh off of IR, had to play four different positions, including tackle. Yes, the center who started for the Super Bowl champions a year ago was playing tackle on the right side. On the left side was Cameron Fleming, a practice squad player protecting Brady’s back because on top of Solder’s injury, Vollmer left the game with a head injury and Cannon was out with a foot issue.

(When you roll it all out in such a manner, it almost seems unfair that offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo lost his job.)

Then let’s not forget about the loss of Julian Edelman in Week 10 and Danny Amendola, who sprained his knee Week 11, missed Week 12 against Denver, then also missed a critical game against the Jets in Week 15. Also, the offense lost both of its top running backs, which left a ragtag bunch that failed to take pressure off the passing game.

As the injuries mounted, so did the hits on Brady. The offensive line needed more than ever Brady’s quick release and the receivers (such as they were) more than ever needed the line to hold on just that second or two longer as they tried to get open.

It was reflective in the numbers. Brady threw for three or more touchdowns in four of his first eight games, for more than 300 yards in six and had just two interceptions. His lowest passer rating in any game was 94.3 and he was over 100 six times. From Week 10 on, he managed three touchdowns twice, the same number of one-touchdown games, passed for more than 300 yards just twice and had five interceptions, including his first multi-pick game in more than a year. He had just two plus-100 passer ratings and four sub-90 ratings.

Now, let’s keep things in perspective. This is an exercise to illustrate a clear difference in ability to execute, and for some of it, it was more probable than not to be a result of Brady’s body breaking down as he was repeatedly pummeled. Still, most of the league’s quarterbacks would have killed to have Brady’s numbers this year and comparative to last year’s, 2015 was a better season overall, at least on paper. Brady threw just one touchdown in five games last season, but four of those were early in the season.

Timing is everything.

And in 2015, by Week 17 against the Dolphins, the Patriots were trying to win a game with a prevent offense – as in prevent Brady from getting hurt. They did that, barely, but it cost them in the long run as it lost them home field advantage through the playoffs.

As good as Brady is at taking care of his body and keeping himself in prime playing condition, he needs help to keep it that way.

Up the middle, the Patriots have spent a fair bit of equity. Stork has proven to be a solid starter at the position in his short time in the league and backup David Andrews performed admirably in his stead in his rookie year. Mason and Jackson project as good young guards picked up in the 2015 draft. The roster also figures to have the benefit of healthy bookends with Solder on the left, which would allow Vollmer – a good right tackle, but iffy on the left side – the ability to move back to his natural position, assuming he isn’t a cap casualty.

It’s a solid starting lineup, but a heap of work needs to be done behind them. Tackle needs a complete overhaul. Cannon and Fleming have played themselves out of jobs most likely and LaAdrian Waddle probably lost his by not playing. The draft is deep at the tackle position, which might figure to be the most cost-effective way for the Patriots to address their need, given their cap situation and probable desire to lock up some impact players on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. On the inside Wendell doesn’t figure to be back and Kline is a reserve at best, so there is need for improvement there as well. Stork’s versatility helps, but his best position is center and it would probably behoove Bill Belichick and Co. to keep him there unless things start going wrong again the way they did this year. Guard is a position where some quality, especially a veteran looking for a shot at a ring, could be had for reasonable dollars on the free agent market.

Whatever the maneuver, while it doesn’t have to be drastic, it does have to be meaningful. Standing pat just won’t do. Too much, namely Tom Brady’s health, rides on it.

 

Breaking down the Patriots’ free agents

There aren’t very many of them, but the Patriots do have some members of the 2015 squad who may be playing elsewhere in 2016.

Much of the talk of the future has revolved around the fact that nearly all of the team is at least under contract next season, which obviously doesn’t mean they’ll be on the roster come Week 1, but let’s take a look at some of the notable players whose contract situation specifically is up in the air.

This list is compiled in order of impact on the 2015 team, starting with the most and ending with the least significant.

  1. Akiem Hicks, DT, Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA): Hicks came over in a trade from New Orleans and asserted himself as a key member of a strong interior defensive line rotation. Expected to be a key interior pass rusher for the Saints, he never really found a rhythm and lost playing time before shifting to New England where he flashed a strong all-around game. His three sacks and eight QB pressures (tied for fourth on the team) and three QB hits were expected, but he also had six run stuffs. Not bad for someone who was acquired for a journeyman tight end. At 26 years old, the solid season signals a pay day for Hicks. He’s almost certainly going to test the market seeking not only cash, but the opportunity for more playing time.
  2. Justin Coleman, CB, Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA): Coleman had some injury issues, most notably his hand injury that kept him out for several weeks, but when on the field, he had his moments, especially when lined up in the slot. Opposing quarterbacks threw for 51.1 percent, 301 yards and two touchdowns (an 85.5 passer rating) in 10 games against Coleman, who also recorded seven pass break-ups and 21 tackles. As an ERFA, the Patriots have until March 9 to extend him a minimum salary tender, which for a player with one year’s experience works out to $525,000, which the Patriots will surely pay.
  3. Nate Ebner, S, UFA: Ebner’s contributions to the Patriots have almost exclusively been on special teams units that historically have been good, thanks to key pieces like Ebner, Matthew Slater and Brandon Bolden. That, and his seemingly low salary demands would make it likely that he could return, but there is the possibility of a shakeup on a unit that had some gaffes uncharacteristic of a Patriots team in 2015.
  4. LeGarrette Blount, RB, UFA: When Blount went down with a hip injury, many lamented the loss of a much-needed impact runner with Dion Lewis also on the shelf. The only thing is Blount didn’t offer much in the way of impact. His 2015 season yielded maybe the quietest 700 yards ever, a number ballooned by one big game against a bad Redskins defense. The only reason he looked so good to Patriots fans when he went down was because of how bare the cupboard was behind him. While the injury won’t require surgery, Blount might end up back in New England on a short money, incentive-laden deal, a result of a weak market for him simply because he hasn’t proven to be able to do much elsewhere. Otherwise, the Patriots will surely move on.
  5. Tavon Wilson, S, UFA: A second-round draft pick in 2012, Wilson became a special teamer and depth safety who struggled in coverage. He offers more versatility than a guy like Ebner, but it’s likely the Patriots could find a better option and he could find a better fit elsewhere.
  6. Sealver Siliga, DT, Restricted Free Agent (RFA): After proving to be a pretty solid value signing in 2013, Siliga saw a significant drop-off in playing time in 2015, getting supplanted as the big body in the Patriots’ middle of the line rotation by Alan Branch and he fell even further back when New England traded for Hicks. He’s 26 and still has a place in the league, but it probably won’t be with the Patriots. He likely won’t be tendered a qualifying offer by March 9 and will become an unrestricted free agent.
  7. James Develin, FB, RFA: After breaking his leg in August, Develin’s presence was missed both in the run game and in pass protection as the offensive line got more and more beat up. The cost to keep him would be steep for the position at $1.6 million, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could be back. It really depends on what Belichick identifies as priorities for the backfield in 2016.
  8. Cameron Fleming, T/G, RFA: The Patriots drafted Fleming in the fourth round in 2014, but by September 2015, he was cut. After time on the practice squad, he returned to the Patriots as depth when Nate Solder went down. He plays both tackle and guard and Bill Belichick likes versatility, but Fleming’s poor performance on the field probably outweighs that. It would be surprising if he gets a qualifying offer by the March 9 deadline.
  9. Tarell Brown, CB, UFA: Before Logan Ryan asserted himself as the No. 2 corner in New England, Brown appeared to have that spot, but a foot injury cost him the season. Coming off that kind of injury at 31 years old, he’s probably going to have to settle for a “show me” one-year deal with a lot of incentives tied in. He could get that in New England, but it might depend more on what he’s looking for. While he might have a shot to play for a ring in New England, he might want to pursue more playing time elsewhere.
  10. Ryan Wendell, C, UFA: Wendell played all of 13 snaps between illness and injury in 2015. A couple years ago, he surprised and showed some prowess, especially in the run game, but he had regressed and between the injury and his age with the current youth movement underway in the middle of the New England offensive line, it seems as if his time is done. Always more valuable to the Patriots than anyone else, his career might even be coming to a close.
  11. LaAdrian Waddle, T, RFA: This season proved the need for depth at the tackle position, but Waddle didn’t perform well for the Lions (which is why the Patriots were able to get him via a waiver claim) and then basically spent his entire tenure with the Patriots on the injured list, only appearing in New England’s Week 15 loss to the Jets. There’s almost no way he returns.
  12. Steven Jackson, RB, RFA: He’s not coming back and, after proving he has no juice left, will probably retire.

Megatron meets Minitron?

 

Admit it, many of you are still at least mentally sitting in your man cave in the dark staring a television you turned off as soon as Tom Brady’s forced pass to Julian Edelman on that two-point conversion got batted up in the air.

How did this happen? How did this happen to a team with this kind of offense … To a team with Tom Brady?

And after a period of anger in which you blame everyone from Bill Belichick not taking the three points with six minutes left in the game to Marcus Cannon for attempting to block Pro Bowl edge rushers seemingly with a spin move to that damn waterboy for not keeping Rob Gronkowski hydrated, it hits many of you – the “if only.”

“If only the Patriots had that one deep threat, that one guy who could win one-on-one downfield every time. That would have changed everything.”

Looking past the fact that without the prototypical “deep threat” (and really their best receiver of any size or shape for seven weeks) the Patriots had more plays of 20-plus yards than anyone else in the league or the fact that Tom Brady’s own inaccuracy on quick throws was as much to blame as his receivers’ inability to get open or his line’s inability to block against an elite Denver defense, OK, I’ll play your game.

I’ll play it if we can both acknowledge that when talking about deep threats, you’re not talking about a guy who will occasionally stretch the field; you’re talking a top-caliber, every down receiver.

You’re talking about Randy Moss 2.0.

That guy doesn’t exist on the free agent market, so really, you’re talking about a guy on another team of Pro Bowl quality who might be made available by a team in transition. Enter Megatron.

Calvin Johnson has hinted at retirement, a notion that is questionable given his age (31) and the fact that he is still playing at an extremely high level, but also somewhat understandable, given the Detroit Lions’ futility.

In his career with Detroit, his teams have managed to make the playoffs just twice (wild card qualifiers ushered out in their first game), their only two winning seasons. While playing at a high level, he’s suffered through some 0-16, 2-14 and 4-12 campaigns. During the winless season of 2008, he led the league in touchdown receptions, while in 2012 when the team won just four games, his 122 receptions (currently seventh all-time) yielded the most receiving yards in NFL history. To say they guy has paid his dues is an amazing understatement.

But the real wild card lies in how serious Johnson is about his retirement contemplation. After an amazingly uninspiring year of leadership from Jim Caldwell, new General Manager Bob Quinn not only announced Caldwell would stay, but also recently gave him an added endorsement, which, believe it or not, could actually tilt the scales in favor of Johnson staying. After all, the retention of Caldwell also signaled that Offensive Coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who was able to get the Lions’ offense playing well after his mid-season promotion, would also be sticking around in the Motor City. Johnson is on record saying he enjoyed playing in Cooter’s offense.

Johnson’s contract carries with it a $24 million cap hit for next season and nearly $13 million in dead money that the Lions would be responsible for if he retires or is released. He’s not going to be released. Detroit does not face a cap crunch in 2016. So simply put, the Lions stand to benefit from moving on from Johnson only if they are convinced he won’t play for them.

From the Patriots’ perspective, it’s easy to see why you would want a guy of that caliber. From a purely logistical standpoint, the Patriots would have to do some maneuvering to afford to take him on, but it’s far from impossible.

Some of the moves are obvious. Jerod Mayo figures to be gone, which would automatically result in $6.4 million in savings. Scott Chandler, who was a huge disappointment, would save about $2 million against the cap if released. Danny Amendola, who carries a $7 million cap hit, will surely have his contract restructured regardless of Johnson’s status.

The Patriots could also do what they did with Moss and make a restructure of Johnson’s deal a condition in the trade, turning some of his salary into bonuses.

Whether the Patriots have enough equity to acquire him, or are willing to part with the assets necessary to do so is another topic altogether. Already missing their first round pick in this year’s draft thanks to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s unfounded and unprecedented punishment for the self-made DeflateGate “scandal,” the remaining picks carry with them a higher premium, especially for a team that figures to address some line of scrimmage issues via the draft. Some of the Patriots’ best draft pick currency is in the form compensatory picks, which can’t be traded.

But then how much would it take to pry away a guy who will handcuff a team to the tune of $13 million to watch games from his couch? Randy Moss was not just a malcontent; he was an underperforming malcontent, so a fourth-round pick for a player like Johnson would probably be a stretch, but how much?

Too much remains unclear about Johnson’s mindset (the Lions have admitted that to this point, they haven’t spoken with him regarding his future) and that remains the lynchpin in this discussion.

In this case, the uncertainty means hope for many Patriots fans, who remember Brady’s glory days (as if they’re gone).

Go ahead and dream.

Crazier things have happened.

In the end, we’re all a little bit culpable

Only one thing is for certain at this point and that is the fact that the tale of Manti Te’o’s inspired play in the wake of the death of his girlfriend Lennay Kekua was built upon a lie.

Whose lie it was exactly we may never know and even if the truth does come out, some of us may not believe it. Regardless of that, only one other thing remains evident – we all had a hand in making this lie reality.

Certainly the biggest amount of blame depends on what story you believe.

If you believe that Te’o is a hapless victim of an elaborate and insidious hoax, then clearly the brunt of the responsibility lies with the perpetrators. However, in this scenario, Te’o is still responsible for continuing the lie after coming to know the truth and likewise, the University of Notre Dame, and the Te’o family share some blame for not getting in front of the issue and letting the truth be known.

If you believe that Te’o was complicit in the events that occurred in an attempt to boost his campaign for the Heisman Trophy, as has been suggested, then the blame is his. In that scenario, it is unclear exactly how much Te’o’s family, or the university was involved, but the argument could be made that if they weren’t involved directly, they shirked the responsibility of examining the story Te’o was selling because, hey, it was the best publicity possible.

Meanwhile, the situation pointed out that in general, we in the media have fallen complacent. What makes us the vilified muckrakers of the world is the fact that our reputation says that we would approach a romantic kiss from our wives with a degree of skepticism, let alone a story being told by someone who was essentially an acquaintance with no proof to back it up.

But that’s exactly what we did.

We bought into it.

The story was too good not to be true. And who was going to question the validity of a guy’s claim that his girlfriend had tragically died of leukemia, especially when it happened around the same time as his grandmother?

A true journalist would, and that’s the sad truth.

Instead, we the members of the free press, whether we were covering the story directly or not, forgot to do what we were taught to do – verify the information with facts. No one did that. We all just bought into it.

All except the folks at Deadspin, of course.

While Deadspin didn’t present a case riddled with fact, it provided enough concrete information along with its heavy dose of hearsay to blow the lid off of the truth that Lennay Kekua was never a real person.

In the football world, the words “Notre Dame” are as polarizing as the terms “abortion,” “immigration” or “gun control” in the real, much more important world. College football fans either revel in the Fighting Irish’s successes, or relish in their failures. Deadspin, of course, falls in the latter category, which may have been their primary motivation for digging deeper into Te’o’s story, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that they did far more than anyone else in the media even dreamed of doing and for that they should be commended.

And while the media may have told us the story of Te’o and Lennay, in the end, it was the general public who ate it up and made it all the more real. If perception truly could become reality, then  birth and death certificates for Kekua would have materialized. Hospital records and police reports from her supposed car crash would be found in public records. Her picture may have shown up in the Stanford Quad, the yearbook of the college she supposedly attended. Heck, a pair of bronzed baby shoes may have appeared in someone’s attic.

The American people bought it because we are so desperate to find our heroes. With realities such as public officials’ approval ratings at staggering lows, continued poverty, unemployment and economic uncertainty, violence both overseas and within our borders, hitting ever so close to home with incidents like the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, even the reminder of great adored athletes of the past now shamed, we are desperate for something to believe in.

Something good.

Something pure.

Something that could support the belief that there is still good that happens in this world.

We wanted it, the heartbroken Manti Te’o gave it to us.

We never questioned it.

We simply didn’t want to.

Time to look forward for the Patriots

Patriots fans will hate to hear this, but it’s true.

It could be worse.

Sure, you have a broken toe and a 52 inch plasma screen TV that needs to be replaced after the temper tantrum that ensued when Rob Gronkowski wasn’t able to get his hands on the Patriots’ last-ditch Hail Mary as the Super Bowl clock ticked down to zero.

But as we come to accept the fact that the Patriots simply didn’t make that one play here or one play there that could have been the difference, we should also take the time to realize that while time to win another Lombardi Trophy with Tom Brady under center is waning, it still exists and truthfully, there is always next year.

This season, more than anything, was considered to be a bridge year. No one really gave the Patriots a chance to win the Super Bowl. After the Patriots lost back-to-back games to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, no one gave them a chance to come close.

It wasn’t that it was believed that this team was bad, but that it was still in the building process. Even if they overachieved, that still remains true. The building blocks are still in place.

Before you start throwing one of the half-empty beer cans that are strewn around your house following your Super Bowl party at the screen, consider these points:

1. The four most explosive weapons on the best scoring offense in the AFC will be back next year. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez are all under contract and it’s almost guaranteed that Wes Welker will be back under the franchise tag.

2. The offensive line that protects the most important weapon will still be strong. There are questions about whether or not Brian Waters, who was tremendous all season and played very well in the Super Bowl, will be back and Dan Koppen is also an unrestricted free agent. But especially on the edge the team is deep with Matt Light, Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Sebastian Volmer. Should Waters, who was considered by Pro Football Focus to be the second-best right tackle in football, return, he and Logan Mankins make up one of the best guard tandems in football.

3. The defensive line turned out to be a strength this season. Once the liability of Albert Haynesworth was gone, the Patriots’ defensive line became quite formidable. Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love, easily the most improved Patriot and maybe one of the most improved players in the league this season, were a handful for any offensive line, while Brandon Deaderick proved to be a useful addition once he came off the PUP list. Love is a restricted free agent, but as an undrafted player is most likely to be retained by the Patriots.

4. The Patriots are all set at inside linebacker. When Brandon Spikes is healthy, he is an incredible force in stopping the run. Having a player who can charge forward, plug a hole and drive a running back backwards next to him allows Jerrod Mayo to do what he does best, which is a little bit of everything else.

Now, I’m not trying to blow sunshine up any orifices that are not meant to see the light of day. There are questions that remain about this team, most of them on defense. They still need pass rushers, as Mark Anderson, Rob Ninkovich and Andre Carter are all unrestricted free agents. They need help at safety, as clearly James Ihedebo and Sergio Brown are not a real answer next to Patrick Chung. While guys like Sterling Moore and Kyle Arrington showed some flashes, the cornerback play is a concern.

In addition to that, there’s the question of whether Steven Ridley is ready to be a consistent contributor to this team, as it is likely Benjarvus Green-Ellis will be gone. There’s uncertainty about who the number-two wide receiver, who is really the fourth option in the passing game, will be.

But the Patriots had  a lot of these questions this year and they made it to the Super Bowl. They didn’t just make it, they were about five minutes from winning it.

Which brings me to my biggest point: The Patriots have two first-round and two second-round picks in the upcoming draft. Say what you will about Bill Belichick’s draft history. We all know it. There have been some bad picks. But he also picked up Gronkowski, Spikes and Hernandez in the same draft two years ago, stealing Hernandez in the fourth round.

There are no guarantees. There is no easy road back to the Super Bowl. But there is hope. The sky is not falling.

Heads must roll as a result of Sandusky scandal

There is no doubt, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is the worst kind of person, if he can be considered a person at all. Perhaps “animal” or “predator” is a better word to describe him. He took advantage of young, vulnerable boys from broken homes and violated them in such a way that it will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

But there is a word that needs to be associated with Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and university officials: accomplice.

There are incidents dating back to the mid- to late-1990s regarding this man’s crimes. The fact that he went from being the heir apparent of the Nittany Lions’ program to “retiring” in 1999 suggests that the program was well-aware of his atrocities long ago.

But even if you believe they were oblivious, a ridiculous assumption that I’ll entertain for conversation’s sake, there was an incident in 2002 during which a graduate assistant witnessed abuse.

In failing to report Sandusky to police, especially when the graduate assistant reported in detail seeing Sandusky in the shower with one of his eight (and now maybe nine) victims in a Penn State locker room shower, everyone at the university with knowledge of the situation gave this monster full license to continue abusing and raping boys for the better part of a decade.

They had the means to stop him, but chose not to. And why? So the program and university could continue to appear responsible and conscientious instead of actually being either of those things.

No one involved in this situation is clean. The graduate assistant, who claimed both Sandusky and the young boy he saw in the shower with him both saw him, did nothing to stop what he saw, despite the fact that it clearly disturbed him. Imagine being that little boy and watching someone who could help you turn his back and walk away instead of stopping the man who was raping you.

The assistant did go to Paterno and report what he saw, which I suppose is better than pretending he never saw it. Paterno in turn passed the buck to his superiors in the administration. The administration slapped Sandusky on the wrist by taking away his locker room keys. Clearly at this point the administration had no interest in justice for the young victim.

But why at that point did Paterno not go to the police himself? Because he was as invested in keeping the image of the program clean, rather than actually cleaning up the program that was covered in the worst kind of filth.

No one is safe. Like a failing home appliance retailer, everything must go. If Penn State hopes to maintain its legitimacy as both a football program and as an institution of higher learning, Paterno must be fired, along with president Graham Spanier and anyone else in the administration who chose to ignore the fact that sexual abuse took place on their campus, levied by a man employed by the university.

What’s more, the NCAA must pull its head out of the sand and realize that this is the most important place to make a stand regarding responsibility and decency. Collegiate athletics’ governing body has come down hard on programs such as SMU, USC and Ohio State for past scandals involving boosters, illegal perks given to players and the like. If a school and a program are not willing to do what must be done to protect children from sexual abuse, the entity that polices that program must act.

The term “death penalty” was thrown around when the University of Miami was involved in a scandal involving a booster earlier this year. Given the fact that the Penn State program allowed the victimization of children for over a decade, nothing short of the death penalty, or banning the team from playing for an entire season, seems appropriate, in addition to bowl ineligibility this year.  Players who want to leave the program should be able to do so without having to forfeit a year.

Some have said they are pained by the thought of one of the premier programs in college football and a revered coach such as Joe Pa are going to end up disgraced. What pains me is the thought of the victims who became victims because no one could be bothered to stop this animal in the first place. If the NCAA is going to make an example of programs for monetary violations, then punishment should be swift and severe to make sure that there is no question that this kind of behavior and willingness to turn a blind eye to abuse will not be tolerated.

Ten free agents the Red Sox have to look at

While the amount of roster turnover that will occur before the 2012 season remains to be seen, the simple fact of the matter is that the Red Sox will need to make changes. And let’s forget the Albert Pujols or C.J. Wilson talk. With contracts expiring on several members of the team, Boston would do well to do more than just kick the tires on these 10 players who enter the offseason as free agents.

Carlos Beltran, outfield
The Red Sox are probably going to shy away from a big-name signing this offseason, but with a big gap in right field, the Red Sox could make an effort to sign him. After two bad seasons with the Mets in 2009 and 2010, he rebounded with a very strong 2011. He played primarily in right field and played well at the position. With J.D. Drew’s contract coming off the books, the Red Sox would be able to swallow the large contract he would command.

Johnny Damon, outfield
Yep, I said it. The Red Sox need strong veteran leadership and while he’s not outspoken, you can’t say that Damon doesn’t lead by example. At 37 years old, he can’t be relied on as an everyday player in the field, but he most likely could be had for reasonable dollars while serving as a part-time left fielder and DH. Clearly his best days are behind him, but with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia at the top of the line up, he would not be expected to offer the offensive spark he did his first time around. Especially if the team doesn’t have to trot him out there and stretch him out in the field too much, he could be a valuable presence to have around young outfielders like Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish. His .307 career batting average at Fenway Park doesn’t hurt either.

Mark Buerhle, starting pitcher
Buerhle is as his name would suggest – a hard-nosed, go-out-there-and-get-it-done kind of pitcher. Given the reports on the subpar attitude and cliquishness of the Red Sox pitching staff in 2011, it’s that kind of player that could help change the culture. Buerhle isn’t a guy who will strike out 15 batters, but he has never thrown fewer than 200 innings and had won at least 10 games in every season since 2001. He is considered one of the most consistent major league pitchers in the game right now and would most likely command somewhere around $16 million per year, so somewhere some payroll would most likely have to be shifted.

Joel Zumaya, relief pitcher
Zumaya is a guy who has been riddled with injuries over his short major league career, but with the amount of talent the right-handed fireballer has, it may be worth taking a flier on him if the dollars were right, and they certainly should be after he missed the entire 2011 season. When healthy, he features a fastball that lives in the 97-99 MPH range and his late and close statistics suggest a guy who can help solidify the back end of a bullpen. Major league hitters have a .218 batting average against him. If the price is right, why not?

Darren Oliver, relief pitcher
At 41 years old, Oliver may decide to quit while he’s ahead and hang ’em up, but the veteran journeyman has become one of the premier left-handed specialists in the game. The Red Sox have been lacking in quality left-handed relief for a few years now and a guy like Oliver, if used properly and not stretched too far, could have real value facing one or two batters in key spots. After floating from team to team and between starting and relieving for most of his career, Oliver has settled into the role and has had a sub-3.00 ERA in each of the last four seasons. Last year, left-handed batters hit just .227 with a .318 slugging percentage against him.

Michael Cuddyer, outfield
Cuddyer has been coveted by the Red Sox in the past and he always seems to be a name that pops up around the trade deadline. Now there’s an opening in the outfield. While his 32 home runs a couple of years ago was an aberration, but he’s still a productive player who will come at a reasonable price tag in comparison to other players the Red Sox have signed recently. He has experience playing all over the field and versatility is valued in the organization.

Bill Hall, utility
Hall and the Giants have a mutual option, but if the decision is made to move on, Hall could once again be a useful member of a winning team. Hall isn’t much of a regular, but it’s hard to forget that in 2010 he hit 18 home runs in limited duty for the Red Sox. The super utility man had a miserable 2011 as the starting second baseman for Houston before being released, which should keep his price tag low, so he’d be worth a flier.

Ryan Doumit, catcher
If Jason Varitek retires, the Red Sox will need a viable option at backup catcher. Ryan Lavarnway figures to be more of a DH than a true catcher and Boston’s other minor league prospects are still a ways away from being ready for the bigs. The Pirates have an option on Doumit, but the $7.25 million price tag is likely too rich for their taste. Doumit has had injury issues, but in a backup role similar to the workload Jason Varitek had last year, he could do well. In 77 games in 2011, he batted .301 with an .830 OPS while playing exclusively at catcher. He also has experience in the outfield, as the Pirates experimented with him there in an effort to keep him healthy.

Francisco Rodriguez, relief pitcher
Rodriguez isn’t the pitcher he was a few years ago, but at 30 years old, he is still very effective. While he most likely will look for an opportunity to close, he was absolutely lights out as a set up man for Milwaukee down the stretch and may be swayed by the chance to play for another playoff contender. With the Red Sox bullpen needing serious work, having a guy like Rodriguez that you can rely on along with Daniel Bard in the late innings the way Bobby Jenks was supposed to in 2011. Or if the Red Sox decide to try Bard as a starter as it is being rumored, he could fill that set up role.

Jonathan Papelbon, relief pitcher
Papelbon had arguably his best season as a Red Sox in 2011, save the tail end when nothing went the team’s way. Especially with Bard’s struggles down the stretch, it seems even more imperative that the Red Sox keep a known commodity in the ninth inning role. Papelbon will demand top dollar, but in a market for closers filled with a lot of question marks outside of Rodriguez and Heath Bell, the Red Sox would do well to hold on to what they have.

What to do with John Lackey?

Let’s assume for a minute that Theo Epstein remains the general manager of the Boston Red Sox. What would you want him to do to fix the mess that is the team’s clubhouse at this point? Some say simply a new manager to lead this group is needed, but I see a much bigger need to get some new blood in the organization.

Where should Epstein start? That’s debatable, but I think it has to begin with one of the most difficult tasks, which would be to trade John Lackey.

Lackey has proven to be a huge bust for the Red Sox. Even if he wasn’t signed for big bucks over long years, no one could say he’s been even close to a decent pitcher for this staff. He got a gift 12 wins this year, mostly due to the fact that most of the season the team was tearing the cover off the ball. At 32 years of age, he’s no spring chicken, but he still could hold some value to clubs, specifically National League teams, who are looking for some rotation help. While some spots would require the Red Sox to eat a significant amount of his salary – which they’ve been known to do – there are some places that may be willing to trade one large contract that hasn’t worked out for another.

Here’s a look at some possible suitors fitting that description.

New York Mets and Jason Bay (Two years, plus vesting option remaining on a four-year, $66 million contract)
Bay has been hurt for a significant amount of time since signing a huge contract after the 2009 season saw him traded to the Red Sox. He’s also had a lot of his power sapped by playing in the canyon that is more commonly known as Citi Field.
The Mets need pitching help, as they were forced to rely on the likes of Dillon Gee, Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey this past season. A pitcher like Lackey who has always given up his fair share of hits is much better suited for a park like Citi Field and most of the time pitchers have an easier time getting away with average stuff in the National League than the American League East.
As for what the Red Sox would be getting, it would be a gamble, but Bay did post a .915 OPS in 200 games with Boston not all that long ago and would not be relied on as the centerpiece of the team’s offense. His arrival would also mean a move for Carl Crawford away from the Green Monster, which he played horribly.

New York Mets and Johan Santana ($24 million in 2012, $25 million in 2013, $25 million team option that becomes vesting if Cy Young and innings pitched criteria are met with a $5.5 million buyout)
Santana’s problems have been the exact opposite of Lackey’s – still has the stuff, but can’t stay on the field. Santana didn’t pitch at all in 2011, making him a huge gamble for the Red Sox if they were to go this route. However, at the same time, Lackey is a big gamble for New York. After being a horse for most of his career, Santana may be breaking down and if the New York medical staff isn’t sold, this could seem like a worthwhile maneuver that could allow the team to spend the extra money elsewhere or just take the savings. Lackey could work in New York for the reasons stated above, while Santana could be a steal if he could return to form. However, his potential for a bounceback season makes this an unlikely match.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Vernon Wells (Three years remaining at $21 millon per year)
Wells was a total bust for the Angels and one of the reasons their general manager resigned last week and it’s very possible that the new general manager will want to distance himself as much as possible from the mistakes of the previous front office.
Lackey is a known commodity, which could work for the Red Sox or against them in terms of trading him back to the West Coast. Still, Lackey was always a solid competitor for the Angels and playing an unbalanced schedule against teams like Oakland and Seattle in huge ballparks could only benefit him.
His numbers as a visitor at Fenway Park have been fairly pedestrian over his career, but he’s a Yankeed killer with a career slash line of .302/.354/.517 against New York. He’s also lost a step in the outfield, so a move to left field would allow the Red Sox to move Crawford away from the wall while limiting Wells’ defensive shortcomings.

San Francisco Giants and Barry Zito ($18 millon in 2012 and $20 million in 2013, plus an $18 million option in 2014 with a $7 million buy-out)
This is probably one of the worst fits because the Giants need hitters more than they do pitching and Zito has been worse than Lackey, plus he’s injury-prone. If the Red Sox were to go this route, they most likely would end up with the record for highest salary for a left-handed specialist. Even then, he’s not a good option, as he posted better numbers against right-handed batters than lefties last season.
There’s not much reason to explore this one at all, but it at least had to be mentioned in a conversation regarding bad contracts.

Chicago White Sox and Jake Peavy ($17 million in 2012, $22 million team option with $4 million buyout in 2013)
This most likely won’t happen simply because Peavy’s at the end of his contract and the White Sox would probably just as soon eat $4 million, rather than take on Lackey’s salary and years in the hopes he can turn his career around on the South Side of Chicago. Also, if Terry Francona ends up in Chicago, odds are stacked even higher against this.
Still, Chicago may be ready to move on from Peavy, who just can’t seem to stay healthy for them. He hasn’t appeared in more than 19 games in either of his last two seasons with the team and just hasn’t panned out for a team that was a bigger mess than the Red Sox last season and could be looking to make some extreme changes.
Peavy still has good stuff, but with all the questions surrounding his health, it would be more likely the Red Sox looked into the next name on this list.

Chicago White Sox and Adam Dunn ($14 million in 2012, $15 million in 2013 and 2014)
This clearly would only happen if the Red Sox elected not to re-sign David Ortiz and given his productivity this year, that would only happen if the front office decided that he was more of the problem in the clubhouse than he was the solution.
Dunn has always been a big strikeout guy (182 in a 162 game average), but he also has big-time clout and has a career .374 OBP, which Mr. Epstein would covet and it’s hard to believe at age 31 he’s completely washed up. After all, just a year ago he hit 38 homers and drove in over 100 runs for the hapless Washington Nationals.
However, it would be a hard sell to make for the White Sox, despite Dunn’s struggles this year. It’s hard to make a case that Lackey would prove to be a strong addition unless the team loses Mark Buerhle and is looking for a veteran starter to help solidify the rotation. If there’s one thing going for Lackey, it’s that he’s durable, something that couldn’t be said for a lot of White Sox pitchers this year.

Chicago Cubs and Alfonso Soriano (Three years remaining at $18 million per year)
Soriano has always been the anti-Moneyball player and is clearly in decline. He’s a poor outfielder and has lost a great deal of the speed that made him a good tool offensively. He does still have some pop in his bat, however, and he has solid career numbers at Fenway and against the AL East.
The Cubs are in desperate need of pitching, as Ryan Dempster is a free agent and Carlos Zambrano can’t be counted on and, most likely, the Cubs will be looking to unload him, leaving the team with Randy Wells as their top starter, followed by Casey Coleman.

Houston Astros and Carlos Lee (Final year of contact, owed $18.5 Million)
This one is a stretch because Lee is on the back end of his deal and the Astros most likely would not be willing to take on more years of a massive contract unless the Red Sox were willing to eat some of the salary. That said, Houston had by far the worst pitching staff in the league and may see Lackey is a reclamation project that, if successful, could anchor a staff. Brett Myers was very shaky this year and the team’s most consistent starter, Wandy Rodriguez, is not expected to be back after the Astros tried shopping him at this year’s trade deadline. The Astros were also fooled into believing J.A. Happ was a quality pitcher.
Lee is another man on the back nine who still has enough pop that he could fill at least a part-time DH role for the Red Sox and adds an option as a right-handed bat, something the team struggled without at times. Lee crushed left-handed pitching last season at an OPS clip of 1.028 and he has a .921 OPS at Fenway Park. Should Ortiz leave, a Ryan Lavarnway/Lee platoon at DH would give the Red Sox some roster flexibility as Lee can also play first base or a corner outfield position, provided it’s for a limited amount of time, and Lavarnway, while not projecting as a full-time major league catcher, offers an option behind the plate.

Character more than anything was what the Red Sox lacked

Remember folks, mothers always know best.

“I don’t know why, but I just don’t like him. It’s something about the way he carries himself that makes me wonder if he can play here.”

Those were the words from my mother after hearing the Red Sox had inked Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract last offseason. Her concerns weren’t about Crawford’s bat or his fielding or his ability to steal bases. It was all about the character he could bring to the Red Sox clubhouse.

Now, the September-long collapse that has left the Red Sox on their couches nursing their bruised egos as they watch the playoffs on television can’t be blamed solely on Crawford. But after listening to Terry Francona speak to the media on Thursday afternoon, it was clear that something in that clubhouse was very wrong.

Tito spoke of concerns, closed door meetings and moments when players should have gotten behind each other and just plain didn’t. The “Idiots” are long forgotten these days at the Back Bay Fens. These are the big-ticket, no heart Red Sox.

While blame falls on the players for failing to execute on the field, a large portion of the responsibility rests solely on the shoulders of Theo Epstein and more of it has to do with the fact that unlike 2004 and 2007 when he put together World Series champions, he stopped believing that character was all that important.

The evidence: J.D. Drew, who surprised fans at the end of the season by showing up at all. John Lackey, who seems to be more worried about yelling at a teammate for not making a catch on a deep drive than analyzing why the ball was pounded in the first place. Julio Lugo, whom some said just cared too much really cared more about people liking him than putting in the extra work on the field. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who was more concerned with blaming Red Sox coaches for his pitching than himself.

The character guys on the Boston Red Sox are dwindling. The days of “25 players, 25 cabs” seems to be returning. One could say the last one who exhibited true character and was the ultimate teammate was Mike Lowell, a player whom Epstein didn’t even acquire and, quite frankly, didn’t want.

The team has some deep-rooted issues that even the players’ manager like Terry Francona wasn’t able to overcome in the end. Thursday’s presser was maybe the most downtrodden and emotionally spent Francona has ever been and it wasn’t simply because they lost a game Wednesday night. While he’s constantly said he didn’t want to talk about his contract during the season and he wanted to focus on winning, he also never said he wanted to stay in Boston. If he is let go, it’s probable he will take his walking papers with a smile and a spring in his step.

Epstein, on top of failing to measure the importance of character, has also been unable to accurately measure major league talent. He remains a very gifted baseball executive in terms of producing quality prospects. Some of those prospects he’s kept, some he’s leveraged for talent in trades. Beyond that, he’s made some tremendous in-season deals, including the one that sent Nomar Garciaparra out of town for Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera. While most of the world was throwing up their hands in disgust and disbelief, Theo saw a need and saw value where others did not. That all seems so long ago now, doesn’t it.

It was.

And in the meantime, Theo Epstein, especially on the free agent market, has not done well in evaluating talent and value and I would imagine Red Sox ownership is getting a little tired of paying high-priced players to play for other teams when Theo Epstein gets them out of town by promising the club that trades for them that the Sox will eat a large portion of the salary.

One could say that better scouting could have predicted that John Lackey would not fare well in the AL East in smaller ballparks with better lineups (His stuff never was all that good) and that Crawford’s defensive prowess is overrated and perhaps his swing is not built for Fenway or that Bobby Jenks was horribly out of shape and knee and back problems were bound to happen.
On a smaller, more specific level, at the trading deadline when the Red Sox were pretty sure they were in serious need of some pitching help, they got Erik Bedard. Also traded at the deadline was Doug Fister. Two pitchers from the same organization that if it has anything going for it, it’s depth at starting pitcher. The Red Sox took Bedard, who had already been on the disable list once this year, while the Tigers took Fister. According to reports, the Red Sox never showed any interest in the younger, more talented, healthier starter, who was had for essentially the same amount of minor league talent. Fister has a sub-3.00 ERA in Detroit and will pitch in the playoffs. Bedard never had a clean start, spent time on the bench with an injury and as a whole generally underwhelmed.
Epstein was also against the trade that brought Josh Beckett and Lowell to Boston, a move that he is often credited with, but actually happened during the time when he left the team after a sissy boy slapfest with Larry Lucchino.
Epstein’s 2011 Red Sox were also built upon the assumption that Lackey, Matsuzaka and Beckett would all be healthy and more effective than they were a year ago. Given the track records, there was reason for considerable doubt that all three could turn it around.

Injuries like the ones suffered by Clay Buchholz and Kevin Youkilis were perhaps unavoidable. But what was also glaring and obviously short-sighted on Epstein’s part was the lack of depth on the 25-man roster and organizationally. The team gave up some major-league ready talent in bringing in Adrian Gonzalez. That’s true. But even early on in the season, Yamaico Navaro and Drew Sutton were acting as the team’s backup infielders. The backup plan for injuries to the rotation was Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield and Kyle Weiland. He had to trade for Mike Aviles, Bedard and Connor Jackson for “help.” Matt Albers somehow became a key cog in this mess.

As the ship approached the iceberg, Epstein kept turning the rudder the wrong way. While some say this wasn’t as bad as 2003 or other Red Sox collapses, it really was worse. While the shock value of Aaron Boone or Bucky Dent was greater, the inherent problems with this Red Sox team could be wounds that are much deeper and harder to fix and could have a profound effect on its future.

There have been some hits and some good times with Epstein, but there have also been a ton of misses and perhaps at this point the good outweighs the bad and it’s time to say goodbye.

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