Ever since Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio floated a story last weekend that the Patriots or Broncos could possibly pry prized cornerback Darrelle Revis from the sinking ship known as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, talking heads across New England have been online trying to buy timeshares on Revis Island.
As for me, I think it’s an overrated, overpriced getaway where I’d much prefer to rent than buy.
Okay, enough with the metaphors. Revis is regarded as arguably the top corner in the NFL for a reason. In the 28-year-old’s first five years with the hated Jets, he was a 3-time All-Pro and drew comparisons to the likes of Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Ty Law. On the field, he made man-coverage a science.
A torn ACL and a trade to the Bucs later, Revis is coming off of his fifth 16-game regular season and a Comeback Player of the Year honor. He wasn’t at the top of his game last year as he continued to recover from the knee injury that shattered his final season in New York, and it was reflected in part in the numbers. Revis intercepted two passes and deflected 11 while his 4-win club finished 17th in the league in passing yards against (237.9 yards per game) and 18th in deflected passes (73).
Along the way, the highly-regarded corner was paid $16 million. He’s due the same figure for each of the next five seasons, though none of that remaining $80 mil is guaranteed.
Most of the folks who have spent days packing their bags and loading up on sunscreen for a trip to the Island are all too ready to bid a fond farewell to the injury-plagued Aqib Talib if it means relocating Revis to Foxborough. Depending on the reports you opt to read, acquiring Revis would not only cost the Kraft’s more than they could purchase a real island for, but also draft pick compensation ranging from a first to a third-rounder.
Like most, I find it hard to believe a move of this ilk would ever occur. Historically, the Patriots are not a franchise that deals picks for top talent dragging sacks of money, even if they could afford it with some cap creativity. They’ll spend; but they pay their guys.
Ignoring that fact, I question what exactly Revis has left in the tank and whether he can be that same ultra-effective shutdown corner he was for all those years that he tormented Tom Brady to the point where the Pats’ QB called him the best he’s ever faced.
I’m also concerned about the baggage.
Revis isn’t perfect. His ego is as big as his play-making ability. The Pittsburgh product has already held out multiple times in camps related to contract negotiations, which ultimately resulted in him garnering the most lucrative contract for a defensive back in NFL history. When asked about Patriots coach Bill Belichick in interviews throughout his career, the outspoken star has used words like “jerk”, “ignorant”, and “disrespectful”. Most recently, early in his Tampa tenure, Revis butted heads with later canned coach Greg Schiano. If you’re a Pats fan, I probably don’t have to describe for you the relationship between Belichick and Schiano. They might actually vacation together.
Some who cover the Bucs have hypothesized that Revis clashed with Schiano because the coach was hard-nosed and rigid in nature, stringent with his rules unlike Gang Green yuckster Rex Ryan, who’s largely viewed as more of a player’s coach.
In which category would you opt to place Belichick?
Should the Pats overlook his past transgressions and bank on talent, you can bet Revis wouldn’t restructure a penny of his contract to make it happen. The Patriots, as well outlined by the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin, could convert some of Revis’s salary to bonus money and potentially cost themselves more in the long run if it didn’t work out, but there’s no chance he’d eat some of his cash to play somewhere with a better chance to win. He’s about financial standing first, team second.
Talib’s an interesting case. To no surprise, New England didn’t franchise their second-team All-Pro for $11.8 million – a tag that represented more than double his 2013 earnings. For the next few days, the Pats will presumably attempt to negotiate a new deal with their defense-altering corner before he inevitably hits free agency.
Most pundits expect the Dolphins’ deal with Brent Grimes of four years and $32 million with $16 mil guaranteed to shape Talib’s value on the open-market, though I’m not so sure. Grimes is smaller and three years older, but lacks Talib’s injury history. The latter’s recurring hip issue – which forced him out of the last two AFC championship games early – could prevent teams from wishing to commit long-term when a shorter multi-year deal may suffice. It’s not unreasonable to think the Pats could retain Talib for two or three years at around $9 million annually and perhaps roughly the same guaranteed dollars.
Talib is also linked to his own laundry list of off-the-field issues but, fortunately, he’s been nothing but a model citizen with an affable demeanor in his time as a Patriot. If healthy for the last year-and-a-half, he’d probably already be under contract long-term.
This doesn’t have to be an argument of Player A vs. Player B.
Is Talib as good a player as Revis? Well, he does have two more interceptions (23 to 21) in 18 fewer career regular season games. He was also on track for Defensive Player of the Year consideration through the opening five games last season before getting hurt…again.
But, no, Talib is not Revis, if Revis returns to top form a full season removed from ACL surgery. That expectation, however, is an uncertainty and it comes at a lofty price – one that exceeds the seasonal worth of a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback who’s on the books for $14.8 million in 2014.
Now, maybe Brady wouldn’t mind someone vaulting him on the payroll if it means putting a player of his caliber on the other side of the ball. But, it’s also possible he’d prefer a known, likeable, and proven commodity in Talib, along with another talented player. Talib won’t cost $16 million. That means money (maybe $6 mil or so) leftover for a pass-rusher, a safety, or – sorry, Tom’s shouting from a mountaintop right now – a receiver who stands taller than six feet. Plus, in the spirit of value, the Pats could retain the pick that would otherwise be required in a Revis swap. That’s a potential three-for-one for a team plagued by depth last season.
In the end, since none of the local guys have linked Revis to New England, this may be nothing but fascinating fodder on the part of Florio. The Bucs are well under the cap and have no need to rid themselves of Revis, but doing so by March 13 would save them $1.5 million on his roster bonus and draft pick consideration owed to the Jets on the original trade. So, why not look to a team in need of a shutdown defender?
My gut tells me Revis won’t move, much the same as I believe the Patriots will find a little something in the piggy bank to re-sign Talib and preserve their picks and cap space.
I could be in the minority, but that’s my preference. Talib may not have an Island, but he covers a whole lot of territory.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The intertwining beauty of film and sport is the never-ending circle of celebration. Just as new movies are released on a weekly basis throughout the year, at least one of our favorite teams is always in season. The drama, real or imagined, is unending.
Take today, for instance. Our sports calendar features the Bruins just hours away from the NHL’s trade deadline and the Red Sox immersed in spring training games with the new baseball season starting later this month. The Patriots are surrounded by rumors and rumblings of roster reconstruction and the Celtics, for better or worse, are lottery-bound. The latter will give local fans even more incentive to fixate on a certain college basketball tournament that will break hearts and wallets in a few short weeks.
And, in Hollywood, Sunday night brought movie buffs the Oscars.
So, how about we blend the two?
Rather than going back over the last year to hand out Best Everything, let’s do this a little differently. You’re already well-versed in the biggest moments and stories in Boston sports dating back through 2013, and I don’t want to be responsible for snubbing David Ortiz in Best Sound Editing since he wasn’t, ya know, edited.
Instead, let’s use this year’s nine Best Picture nominees as a guide, sometimes in theme and often in title alone. In other words, there’s no need to infer something controversial that doesn’t exist when those movies were powerful and this is in jest. Capisce?
As far as I know, nothing in Boston sports lately linked directly or even remotely to a con man, an attractive hustler with two identities and a closet full of low-cut outfits, or an FBI agent with a perm. What we have had, though, is the idea of an individual portraying a situation in one manner when in all likelihood it will be quite another.
According to Boston Globe colleague Nick Cafardo, the agents for Red Sox lefty Jon Lester have engaged in at least two extension-related discussions with Boston brass. It will be fascinating to learn the terms, provided a deal is reached.
Over the last couple of months, Lester’s done a tremendous job to garner public support by saying he’d accept a hometown discount to remain with the only big league team he’s ever known, while Ortiz has frequently griped about his contract situation. It’s been quite the study of how two local favorites could handle a somewhat similar position – at least in that they’re both in line to hit free agency next winter – in such a strikingly different manner.
That’s where the hustle comes in. Recently, it’s become more apparent that Lester’s definition of a hometown discount may be quite different than what the fans and maybe his team had in mind. He doesn’t view himself in the same ballpark as Clayton Kershaw, who will average $30.7 million over the next seven years, but he may wish to align himself with the likes of Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels, pitchers who earn at least $24 million per year on average.
If Lester inks a new deal with the Sox in that neighborhood and fans are happy about it, while those same people blast Ortiz for wanting another $15 mil tacked onto his contract, that’s quite the hustle. Irving and Sydney would be proud.
Suppose, instead of uttering defiant things like, “It’s my business, not yours” when faced with questions about the now infamous Birthdaygate, Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo just said, “Look at me. I’m the captain now.”
You can’t say you wouldn’t have at least smirked.
The C’s controversial captain is as mesmerizing off the court as he is on it, which is part of why his decision to skip a team trip to Sacramento – for a game he wasn’t slated to play in – to remain in Los Angeles with family and friends to celebrate his milestone 28th birthday went from a passing note to a media firestorm. It was a misguided decision for any player, let alone the newly named leader and face of the franchise. It was arguably just as regrettable – unless you’re Rondo, of course – that he didn’t apologize for his error in judgment in an effort to squash the hullabaloo. A misunderstanding or not, the guard clearly doesn’t believe he was in the wrong and was unwilling to say so.
Nevertheless, management, coaches, and players all say they’ve moved on. What remains to be seen is if there are any lingering effects on the relationships between Rondo and head coach Brad Stevens, the star and president Danny Ainge, who’s praised him at every opportunity, and even Stevens and Ainge. Were the latter two on the same page, or did Ainge leave his new bench boss out to dry?
Welcome to the NBA, where players may not be leaders, but they do lead the conversation. Maybe, in retrospect, Rondo did say, “I’m the captain now” – to his coach. On the plus side, it’s probably the first time Stevens has been compared to Tom Hanks. It’s not life or death, as with Captain Phillips and Muse, but it continues to be a wonder by many if the Celtics can survive long-term with Rondo.
In this case, we’ll veer from the story and delve only into the name. With the NHL’s Olympic break behind us, it’s as good a time as any to revisit the summer blockbuster between the Bruins and Stars.
In a lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, Boston finished fourth in the Eastern Conference but got hot at the right time and pushed the regular season champion Blackhawks to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Dallas, on the other hand, missed the playoffs by seven points. Pardon the pun, but the Stars were in fact buyers.
With about a quarter of this season remaining, the Bruins sit second in the East – just three points back of the Penguins – while the Stars would be the West’s second Wild Card.
Without the distraction of Twitter or a public nightlife, Tyler Seguin’s amassed 25 goals and 32 assists and he’s on pace for career-highs across the board. Rich Peverley’s been adequate with 27 points.
For the B’s, Reilly Smith – not the deal’s non-Seguin centerpiece, Loui Eriksson – has been a revelation. In his first full NHL season, Smith is tied for third on the team with 18 goals and sits fourth with 44 points. He’s shined on multiple lines and on special teams. Eriksson got off to a slow start and has suffered multiple concussions, but he’s thrived since just prior to the break and on through his time in Sochi. He’s up to 6 goals and 22 points through 40 games – a far cry from his 30-goal, 70-point averages over his previous four full seasons – but he’s healthy now and playing well.
Even the less heralded players to come to Boston like defensive prospect Joe Morrow has put together a solid year in Triple-A Providence, and winger Matt Fraser has 17 goals in the minors despite lending a hand for 17 big league games.
In short, the trade has worked out for both sides. Arguably better for Boston. All right, all right, all right.
Gravity was about as big a force on the Red Sox in 2013 as it was for Dr. Ryan Stone when she was hurdling through space.
Save for Joel Hanrahan, basically every move general manager Ben Cherington made last season hit on the way to Boston’s most unlikely championship since the 2001 Patriots. Comeback and walk-off wins were the norm, the offense led the majors in runs, perceived role players starred, key arms stayed mostly healthy, and the bullpen was electric in the postseason.
A duck boat parade later, it’s spring training again in Fort Myers and it’s a wonder if Boston’s baseball finest will be pulled back to Earth.
While the pitching depth appears to be strong – maybe even superior to last season’s efforts if health proves less of a concern – the offense features loads of questions from players lacking in experience to those with so much their age causes anxiety.
Jacoby Ellsbury was the club’s biggest loss, but the Sox won’t miss him nearly as much in center field as they will at the top of the lineup. As it stands, Shane Victorino or Daniel Nava (or a platoon of the two) will slide in at the top of the order, though Grady Sizemore and Jonny Gomes have seen reps there early in camp. Sizemore hasn’t played regularly since 2009, but there’s a remote chance he could make the team out of camp and unseat Ellsbury’s expected replacement, Jackie Bradley Jr.
Xander Bogaerts should make up for the loss of Stephen Drew on offense but he’s a rookie and there are no guarantees, just as there are no certainties in what to expect from Will Middlebrooks at third after he’s spent parts of the last two seasons in the minors.
There’s a reason oddsmakers have set Boston’s over-under for wins at 87.5 this year after a 97-win season a year ago: Gravity.
Ah, only in an advanced society using artificial intelligence could many of us hope to be romantically linked to Scarlett Johansson. Boston athletes would have a better chance than most reading this, but that’s not really the focus here.
Hockey fans are instead setting their sights on Him – the mystery defenseman Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli hopes to acquire in advance of Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline.
With Dennis Seidenberg done for the year, Andrew Ference off in Edmonton, Adam McQuaid physically limited at the moment, and the playoff workload uncertainties surrounding youngsters Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton, and Torey Krug, the B’s can seemingly only look to captain Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk for defensive reliability come the postseason. And that’s provided nothing unforeseen happens in the final 22 games of the regular season.
The Bruins need to make a move for a veteran presence of defense. Goalie Tuukka Rask is among the league’s best in net, but he’ll need the same kind of help in front of him that he received en route to the Cup Final in 2013.
Dan Girardi is off the table after signing an extension with the Rangers. Chris Phillips and Andrew MacDonald are the hot names. The biggest question is what it will require in terms of players on the current roster, prospects, and/or draft picks to get a deal done for a high-caliber rental or a player with remaining time on his contract. Plus, there will be far more buyers than sellers, and that will inevitably drive up the price for contenders like the B’s.
Fantasy love seems easier.
Consider the following attributes of this movie: it features an older man, headstrong and sometimes misguided in his beliefs and in a symbolic display it is shot in black and white. Add to that the dynamic between father and son.
Clearly that’s a real surface-explanation but take those lines at face value and it sounds an awful lot like life in Foxborough, doesn’t it?
Patriots coach Bill Belichick will have a number of challenging decisions to make this offseason after a demoralizing loss in the AFC Championship. That began with the release of Steve Gregory and will continue with the evaluation of countless others, including captain Vince Wilfork and his hefty contract that may require a restructuring or an all-out elimination.
Moreover, the coach will have to decide whether to slap cornerback Aqib Talib or receiver Julian Edelman with the franchise tag, which is unlikely given the lofty dollar signs in excess of $11 million that would come with either move. Belichick and ownership would surely like to bring both players back. Talib completely alters New England defensively when healthy, and Edelman was Tom Brady’s only reliable target absent an injured Rob Gronkowski.
That said, the Pats take their player market assessments very seriously when it comes to economics and they stay true to those numbers, sometimes to a fault. Ask owner Robert Kraft again how much he’d have liked Wes Welker to re-sign with the Patriots, not that money was the only factor there.
The NFL combine is behind us, coaching and other personnel changes have been made, the draft awaits, free agency is approaching, and Brady must be curious if the team will improve upon its offensive depth as his championship window closes. Or, at the very least, pad a defense that has the potential to be elite.
Ironically, while Belichick weighs those matters, his cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is sitting in a jail cell. In Nebraska.
There’s obviously no comparison here to an Irishwoman losing her son and embarking upon a journey to find him decades later, especially when that story is true. But, in the spirit of seeking what was once lost, several Boston athletes find themselves in pursuit of second chances.
Between the Patriots and Red Sox, Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, and Sizemore are all hoping to put serious injury histories behind them in 2014 and contribute for full seasons for the first time since, in best-case scenarios, 2011.
Other Pats like Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Sebastian Vollmer will also be hoping for bounce-back years health-wise, while teammate Dont’a Hightower will try to prove in his third year that he was worth a first-round selection.
Bruins winger Jordan Caron, another former first-rounder, is hoping to find his opportunity to again be an influential player on the ice. Once a member of the top four units, he’s now mostly a reserve forward. If he doesn’t do something soon, Caron’s next move may be out of town.
The Sox also have players like Middlebrooks, who’s yet to display he’s a full-time player in two previous seasons, or Edward Mujica, a star in St. Louis before being shunned last October. Then there’s Francisco Cordero, a 38-year-old journeyman reliever eyeing one last chance after a year out of the game.
And, however unlikely, Rondo may just make an effort to silence his doubters, rather than fanning the flames.
Hopefully there’s a reunion waiting for each of the aforementioned players with what once made them great. Or, in Rondo’s case, likeable.
As we know, the subject of this film is far more significant and serious than any sporting event. Any link in this section will be in title alone.
Time is often measured by perspective.
Since February 3, 2002, Boston has ditched the Loserville label for the more enviable City of Champions. In that time, four of the city’s professional teams have enjoyed eight titles and four second-place finishes. Those dozen years have whizzed by in a blink.
Compare that to the 12 years prior, when those same clubs reached two championship rounds (1990 Bruins, 1996 Patriots) and didn’t win either. In relative sports terms, it felt like an eternity. Fans once hung on every pitch, swing, shot, hit, or throw for months on end. Now, we take regular seasons for granted. Our spoiled expectations for greatness have lessened our appreciation of what it takes to reach such highs.
With Belichick and Brady, Patriots seasons are viewed under the guise of title-or-bust. Super Bowl losses in recent years have been deemed failures. The Bruins have battled for two Stanley Cups in three years and their best players are relatively young and under contract. At least a trip to the conference finals tend to justify their seasons. The Red Sox endured a difficult 18 months but responded in the unlikeliest of ways as their scrappy (well-paid) underdogs won for the third time in a decade; the same team that hadn’t won previously in 86 years. The question now is whether they can do it again. As for the Celtics, they’re likely at least a few years away from raising another banner to the rafters. Until then, only the die-hards are in the mood for player development.
It’s far better to be part of the party than to watch from outside the window. Luckily, Boston’s teams are mostly equipped to keep knocking on the door for years to come.
Just think: power players in a money-hungry business defined by success, where one’s detractors are out to crucify their every move. Short of the illegal scams and questionable ethics (wait, forgot about Alex Rodriguez), you’ve pretty much got Boston’s best sports rivalry.
From the Wall Street to Wall Street in Charlestown, the 2014 baseball season is expected to bring a renewed interest when the Red Sox and Yankees square off. The world champion Sox did little to improve in the offseason, but they also suffered very few losses, save for Ellsbury, who just so happened to bolt for the enemy.
The pinstripe-donning All-Star was part of a nearly $500 million spending spree by the Bronx Bombers this winter, as they added Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka. They should have a healthy Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, and won’t be subject to a season-long A-Rod distraction (we think). Losing Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte isn’t ideal, but most pundits feel the club has improved to the point of once again being able to compete for a division crown after an injury-plagued 85-win season. The Yanks’ over-under for wins has been set at 85.5 by the folks in Vegas and it’s not unreasonable to think they’ve beefed up enough to reach 90.
The last time both clubs were simultaneously competitive was in 2011. New York won the East and Boston collapsed.
We know Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino and Yankees president Randy Levine are ready for the next chapter. Let’s see who howls next.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
For a blissful two-week period, albeit one that ended in disappointment, hockey fans across the country were united only by the red, white, and blue. It’s nice now for a smaller contingent of us to again be bonded by the Black and Gold.
Boston opened its post-Olympics schedule on Wednesday in Buffalo against the last-place Sabres and suffered a crushing 5-4 overtime defeat. Still, the Bruins pace the Atlantic with 37 wins and 79 points, a mere four points back of the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins.
Claude Julien’s B’s will win their division, and that’s not a terribly grand prediction. With 24 games remaining in the regular season, the Bruins hold an eight-point lead on the Lightning and nine-point advantages on both the Canadiens and Maple Leafs. Moreover, they have at least one game in hand on each of the latter two. Should things unfold differently, it’d be a shame but really wouldn’t matter. Getting into the playoffs healthy and fresh is the only concern.
If you’re looking for a reason to be anxious, don’t. At least not in the regular season.
Even a hefty 17-game March schedule shouldn’t slow the Bruins down, so long as the coaching staff is smart in managing minutes and building in respites for veterans, particularly those recently back from Sochi. Most players on the club enjoyed 10 days off, beach-filled vacations, and light practices upon their return. They’re rested and physically fit from a full slate of games prior to their hiatus. This next stretch won’t be nearly as grueling as what the Causeway crew faced coming out of last year’s lockout.
If forced to have one worry, it would be over how the B’s five Olympians (all healthy, thank goodness) will respond to revving up their intensity to a Stanley Cup Final level, only to return to regular season action before having to raise the bar again in less than two months. That can’t be an easy task, especially in the short-term when accounting for the travel and time-change, but it can be alleviated by rest.
Fortunately, as witnessed right away with Chad Johnson tending the net in Buffalo while Tuukka Rask stayed behind, players will get their time off and log reasonable minutes. In Johnson’s case, expect him to get every opportunity to build upon his recent success (5-0-1 with a 2.26 GAA in his last eight appearances) over the next six-plus weeks in an effort to keep Rask as ready as possible for another impressive run through June.
Boston’s young talent will likely offer the team’s veterans a break from time to time but, no matter the outcomes over the next few weeks, the Bruins are as deep and balanced as any other club in the league up front.
Paced offensively by Brad Marchand’s 20 goals and David Krejci’s 50 points, Julien’s free-wheeling four lines are comprised of two dynamic units across the top six forwards (all of whom are on track for nearly 20 goals and more than 50 points), a rapidly improving third-liner in Loui Eriksson after his strong finish to the first-half and tremendous play overseas, and an ever-energetic fourth trio. Should Reilly Smith – a less heralded member of the Eriksson-Tyler Seguin deal – cease to continue his unforeseen scoring brilliance, the concussion-free Swede may be ready for a return trip to the second line.
In all, the Bruins rank second in the conference with 3.09 goals scored per game and they’ve allowed just 2.19 goals on average, good for second in the NHL. Even the power play has thrived, checking in at 21.0 percent, which is sixth in the league.
Forget about that collapse in the Queen City. There are checkmarks across the board.
The playoffs may prove to be another story, though, and that comes back to defense.
The trade deadline is rapidly approaching and fans’ confidence in Peter Chiarelli’s squad may come down to how the general manager has reshaped his team by the evening of March 5.
Seidenberg has historically been a top-four defenseman during his regular season time in Boston, but Chara’s right-hand man in the postseason. He’s tough, physical, and a big-time minutes-eater. In 18 playoff games in 2013, he averaged roughly 26 minutes of ice-time per game, and that includes one contest where he saw only 37 seconds. Seidenberg’s an animal.
Add to that veteran Andrew Ference is long-gone to Edmonton, which leaves two gaping holes in what had been a pretty sturdy top two pairings.
As it shapes up right now, the last lines of defense in front of Rask include Chara, Johnny Boychuk, the injury-riddled Adam McQuaid, and a lot of youth in the form of Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, and rookie Kevan Miller.
All due respect to those listed above because they’ve performed admirably when necessary, but Chiarelli needs to make a move for more depth. The alternative is simply too dangerous a proposition.
You’ll hear all kinds of names, if you haven’t already, as potential suitable replacements for Seidenberg who could suit up alongside Chara or slide into the top-four.
The Rangers’ Dan Girardi is a legit top-two blueliner, a durable workhorse, and a shot-blocker. The Islanders’ Andrew MacDonald averages more than 25 minutes per game and plays in all situations. Chris Phillips of the Senators, a true defensive-defenseman, is a possibility. Nick Schultz fits that mold from the Oilers as well. The Panthers’ Tom Gilbert is an offensive-minded puck-mover who’s solid on the power play. There are two Jets who could be expendable, a rock-steady former Bruin in Mark Stuart and the championship-tested Dustin Byfuglien.
Chiarelli, while willing, is unlikely to part with someone on his current roster or a first-round draft pick, as he did when he sent Joe Colborne to Toronto for Tomas Kaberle prior to an improbable Stanley Cup win in 2011. That leaves lower-level picks and prospects of varying skill from the minors. Some combination of the two should be able to net him a late-season rental on the verge of free agency and most of the aforementioned defensemen fit such criteria. It could be the difference between a deep playoff run and a devastating early exit.
Regardless, the key is consistency, something the Bruins have basked in by comparison to last year’s Jekyll and Hyde spring. They were 8-1-2 entering the midseason stoppage and resumed with a point. It should have been a pair against the league’s cellar-dwellers, but the B’s will take the one.
For the next several weeks, Boston will put it in cruise-control. Its success after that and whether another Duck Boat parade is in the near future may come back to how the GM spends the next few days.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
By now, it’s well established how I feel about Rajon Rondo.
The mild-mannered Celtics point guard is among the best in the NBA at his position when healthy and an argument could be made he’s a top 20 player overall. There’s no need for the C’s to trade him this offseason or at next year’s deadline, just as there wasn’t last week. The captain can absolutely be part of another championship legacy in Boston before his days of no-look passes and behind-the-back fakes are over.
However, his most recent off-court play was not the one of a man named the leader of his team.
Word surfaced on Tuesday that Rondo missed a leg of the Celts’ unsuccessful four-game road trip when he opted to stay behind in Los Angeles on Friday after a loss to the Lakers to celebrate his 28th birthday with family and friends. It was known he wouldn’t be playing the next day in Sacramento because he isn’t yet taking the floor on consecutive nights, but the captain didn’t bother to get official permission from his club to skip the flight north. Rondo played in the trip’s finale, a 12-point loss to the lowly Jazz on Monday, and finished with 18 points and 10 assists.
Coach Brad Stevens hasn’t said a word about the incident, nor has Rondo beyond, “We already talked about it. There’s nothing to talk about.”
Danny Ainge has.
The team’s president of basketball operations told the Boston Herald, “I plan on talking to Rondo when he gets back into town. I’ll find out more about what went into it, and then we’ll handle it internally. We handle all of those kind of issues internally.”
Naturally, this has incited the masses on talk radio, television, and in the blogosphere. Ainge’s need to respond publicly about a matter he intends to keep private has led people to say everything from “Rondo doesn’t belong here” to “he doesn’t want to be here” to “he just doesn’t get it.”
And, most popular, “Rondo’s not a leader.”
I think the whole story is totally overblown and I’d bet his teammates could not care less.
Is it reasonable to question his leadership in a situation such as this? Well, I’d be lying if I said he’s setting a sterling example, plus a 28th birthday doesn’t exactly call for a milestone celebration, but his actions aren’t suspension-worthy. A discussion in the principal’s office and perhaps a fine would suffice.
Lest we forget, this is the same guy who could have gone off on his merry way for the first half of the season to recuperate from an ACL tear. Instead, he sat on the bench, accompanied the Celtics on road trips dating back to the preseason, attended practices, and spent considerable time around his new coach and mates in an effort to make his transition back to the floor as smooth as possible. Call me a Green-teamer, but I view his captaincy as more than a superficial courtesy. It is earned.
Since, Rondo’s moves have been as enigmatic as his play. While Ainge has publicly praised his star at every opportunity, the guard has gone from saying he could envision spending his entire career in Boston to noting his interest in testing free agency in the span of a week. He’s demanded the keys to the car in his first chance to lead a team, and then snuck out for a joyride when the adults were sleeping.
It doesn’t matter what we think of Rondo. The bigger question is this: What is he thinking?
Does he want to be part of a rebuild in Boston or is he counting the days until he hits the market in 2015? Is he upset he wasn’t traded or simply frustrated to constantly have his name attached to rumors? And, was this last act a blatant disregard for team protocol or just a careless misunderstanding after he’d previously stayed behind when the C’s visited Milwaukee earlier this month on the end of a back-to-back?
There’s been enough drama surrounding the Celtics for one season. Upper management (one could assume) wants to lose to improve the club’s draft standing, the new coach and his players try desperately to win more often than not, fans may as well wear jerseys reading, “Tank” with the No. 1 on the back, and now the face of the franchise – surrounded by trade rumors dating back to the offseason – is marred in controversy as he tries to prove he’s the same rubber-made player he used to be and worthy of one day commanding a max contract.
This is how it works in years when individual game outcomes and stat lines rarely matter and only the bottom line and hiccups fuel discussion. Rondo isn’t under fire because the Celts are 2-11 with him in the lineup. In a sadistic way, it’s probably gaining him more fans among the lottery supporters.
Rondo is being criticized because people like long-time captain Paul Pierce and many others before him wouldn’t have remained behind in a road city for a party rather than cheering on his teammates from the bench, and he shouldn’t have either. Making the situation uglier is that he did so without going through the proper channels and in the midst of a losing streak. Just as he was earlier in the season before receiving the ‘C,” captains should be present even when they can’t play.
It was a mistake, a stupid one a teenager would make, not someone approaching 30. That’s it. His misstep wasn’t nearly as impressive as his stutter-step. That doesn’t mean he deserves special treatment, but is the excessive fanning of the flames required?
At this point, barring new details, I’m willing to follow Rondo’s lead: we talked about it and there’s nothing more to say.
Let’s move on.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Ever since Red Sox postseason ace Jon Lester told reporters at last month’s annual Boston Baseball Writers dinner that he’d like to remain in Boston for his entire career, to the point where he acknowledged a willingness to take a hometown discount to make that happen, I’ve wondered:
What defines a hometown discount?
When Lester said he’d have to have the Sox jersey ripped off his back and then reaffirmed those desires upon his arrival in spring training, what did he have in mind?
There’s a big difference, for instance, between what Dustin Pedroia did – which is accept a long-term deal for well below his market value – and requesting dollars that are simply in line with other top pitchers in the game, though a smidge below what he could maybe command in free agency.
Well, credit WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche for being the man in Fort Myers to prod the two-time World Series hero on Sunday’s “Sports Final”.
“Everybody’s hometown discount is a little bit different,” Lester told Roche, referencing that Pedroia accepted his extension when he was still a few years away from free agency. “I think you have to get in a room, sit down, and iron it out. I’m very optimistic on what we can do.”
Roche discussed his conversation with Lester prior to its airing on Friday’s edition of “Felger and Massarotti” on 98.5 The Sports Hub, and acknowledged a belief that Lester will be seeking around seven years and $150 million.
If the eight-year pro wants to be paid among the elite pitchers in the game, then he probably made a mistake in declaring he’d take a hometown discount.
Nine starting pitchers across Major League Baseball earn an average of at least $20 million a year for the length of their deals. They include Clayton Kershaw ($30.7M), Justin Verlander ($25.7M), Matt Cain ($25.5M), Felix Hernandez ($25M), Zack Greinke ($24.5M), Cliff Lee ($24M), Cole Hamels ($24M), C.C. Sabathia ($23.25M), and unproven (in North America) rookie Masahiro Tanaka ($22.14M).
Save for Kershaw, a 25-year-old stud with two Cy Young awards and a second-place finish on his resume, Lester could conceivably demand the same annual earnings as most any of the men listed above. He’s certainly no lower on the list than Hamels, who’s had a strikingly similar career to Lester.
If Lester wants that payday – which is well within his right, by the way – he likely won’t receive it in Boston.
While the term “hometown discount” lends one to automatically think in terms of dollars, it is possible Lester is also prepared to bargain over the years.
The Red Sox have shown over the last two winters that they’re okay with spending a bit more per season if it means that money is coming off the books sooner. Guys like Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino could speak to that first-hand. Moreover, there’s only one guy signed after the 2015 season and that’s Pedroia for $13 million. By comparison, the free-spending Yankees already have seven players under contract through 2016 for a whopping $155.1 million. That’s more than Boston’s entire payroll this year ($152.1M).
It’s unlikely – or at least it should be – that the Sox would hand Lester something in the neighborhood of seven years and $150 million.
But it’s not hard to envision the Red Sox’ offer arriving in the range of $22-25 million per year over five seasons in an effort to pay him top dollar while simultaneously avoiding the wretched back-end, late-30s years, when he’d almost certainly fail to live up to his salary.
Fortunately for general manager Ben Cherington and ownership, the Sox have some extra money to play with in the wake of Ryan Dempster’s decision to take a year off, which could benefit both Lester and the team.
If the club ripped up the pitcher’s $13 million contract for 2014 and started a new five-year pact, he’d be a free agent by age 35. In fact, starting now would even allow the Red Sox some wiggle room to extend Lester six years, which would end before he’s 36.
I’d qualify a “hometown discount” in Lester’s situation to resemble six years and roughly $135 million if it started this season, or five years and about $120 million if it began next winter. Given his talents and the absurd amount of money floating around the game with the additional television revenue, that seems fair for both sides.
However, it might behoove the Red Sox to wait through this season to see if they get the Lester who was among the best pitchers in baseball in the second-half of 2013 (7-2, 2.57 ERA, 1.19 WHIP) and into the postseason (4-1, 1.56 ERA, 0.95 WHIP), or the guy who struggled in the first-half (8-6, 4.58 ERA, 1.37 WHIP) and much of the 18 months prior.
Lester, unlike his extension-seeking counterpart David Ortiz, has handled this situation perfectly. He’s never once publicly spoken about money, merely his hope to pitch in the only place he’s ever known as a professional. The newly 30-year-old lefty hasn’t received any of the backlash from “haters,” as Ortiz has termed those of us hoping he’ll just play out his current contract or at the very least limit his appeals to behind closed doors.
That’s because Lester has said all of the right things while never once threatening to test the market if things don’t pan out. He isn’t contributing to a potential distraction or suggesting he’s one of the greatest players to ever put on a Boston jersey (even if Ortiz is, it doesn’t need to be articulated by him), or pointing out that he’s playing for half his economic worth. That’s exactly what you want from a remarkably dependable and durable (he’s made at least 31 starts every year since 2008) two-time All-Star who’s put up similar stats through his 29th birthday to another star southpaw named Andy Pettitte.
But, in the end, it usually comes back to the money. If you took Lester’s praise of all that encompasses the Boston Red Sox to mean he’d do what Pedroia did and sign a Homer Bailey-like six-year, $105 million deal, then you’ve already reserved your spot on next fall’s parade route. He’s noted he doesn’t want to be the guy to lower the market value.
Boston’s a sports city like few others and Lester’s accomplishments are well documented and appreciated. As a result, he has nothing left to prove here. Should he play out his final year and test the market, he’ll be 31 and staring at the most lucrative offers he’ll see in his entire career. That’s tough to ignore, unless he really hates the idea of change and values winning first and foremost, as he’s said.
Everyone wants Lester to continuing calling Fenway home well beyond this season. The GM, the owners, his teammates, me and, I’d bet, you. Soon enough, we’ll find out just how strongly Lester feels and what he’s willing to leave behind to make it happen.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Going into the NBA All-Star break, it felt as though the Celtics lacked direction. They were about as close to a playoff spot as they were the bottom of the league.
Now, a game removed from their brief hiatus and the league’s trade deadline in the rearview mirror, little has changed. On the roster, nothing has.
As you know by now, the C’s stood pat at the deadline, whether because team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge overvalued his players, wasn’t offered fair value, or he just didn’t feel compelled to make a move. No matter the case, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, and others are still wearing green.
And it’s disappointing.
It’s difficult to crucify Ainge for the lack of activity because we don’t have access to his phone records. Ultimately, no stars were moved. No first-round picks traded hands. Big-money players all stayed put. All of the little moves that were made could be considered minor transactions. But it’s hard to think a smaller deal couldn’t have been made by the C’s. Look at how the Sixers pawned off two expiring contracts and acquired multiple second-round picks. If you’re a Sixers fan and a believer in tanking, you’re thrilled today.
If Ainge wasn’t offered a second-round draft pick and an expiring contract for Bass, it’s easy to see why he wouldn’t accept anything less for a solid role player. But if he was, Bass should be calling somewhere else home. Green shouldn’t have commanded much more. Humphries could have brought little return but, worst case, his $12 million comes off the books this summer. He didn’t need to go.
Nobody was realistically expecting or even necessarily looking for a blockbuster. I’ve long been in the camp of retaining star Rajon Rondo and budding star Jared Sullinger, at least through this season. Rondo’s trade value remains low coming off his injury and Sullinger’s potential is still in question. If Kevin Love winds up in green and white, it wasn’t going to be yesterday.
But some smaller moves, even one, would have left the Celts in a more favorable position in their pursuit of a high first-round draft pick this summer. Boston is a better team with Green and Bass on its roster.
Let’s not discount Ainge’s shuttling of Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford for what was essentially picks and cap relief. Dating back to his summer blockbuster with the Nets and the hiring of coach Brad Stevens, right up through the diamond-in-the-rough signing of Chris Johnson, Ainge is having a tremendous season. I think, in part, that’s why Thursday afternoon felt so underwhelming. There was something missing; the final blow.
The argument for greater potential gains in the offseason makes sense. Ainge held on to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett longer than most thought he should and then Trader Danny gave Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov the kind of pause that only fellow countryman Vladimir Putin can relate to these days.
Soon enough, he’ll know his draft position, see who’s available through free agency, and revisit moves that weren’t made yesterday once teams around the league have a better idea of their future rebuilding or contending needs. That all helps at the negotiation table.
However, that doesn’t assist a talented though imbalanced Celtics team land a top-five talent. Stripping down the roster does, as Ainge knows and had been working toward until, for one reason or another, he pumped the brakes short of the final hour.
Will Boston make the playoffs? Currently six games out of the eighth-seed with 27 games to go, that’s remarkably unlikely. But they’re too talented to sink near the bottom of the league without some sudden and creative injuries and absences. You know, like Avery Bradley missing this current road trip. Rondo can’t miss back-to-backs forever, can he? Wonder how will his knee be feeling next month?
Plus, how will the lack of moves affect the development of young talent? Moving Bass or Humphries would have opened the door for more minutes for rookie Kelly Olynyk. He’s shown recent flashes of solid play but the Celtics have to determine whether he’s a part of their future or a summer trade chip. Will this stunt his progress? Sullinger, to a lesser degree, factors into this equation as well.
Admittedly, players like Bass and Green don’t have the most favorable contracts. Not Gerald Wallace bad, but bad for who they are. Maybe there were no takers. It’s hard to believe, given all of the rumors leading up to the dull deadline day but, as Ainge likes to note, there isn’t truth in every scenario floated out to the masses this time of the year by us folks in the media. Still, considering Ainge’s history, it’s hard not to feel he wanted more than was a realistic ask for his pieces. If that’s the case, it’s disappointing. He’s said a number of times that the best deals are sometimes the ones not made. Time will tell.
The Celtics have 19 wins. Odds are they’ll finish between 25 and 30. As it’s been all year, the loose goal is losing with forward progress in mind. Development and competition while falling short at the final buzzer. Coaches hate it, players don’t like it, and fans grow tired of it. But, in the end, it’s the strategy of most rebuilding teams in the NBA and this club didn’t improve upon its lottery standing by not making a move.
The C’s must now definitively determine their strategy. Perhaps being in limbo actually puts them on the cusp of clarity. Ainge seems to want to do what he did in 2007 and provide help for Rondo though a major trade for a superstar. Perhaps, then, another would be interested in joining the fold. Historically, free agents don’t sign here, but the next great Celtic probably isn’t coming by way of the draft either. He hasn’t since Pierce, unless Rondo becomes that guy.
Ainge isn’t playing for Tim Duncan or Kevin Durant. He’s got a team near the bottom that’s building with the mentality of sitting just short of the middle. With nearly 20 picks in the next half-dozen years, he’ll make moves to improve this team. It will just take time. More than the one-year bridge year experienced by the Red Sox.
Would a move or two on Thursday have sped up the process? Most likely not. But a little activity would have felt like progress.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Even with the surprise maybe-retirement of Ryan Dempster on Sunday morning, the Red Sox still have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching depth between a proven five-man rotation and a slew of talented prospects.
When injuries and inconsistencies strike in 2014, arms will be available to adeptly bridge the gap.
Ironically, given Boston’s major league-leading 853 runs scored in 2013, the team’s top concern in the coming season lies at the plate.
I know, I know, the Sox even managed to finished tied for eighth in the game with 734 runs in 2012 while winning only 69 games. In fact, since 2002, the club has led baseball in runs scored on five occasions and finished in the top four spots all but twice (they were 10th in 2006). In the last dozen years overall, the Red Sox rank first in runs among the 30 ball clubs and they’re one of just two teams to cross the plate more than 10,000 times (10,363). To little surprise, the Yankees check in second by a mere 24 runs. History proves they can score.
So, why the concern for the often offensively potent reigning world champs?
In short, it boils down to inexperience and unpredictability, along with a lack of depth and injury histories.
While most people like to hone in on the left side of the infield that’s set to feature a rookie and a third-year guy who’s spent considerable time over the last two seasons in Triple-A, that isn’t necessarily the biggest point of interest. Especially since it feels like a waiting game until a certain veteran shortstop reports to Fort Myers.
The chief worry exists in the outfield.
From left to right, the starters expect to be Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Shane Victorino. Behind them are Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp and, if all goes well, Grady Sizemore.
Sure, on paper, the only missing link from last year is Jacoby Ellsbury. The center fielder’s reliability in the health department had about an every-other-year assurance, but don’t dismiss his capability when available. Last year, the leadoff hitter batted .298 with a .781 OPS, he scored 92 runs, drove in 53, and stole 52 bases in just 56 attempts. His loss is the Yankees’ gain – at a steep price.
As it pertains to Ellsbury’s direct replacement, both Bradley Jr. and Sizemore are enormous question marks. One’s a rookie who struggled mightily at the plate (.189/.280/.337 in 107 plate appearances) in very limited action in 2013, and the other hasn’t played due to a litany of injuries since 2011, or to his potential since 2009. Now, barring a trade, one will be playing full-time.
Nava will turn 31 next week after a tremendous season in which he batted .303 with 41 extra-base hits and 66 RBI in his first full year as a starter in the bigs. In his prior two campaigns in 2010 and 2012, he hit just .243 in roughly the same number of total plate appearances. His .385 OBP and .831 OPS in 2013 were dramatically better than the respective .352 and .730 marks he combined for in those previous seasons. We can’t know for certain whether the former Santa Clara laundry boy will pick up where he left off or regress to where he was. For what it’s worth, his career OBP was .379 over parts of three seasons in Triple-A. Getting on base, whether for average or not, is typically his bread and butter.
Then there’s Victorino. The 33-year-old didn’t just have a back-to-Earth year in his first as an American Leaguer; he had his finest season since 2011 and one of his best ever in 10 major league campaigns. The veteran played Gold Glove defense in right while hitting a career-best .294 with a .351 OBP (his fourth-highest mark). He also reached 15 homers for the third time in his career and 60 RBI for the fourth. All this while dealing with what seemed like every lingering injury imaginable. Victorino’s production should be there again if he’s healthy, but can he avoid the injury bug that limited him to 122 games in 2013?
Moreover, Nava and Victorino are the two leading candidates to sit atop the batting order. In their careers, neither has shined in that role, which may introduce a platoon role if someone doesn’t emerge as a favorite. Nava has enjoyed 35 games leading off, batting .252 with a .343 OBP. Victorino is a .249 hitter with a .317 OBP in 216 career contests in that position. Ellsbury had a .355 OBP from the top spot last year. There are obvious questions when it comes to the table-setter.
Off the bench, Gomes offered a realistic career sample last year when he hit just .247 with a .771 OPS (compared to .244 and .788 marks in his 11 seasons). However, the 33-year-old was also a .286 hitter with a 1.405 OPS in a pinch-role and he thrived with runners in scoring position, batting .346 with a .991 OPS and 39 of his 52 RBI.
How about Carp? After being designated for assignment by the Mariners, he flourished in Boston. He posted career-best totals across the board with a .296/.362/.523 slash line and added an RBI every five at-bats. Like Gomes, Carp was superb with RISP with a .333 average, .958 OPS, and 35 of his 43 RBI.
It’s awfully hard to depend on bench players/occasional starters to offer that type of production.
Beyond the outfield, there are those left-side worries in the infield. Xander Bogaerts is already the preseason Rookie of the Year in the eyes of the Fenway Faithful and he should be an upgrade over Stephen Drew at the plate, but there’s no denying the possibility he’ll hit the rookie wall at some point. Will Middlebrooks expects to swing with blunt force, but his ability to get on base has very much been a tale of two seasons in his career (.288/.325/.509 in 2012 versus .227/.271/.425 in 2013). Behind them, the only current depth is the little-known Jonathan Herrera, who was reasonably efficient previously while playing in hitter-friendly Colorado.
On the bright side, Dustin Pedroia is a model of consistency and his power numbers will likely improve in a healthy season (last year’s nine home runs were his fewest since clubbing eight as a rookie in 2007), Mike Napoli will be his usual slugging self with about a million strikeouts along the way, and it’s hard to doubt David Ortiz after another stellar season, though he is 38. He’ll likely fend off Father Time as long as he’s chasing a contract extension.
Behind the plate, A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross will serve in a platoon with Pierzynski seeing the bulk of the time. As you’ve probably heard, he’s not one for taking pitches. The vet walked a career-low 11 times with the Rangers last year and he’s only taken a free base once every 25 plate appearances in his 16 seasons. Plus, Pierzynski represents a drop-off of about 80 OPS points as compared to the departed Jarrod Saltalamacchia based on their 2013 successes. And, when talking about a pair of 37-year-old catchers, health has to cause some anxiety.
Historically speaking, the Red Sox will figure it out. It seems, since the turn of the century anyhow, they always do. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find a season in recent years when they’ve had such a unique combination of unproven youth with veterans well past 30. Other than Pedroia and Napoli, do we really feel we know what to anticipate from a single guy in the lineup?
Spring training workouts are underway. Contrary to everything written above, it’s a time for optimism and excitement. Still, we’re allowed to at least wonder what could stand in the way of the Red Sox’ chances at repeating, aren’t we?
Maybe I’m just temperamental from all the shoveling.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
You know how it goes at any league’s All-Star break. It’s the time for first-half evaluations. In the case of the NBA, the forthcoming “second-half” doesn’t quite fit the label.
The Celtics are 19-35 with a mere 28 games to play following their warm-weather reprieves. Twenty-eight games. That’s it. In all likelihood, there won’t be a postseason on the parquet for the first time since the 2006-07 campaign. Of course, while many people are rooting for that outcome, there’s still no guarantee.
Despite wins in four of six to begin February, Boston’s string of 19 losses in the prior 22 games helped sink the club to the sixth-worst record in the NBA behind Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Orlando, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. No, not Doc Rivers’ crew. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see the boys in Green are very much in limbo. The Celts trail the Sixers by four games for the second-worst record in the league, and simultaneously sit just four-and-a-half games back of the Bobcats for the eighth and final playoff spot in a top-heavy Eastern Conference.
If you’re looking for a State of the Celtics speech, the theme is this: The organization still lacks direction.
Danny Ainge, the team’s president of basketball operations, seems to have a plan in mind and that consists of developing young players and building for the future. That should be the goal and, to this point, it’s been well executed. Between trading two future Hall of Famers before the season and not having his star point guard for the first half of the year, the presence of more losses than wins was a guarantee. But, the hiring of a promising coach who projects to be a stud for years to come offered a wrinkle to the plan. Brad Stevens simply has his team playing too well and too hard, and the group truly seems to want to make the postseason just to shove it in the faces of all the people who’ve kept the word “tanking” trending since late in the summer.
If you believe short-term failure is the best recipe for long-term success, you’re not the only one. But if you’re one of those people screaming for Stevens or even a single one of his players to lose on purpose or not put in a max effort, re-examine your priorities. It’s downright dumb and delusional, especially when you’re willing to trade in a season of potential enjoyment for only the chance at a top prospect. Mailing it in would hurt those players’ development, trade value, or ability to be an integral part of the team in the future.
Plus, the 2014 NBA Draft projects to be deep and littered with future All-Stars, but there’s no franchise-altering Tim Duncan, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant in the mix, and there’s talk of some of those sky-is-the-limit freshman talents staying in school for another year. Are you going to pin your hopes on the 2014 and 2015 drafts now?
The only person with the power to dictate the ultimate direction of the Celtics this season is Ainge, and he’s trying his damndest. He dealt Courtney Lee in the midst of a career-year from the field to create future salary cap relief and then followed that up by shipping out an overachieving Jordan Crawford, a solid backcourt option off the bench, essentially for picks. And, odds are, he’s not done.
The trade deadline is on Feb. 20 and the C’s expect to be as busy as anyone. Ainge won’t say it, but he’s hoping to be a seller, albeit with some limitation. Nobody is untouchable, of course, but he’d clearly opt to move literally any guy on the team before captain Rajon Rondo or Jared Sullinger. Those men are two legitimate building blocks for the future.
You might be thinking, “Well, maybe they are, but those guys are also standing in the way of increasing the ping pong ball percentages.” That’s where you’re both right and wrong. Do Rondo and Sullinger make the Celtics better? No question. But stripping away other pieces will make their jobs much harder.
We’ve already seen the Celts struggle against good teams. Though many have been competitive losses, they’re a miserable 2-17 versus the dozen clubs that presently possess winning records. The problem, if you choose to view it that way, is that they’re better than most of the losing squads. Do the math; they’re 17-18 against sub-.500 opponents.
Of the 28 remaining games, 15 are on the road (where Boston is 8-18) and 11 are against winning teams. Those two categories will go hand-in-hand when the Celtics’ schedule resumes in Phoenix on Wednesday night.
Should Ainge be able to unload the likes of Brandon Bass, Jeff Green, or Kris Humphries – and whatever additional pieces are required to make the money work – the C’s will instantly be ticketed for more defeats. All three could be coveted as role players by contenders and the trio will unquestionably receive interest. According to reports, Bass has already been linked to the Suns, Warriors, and Bobcats, while Green is the apple of Atlanta’s eye.
Thing is, it wouldn’t be in the best interests of Ainge or the organization to just unload these players without getting something in return. That doesn’t mean a premier young talent; that’s what he’d look for in shopping Rondo or Sullinger. For players of this caliber, it’s about value in the form of draft picks, cap relief, or expiring contracts. As it is, Ainge has stockpiled nearly 20 picks over the next half-dozen years.
Bass – averaging 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game – has been a dependable big man who’s capable of starting or providing a paint presence off the bench, and he’s due just $6.95 million next year. That’s a team-friendly deal for a player of his ability. The only thing consistent about Green is his inconsistency, even with his team-best 16.4 points a night, and the two years and $18.4 million he has left after this year is probably unappealing to a trade partner unless a team convinces itself he can be a good third or fourth scoring option. Humphries, however, will hit free agency after this season so it might make sense to just hold onto the energetic and increasingly-likeable power forward and let his $12 million come off the books. Who knows, the C’s may even try to re-sign him?
If one, two, or all three go, it will impact the Celtics dramatically. Suddenly, Kelly Olynyk will see even more time on the floor. The Rising Stars Challenge participant has already been heading in that direction over the last three months as his minutes have risen from below 15 per game in December to 20 this month. He’s a rookie and a former 13th overall pick. The 7-footer should be playing more, and that time could go up if the ultra-competitive Sullinger allows for a few nights on the pine down the stretch to nurse his injuries. For Ainge and Stevens, the time is now to judge exactly what they have in Olynyk and, currently, they have a guy playing confidently, giving a consistent effort, and coming off of his first two career double-doubles.
On nights that Rondo’s out resting against the league’s cellar-dwellers, they can also examine whether Phil Pressey can be a viable backup point guard option in future seasons. Likewise for free-agent-to-be Jerryd Bayless with Avery Bradley out indefinitely with repeated ankle sprains.
The good news is, no matter the pieces on the floor, the Celtics play hard most every night under Stevens and they possess a Top-10 defense. Yes, occasionally that leads to some wins that don’t favor them in the lottery standings, but that’s more important as a means of assessing the individual worth of the participants. It’s also a testament to the mild-mannered Stevens, who for the most part has kept a hodgepodge cast of frequently redundant characters on the same page and free of public complaint (I see you, Gerald Wallace) in the midst of a very frustrating rookie year.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve even caught a good story or two between the emergence of Chris Johnson and Rondo showing flashes of his old self with a long-distance upgrade mixed in. And, whether the relentless Sullinger deals with illness or hand and finger ailments this year, there’s sure no curing that chip on his shoulder.
The Celtics are on pace for 29 wins. If they stand pat at the trade deadline, they’ll probably exceed that total and may even sneak into a playoff spot. If Ainge puts on his “Trader Danny” hat and heads into next week guns blazing, they won’t. Stevens and his players should continue to do exactly what they’re doing and give it their all each and every time out. The only man who can really determine where Boston will finish is Ainge so, if you’re looking for the C’s direction, look in his.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
An overabundance of starting pitching? Heaven forbid.
Truth be told, as the saying goes, these things tend to work themselves out. Barring a move in the next few days, the Red Sox will enter spring training with as deep a rotation as they’ve had in years.
As far as we know, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Dempster are all healthy. So is Felix Doubront, along with strong-armed and largely untested prospects Brandon Workman, Allen Webster, Rubby De La Rosa, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Henry Owens.
Will all of these men make Boston’s Opening Day roster? Of course not, nor should they. Plenty, particularly those latter few names, are in need of more seasoning in the minors.
Still, the above list features a bona fide six-man rotation, along with a spot-starter or two in the bullpen. Is this a problem? More like a luxury.
Many folks this offseason have been clamoring for more activity from the Sox on the transaction wire. In the spirit of hanging onto young arms, that pretty much starts and ends with dealing a veteran back-of-the-rotation hurler like Peavy or Dempster. Each is due north of $13 million in 2014, the last year of their respective contracts, and it would be logical to package either for offensive depth in the outfield or the left side of the infield.
Personally, I think the Red Sox would be wise to hang onto those arms.
I understand the argument: Couldn’t a guy like Workman give Boston pretty much the same production as Peavy or Dempster, and at a fraction of the price? Possibly, even probably.
But, history has shown – and think back to some of those chilly nights in October when the staff posted a baseball-best 2.59 ERA (the starters had a 3.29 ERA) – pitching wins championships. Veteran arms are typically at the top of teams’ trade deadline wish lists every July, and that’s no exception on Yawkey Way.
The reason is because, save for 2004 when the Red Sox’ starters took every single turn throughout the regular season, injuries and inconsistency strike. A little extra manpower could conceivably alleviate some of the stress put on those pitchers over the course of a long season with some built-in maintenance days. That, by the way, will be equally if not more important for a group of aging extra-taxed relievers, who will have more company in the ‘pen by virtue of an overstaffed rotation. Worth noting, the season begins on March 31 with 26 games in 28 days.
Consider the potential question marks among the starters:
Lester was a pseudo-ace, aside from when he was putrid for six weeks to the point where some wondered if he’d even make the playoff rotation. Buchholz was light’s out in 2013 – for 16 starts. Lackey? Will the 35-year-old be just as motivated as he was coming off of Tommy John Surgery? Peavy, 33, isn’t exactly immune to the infirmary in recent years. Could the soon-to-be 37-year-old Dempster break down? How will Doubront respond if he’s in line for bullpen duty to start the year? And, suppose Workman or one of the rookies couldn’t hack it as a full-time major league starter right away?
Do the Red Sox really want to be chasing one of these same types of guys down, as they did with Peavy last year, a few months into the season when someone struggles? Do they really want guys like Webster or others who aren’t quite ready taking turns on the mound in crucial situations?
More often than not five-man rotations just aren’t enough anymore, which was well outlined recently on Fangraphs. Its study of the 2013 season showed that sixth and seventh starters across Major League Baseball combined for 967 starts, an average of 32 per team, and 5,097 innings, or 170 per club. In Boston, six pitchers outside of the projected starting five totaled 28 starts last year. In summary, depth – quality depth – is a borderline necessity.
Now, does this suddenly make all of the Sox’ starters untouchable? That’s silly, but there’s a difference between listening to trade offers and actively shopping players.
Keep in mind the new direction John Farrell's lineup has taken in the upcoming season with three youngsters in Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley Jr., or potential uncertainties like Grady Sizemore and the elder David Ortiz and A.J. Pierzynski. As good as the Sox’ pitching was in 2013, the offense led all of baseball in runs. This year, that’s unlikely to occur and what happens on the mound could prove to be the difference.
So often in baseball, fans ask if their favorite teams have enough starting pitching. For now, that answer in Boston is yes, and I’d like to see the Red Sox keep it that way.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
When the Major League Baseball season opens in late March, eight center fielders will be due base salaries in excess of $10 million for the 2014 campaign.
In Boston, as it’s currently projected, neither man competing to earn the Opening Day job is in line to even reach seven figures.
Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Saturday but the Red Sox’ two center field hopefuls, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Grady Sizemore, are already in attendance. Long gone is the electric-when-healthy Jacoby Ellsbury, courtesy of a seven-year, $153 million contract from the Evil Empire.
There’s no question, on paper, the position is the Sox’ most glaring concern in their hopes to repeat as World Champions, but it also may line up as the most entertaining if the team gets a little of that “everything breaks right” magic to roll over from 2013.
In the eyes of most, the job is Bradley’s to lose. He’s the soon-to-be 24-year old rookie holdover, ranked as the second-highest prospect in the organization according to SoxProspects.com. The Virginia native forced Boston to keep him on its Opening Day roster a year ago after a scintillating spring in which he hit .419 with an otherworldly 1.140 OPS in 28 games. His .097 average and .392 OPS after three weeks quickly proved he needed more seasoning.
By season’s end, Bradley batted just .189 with a .617 OPS in 107 plate appearances over 37 contests in the bigs, carved around multiple trips up and down I-95 and a .275/.374/.469 slash line for Triple-A Pawtucket. Still, he showed enough promise – even against that pesky inside fastball – to leave general manager Ben Cherington and skipper John Farrell confident in the youth movement to the point of declining to add an impact middle outfielder. It was Bradley or bust, it seemed.
The 31-year-old Sizemore is a veteran of eight major league seasons with the Indians, his last coming in 2011. He hasn’t been a regular contributor since 2009, thanks to microfracture surgeries on each knee, a back operation, and multiple sports hernias. The three-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover was once one of the most promising young talents in the game, with the durability that saw him take the field in all but nine games between 2005-08 on the way to earning MVP votes in each of those four campaigns. Now, he's an uncertain reclamation project with hopes of finding his pre-injury form.
Sizemore had multiple major league contract offers over the last year before Boston called, but he turned them down because he wasn’t ready. It’s also fair to at least theorize he was waiting for the right destination.
“I felt like it was the best fit,” Sizemore told reporters on Sunday of his decision to join the Red Sox. “For me, this was a great opportunity to come back and be part of a good organization and have success, and also physically, having the medical staff that they have. I just felt confident being here.”
What about the fact the starting job in center could be up for grabs?
He said Ellsbury’s departure did not influence his decision.
“I look at every team and you try to find what’s the best fit, and I just felt like this was the best fit for me coming into this season and moving on.”
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or he simply leaned toward familiarity after having worked with Farrell in Cleveland a dozen years ago, but that’s a little hard to believe. That’s no knock, by the way; he should covet the team that gives him the best chance to secure a regular role. Either way, it’s the ultimate low-risk, high-reward situation for the Sox. Sizemore will be paid $750,000 to try. Ultimate success, or a seismic surprise, could earn him up to $6 million.
Bradley, however, is still on his rookie contract. He’ll earn about a half-million dollars, even if he’s the American League MVP, not that he’s thinking about such lofty goals. Like Sizemore, he's just focused on landing a job.
“Is anything given to anybody?” he posed last week when asked if Ellsbury’s old role would be handed to him. “Everything’s earned. I’m just trying to go out there and compete for a spot and enjoy myself. Every day you come out there, it’s a challenge. You just have to take it in stride. There’s lots of opportunity out there. It’s going to be exciting.”
The youngster has put on noticeable muscle and some size, based on reports coming from down south. Chief among his offensive goals is consistency at the plate. Defensively, he already has the speed and the glove to patrol the field with relative ease.
In workouts, Sizemore has reportedly displayed flashes of his old speed, hopefully the same legs that saw him steal an average of 29 bases over his four full seasons and easily track down the deepest of fly balls in center. Naturally, he expects rust come the start of spring action because there’s obviously a fine line between feeling good physically and being in “baseball shape.”
Both men are described as competitors, and each is poised to open the season with something to show his legion of doubters. For a prospect like Bradley, the story surrounds optimism and what could be. For Sizemore, a veteran injured in the thick of his prime, there’s the notion of what could have been.
There are many ways to view this competition. If Bradley earns the Opening Day job, will Sizemore be a good enough alternative off the bench, or will more security be needed in the event either falters? If Sizemore – once a tremendous leadoff hitter – claims the spot, is that an indictment of Bradley’s potential, or does it merely suggest the desire to give the up-and-comer more time to get comfortable in the minors?
Perhaps the best way to look at this is there’s nothing but upside. Currently, the two are looked at to provide little more than reliable defense and something out of the ninth spot in the batting order. They know it and they’ll both undoubtedly use that as motivation. The expectations were similar for Jose Iglesias at short in 2013, and look how he responded before he was traded.
At worst, both will fail and a trade may be necessary. At best, the Red Sox could either have their next great center fielder this summer, or one who just might be great again. At the very least, it will be fascinating to watch unfold.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
There are no words that could adequately illustrate the respect and admiration I have for former Missouri defensive end and highly regarded pro football prospect Michael Sam.
In just a few short months, barring extreme and unexpected bigotry, he’ll become the first openly gay athlete drafted into the National Football League, or any other of the four major North American leagues. When he plays in his first game late in the summer, he’ll officially stand alone as history’s only active homosexual male professional athlete – among the dozens, maybe hundreds, who have quietly done so in the past – to take the field, court, or ice publicly confident and secure in who he is.
This, of course, is because longtime NBA center Jason Collins never found another job in the league after he came out last April.
It’s impossible to measure Sam’s strength, and that has nothing to do with the fitness testing he’ll endure at this month’s NFL combine.
It takes remarkable courage and fortitude to not only reveal what he says teammates and many opponents already knew, and have since August, but to do so in advance of the draft. With two words, “I’m gay,” he put his career, his livelihood, on the line.
There are some NFL executives who will think twice about selecting the Cotton Bowl-winning first team All-American and reigning SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in spite of his incredible talent, and others who likely won’t consider the notion at all.
And that’s pathetic.
Sports Illustrated spoke with eight NFL executives and coaches who, according to the report, project a drop in Sam’s draft stock on account of the uncertain locker room culture and the media circus his presence will create. Before his announcement, he was projected as a mid-round pick, with some having him going as high as the third-round.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant told SI.com on the condition of anonymity. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
An NFL assistant coach mentioned in the article said Sam’s decision was “not a smart move” because it affected his potential earnings.
Having never spoken with Sam, only heard him speak eloquently of his views, I’m quite confident money wasn’t on his mind when he divulged his most personal feelings to the entire world for its simultaneous support and ignorance.
Football is America’s game. The NFL is America’s league. It’s time its parties do better than represent America’s divided beliefs and embrace Sam in unison, just as his teammates did in college.
“I never had a problem with my teammates,” Sam told the New York Times of his classmates who voted him the program’s most valuable player last season. “Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue. Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay.”
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Sadly, while a nice gesture, a blanket statement from the league won’t ensure Sam is drafted where his talent suggests he should be, or that he’ll be selected at all, hard as that is to imagine. It doesn’t prevent the locker room hazing and homophobic bias he may potentially encounter from future teammates or even coaches when he arrives in his new city for mini-camp. It doesn’t remove the feeling of discomfort some will feel when Sam steps into the shower following a practice or game. Undoubtedly, he’ll hear his share of unsettling comments pour in from across the line of scrimmage and the stands, and there's little the NFL can do about that, either.
It’s no secret the league has a problem, between punter Chris Kluwe’s reported dismissal from the Vikings for standing up for gay rights or details of verbal harassment taking place throughout locker rooms around the NFL, most notably in Miami in 2013. And, who could forget when players were asked at last year’s combine if they liked women?
The examples go on and on and on.
People are who they are, for better or worse. Those who disapprove of another person’s sexual preference, creed, culture, or color are guilty of thinking that shall hopefully one day be widely considered archaic. We’re heading in that direction, but any search of various social media platforms in the wake of Sam’s news will most certainly tell you we’re not there yet.
When Sam went to bed Sunday night, I hope he was settling in for the best and most relaxing night of sleep of his life. I cannot fathom the weight that must have been lifted from his shoulders when he told the world a secret he never had to share. I say that not because he should have kept it to himself, but rather in light of the fact it’s not the public’s business to evaluate.
I’m happy to see Sam has already received support from past and present players around the league. I look forward to applauding the team that’s brave enough to welcome Sam with open arms and declare, “He’s talented, and that’s all that matters.” That general manager would be the modern day Branch Rickey.
I hope, one day, stories like Sam’s aren’t stories at all. Perhaps, a decade from now, when he’s an NFL veteran, he’ll be among the leaders of a locker room that’s welcoming to other gay players. By then, maybe there will be more than one openly homosexual player on a team, never mind in the league.
But, until then, Sam will be the first, a pioneer and a symbol for young up-and-comers and possibly veterans alike. As if it isn’t hard enough being a rookie.
Three of Sam’s siblings, two brothers and a sister, have passed away. Two other brothers are currently in jail. The Texas native is familiar with adversity and he’s coped with tragedy. By comparison, this is easy. Sam has yet to put on his draft cap and he’s already displayed he’s mentally tough enough for the NFL; I only hope the league is ready for him.
Thank you, Michael Sam. I don’t know you, but I hope one day that changes and I can shake your hand. If we’re lucky, we’ll see you in New England. The Patriots could use a player of your character. Oh, and another pass-rusher.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Sixth-year NBA forward Jeff Green is averaging 16.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game in his third season in Boston. The Celtics have played 51 games and Green’s started them all.
He’s 27, incredibly durable (save for a season lost to heart surgery), a decent shooter, remarkably athletic, and he leads his team in scoring.
Green’s also arguably on the top of the fans’ Least Favorite list.
Sometimes the stats don’t matter. The eye-test always does.
Green’s game has been compared to that of Jekyll and Hyde, if the latter had been real or a baller. The swingman is the poster boy for inconsistency.
In his last three games – all Celtics wins over mediocre competition from Orlando, Philadelphia, and Sacramento after a stretch of 19 losses in 22 contests – Green’s point-totals read like something you’d see from an immensely talented rookie.
He kicked off the month with 8 points on 2-of-13 shooting versus the Magic, followed that up with a 36-point effort at the Sixers on 11-of-18 shooting, and then managed 17 points on 6-of-20 shooting against the Kings.
Want to know what to expect from Green on a given night? Join the club. He couldn’t even tell you within a given game.
Probed by 98.5 The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich” program in his weekly chat on Thursday morning, C’s president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said of Green’s lack of consistency, “Other than the Lebrons [LeBron James] and the Kevin Durants of the world, and Paul George, you really don’t get consistently 25, 30-plus points per night.”
Who’s asking for that?
Whether or not he’s capable of being such a dynamic scorer is another story, given his apparent potential when he’s feeling particularly aggressive. He’s reached the 25-point mark on six occasions.
“Most players don’t ever score 36 points in a game and Jeff’s had two in the last couple weeks, 36 and 39,” Ainge continued. “I think that’s just how Jeff is. He’s a very good player. He’s not a superstar player where we expect for him to do that.”
It’s not about the frequency of Green’s big nights. It wouldn’t matter if he never scored 30 points in a game again. It’s about being a reliable contributor, which he’s really never been in his career. After that 39-point game against the Wizards on Jan. 22, it took four contests to total his next 39.
The fact is Green’s complete efforts are very rare and typically come against bad teams. It’s all too often he finishes in single-digits in scoring, something that’s happened nine times, or in nearly 18 percent of his games this season. Heck, he only attempts 13.5 shots a night. Those aforementioned stars take 17 or more.
While it’d be preferable Green average nearly 20 points a game, 16.3 would be fine if it was even the least bit steady. It would have been nice to effectively lean on him as a top option in the absence of Rajon Rondo, or now when both Rondo and Avery Bradley enjoy nights off to rest and recover.
That is a reasonable expectation for Green, not superstardom or even regular stardom; just above-average and dependable contributions. Physically, he has the talent to achieve it. Mentally, there’s something missing.
Generally speaking, the 6’9” forward isn’t the ‘jump on my shoulders and I’ll lead the way’ kind of player. At this stage of his career, it’s overly apparent this is who Green is. He isn’t going to suddenly start cutting to the basket more frequently, where he’s most effective, or regularly put up more shots. Some nights, he’s content to just hang out around the arc.
As it goes, one day fans are left in awe of Green’s jaw-dropping finesse. The next several, they’re just scratching their heads wondering if that other performance really happened.
“I understand it because I think expectations aren’t right,” Ainge said of fans’ frustrations with Green, before defending his player’s four-year, $36 million contract that expires in 2016. “Well, $9 million, that’s half of a max contract. Jeff has given us 16 or 17 points a game on a very efficient overall year he’s having. I think that’s what people should expect. Jeff’s not gonna be the guy that’s gonna carry us every single night, and we don’t have that guy that does that, other than Rondo when he gets back to being 100 percent.”
Finally, a breath of fresh air.
There was a point when members of the organization spoke glowingly of Green. We were led to believe he had the potential to be the next Paul Pierce. If there was ever any shred of optimism in that statement, the ship has sailed.
Green failed to be the guy on any sort of regular basis before Rondo’s return, and he certainly won’t emerge as such with Rondo back. Maybe every once in a while, but far from every night.
The NBA trade deadline is rapidly approaching. Phones will be more active in Ainge’s office between now and Feb. 20 than any night Green’s ever had on the floor in his career. Teams will ask about Rondo and Jared Sullinger, perhaps Brandon Bass and Kris Humphries.
But, Green? It’s tough to say what his market is or if he’s viewed as a viable contributor on a contender. One thing should be clear, though: No matter what the Celtics say, it’s not a question of whether they want to trade him; it’s whether they can for better than 50 cents on the dollar.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Don’t be fooled by the foot of snow you may have sitting outside your window or by the next wave of flakes due to arrive this weekend.
It’s almost baseball season.
Red Sox pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Fort Myers on Feb. 15, a week from Saturday. When they do, and workouts begin days later, it will be a very similar group to the one we last saw. On paper, you’d think general manager Ben Cherington spent more time talking with reporters this offseason than free agents. And, largely, that’s been without a gripe from the media.
Winning a World Series, even in Boston, buys instant satisfaction, often rewarded by patience. It will be fascinating to see how that old tale of grace periods and buffer years comes to fruition in 2014 around the Fens because, be sure, the narrative has changed.
At this time last year, we weren’t asking if the Sox could win a championship, not a one of us. If ever there was a season for fluff pieces, smiles, laughs, and a few more wins than losses, it was 2013. There were no expectations.
Historically, the answer’s no. The Sox have won the World Series eight times in their history, but on three occasions since 2004. They’ve only captured consecutive titles once, in 1915 and 1916.
Since 1979, only two organizations have achieved the feat. Cito Gaston’s Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, and Joe Torre’s Yankees reeled off three in a row from 1998-2000. The Bombers even made it again in 2001, falling to the Diamondbacks. In 2008, the Phillies won a title. Charlie Manuel guided the Phils there again the next season, but they lost to the Yanks.
It’s a remarkably rare accomplishment. In fact, in 13 World Series since 2000, the winner has failed to even make the playoffs the following year six times.
For better or worse, and I’m inclined to say better, the Red Sox are largely unchanged from when they basked in an evening-long celebration on Yawkey Way back on Oct. 30.
Leadoff hitter and centerfield Jacoby Ellsbury traded in his Sox for Pinstripes, as did reliever Matt Thornton. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia took his talents to South Beach. Shortstop Stephen Drew? He’s gone, too. For now.
Slugging first baseman Mike Napoli re-signed, the aging but durable A.J. Pierzynski will take over behind the plate, Jonathan Herrera will provide infield depth, reclamation project Grady Sizemore hopes to backup Jackie Bradley Jr., and Edward Mujica and Burke Badenhop have been employed to stabilize the bullpen.
It was a rather pedestrian offseason for Cherington. But, perhaps he’s not done. At this point a year ago, he hadn't yet acquired Mike Carp, who proved an immensely valuable part of Boston’s 2013 success, at least in the regular season.
For that matter, a year ago, Xander Bogaerts was a minor leaguer, Lyle Overbay was fighting for a roster spot, Joel Hanrahan was the closer, there was still optimism surrounding Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves, and David Ortiz couldn’t run the bases – for weeks.
The point is much can change, and will change. It’s hard to know exactly what this club will look like on Opening Day, much less in September. As Cherington’s acknowledged, it’s a long season in a somewhat challenging division, and injuries always arise.
The good news is the Red Sox have tremendous depth in the rotation and on the mound overall. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, and Ryan Dempster would today shape up as a formidable five-man rotation, leaving Felix Doubront, Brandon Workman, and others as odd men out sure to find their turns as needed.
But will Lester be the ace he was in the postseason or the reliable horse he was for most of the regular season, or revert to the 2012 version we painstakingly watched for six weeks last season? Will Buchholz manage to stay on the mound, even if that slim 1.74 ERA jumps a bit? Will Lackey and Doubront remain motivated and in shape after silencing their critics?
It’s impossible to expect a 39-year-old Koji Uehara to turn in anything close to the historic performance he provided on the back-end of the bullpen in 2013, but he can still be a force if he’s consistent to his career 2.42 ERA and .829 WHIP. But will he need more rest after 86 appearances? Will Junichi Tazawa after his 84? Can Craig Breslow be expected to repeat a career-year? Will Mujica, a World Series castoff for the Cardinals, be able to provide the 2.27 ERA he’s delivered over his last two years in St. Louis? And, how will Andrew Miller return from his foot injury?
On paper, the Red Sox’ pitching staff is built to win both over the course of a long season and in a short series, if it comes even remotely close to replicating its recent magic.
The club’s biggest questions and concerns lie in the lineup, one that performed as well as any other in baseball a season ago.
What the 21-year-old Bogaerts may lack in replacing Drew’s defense, he’s expected, in time, to be far more impressive offensively. His youthful companion at third, Will Middlebrooks, hopes to have a bounce-back major league season in order to show he’s closer to the guy we watched as a rookie than as a sophomore. We don’t know, though, and the organization may not either. Should one of the two falter, not having a veteran presence like Drew to step in could hurt.
Pierzynski is historically able-bodied and offensively capable, but he’s also 37. As he prepares to replace the 28-year-old Saltalamacchia, it’s a wonder what’s left in the tank. His defense should certainly be an upgrade.
Can the contract-hopeful Ortiz continue to defy Father Time? If he’s motivated by what folks in the media say and write, then he might be the American League MVP. Unless that need for an extension causes a disruption.
And, the biggest question of them all, what will happen in center with the 24-year-old Bradley taking the place of Ellsbury? Here are speed, inexperience, and potential. Gone are 92 runs, 52 stolen bases, 53 RBI and a .355 OPB from the top of the order. To a division rival. And his new backup hasn’t played in three years and hasn’t been good since 2008.
Where depth exists on the mound, it lacks in the lineup.
There are far more questions than answers. There are supposed to be; spring isn’t even here yet. But, barring a dramatic shift in philosophy, the approach is consistent to what we’ve heard for more than a year: Winning doesn’t change anything. Cherington and company are sticking to player development, growing their farm system, and building the next great championship roster; one that can compete for several years and not just one. It’s no different than when they refused to mortgage the future while they were overachieving at last year’s trade deadline, and acquired two White Sox pitchers who generally underwhelmed. As it turned out, Boston won anyway.
At this point last season, everyone knew the Red Sox weren’t a 69-win team. Nobody expected what followed. If they could do that, it would be asinine to say that can’t do it again, but it’s fair to rationally wonder if lightning strikes twice. In a drama-free year when most everything broke right, will the scene get hairy without the beards?
Fortunately, the questions are everywhere. All of the AL’s elite teams are flawed.
The Yankees could be this year’s Blue Jays, picked by everyone to win before missing the playoffs. Sox fans know never to count on Ellsbury for health over a full season, Carlos Beltran is a "get" to be jealous of, Brian McCann should be a solid contributor, Masahiro Tanaka’s a mystery, and losing Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte to retirement hurts a great deal. But, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira should be healthier, CC Sabathia is slim, and Alex Rodriguez won’t be around, which is a win for everyone.
The Tigers will have a sizable hole in their lineup and more food at the postgame spread with Prince Fielder in Texas, and Ian Kinsler and electric closer Joe Nathan will only go so far to make up for the losses of Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Doug Fister, and Joaquin Benoit.
Those are just some of their direct contenders to reach the World Series. Currently, the Red Sox are 12/1 favorites to repeat, according to Bovada. They trail the Dodgers (13/2), Tigers (17/2), Yankees (10/1), and Nationals (10/1).
It’s hard to envision John Farrell's spunky Red Sox coming from behind for another 36 victories, or again winning 22 games in their final at-bat. It’s hard to envision them parading the city on Duck Boats again next summer. When so many players had bounce-back or career years, it feels impossible to anticipate such success reappearing.
Of course, nobody saw it coming then, so why not now?
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington has been very measured on the topic of re-signing Stephen Drew since October’s improbable run to history.
In short, the GM likes Drew, which is a large part of why he made him a $14.1 million qualifying offer. The compensation pick Boston would receive if the shortstop left in free agency didn’t hurt the rationale either.
But, he also has a young, hungry, uber-talented, semi-proven prospect waiting in Xander Bogaerts. In fact, MLB.com’s 2014 Prospect Watch ranked Bogaerts as the second-highest up-and-comer in the game. This after the 21-year-old rose from being a Double-A shortstop to starting third base duties on a World Series champion in about half a season. And, make no mistake, Cherington’s well aware that Bogaerts, while capable, isn’t a corner infielder by trade.
Cherington and the Red Sox don’t need Drew.
Yet, it seems inevitable we’ll see the eight-year veteran don a ‘B’ on his cap again.
It’s February 5. Pitchers and catchers are due to report to Fort Myers in 10 days. As the weeks have passed and the champagne has dried up, Drew still hasn’t found a home.
That could be attributed to any number of things. Perhaps Drew’s rumored suitors over the last several weeks determined his addition wasn’t worth sacrificing a draft pick. Maybe he had opportunities, but none to the liking of super-agent Scott Boras. It’s also entirely possible, even likely, that Boras just misjudged his client’s value on the open market. It happened after the 2008 season with longtime Sox catcher and captain Jason Varitek, who ultimately returned on a two-year, $8 million deal after he could have earned more for one year in arbitration.
Now, barring a team deciding it is in dire need of a starting shortstop with sure-handed defense and inconsistent offensive production, Drew has nowhere to go and no leverage with his former team.
It would come as no surprise if Cherington brought Drew back as a luxury. Boston manager John Farrell has spoken glowingly of his former player at every chance throughout the offseason, and he stuck with him almost to a fault in the face of immense scrutiny when Drew’s bat went cold in the postseason. Should he return, he could provide depth on a left side of the infield where none currently exists – unless you’re banking on the modest-hitting Jonathan Herrera. All the better, Cherington could probably do so without having to match the qualifying offer Drew previously rejected.
The benefit of Drew’s return – and this is coming from someone who has called for his benching and subsequent exile – is that element of depth. I’m a believer in the tandem of Bogaerts at short and Will Middlebrooks at third, but there’s no certainty in what to expect from either offensively in 2014.
Bogaerts shined in very limited action – hitting .268 with seven extra-base hits and a .780 OPS in 30 combined regular season and playoff games last year – and his ceiling is up beyond the clouds. In the same breath, raw potential aside, he’s only 21 with 84 career plate appearances under his belt.
Middlebrooks is a relative mystery entering his third big league season. The 25-year-old has spent considerable time in the minors over each of the last two years, and he was benched in last year’s ALCS against the Tigers. Middlebrooks can drive the ball (32 homers, 34 doubles in 640 career at-bats) but his slash line dropped from .288/.325/.509 as a rookie to .227/.271/.425 in his sophomore effort. There’s no telling which direction that will go.
Re-signing Drew would either signal a lack of faith in one of those two youngsters to live up to expectations, or invite a pair of different scenarios:
The Red Sox could opt, despite enormous criticism, to start Bogaerts in Triple-A Pawtucket in an effort to get him more seasoning. The team does project to have a young lineup with Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, so another veteran in the starting nine never hurts.
Or, Middlebrooks – and his tabloid offseason – could be trade bait. His departure would open the door for Drew to return at short and Bogaerts to shift to third, just as we witnessed in the playoffs.
I’m actually inclined to lean toward the latter, if there’s any truth to an ESPN report on Monday that suggested the Red Sox have made Drew a two-year contract offer. After starting throughout last year and doing so with relative success to the tune of a .253 average, 13 homers, and 67 RBI in 124 games before his playoff futility, the 30-year-old vet wouldn’t return for multiple years in a utility role, nor should he.
WFAN talk show host Mike Francesa kept the Drew news cycle alive on Tuesday when he reported the Mets’ interest in the shortstop. According to Francesa, Drew has an offer from New York, though the terms are not known. That was quickly refuted by WEEI’s Rob Bradford, which comes as no surprise since Mets GM Sandy Alderson said only last week that it was “unlikely” his club would make such a move.
Whether or not Drew does actually have an offer from the Red Sox in hand at this moment, I believe he will. At this point, between his lack of options and the choices it would provide Boston, it just seems to make sense.
Even if the first question upon Drew’s return would be, “Why?”
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Super Bowl XLVIII MVP honors could have gone to several different players. The most appropriate solution would have been to distinguish several total players, as in the entire Seahawks defense.
Alas, one man was selected – the previously anonymous Malcolm Smith. The third-year linebacker intercepted Peyton Manning late in the first half, resulting in a 69-yard return for a touchdown to put Seattle ahead 22-0. He also recovered a fumble, deflected a pass, and tied for his team’s lead with 9 tackles, five of those solo. So much for anonymous.
But the talk after the 43-8 blowout of Denver’s NFL record-setting offense in gorgeous East Rutherford, NJ (the weather, that is), was the defense. Broncos head coach John Fox called Seattle’s D a “buzz saw.” That might be putting it mildly.
Sure, Russell Wilson was effective and efficient. Yes, Percy Harvin was elegant and electric. But a big, physical, fast, and furious defense won the game. One of the best damn defenses of all-time, and it was that way all season long.
The Broncos were limited to 18 first downs and held to just 306 total yards – a mere 11 in the first quarter. For frame of reference, those stallions averaged 455 yards of total offense in their previous 18 games and they finished with fewer than 397 only twice.
Manning set a Super Bowl record with 34 completions in an otherwise putrid performance. His team had four turnovers, and he was responsible for three of them with two interceptions and a fumble. The five-time NFL MVP and the newly anointed Offensive Player of the Year – he of 55 touchdowns and 5,477 yards during the regular season – was held to 280 passing yards, a single TD, and a 73.5 passer rating. The QB was hit four times, sacked once, and had eight passes deflected. Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the halftime stars, but Manning would have made Men Without Hats proud with his safety dance only 12 seconds into the action.
For those still moping about the Patriots’ almost equally boring performance two weeks earlier in the AFC Championship Game, rest easier now; they wouldn’t have won this game, either. It’s more fun to say Peyton Manning’s 1-for-3 in Super Bowls than Tom Brady’s 3-for-6, isn’t it?
This isn’t simply that Manning is an 11-12 career playoff performer (a record number of losses), or that he choked in yet another big situation. Bad as he was, he didn’t individually lose the game; Seattle won it, just as it would have gotten the best of Brady.
The verdict is in. While I picked Pete Carroll’s Seahawks to earn their first ever championship in a much less lopsided affair entering the evening, my main point is that much clearer: Defense wins championships.
As I wrote previously, only once has a top NFL offense won the Super Bowl since the start of the 2000 season. Now, there have been five league-best defenses to take home the Lombardi Trophy. In fact, it was the fifth time in six meetings between top squads from each category that the D has prevailed. More often than not, the historically superior scoring team falters.
All of the talk surrounding the Pats since their overachieving exit, and throughout the season for that matter, has been about how Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick need to recognize and take advantage of Brady’s remaining window of elite play. At 37 come training camp, he’s not getting any younger.
But, while we can dream, even the expensive Larry Fitzgerald isn’t the answer. The Patriots loaded up in 2007 and we remember how that ended. A 17-14 loss, courtesy of a miracle catch on one side and an offense that didn’t show up on the other. The Broncos averaged nearly 38 points per game during the regular season this year and scored eight in the Super Bowl. Oh, and all-mighty All-Pro Richard Sherman was carted off the field early with an injury, to boot.
As long as the Pats have Brady and a couple of somewhat reliable options, they’re good enough to contend there. We witnessed it. Never mind Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, or any other what-could-have-beens. Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen missed half the season and Danny Amendola was essentially injured for all of it, and New England still won 12 games on the way to a first-round playoff bye.
Defense is the need this offseason. Re-signing Aqib Talib is a must, or an equally capable cornerback on the left side. Signing depth for the secondary is vital. Restructuring Vince Wilfork’s contract in order to bring him back and allot some of his funds elsewhere is a priority, before hoping he, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly can stay on the field, at least near season’s end. Add to the pass rush, giving support to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. Sign a reliable safety. Continue to grow and develop the likes of Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, and Alfonzo Dennard, among others. It sounds like a lot, but New England isn’t that far away.
In fact, to their credit, that may have been their mentality entering the 2013 campaign when they re-signed Talib, inked Kelly and Adrian Wilson, and focused much of their draft attention on defense. Collins, Ryan, and Duron Harmon were all selected in the first three rounds, and five of the Pats' seven total picks were spent on D. It was hard not to wonder at points during Sunday's massacre what the Patriots might have been capable of had they not been so dramatically derailed by devastating injuries.
With a Top 5 caliber defense and a Top 10 offense – which is almost a guarantee with Brady on the field, even with a bunch of “smurf” receivers – the Patriots will return to the Super Bowl in 2015.
However, the biggest favor the Patriots could do for their quarterback would actually be to stabilize the other side of the ball.
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Madden’s weighed in with the Broncos over the Seahawks, 31-28, courtesy of a walk-off field goal in overtime.
Another video game, Tecmo Super Bowl, simulated an overtime showdown as well. In this unlikely scenario, Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie sacked Russell Wilson in the end zone to give Denver a 40-38 victory.
Me? I took the Seahawks over the Broncos back in mid-December. Well, sort of.
Now, I’m doing it for real.
Over the last 13 Super Bowls since the start of the 2000 NFL season, defense has prevailed. The league’s top-ranked defense hoisted the Lombardi Trophy when the Steelers edged the potent offense of the Cardinals in 2009, the Patriots outlasted the Panthers in 2004, the Bucs walloped the second-ranked Raiders’ offense in 2003, and the Ravens thumped the Giants in 2001. We all remember what happened when the Greatest Show on Turf took on the upstart Pats in 2002 and, yes, when more offensively-gifted incarnations of the Patriots fell to opportunistic Giants defenses in 2008 and 2012. Only once has the premier scoring team emerged victorious, when the Saints deflated Manning’s Colts in 2010.
It’s easy to look at the embarrassment of riches surrounding Manning and say, “Umm, the Broncos scored 38 points per game this season. The Patriots and Bears checked in tied for second, more than 10 points off the lead!” That, of course, is largely thanks to Manning’s league-record 55 TDs and 5,477 yards, a credit to his receiving corps and somewhat to the game’s evolution over the last decade.
But that would also fail to take two important things into account:
First, Manning has been very human against Top 5 defenses in his regular season career, going 10-8 with 26 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, and an average of 239.5 yards per game. In the playoffs, he’s been a .500 quarterback against such squads at 4-4.
Second, and more to the present-day point, the Seahawks paced the NFL by allowing just 172 passing yards per game. In other words, half the Broncos’ offensive total. If you can process this, Seattle’s D has only surrendered more than 215 passing yards in a game twice this season. It’s a large part of the reason they’ve given up only 14.6 points a game through 18 contests.
Also, though Manning has been picked off just 11 times, the Seahawks lead the NFL with 30 interceptions. If you think it’s just the Sherman Show, talk to Earl Thomas or Byron Maxwell. Visit the line, where Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Clinton McDonald, and Bobby Wagner have eaten opposing QB’s for lunch.
In short, a bad game from Manning likely ensures a Denver defeat. Is there a single player on the Seattle defense who would be guilty of that claim, even the self-proclaimed best-in-the-game, Sherman?
The ‘Hawks may be boring and their most interesting personality, if not their corner, might be their jacked-and-pumped coach, but they ooze balance, even without their 12th man in the Meadowlands.
They’ll likely slow Knowshon Moreno, just as the Broncos may very well hold silent soldier Marshawn Lynch in relative check. Ultimately, that’s a wash because the running game, even with the mobile Wilson, won’t decide this contest.
Never mind offense against defense. It’s passing against defense.
One benefit to Wilson and lesser known wideouts Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin is that the Broncos are absolutely abysmal defensively. They allowed nearly 25 points a contest during the regular season, while the Seahawks were a Top 10 scoring team, mainly due to Lynch. Yes, the Broncos locked down the Patriots a couple of weeks ago, but what message did that really send when Austin Collie was deemed dependable and Matthew Slater was getting, well, any targets?
As it stands, the Broncos are 2.5-point favorites. If Sunday’s forecast of temperatures in the 30’s and light winds hold up, that spread makes sense. Mentally, we’re fascinated by scoring in every sport, in much the same way we’re enthralled by the stories. Scoring is sexy and defense is dull.
The stories in this game are bigger than which strength will win. This Super Bowl is driven by the characters, which is why we have such a heavy interest in New England.
Patriots fans don’t want to see Manning and his surgically repaired neck win a legacy game and place himself back in a historical discussion with Tom Brady. Patriots fans are generally unsure of how to react to the possibility of Wes Welker winning a championship after six years of loyalty, and one catastrophic hit on a former teammate. Patriots fans of a generation ago are still upset with Pete Carroll for holding the organization in limbo for a few years. And Patriots fans, like many in the NFL, don’t care for Sherman. If he wins, would you be mad, bro?
My pick is clear; all that’s left are the numbers.
Seahawks 27, Broncos 24.
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David Ortiz knows exactly who he is.
He’s the greatest designated hitter to ever put on a baseball jersey, let alone one that reads “Boston” or “Red Sox,” and there’s a compelling argument he could one day see his face on a plaque in Cooperstown.
In Boston sports lore, he’s a legend. Ortiz sits on the Mount Rushmore of a generation of heroes, and he may hold just such a distinction in his team’s storied history.
He’s also a 38-year-old slugger fresh off an MVP-deserving .688 average in his third World Series win.
He’s well aware of whose bleeping city this is, and so are his employers.
But, you know what? In business, that doesn’t matter.
I sat at my keyboard, fully prepared to write how annoyed I am with the man we affectionately call Big Papi and how I wish he’d just shut up and hit. Then I realized two things: First, my colleague Eric Wilbur already did that, and mighty well I’d say. And second, no matter what Ortiz says, he’s only half of the equation.
What really counts is where the Red Sox go from here, and the ideal direction is clear: Don’t give in.
Coming off of an injury-shortened 2012 season, made downright dysfunctional by his surroundings, the Sox raised eyebrows when they rewarded Ortiz for the healthy portion of his campaign with a two-year deal. When he did little more than run the bases during last year’s spring training, the pact already appeared to be a colossal mistake.
And then he put both his city and his team on his shoulders en route to one of the most improbable championship runs in Boston history. Along the way, the nine-time All-Star batted .309 with 30 homers, 103 RBI, and a .959 OPS in 137 games. In the playoffs, he upped the ante to a .353 average, five long-balls, 13 RBIs, and a 1.206 OPS.
He was suddenly a decade younger, mentally, physically and, to him, contractually.
Guys pushing 40 don’t get multi-year deals, especially ones worth $30 million. When the Sox adhered to his requests at this time a year ago, it was good PR. It was filling one pothole in the bumpiest road the organization had traveled in decades.
For that privilege, Ortiz said he wouldn’t open his mouth on the subject again. Apparently, he meant until it suited him best.
If so publicly discussing his contract and the business of baseball is what the face of the Red Sox franchise needs to make himself tick, to stay motivated and hungry, to give off the sticky impression of self over team, more power to him. Hopefully it leads to more power from him. He should get in front of whichever writer or television or radio reporter he’d like. He basically has, and we haven’t reached February. Frankly, this would all make far more sense if he held court on his first day in Fort Myers and, who knows, he might.
In Ben Cherington’s office, though, this should be nothing more than noise. David being David. It’s not like he’s going to demand a trade.
Ortiz is committed to Boston for one more season, and $15 million is committed to him. If he wants to match or even exceed that in 2015 and beyond, he’ll do whatever he has to (yes, within the rules of the game) in order to stay on the field as an influential member of a winning lineup. If possible, he’ll avoid trips to the disabled list and excessive days off and, if the Sox let him, he’ll play in National League ballparks.
After all, there’s money on the line.
It’d be easy for the financially flexible owners on Yawkey Way to say, “You know what, David, you’re right, we need you. Here’s another $15 mil for 2015. In fact, we probably don’t beat the Tigers in the ACLS without that series-changing grand slam, so make it $20 million for good measure…” and he’d flash that sparkling smile, doff his shades and say he was only kidding about a willingness to play somewhere else.
If the Sox did call his bluff and let him head to free agency, sure, it’s hard to believe Ortiz wouldn’t leave for the right offer. But, as much as we’d all like to believe he has a limitless loyalty to the city he defended beyond the bounds of the FCC, he’d go. He may want to keep in mind, though, multi-year offers approaching the kind of money he makes now won’t be there when he’s 39, particularly when he’d inevitably require draft pick compensation. Half of the majors can be ruled out of the equation because he doesn’t play the field, and others in his own league either don’t spend or wouldn’t shell out that kind of coin for a DH. Even the Yankees would be hard-pressed to do more than court him.
David Ortiz will retire as a member of the Red Sox, and he knows it and should embrace it. If he didn’t by his own volition, and chased a few extra million from the highest bidder, his brand and popularity would take a hit. Ortiz would never let that happen, and he doesn’t have to. He’ll have a contract in Boston for as long as he isn’t an embarrassment to himself, whether that’s for two more years or 10. After that, he’ll be named an assistant to the GM or another glorified team ambassador spouting tales of the glory days at instructional drills each spring. He’ll ask kids half his age if they’ve seen “Four Days in October.”
In the meantime, the Red Sox won’t just roll over his already DH-leading deal of $15 million when a dip in production might bring him back for $10-12 mil. The lack of a salary cap doesn’t suddenly mean the absence of brains, and the luxury tax matters more to the Sox than their rivals in the Bronx.
It’d be nice if Ortiz handled these situations differently; if he spoke glowingly about his time in Boston and how he never wants to leave. Maybe he’s just upset that his career came a few years before contracts got truly laughably out of control. You know, when they were only humorously outlandish.
It’d be nice if he took a page out of Jon Lester’s book, and pronounced a willingness to pass on immense free agent riches for a still lofty but more measured deal in a city he wouldn’t leave without having the shirt ripped off his back. But, then, even Lester’s hometown discount may pay more than Ortiz has earned in his entire 17-year career.
For Ortiz, the champagne has dried up. In the winter, it doesn’t matter if the summer breeze blew like 2012 or through 2013. Without fail, the offseason is his contract season, and the Red Sox should make sure he remains the only one at the table. If they cave, he’ll do this again a year from now. If they don’t, he’ll be sitting there next winter regardless. In the end, he gains no leverage by being a distraction and his desire for security won’t hamper his productivity. Only Father Time can do that.
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When the Patriots fell to the Broncos in the AFC Championship, the vigorous appreciation for Bill Belichick’s coaching performance in the face of numerous devastating injuries quickly shifted to a vilification for his job as the Pats’ head of personnel.
Tom Brady doesn’t have enough weapons to contend, we’ve shouted.
The quarterback’s Super Bowl window is closing, we’ve lamented.
The coach’s ego is getting in the way of his team’s best interests, we’ve vented.
What if they never win again, we've cried.
Then, for a fleeting, rational moment, it occurred to me:
My goodness, our expectations are out of whack.
It is one thing to get lost in a nearly 15-year period of excellence, but it’s another entirely for that success to suddenly be deemed an expectation.
It wasn't always this way.
Belichick was an adequate coach in his five years in Cleveland. His Browns enjoyed one 11-win playoff season in an otherwise unproductive stint that culminated with a 36-44 record. In the majority of cities, he’d be run out of town, and the fans of Foxborough would be at the front of that line.
Brady was locally regarded as a sixth-round nobody when he was drafted out of Michigan by the Patriots in 2000 before he stole our hearts a year later. You mean this guy was supposed to hold the fort down with Drew Bledsoe out?
Together, the coach and quarterback have formed the best duo of their generation, perhaps all-time. After more than a decade nurturing Robert Kraft’s fifth son, Belichick ranks sixth in NFL history with 199 victories. In New England, both he and Brady sit better than 100 wins over the .500 mark. It’s a laughably impressive distinction.
But when their reign began, they weren’t two of the best. They weren’t superhuman, certainly not the kid under center.
Brady had won through efficient, timely production, and he was strongly aided by his defense and special teams. In his first four seasons as a starter, he won three Super Bowls and all nine of his playoff games, but he never reached 3,900 yards, 29 touchdowns, completed 64 percent of his passes, or had a QB rating of 93 in a single season.
He was an above average individual with an elite postseason resume.
It really wasn’t until 2007 and the arrival of Randy Moss and Wes Welker that Brady’s numbers inflated beyond imagination. Since, he’s grown into the Tom Brady we reference today, the stylish dresser with a supermodel wife. The guy who could own a house with a moat. For all we knew, the Brady of 2001 could have lived in an apartment over a teammate’s garage.
Similarly, that 2007 campaign featured a coach with an 18-0 start. Dolphins of years past feared the end of their immortality.
Two Super Bowl appearances later, the line between being two of the best and the two best has been blurred by a freak catch against a helmet that made a career and a pesky dropped ball that partially damaged a legacy.
Brady was a 27-year-old winner of three titles; now he’s approaching 37 without a fourth. Belichick will forever be the mastermind of Spygate until he silences his critics in the form of a Gatorade bath and a confetti shower.
Can we, if only for a moment, wait to decide their respective places in history and appreciate the facts?
Only two quarterbacks in league history have advanced to five Super Bowls: Brady and John Elway. The Broncos QB is remembered fondly, however, because he won in his final two tries after failing in his first three. Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana never reached that fifth game, but won all four of their chances.
Belichick is one of just three coaches to guide his team to five appearances in the Big Game, matched by Tom Landry and exceeded by Don Shula’s six. The latter two only won twice. Chuck Noll set the standard with four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span for the Steelers.
Noll had Bradshaw for 10 additional seasons around those championship years, but won just 16 total playoff games. Yes, there used to be fewer opportunities, but Belichick has emerged victorious 18 times with Brady.
Landry had Roger Staubach – widely considered one of the best to play the position – for 11 years during his run in Dallas. Still, Staubach was limited to 11 playoff victories and Landry never even captured another conference title without him.
Shula took multiple quarterbacks to the brink, but could never cross the threshold with one of the greatest in Dan Marino – the man with jaw-dropping regular season achievements, who’s equally famous for his postseason futility.
Montana was coached to three titles by Bill Walsh in San Francisco, but that dynasty endured three years totaling 11 wins. Brady has never won fewer than nine games in a single-season, and that’s happened only once.
Elway played for 16 seasons and reached 13 wins one time. So far, Brady can make five such claims.
It’s unfair to hold the early triumphs of Belichick and Brady against them as their window together shrinks. Championship games aside, they’ve also been eliminated from three conference finals trips. In theory, they’ve been on the cusp of eight Super Bowl appearances in 12 years. Eight. That would mean a place in the season’s final game in 67 percent of Brady’s years in the starting lineup.
Naturally, that’s not a fair view. We can only operate in realities and, on occasion, injuries have gotten in the way. At other times, it’s been the types of soul-crushing plays or underperformances than can only define a one-game playoff series.
In the NFL, the better team doesn’t always win and the superior players and coaches most definitely don’t regularly rise to the top. If it did, there would be a '19-0' banner hanging at Gillette.
To be disappointed the Patriots have yet to win that elusive fourth Vince Lombardi trophy is reasonable. But to hold out an expectation for it before Brady retires to his California mansion and Belichick is forced to groom a new franchise quarterback is downright ludicrous. History tells us otherwise because the wins came early.
Had those titles arrived in this decade rather than the one prior, much like with Elway, would there be an alternate perception? Would Brady be chastised for failing early, or given a pass since the standard was different back then?
Both Brady and Belichick have already done enough. That was true years ago. Unfortunately, though, the bar was set too high too soon, to the point where it’s now practically out of reach.
If it all ended today, the pair would go down as three-time winners, lauded for their accomplishments but also tagged with one question: What if?
It's instinctive to wonder once both have retired, even now, what could have been. Maybe, with one more ring, that notion will go away, but probably not. It will only be substituted by the absence of a fifth championship, where both Brady and Belichick could have stood alone.
Don't judge them by what hasn't happened. Be thankful for what has.
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Cornerback Aqib Talib has been the star of the secondary in New England for less than two seasons, but his play on the field when healthy commands the respect of a guy who could one day wind up in the Patriots Hall of Fame if he hangs around Gillette long enough. You’d never remember he was pulled off the Buccaneers’ scrap heap with a seventh-round draft pick for a mere fourth-rounder.
But the health, there’s the rub.
For two years running, Talib’s been knocked out of the AFC Championship with an injury, effectively ending the Pats’ season. Odds are his team would have fallen to the star-studded Broncos regardless, but there’s no question his absence created mismatches on defense that Tom Brady’s offense simply could not overcome. It’s hard to ignore the numbers from Demaryius Thomas with Talib on him (one catch, 29 yards) versus when Alfonzo Dennard and company were called into duty (six receptions, 105 yards, one touchdown).
During the season – long before Wes Welker’s legal knee-injury inducing hit – Talib dealt with a hip problem, one that dates back to just his fourth game with the Pats. For the first six contests of 2013, he contained some of the NFL’s top receivers with relative ease. He looked like a candidate for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year honor. When his hip injury resurfaced, it cost him three games on the sidelines and several more with inconsistent production. But, he persevered and was still named a second-team All-Pro and was selected to the Pro Bowl. He’s graciously passed on the free trip to Hawaii.
Now, the soon to be 28-year-old is a free agent.
It’s fair to ask: Did Talib’s latest injury cost him money in free agency, or actually justify that he earn more?
You see, on one hand, he’s displayed an inability to stay healthy. On the other, the Patriots have fallen apart without him twice. He’s perhaps as dynamic and as much a difference-maker for the defense as Rob Gronkowski is on offense.
There’s good news wrapped in the bad situation that was the AFC title game. For starters, it wasn’t the hip again. This was a freak injury. Second, there’s reportedly no structural damage and it appears Talib won’t need surgery.
Moreover, Bill Belichick’s unprompted rant against The Receiver Formerly Known as Wes the morning after the loss in Denver proved Talib’s head coach thinks very highly of him and is more than interested in retaining his services. Belichick wouldn’t admit it, but bringing back the shutdown defender is his team’s top priority.
This is Talib’s second go’round in free agency as a Patriot. Last spring, there wasn’t a market for his position and so he returned for one year and $5 million, reportedly passing on a five-year opportunity in hopes of really cashing in this time. A prove-it deal, if you will.
That five-year option won’t be there, and it shouldn’t be. The off-the-field cloud that floated over his head upon his arrival in Foxborough isn’t the problem. He’s been a good soldier and even a rare media darling in a sea of relative silence. The injury pattern, however, could scare the Pats into another short commitment.
The franchise tag is an alternative, though not a favorable one. Talib would leap at the chance to sign a guaranteed deal worth more than double his previous salary. The projected tag for cornerbacks is in the neighborhood of $11 million.
Intuitively, another $5 million a year pact would be warranted on the sheer logic that he’s damaged goods. Of course, his cornerback counterparts have salaries that make such a suggestion laughable.
If he opts to test free agency starting March 11, he could find suitors impressed enough with what he did in New England to give him a multi-year contract. Plus, it shouldn’t be another soft market with the likes of Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie available.
Had Talib stayed healthy through the postseason, his deal on the open market likely would have started at $7 million per season. Now, it might max out there.
That’s where his importance in New England comes into play.
For the Pats, Talib’s worth remains in that upper tier on account of his full body of work and the youthful potential that exists if he can stay on the field. Look no further than the consequences of his consecutive abrupt departures. Entering his seventh NFL season, he’s the best Patriots cornerback since Asante Samuel or even Ty Law, and the organization knows it. Dennard is not in that class, and it’s too early to know what Logan Ryan will be.
The team would be crazy to let Talib go, but equally loony to give him several years. Two or three years at a higher annual average value than he might command on the open market for four years best suits the Krafts.
Given his comfort here, it might also be ideal for Talib.
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With Sunday’s disappointing but somewhat anticipated Patriots loss to the Broncos in the AFC Championship, that brought an end to one of the most challenging yet entertaining seasons to take place in Foxborough in recent memory.
But, now, as those offensively-potent Broncos prepare for next month’s Super Bowl against the defensively-stingy Seahawks, the offseason has arrived in New England.
So, what’s next?
Big picture, the Pats have a dozen free agents, most very replaceable by external options. Only two names stand out at the top of the Hope to Retain list with the market set to open on March 11:
In those two contributors lies an interesting debate: What wins championships, offense or defense?
The Patriots last won a Super Bowl in 2005, their third in four years. They’ve been eliminated from the postseason eight times since, rarely by the so-called superior team. In those contests, the Pats allowed an average of 27.3 points and scored just 17.8.
As an aside, that’s one thing that’s a bit comforting about this year’s exclusion. The Broncos were unequivocally the better team last week, both on paper and on the field. Moving on…
Those stats make sense this time around. Tom Brady lacked Rob Gronkowski on offense and was forced to throw to the likes of Austin Collie, Matthew Slater, and Matt Mulligan in a conference final game, while the defense was missing Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, Brandon Spikes and, for most of the day, Talib. When Wes Welker knocked the cornerback out with a knee injury, Peyton Manning saw mismatches and the Patriots saw stars.
Often times over the last dozen years, however, the Patriots have had their horses alongside Brady in the playoffs. Unfortunately, that group has just come up short when it mattered most.
Now, Brady needs the weapons more than ever. The franchise-altering quarterback is no longer at a point in his career where he can be relied upon to elevate a young or inexperienced arsenal to new levels. It was a problem throughout this season, and he’ll be 37 come the start of the next one.
For those ready to quickly point out Edelman’s emergence from free agent anonymity, yes, he had a tremendous year, but that’s as much a credit to his athleticism and the system he plays in as it is to Brady.
That doesn’t mean Brady isn’t one of the best of all-time or even one of the best now. But he’s inarguably on the decline. How many years of elite-level play (with a Broncos-like stable of targets, that is) does he have left? Two? Three? Everyone knows – the Patriots included – his window is closing. In a couple seasons, it will be slamming.
The time to act is now.
Just as when the Pats loaded up for the 2007 season, they must do so again. New England has to reward its star with a veteran or two who can help raise his play for a change.
Clearly, the team could not have anticipated Gronkowski’s second injury in 2013, nor foreseen the circumstances surrounding Aaron Hernandez. It could not force Emmanuel Sanders away from the Steelers.
But it could have elected to bring back Welker and Danny Woodhead rather than hoping for similar production out of Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen. It also could have given Brady a deep threat with any level of NFL experience as opposed to several rookies.
Sadly, for all the credit Bill Belichick deserves for his coaching performance, his personnel decisions warrant equal criticism.
That makes re-signing Edelman a priority, and he’s going to receive offers this time around after a 105-catch, 1,056-yard season. What happens if the market prices him out of New England? It is reasonable he asks for a similar deal to Amendola’s five-year, $31 million pact. If he does, and leaves, can Amendola really be counted on to take over his role, as he was expected to this season when it was Welker’s job? After year one, he and Brady still aren’t on the same page. The injury-riddled receiver won’t be cut, so we’ll find out.
Just as important, the Pats need an outside threat with speed. Preferably someone, ya know, taller than six feet. Aaron Dobson could be that guy, but would you gamble your salary on it? Eric Decker will be a free agent, but would the Patriots pony up the dough for him? Or Anquan Boldin? How about Golden Tate (wait, he's 5'11") or Hakeem Nicks? Sanders is available again. Or they could try to trade for Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald? They don’t need superstars, per se, but another experienced veteran or two who isn’t signed and cut throughout the season would be a marked improvement.
Moreover, they’ll need to sign an impact tight end, someone who could allow free agents Michael Hoomanawanui and Mulligan to be more complementary pieces should either return. Whenever Gronkowski comes back from this latest knee injury, there’s no telling how long he’ll be available from there. He alters the dynamics of the offense like few others in the game, but has proven undependable. It’s fair to ask, would Tony Gonzalez play one more year with an established contender? Maybe Dennis Pitta? Or, going the other way, maybe a high-round pick in May’s draft would be a viable solution? The team presently has seven selections.
The only other offensive free agent of note is LeGarrette Blount. As impressive as the running back was in three of his final four weeks, especially in light of what was expected of him, he’s not a necessity with Stevan Ridley, Vereen, and Brandon Bolden in the fold.
Well in front of Edelman and Blount on the overall wish list, though, is Talib.
The 27-year-old is a top-notch, shutdown corner who owned every opponent’s primary receiver when healthy. But, like with Gronkowski, health has been a problem. His season has prematurely ended two straight years in an elimination game. Both times, the defense collapsed without him.
The Pats shouldn’t franchise the center of the secondary – which would more than double his salary to the tune of more than $11 million – but his performance warranted a bump in pay and a multi-year deal. It’s a wonder if the limited marquee options at his position will, too, force him to look elsewhere. The only benefit of the hefty franchise tag is that it all but guarantees his return. That is to say his injury history doesn’t frighten the organization. If it does, there’s always a free agent like Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
The pass-rush could use some help as well, but the Patriots were a top-five team in sacks – even if they literally couldn’t brush up against Manning in Denver – and ranked in the middle of the pack in deflected passes.
From there, there’s actually great reason for optimism. A healthy Wilfork, Mayo, and Kelly, and continued improvement from Chandler Jones, Logan Ryan, Jamie Collins, and Alfonzo Dennard could easily place the Patriots among the top defenses in the league. Little more than health and some additional depth are needed, not big names. Even Spikes is expendable.
Consider the Pats’ first five games in 2013, when they allowed a mere 14 points per game before substantial and overwhelming injuries set in. More often than not, Talib was the chief difference-maker, but Wilfork and Mayo were noticeably influential. In the end, the Patriots finished 26th in the league in yards allowed per game (373.1) and 10th in points against (21.1).
As important as offense is, defense wins championships. Since the 2000 season, only once has the league’s top scoring team won the Super Bowl (Saints, 2009). On four occasions, it’s been the best defenders (Steelers, 2008; Patriots, 2003; Buccaneers, 2002; Ravens, 2000). In about two weeks, after the Broncos and Seahawks have squared off, one of those lists will have another entry. Bet on Seattle.
Each time the Patriots have reached the Super Bowl this century, with one exception, they’ve had a top-six defense. Fortunately, in that sense, they have more work to do on the other side of the ball and already possess the most significant piece on offense under center.
With Brady at the helm, the Pats will always be competitive and, in all likelihood, they’ll always win their habitually inept division. But, the Patriots can’t afford another wasted year in the Brady era, another offseason of discussions as to whether he’s won his last championship. Injuries and lack of talent and depth forced them to overachieve, and they were an upset shy of reaching the Super Bowl. Still, it was very unlikely they would have won the big game. They need the components to again be a favorite.
For Belichick, bound for Senior Bowl practices, personnel evaluations, draft and free agency preparations, and salary cap analysis, the 2014 season is underway. A year from now, hopefully the 2015 campaign won’t be.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Never say, “Never.” But do say, “Not right now.”
Since the somewhat surprising summer trade of captain Paul Pierce and team-leader Kevin Garnett to the Nets, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has told every radio talk show host, TV reporter, and print and online writer who would listen that talented point guard Rajon Rondo will not be traded.
It’s borderline shocking he hasn’t paid to put it on a billboard or the side of the Garden.
All along, I’ve believed him. If you haven’t, you should start.
Rondo was named the 15th captain in franchise history upon his return Friday night from an 11-month injury-driven hiatus from the court. The news was broken by public address announcer Eddie Palladino when he uttered the words, “And at the other guard, 6-1 from Kentucky, the captain, Rajon Rondo!” before a wide television audience and thousands of Green-goggled onlookers.
That’s right; the C’s quiet leader had no idea.
“It really didn’t hit me at first,” he admitted. “I was just trying to lock in.”
“I never told him,” said head coach Brad Stevens. “Maybe it’s something I should have done, but I think it’s something you earn through your effort, through your leadership, through your involvement in the community and all of those things. So, yeah, he earned his captaincy. He didn’t need to be named it by me.”
Know what Rondo really didn’t need?
To be named captain at all.
Stevens isn’t required to have a captain, and even hinted earlier this year that he wouldn’t. Just because Pierce held the title in part since 2000 and exclusively since 2003 doesn’t mean there had to be an immediate replacement.
It was a not-so-subtle way for the Celtics to not only reward a deserving player of a celebrated honor, but to also share with the NBA community and their fans, “This guy is here to stay, at least for now.”
Players aren’t named captain and sent packing one month later. With the league’s trade deadline approaching on Feb. 20, there will be deals, but Rondo won’t be among those sent out.
Not Rondo, not yet.
The four-time All-Star’s trade value is at an all-time low. To maximize his worth, he needs to show he’s the same rubber-made, quick-cutting, explosive, wide-eyed player he was before last Jan. 25’s setback.
That will take longer than a few weeks.
Moreover, consider the historical importance of being a captain, at least in the Celtics’ organization.
From 1950-92, the C’s had only five captains – legends Bob Cousy (1950-63), Bill Russell (1963-69), John Havlicek (1969-78), Dave Cowens (1978-80), and Larry Bird (1980-92) – and their respective reigns didn’t end until retirement. A first retirement for some.
The next two decades followed a different trend.
Reggie Lewis enjoyed a brief captaincy (1992-93) before tragically passing away.
Robert Parish, then 40 and in his 14th season in the Hub, was captain (1993-94) before leaving as a free agent.
In his sixth year, Dee Brown was named co-captain with new veteran Dominique Wilkins in 1994-95. The (former) Human Highlight Film left after only one year, but Brown secured the solo title for the following season.
In 1997-98, three men shared the distinction: Brown, Pervis Ellison, and Antoine Walker. But, Brown was sent to the Raptors midseason in the deal that famously transported Chauncey Billups out of town, and Ellison missed the next season with an injury.
That left Walker all alone as captain in 1998-99, before he re-added the “co” to his title with veteran Dana Barros, who was traded to the Mavericks after the season.
For the following three years, from 2000-03, it was Walker and Pierce.
Walker was traded to Dallas after his last All-Star campaign, and that left just Pierce all the way until last summer.
Yes, captains have been traded. But none after a mere month, and none with the talent of Rondo at that stage of their careers, aside from perhaps Walker, who was returned a short time later. Wilkins, Brown, Barros, and Pierce – whether because of age or injury – were all long past their primes. As for Fox’s release, it’s hard to take anything seriously that happened during the Pitino regime.
Rondo is just 27. He hasn’t even signed his big contract yet (he’s due to be a free agent after next season). That may not come in Boston, but make no mistake, Ainge and company are still evaluating that question, and the basketball brass will take its time to do so.
For now, believe that Ainge and Stevens plan to build around Rondo. He’s the last remaining piece of the 2008 championship puzzle and they hope he possesses the same elite talent and all the mental and emotional leadership qualities required to raise Banner 18 at the conclusion of this rebuild.
If they decide he doesn’t, then maybe he’ll be traded. But, rest assured, such a move won’t occur before the offseason, if then. The Celtics told us that when they attached “captain” to Rondo’s name.
Try not to get swept up in the rumors along the way.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Entering the AFC’s divisional round, I found myself wondering, “If the Patriots thump the Colts and the Broncos basically just survive the Chargers, will I feel any differently about the Pats’ chances in the AFC Championship?”
Well, that’s exactly what happened and now I’ve had about a week to digest it.
The answer is no.
It’s the heart versus head debate.
In my heart, this seems like exactly the type of game New England should win in Denver. That ‘us against the world, no one’s giving us a chance’ mentality, mixed with that ‘next man up’ personnel magic that’s been on display all year. If there’s any team that relishes being an underdog, it’s one led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
In my head, the Broncos are too strong. They have the edge in nearly every area but coaching. Even their quarterback gets the benefit of the doubt over our guy, simply because of the toys around him. A loss would be disappointing, but nothing to be embarrassed by. The Patriots, given their ridiculous rash of injuries, arguably shouldn’t still be playing.
Behold, in no particular order, my 10 biggest concerns entering Sunday’s showdown.
- Patriots running game – The Pats have won their last three games largely because of the run and they were a Top-10 squad on the ground this year. Against the Colts last weekend, Brady had to do very little thanks the combined six touchdown effort by backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. However, the Broncos are very efficient at stopping the run. They held the Patriots to just 116 yards on 31 carries in their Week 12 meeting, and the Broncos finished tied for sixth in the NFL by holding opponents to 101.6 rushing yards per game during the regular season. In Denver’s last five games, including a divisional win over San Diego, opposing rushers have been limited to 96 yards or fewer four times. The Patriots’ balanced ground and pound may not be found this weekend.
- Patriots passing game – As I wrote about earlier this week, if the running game is stunted, that will put far more pressure on Brady to carry the offense – no easy task when short-yardage receivers Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Shane Vereen are your healthiest targets. The mid-season loss of Rob Gronkowski may just be too much to overcome. Fortunately, the Denver defense is severely injured without the likes of Von Miller and Chris Harris, and Brady has thrived in his career against Jack Del Rio defenses to the tune of 17 touchdowns, zero interceptions, a 72.8 completion percentage, a 121.1 rating and, most importantly, a 7-0 record. Plus, the Broncos finished 27th in the league by allowing 254.4 passing yards a game. To their credit, however, that average has dipped significantly to 171.2 over the last five weeks.
- Broncos running game – We all remember what happened when these teams last matched up nearly two months ago. Denver back Knowshon Moreno went off for a career-best 224 yards on 37 attempts as part of a 280-yard, 48-carry evening for his squad. Things weren’t normally that bad, of course, but without the consistent use of Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly, (and now Brandon Spikes is out), New England was 30th in the regular season at preventing the run as opponents averaged 134.1 yards per game. That number has improved to 112.8 in the last six games, almost exactly the Broncos’ average in that time (112.5) – but theirs includes an 18-yard anomaly in Week 15 against the Chargers.
- Broncos passing game – Where do you start? Never mind that the Patriots have allowed 286.2 passing yards on average over the last five contests and finished 18th in the league in that category (239), the Broncos have arguably the most intimidating passing attack in NFL history. From a likely future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning under center to four high-caliber wideouts who each caught at least 10 touchdowns in Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Julius Thomas (who didn’t play in the last matchup) and, of course, Wes Welker, Belichick’s defense has its work cut out for it. The Pats will need Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard to be at their best, as well as another inspiring game from rookie Jamie Collins. And that’s just a start. If you’re looking for any level of optimism, Manning is merely 9-12 in his career against Belichick defenses with 39 touchdowns, 30 interceptions, and 30 sacks.
- Playing on the road – The Pats may have 13 wins, but only four have come outside of Foxborough and just one of those is particularly noteworthy – a blowout of the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 16. As for the Broncos, they’re 8-1 at Mile High with their only blemish coming at the hands of the Chargers in Week 15 in a game they were missing Welker. Moreover, the Patriots haven’t played a road playoff game in seven years (a loss to Manning’s Colts) and the Denver air hasn’t been kind to New England. Since 1969 (when they were the Boston Patriots), the Pats have lost their only two playoff games and 15 of their last 18 trips to visit the Broncos. That includes three of four defeats since 2005, with a divisional playoff loss in 2006 mixed in.
- Manning motivated by legacy – If Manning’s offseason neck exam goes well, you can expect him back on the field next season, which probably means another Brady-Manning showdown when the Broncos stop at Gillette. However, this weekend could be the last playoff showdown between two of the all-time greats, which may mean Manning’s final chance to justify the comparisons he receives to his Patriots counterpart. Brady’s taken 10 of their 14 head-to-head meetings, he’s won and advanced to more Super Bowls, and he’s far and away been the better playoff performer. But, Manning has superior stats in the regular season. He’ll never acknowledge it, but, for Peyton, it’s not about tying his brother Eli in championships. It’s about chasing Tom. No one could ever argue the elder Manning’s place in football history, but where he stands in relation to Brady is a conversation that could officially end with an upset this weekend.
- Welker factor – We all know Wes likes to stick it in Bill’s face, so here’s his chance to show the Patriots they made a mistake in not giving him a long-term deal to stay in Foxborough, not to mention make up for his Week 12 struggles when he made his return to his old home. Welker may have felt silenced or stifled by his old coach on occasion, but he only has to worry about the opposing defense now. His biggest task could be getting out of his own head, no easy chore in that new oversized helmet.
- Turnovers – The Patriots were better than the Broncos in one key area this year and that’s turnover differential. New England was a plus-nine, while Denver was even. Where the Broncos struggled was with giveaways (26 to the Pats’ 20). We saw the ugly effort put forth by both teams in their 11 turnover game earlier this season, but that won’t happen again. Hopefully the Patriots can build on the eight takeaways they’ve had the last three games (vs. only one giveaway), but the Broncos haven’t been surrendering the ball much of late either. They have just three turnovers in their last five outings. Normally this would seem to go in the Pats’ favor, but it’s hard to shake that visual of Ridley putting the ball on the ground in a big spot. At least Broncos fans share that feeling whenever Manning tosses a wobbly ball.
- Red zone deficiencies – The Broncos were absurd in the red zone this season, scoring touchdowns on 76.1 percent of their chances to lead the NFL. The Patriots ranked 13th defensively at 53.9 percent inside the 20. For them, limiting the Broncos to field goals would be a victory. Fortunately, Denver didn’t sit any better at slowing opponents in the red area (25th, 61.2%), but New England scored in only 57.8 percent of its attempts, a number drastically lower without Gronkowski.
- The weather – Say what you want about Manning not being able to hold his own in the cold. It won’t matter. The forecast for Sunday in Denver calls for sunny skies, no rain, slight winds, and potentially a 60-degree afternoon. The weather won’t come into play at all. If nothing else, the Patriots are at a disadvantage with the altitude change. That may be a reach, but it’s a bigger concern than anything the Broncos will face in this area.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
This week, we’re taking a look at some of the most popular topics entering Sunday’s AFC Championship between the Patriots and Broncos.
So far, it’s been a quarterback conversation in this space. In all likelihood, this weekend will feature the last meaningful game between legends Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. And, if the Pats have any hope of winning, Brady will have more individual pressure on him than perhaps any other point in his career – something that ironically suits the Broncos just fine.
This next matter has been debated all season long…
You’ll hear everything rehashed this week, if you haven’t already.
If the Pats win this weekend, defeating Welker along the way, they made the right decision.
Well, maybe it would sting less, but that’s a simplistic outlook.
Say Welker makes seven catches for 75 yards and a touchdown, but Amendola grabs three balls for 45 yards in a Patriots win, does that mean New England shouldn’t have matched Denver’s 2-year, $12 million offer?
What if Amendola is the beneficiary of two touchdowns, 10 receptions, and 117 yards, while Welker and his Marvin the Martian/Juggernaut helmet are knocked out of the game with a third concussion in the second quarter, but the Broncos advance? Right move, Pats?
It’s hard to boil the decision down to the performances in one game, unless Amendola is a substantial part of a Patriots victory. It would be like defining Welker’s time in Foxborough by two missed opportunities in the postseason. Plenty of people do it, but it’s hardly fair and certainly doesn’t tell his story.
If the Patriots had Welker, they’d be the ones hosting the AFC title game.
It’s a reasonable notion, and also one that’s impossible to quantify.
The Pats frustratingly lost their four regular season games, including one in overtime, by a combined 18 points. Sure, they may have won one of those for a 13th win, taken the tie-breaker with their Week 12 triumph of the Broncos, and invited another busy Sunday on Rt. 1 with Welker in the fold rather than Amendola. But we can’t possibly know.
Welker’s established relationship with Brady undoubtedly would have aided the quarterback in those first half-dozen games when Amendola missed most of his action with a groin injury and Brady was without Rob Gronkowski and struggling to gel with an assortment of rookies. However, the Pats still won all but one of those contests. Would Welker have made the difference in Cincinnati, or put his team a step ahead of the Jets with Amendola on the sidelines?
Their numbers prove the Pats screwed up.
Injuries somewhat evened the playing field here. Skeptics like me of the Amendola signing expected the 28-year-old receiver to get hurt, while the 32-year-old Welker was always regarded for being Mr. Durable. This year, the hits caught up to the veteran. He suffered two concussions after who knows how many over the first nine years of his career.
As it played out, both underperformed, but Welker held the edge in games (13 vs. 12), receptions (73 vs. 54), yards (778 vs. 633), touchdowns (a career-high 10 vs. 2) and, maybe most important, his team’s wins (13 vs. 12). Narrowing that last category down to the games played, the Broncos won 11 times with Welker on the field to the Patriots’ nine with Amendola. In the end, both clubs earned first-round byes, won their divisional games, and now one will play for the Lombardi trophy.
Immeasurable is that Welker’s numbers may have been much better – at least his catches and yards – working with Brady rather than in a historically proficient Broncos offense where he wasn’t Manning’s first option. One could easily argue a demerit for Amendola, since the stats he was expected to produce as a go-to slot receiver were stolen by Julian Edelman once he proved more reliable.
This debate is stupid; Edelman is the new Welker, not Amendola.
Now, perhaps, but that wasn’t the plan. Amendola was the supposed second choice to Welker.
The suddenly indispensable Edelman rejoined the Patriots in the offseason at the veteran’s minimum after drawing little interest in free agency. He was never expected to make 105 catches for 1,056 yards. Both totals are about three times his previous career-highs, set in 2009. The Pats lucked out in tapping into Edelman’s success and once-elusive health.
The Patriots could have signed all three of those tiny slot receivers!
It’s true, the Pats didn’t spend to the cap and could technically have signed Edelman, Amendola, and Welker, but it would never have happened. New England targeted Emmanuel Sanders in free agency as an outside threat, couldn’t have foreseen the incarceration of Aaron Hernandez, and planned on a healthy Gronkowski for at least the latter half of the season. Add that group to Shane Vereen (who also missed significant time with a broken wrist) and an emerging rookie or two and the Pats didn’t need three guys capable of playing the same position, even if they could afford them.
New England assumed Amendola would be healthy based on the freak nature of his previous ailments, and viewed him as a younger, faster, similarly-skilled alternative to an aging but productive Welker.
Even if Amendola’s injuries had been foretold, the rest wasn’t.
Amendola’s here and the world didn’t end.
The Patriots still made the playoffs after letting Welker go and may even win a Super Bowl. Odds are they won’t, but that’s less about not having Welker and more about the increasing number of starters hanging out in the infirmary.
When the Pats allowed their relationship with Welker to deteriorate to the point he left – whether because the team low-balled him in negotiations, or because he was simply ready for a change of scenery – I had one overwhelming thought that couldn’t be calculated until season’s end:
How much will the Patriots’ offense suffer without arguably the best receiver in franchise history? If minimally, the Amendola-Welker debate is irrelevant. If substantially, they should have done whatever was necessary to bring Welker back.
In 2013, New England averaged 27.8 points per game. Brady completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 25 touchdowns and 4,343 yards, and the team net 255.4 passing yards per game.
Last season, the club scored 34.8 points a game as Brady converted 62.7 percent of his attempts for 34 TDs and 4,827 yards, an average of 291.4 net passing yards per contest.
Granted, the Pats had Brandon Lloyd and a mostly-healthy Gronkowski and Hernandez in 2012, but the drop-off is still significant. Under the circumstances, Welker had arguably his second-best season because he was relied upon even more heavily than usual whenever a top tight end was unavailable and he responded. There’s not guaranteeing he would have done so again this year, but it’s not outlandish to believe in that reality. After all, this is the guy who averaged 112 catches and 1,243 yards a year with the Pats – and that includes north of 100 receptions and 1,000 yards from Matt Cassel.
If Welker wanted out, he made the right choice in selecting his destination. If the Patriots lost him over $2 million or drama involving his agents, that’s inexcusable.
Either way, I remain firm in my belief the Patriots – even with all of their injuries – would be a stronger team with Welker than Amendola, though the debate is much closer than it once seemed for one reason.
The Pats are still playing.
But the list of those to thank for that is awfully long before arriving at Amendola.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
Most rivalries are created by history, while others are driven by stories. In the case of the Patriots and Broncos, it’s most certainly the latter.
This week, we’re leading up to an AFC title bout between New England and Denver with a series of hotly debated questions that, in most cases, will soon have answers.
We began on Tuesday by asking if Sunday’s tilt will be the last meaningful showcase featuring aging and elite QBs Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Today, we wonder…
Will quarterbacks indeed define the AFC Championship?
Entering the AFC divisional round, NFL media incessantly reminded football fans the game is built around its quarterbacks. It was sexy to bill the Pats and Colts as Brady versus Andrew Luck but it was clear from their teams’ strengths and weaknesses that QB’s would not dictate the story.
In Brady-Manning XV, the marquee is appropriate.
When these clubs last faced off in a fumble-filled overtime thriller won by the Patriots just prior to Thanksgiving, Brady threw 50 times for 344 yards and three touchdowns while four backs – ironically led by Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen – combined to carry the ball 29 times for 116 yards.
On the other side, the Broncos were content to run and the Pats were happy to let them. Knowshon Moreno went off for a career-best 224 yards on 37 attempts (the Broncos had 280 yards on 48 carries), and Manning endured season-worst totals of 150 yards passing and a 52.8 completion percentage. The privileged passer was passive.
Nearly two months later, active rosters and philosophies have changed.
The Patriots are without their top receiving threat in tight end Rob Gronkowski, who caught seven balls for 90 yards and a touchdown in that 34-31 rally. Gone, too, is linebacker Brandon Spikes, one of six Pats players to recover a fumble on that chilly, windy night. He also finished seventh in the game with nine tackles.
The Broncos have added their star tight end in Julius Thomas, who was a 12-TD, 788-yard recipient during the regular season but missed that contest with a knee injury. Denver’s defensive side of the ball is brutally hampered now, though, without All-Pro linebacker Von Miller (who had two sacks, forced one fumble, and returned another for a score in the last meeting), tackle Kevin Vickerson (two QB hits and a sack), and top cornerback Chris Harris (four tackles). It wasn’t until Harris went down with an ACL tear midway through the third quarter of last weekend’s survival of the Chargers that San Diego was able to make a hard push to hand Manning a ninth one-and-done playoff season.
But even with Miller, Vickerson, and Harris healthy, the Broncos weren’t known for their defense in 2013. They finished 19th in the regular season by allowing 356 yards per game and 22nd in points against at 24.9.
Broken down further, they were stout against the run (7th, 101.6 yards per game) and lousy versus the pass (27th, 254.4), as evidenced in a microcosm back in Week 12.
That’s where this game develops a new and intriguing wrinkle.
With Gronkowski out and only the soon-to-be-wealthy Julian Edelman having proven a reliable receiver, the Patriots have evolved. In their last three games – all wins – they’ve run the ball 123 times and thrown just 75 passes. LeGarrette Blount has averaged 143 of New England’s 214 ground-and-pound yards during that stretch and he’s found the end zone eight times.
If the Pats can locate their holes and create offensive balance with the use of a heavy rushing attack, they’re assuredly going to do so. If it ain’t broke…
But – and this would normally seem counterintuitive or downright insane to suggest – it would behoove the Broncos to focus on stopping the run and dare Brady to beat them.
Yes, it’s in their best interests to challenge one of the best quarterbacks of all-time and a two-time MVP.
Brady has three ideal targets – Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Vereen – and they’re all short and play for short yardage. Size is missing from the equation, and distance will likely only arise from defensive lapses. Should Denver be able to stack the line and take away the running game, New England will be in trouble unless its signal-caller can abuse defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio with the regularity he’s done so in the past. According to colleague Erik Frenz, Brady has a 72.8 completion percentage, 1,774 yards, 17 touchdowns, and zero interceptions against Del Rio defenses in his career. Here’s hoping former Broncos coach and current Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has a trick or two up his full-length sleeve to continue that trend because a stunted ground game and man-coverage on Edelman could deplete Brady’s options frighteningly quickly. The Patriots are unlikely to win a game where his runners are ineffective and Amendola is the receiver of choice.
Ordinarily, forcing Brady’s hand would lack better judgment. In this case, the Broncos would be crazy not to.
As we witnessed last weekend, Brady didn’t have to beat the Colts. It was never in the game-plan. This time, he’ll have to be the one to provide his team with a ‘W’ against the Broncos. It’s the best way to silence the critics proclaiming the road-troubled Patriots can’t win if they can’t run. The QB knows it, too, which is why he’s said it would be one of the most satisfying victories of his career if his team can pull it off.
In turn, the Broncos are likely to back off their lean-on-Moreno stance, even against a Pats team that is deficient at stopping the run (30th, 134.1). In what may be the final game of his Hall of Fame journey, Manning has something to prove, a legacy to fight for, a full and healthy complement of weapons, and the sunny, 50-degree weather will be on his side. This time, he won’t hand the ball off and simply skate to whatever the outcome without a consistent and defining impact on the game.
The Patriots’ “Next Man Up” defense will have to be ready opposite the most successful offense in league history because a shootout won’t end in their favor this time. Surrendering only field goals would be almost as much of a triumph as forcing punts.
But, ultimately, their game won’t come down to the defense or the run game. Brady’s right shoulder will have more responsibility than it’s had all season. Strangely, that puts the Patriots right where the Broncos want them.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
It’s rare in a game like football that expectations actually pan out.
There are only 16 games to determine playoff spots and seeding. Along the way – and into the playoffs – brute physicality steals stars, leaders, and other impactful personnel from their teams for time spanning a few game-changing plays to the duration of the season. Weather, insufficient game-planning, and breathtakingly mesmerizing or shockingly underwhelming performances result in upsets at the season’s most crucial juncture.
It’s so infrequently about the better team, but instead the superior squad on a given day.And, still, Sunday afternoon will bring to football historians and fans of story lines precisely the AFC title tilt we all anticipated way back in training camp.
Discussions exhausted a thousand times over will be rehashed once more. Come Sunday night, when the Seahawks are getting ready to host the Niners, this round of questions will have ended. Only answers will remain, accompanied by a trip to the Meadowlands.
To think, the reward for winning something is a trip to New Jersey.
Throughout the week, we’ll look ahead to the Patriots-Broncos showdown with some of the big questions surrounding the matchup. First…
Is this the last meaningful showdown between two of the best quarterbacks of all time?
In all likelihood, this is the final chapter of any significance.
It’s impossible to know this is the end for sure, of course, but Brady and Manning are both on the wrong side of 35 and the AFC is bound to get stronger as the two continue to get older. The Patriots’ veteran overcame devastating obstacles to get his underdog team to this point, and the Broncos’ record-setter will only be a medical miracle for so long.
Should the future Hall of Famers meet again one day, odds are it won’t be to decide who plays in the Super Bowl. They’ve only gone head-to-head three times in the postseason, the last coming seven long years ago. A far cry from a trio of memorable battles in the span of just four years between 2003 and 2006, when it appeared this would be a near-annual occurrence.
Brady bested Manning’s former Colts in two of those meetings, and the elite signal-callers split a pair of AFC championship bouts. The home crowd has always left satisfied.
The Pats QB has claimed 10 of the 14 matches to date, most recently a franchise-best comeback from down 24 at halftime to win 34-31 in overtime in Week 12. To call that win impressive wouldn’t show it the proper respect, but its importance doesn’t hold a candle to what lies ahead.
This next game may be the one to shape their legacies in regard to one another, and perhaps finally end the talk over who is supreme. You’d think three championships compared to one, five trips to the final game as opposed to two, an 18-7 playoff record versus a 10-11 mark – or any number of other gaudy playoff facts – would have done that, but regular season statistics (and that doesn't mean wins and losses) dictate a different story. They keep an otherwise futile topic trendy.
As my colleague Chad Finn appropriately wrote, Manning has far more to lose this weekend than his 2013 campaign. Another Brady win would cement the conversation of superiority in his favor. But another Manning loss in a game he and his teammates were supposed to win? Even the most bizarre of in-game circumstances would still leave many viewing it as a Mile High plummet. At best, a Manning win would keep the dialogue going.
The 36-year-old Brady, severely limited in his pass-catching options for the first time in a half-dozen years, has had his most challenging and maybe most rewarding season since entering his 30s. He was the hero on a handful of occasions, sure, but other days called for his running backs or the defense to decide the outcome.
Manning, at 37, has an embarrassment of offensive riches – Wes Welker among them – and finished with his best year and arguably the top single-season performance for any man to ever play the position.
In a generation of lists, rankings, and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately historical analysis, this week will be filled with biographical game-by-game reflections of the Brady-Manning era. That parade is well underway.
For a moment, though, consider only this:
Brady’s first career NFL start came on Sept. 30, 2001, a 44-13 whooping of the Colts in a game in which Manning was intercepted three times. If an offseason neck exam doesn’t go well, Jan. 19, 2014 could mark Manning’s final contest. Perfect bookends to an otherwise unenviable situation.
Even if the elder, product-hawking Manning does return – and hopefully he will – we won’t see this again. The regular season, maybe, but not a Hat and T-Shirt Game. You can often depend on the best teams surviving a series in other sports, but that’s not how it works on the gridiron. Every game is a Game 7 and occasionally those ankle-biting underdogs prevail.
Pats fans hope that will ring true again. In the process, one of the greatest rivalries of a generation will also inevitably become a thing of the past. From the Brady-Manning Bowl to the Super Bowl, one final time. Enjoy what’s left and savor every snap. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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