Look at it this way: on defense, especially, the Patriots are now fully exposed. Brandon Spikes is out there and Leigh Bodden is out for the year, and maybe this is all a good thing as it destroys any remaining uncertainty about who the Patriots are at the moment and what they are trying to accomplish.
In the much bigger picture, this has far more to do with Bodden than it does with Spikes, who broke no laws and committed nothing more than a colossal error in judgment by unveiling himself to the world last fall through the disturbingly public portal known as the internet. Fine, so maybe Spikes is an exhibitionist. So long as his current video does not provide the only highlights of his NFL career by year’s end, nobody will care in a matter of weeks, if not days.
Given the current dilemmas in Foxborough, it’s one thing to be left naked in the bedroom.
It’s another thing entirely to be left naked in coverage.
This brings us to Bodden, who unexpectedly was placed on injured reserve yesterday, ending his season. Coupled with the loss of defensive lineman Ty Warren to a season-ending injury, the move strips the Patriots of another veteran starter on a defensive unit that had little experience to begin with. In an increasingly quarterback-centric league in which the term "pass defense’’ already was an oxymoron, the Patriots now stand to open the year with the starting cornerback tandem of Devin McCourty and Darius Butler, who have a combined five NFL starts between them, all of them courtesy of Butler’s rookie season in 2009.
Worried? You should be, at least as it pertains to the 2010 Patriots. The Patriots could be more vulnerable on both sides of the field, at least in the short term. In the wake of last week’s preseason game against the Rams – this is where Spikes comes in – they are vulnerable in the middle, too. Factor in a schedule outside of the division that includes meetings with Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers and, well, you get the idea.
Oh, and did we mention that fearsome pass rush?
Here’s the good news: if you looked upon 2010 as a transitional year, anyway, the growth rate might just have been accelerated. McCourty was a first-round pick. Butler was one of the team’s highest selections last year. Presumably, Bill Belichick didn’t draft either of those guys to be backups or special teams players, and if the Patriots are going to struggle some this year regardless, they might as well invest in the development of their young players along the way.
Let’s think back to last year for a moment. If Belichick was truly infusing the defense with youth, then why did Richard Seymour get replaced with someone actually older in Jarvis Green? Why did the Patriots trade for Derrick Burgess? As it was, the New England defense disintegrated under the pressure of playing against the explosive offenses of Indianapolis and New Orleans, not to mention Baltimore in the playoffs.
Here’s the point: if the Pats are going to labor, they might as well get something out of it in the longer term. If guys like McCourty and Butler are the players the Patriots believe they are, there should be long-term benefit from the playing time. Let Spikes make his mistakes this year. Let McCourty do the same. And while we’re at it, let's see what more we can learn about Butler, Patrick Chung, Jermaine Cunningham, Tyrone McKenzie, Myron Pryor, and Ron Brace, among others. For that matter, let’s get a better read on Jerod Mayo and Brandon Meriweather, too.
Of course, with a defense now as young – and getting younger – as the Patriots are, there are obvious questions about development. Is some measure of veteran leadership necessary to build confidence, foster growth and lead the way – to serve as the unit’s glue? Are Vince Wilfork, Tully Banta-Cain, Burgess and Gerard Warren enough in that regard? Or are some of those veterans here merely to make the Patriots slightly more competitive, to make them a playoff contender as opposed to an operation in rebuilding mode, to appease the superficial entertainment interests more than the competitive football ones?
Look, the Patriots have had a great run over the last decade. They were due for a true rebuilding year sooner or later. The offense should be enough to keep fans entertained this season, even if the defense is running around in circles trying to solve opposing offenses.
Really, what all this comes down to this year concerns your expectations. If you regard the loss of Bodden as a huge blow, remember that he was released by the Detroit Lions before he got here. Maybe you were harboring unrealistic expectations for these Patriots.
But now you have the chance to adopt a completely different perspective, to reset your expectations and to, perhaps, be very pleasantly surprised.
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