For the Patriots, with regard to Aqib Talib, the terms make all the difference. That was true when Talib arrived here. It is true now that he is essentially a free agent. And it will be true when he stays or when he goes.
And you know what?
The Patriots are right to have their concerns.
More than two weeks removed from a season-ending defeat against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game - a loss in which Talib suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter - the Patriots are already playing games with their starting left cornerback, whose reputation was spotty enough to begin with. According to a report by Mike Giardi on Comcast SportsNet New England, the Patriots are concerned with Talib's work ethic, with how he would respond under a long-term deal.
From a purely strategic standpoint, this a smart move by the Patriots, albeit a little underhanded. Both are consistent with who they are. Smearing Talib at this stage can do nothing but drive down the price for a cornerback who helped stabilize the New England secondary, no small feat given the game of musical chairs that has taken place in that area over the last two years.
By year's end, when everyone was healthy, the assignments were clear: Talib at left corner with Alfonzo Dennard on the right, Kyle Arrington in the slot, Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory at safety.
And then there is this: in his much ballyhooed performance against the Houston Texans in the AFC divisional playoffs, Talib allowed Andre Johnson to catch eight passes (on 11 targets) for 95 yards. That's not the 10 catches and 199 yards Talib allowed to New York Giants wideout Hakeem Nicks earlier in the season when Talib was with Tampa Bay, but it's not exactly what Law did to Marvin Harrison in the in the 2003 AFC playoffs, either.
Not bad, but not great.
Here's the problem with how we view Talib here: the Patriots secondary has been so positively wretched in recent years that Talib's value to the team is inflated. Minus Talib, the Patriots are desperate for secondary help and everybody knows it. Patriots coach Bill Belichick wanted Talib badly enough to sacrifice a fourth-round pick for him in the middle of the season, a deal made while Talib was in the midst of a four-game suspension for the use of a banned substance.
As much as the Patriots' pass defense improved after Talib arrived, the actual cause and effect is debatable. At about the same time, Belichick seemed to take a more active role in the defense and New England began blitzing more. The coverage got more creative. Meanwhile, rookie defensive end Chandler Jones was out with an ankle injury, and so putting too much emphasis on any one factor would be foolish.
Did Talib's skills in man coverage allow the Patriots to blitz more? Did the Patriots have to blitz more because Jones was out? Did Belichick's involvement make a difference or did the Pats simply blitz the more vulnerable quarterbacks? All of those things were factors.
In the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, after all, the Patriots blitzed quarterback Joe Flacco just 10 times, a game in which Talib spent the large majority of his time on the sidelines. The number against Houston in the divisional round was an identical 10, a game Talib spent chasing Johnson. On a percentage basis, the Patriots actually blitzed more with Talib off the field (against Baltimore) than him on it (against Houston).
But again, if nothing else, Talib was competent, capable. After the parade of players like Darius Butler, Ras-I Dowling, Sterling Moore, and Phillip Adams that has marched through Foxborough in recent years, it's no wonder that some want the Patriots to keep Talib at all costs.
Given Talib's history, of course, that would be a far more costly mistake than letting him go.
How the Patriots can replace Talib is certainly open to debate, particularly given the fact that any notable corner on the free agent market (Tracy Porter, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) would require the kind of major commitment the Patriots have typically avoided. (Hence the interest in Talib at a reduced rate - nobody loves a good deal like the Pats).
Another option would be to pursue an elite safety (and another more reasonably-priced one) and move McCourty back to corner, though he is clearly more comfortable (and effective) at the former.
In the end, this much is clear: if the Patriots are going to add to their secondary this offseason, they will likely have to pay for it. And unless the price for Talib drops - or unless the Patriots franchise him - there is really just one question:
Do you want to spend those long-term dollars on Aqib Talib, or do you want to spend them on somebody else?
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NFL story lines in 2012