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Roster miscues rest with Belichick

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / October 21, 2009

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There must be times like yesterday, when he released veteran wide receiver Joey Galloway, or Sunday, when he unceremoniously sat linebacker Adalius Thomas, that Patriots coach Bill Belichick bemoans the work of the team’s personnel chief, cursing him for saddling him with ill-fitting or underperforming players.

The personnel chief fires back that Belichick isn’t getting the most out of the players he selected. He’s not putting them in a position to succeed.

The argument doesn’t last long because the coach and the personnel chief are the same person: Belichick.

The Patriots head to London this week to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it was British historian Lord Acton who said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’’

No one is suggesting that Belichick is doing anything untoward with the power he wields in the Patriots organization, but make no mistake, it is absolute. Nick Caserio has the title of director of player personnel, but not a single roster decision is made in Foxborough without Belichick’s fingerprints on it.

So when an established veteran such as Galloway becomes a move “that just didn’t work out,’’ as Belichick said, it was either a coaching or personnel miscalculation.

“Any time you sign a player, you expect that he’ll come in and be a productive player for you,’’ said Belichick. “[Galloway was] inactive the last three games, and it just really didn’t work out for us, unfortunately. Sometimes that happens.’’

There is a natural push and pull between the roles of coach and personnel czar. There are conflicts and conflicts of interest.

That’s why Galloway, who will cost the Patriots nearly $1.8 million, lasted this long even though it was clear he had lost the trust of both his quarterback and the coaching staff following the Falcons game Sept. 27. In that game, he cost them a touchdown by carelessly stepping on the end line and dropped a Tom Brady pass in the red zone, after which the agitated quarterback rolled his eyes.

It’s also one reason that Thomas, who had started 29 of his 30 games as a Patriot prior to Sunday, can be inactive against the Tennessee Titans, while outside linebacker/defensive end Derrick Burgess, who was brought on at the cost of third- and fifth-round picks and has one sack, can be active.

If Burgess is inactive, the Patriots made a bad trade. If Thomas, who signed the most lucrative free agent contract in team history in 2007 (five years, $35 million, $20 million in guarantees) is a healthy scratch, he is being sent a message by his coach.

Criticize Thomas as an overpaid underperformer if you want. Argue that he is a product of the Ravens defense and that his 2006 Pro Bowl berth - a Pro Bowl at which Belichick was his coach - was the result of playing with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Terrell Suggs.

If you’re right, then Belichick the personnel chief made a huge mistake. If you’re wrong, then Belichick the coach isn’t getting the most out of Thomas.

From 2004-06, Thomas led all NFL linebackers in sacks with 28. However, when he came to the Patriots, they shifted him from outside linebacker to 3-4 inside linebacker to fill a need there. Thomas played the first nine games of that season at inside linebacker and had just a half-sack.

Over the final seven games of that season, he made six starts at outside linebacker and had six sacks.

Last season, Thomas played outside linebacker and was tied for the team lead in sacks with five, when he broke his right forearm in the ninth game.

This year, Thomas has just one sack, but the Patriots have played mostly four-man fronts, relegating him to being a coverage player and occasional blitzer on passing downs.

When Jerod Mayo sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee in the season opener, Thomas had to support Gary Guyton inside.

You don’t pay a guy $35 million to drop into coverage or shadow an opposing quarterback, as Thomas has done this season.

Burgess has been asked to do primarily one thing - get after the passer. He hasn’t done it. Put Thomas in that role, and he has proved he can produce.

It’s very difficult to criticize Belichick the coach. He will forget more about football than anyone who reads or writes this column will ever know. But you can question some of his personnel decisions since Scott Pioli departed for Kansas City.

Several of them “just didn’t work out.’’

■ The team traded a 2009 fifth-round pick for wide receiver Greg Lewis and a seventh-rounder. Then Belichick elected to keep the 37-year-old Galloway and cut Lewis.

■ The Patriots had to pay a premium for Burgess in August after failing to secure a proven pass rusher during the offseason, striking out on Jason Taylor (in fairness, there were family issues involved) and Greg Ellis.

■ Tight end Alex Smith was acquired from the Buccaneers for a 2010 fifth-round pick (the one used in the Burgess deal came from a later deal with Denver) and didn’t make the team out of training camp.

There also were good moves. The one-year, $2.25 million deal for cornerback Leigh Bodden looks like a steal. Before he got hurt, free agent pickup Fred Taylor was the team’s top running back. Chris Baker is solid at tight end.

And the 2009 draft class might be the Patriots’ best in some time with wide receiver Julian Edelman, cornerback Darius Butler, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer, and defensive tackle Myron Pryor all significant contributors through six games.

However, there is the caveat that of the 19 players selected in 2006 and 2007, just three remain with the team (Brandon Meriweather, Laurence Maroney, and Stephen Gostkowski). The ’08 class has Mayo and not much else.

Give Belichick credit for this: He is never afraid to confront his mistakes or cut his losses. He did that with Galloway.

But if you keep cutting your losses, eventually you’ve got nothing left to cut and no one left to blame but yourself.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com.

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