Ready or not, younger Patriots are expected to play with more presence
FOXBOROUGH – Bill Belichick is fond of saying that stats are for losers, but these numbers don’t lie.
Of the Patriots’ 11 projected starters on defense, only two have Super Bowl rings won here, and only one has been with the team continuously since their last championship. Three starters were in high school then — February 2005 — and two more were redshirting in college.
There are more skins on the wall among the offensive linemen, but only Tom Brady and Kevin Faulk have rings among the skill position players.
Forget your father’s Patriots. These aren’t even your older brother’s Patriots.
And so as the pictures and placards from the past decade’s success come down within the football operations area of Gillette Stadium, a gaggle of young — very young — players look to lay the groundwork for their own legacy.
How well they handle it won’t just determine their personal success, it will also serve as a bellwether for the next half-decade for this franchise.
Simply, the lack of depth and quality to come out of New England’s drafts from 2006-08 has left a serious void on the roster. Among the 26 players selected in those years, just three players have become established starters (linebacker Jerod Mayo, safety Brandon Meriweather, kicker Stephen Gostkowski).
Players from those drafts are now going into Years 3, 4 and 5 of their careers. Guys in that 25-27 age range often provide the foundation for championship teams — coming into their primes, while still playing on their rookie contracts. But that’s not the case with the Patriots.
There’s a gaping hole on the team’s payroll, and that void needs to be filled by the 22 first- and second-year players populating the 53-man roster. The expectation is the development won’t hinder a franchise with a 33-year-old superstar quarterback who remains in “Win Now’’ mode.
The 2010 season hinges on it.
“You want to win regardless,’’ said director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “In the end, that’s what this all comes down to. It’s wins and losses, both today and tomorrow, and that’s never going to change. It’s ‘What can we do now?’ We can’t worry about a year or two from now.’’
Can this team develop quickly enough to play at a championship level? It’s happened before.
After the Patriots abandoned Lawyer Milloy on the doorstep of the 2003 season, and suffered a 31-0 bludgeoning in Buffalo in Week 1, most left the team for dead and chalked the 2001 championship up as a flash-in-the-pan.
The romanticized version of why that train of thought was wrong on both counts has to do with team play and a winning attitude. The truth is more rooted in the drafts of 2002 and 2003. Daniel Graham, Deion Branch, Jarvis Green, David Givens, Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel, and Dan Koppen were all quick studies.
But more than just that, those players had guidance.
“It was a bit of a transition with Eugene Wilson, he was going from corner to safety [to replace Milloy], but we had Rodney [Harrison],’’ said Browns coach Eric Mangini, then New England’s secondary coach. “Rodney was the mentor that helped both of those young guys [Wilson and Samuel] out, and that’s a pretty powerful mentor to have.
“He was willing to take control, and not accept anything but what was right. And that went for the whole team. We had good mentors throughout, and that’s powerful.’’
Koppen had Joe Andruzzi next to him. Green and Warren had Bobby Hamilton and Richard Seymour playing in front of them. Branch and Givens had Troy Brown.
So in 2010, as much as the Patriots need players such as Darius Butler and Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung to emerge, they need veteran players to help expedite their learning curve.
“We had good examples at each position,’’ Harrison said. “Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, myself. You get good veteran leadership, and set a good example consistently, it gives a rookie something to look at. Then, they see guys doing the right things, and it becomes contagious.
“We had that. But also, you need young guys willing to accept that.’’
That means as the young players become comfortable, another layer of young players, such as Mayo and Meriweather, have to take the next step into leadership.
Some positions still have older players. Sebastian Vollmer, for example, can lean on older linemen like Matt Light and Koppen. But in other spots, such as linebacker and defensive back, there’s a need for 20-somethings to grow into head-of-the-table roles.
“The older guys helped me out a great deal,’’ said Koppen, a Super Bowl starter as a rookie in 2003. “A lot of the guys here have always tried to help out the younger guys, because they’re coming in, and they don’t know.’’
And ultimately, a player’s ability to handle the NFL’s challenges physically — the ability to simply be good enough — is the biggest part of how he handles those rigors.
“It’s on the players themselves,’’ Caserio said. “Players have to hold themselves accountable. It doesn’t matter if a player is a 15-year veteran or in his second year. Everyone has to perform to a high level. You have to be able to count on him.’’
Taking into account that talent is vital, there are other traits that provide insight into how quickly a young player can reach his potential.
The secondary that Mangini started in Super Bowl XXXIX featured a rookie (Randall Gay) and two second-year players (Wilson, Samuel) around Harrison. Three years later, in his first year with the Jets, Mangini went to the playoffs with two rookies (D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold) anchoring the offensive line and another neophyte (Leon Washington) playing a lead role at tailback.
“The characteristics with those guys are similar — all very mature,’’ Mangini said. “It’s not necessarily that they’re old souls. But they are conscientious, serious, and want to take the coaching to get better.’’
Getting better is key.
That’s how teammates will, ultimately, gauge the young players. If they’re taking the coaching and the advice of older players, and improving, then confidence will rise.“You know after the first half of the season if you have a baller, someone you can count on,’’ Harrison said. “The first half of the season, you’ll see everything. That’s the critical time. How do they match up with the best receiver? Can they tackle? Are they in position? Are they listening? You find out a lot of that with the first 4-8 weeks.
“I had a lot of confidence in those guys [in 2003 and 2004], even as those guys played sparingly. Those guys were ballers. You can communicate all you want, but if you can’t play, it has no bearing on winning and losing.’’
That part is simple enough.
“Young players, older players, not-as-old players, doesn’t matter,’’ Chung said. “If you’re helping and producing for the team, that’s what you want.’’
There will be struggles and inconsistencies, yes. But they will be in the name of going forward, rather than getting by.
“The key word here is patience, and that’s realizing those guys aren’t going to be real consistent right away,’’ Harrison said. “It’s gonna be mental mistakes, someone forgetting their alignments or blowing a coverage or dropping a ball or missing a block. You won’t get the kind of consistent play you might from, say, Alge Crumpler, who’s been through it.
“You might have a miscommunication, Tom [Brady] might check off and the tight end might not get the call on an out route, and run an in route. That’s what you expect early on.’’
It then becomes important for young players’ weaknesses to be managed, and their confidence to be maintained.
“There are certain things they haven’t experienced, and you’ll have to live through those lumps,’’ Mangini said. “You do the best job you can of eliminating the learning curve on game day. I thought they did a great job of that with [Matt] Cassel. They put him in spots to succeed early, and as Matt grew, the offense grew.’’
That might be how you call a coverage for Butler or Chung, or get the ball to Aaron Hernandez or Rob Gronkowski early to get them in the flow of the game. However it happens, it’s important they have success early and learn from their failures.
“When you bring young players into a program, you try and put as much pressure on them as you can during practice, so when they’re in those situations in a game, they’re more comfortable,’’ Caserio said. “Practice is your job. You only play once a week. With that, back then, Asante grew more confident, Dan was out there going to work.
“Obviously those guys had ability, but they were able to maximize that ability and make some plays, and fit together with others around them. And it worked because they earned those opportunities.’’
There’s a lot on those first- and second-year players. In a way, they’ll have to make up for the team’s past problems in the draft, and they’ll have to complement and fit together with players who are established in Foxborough.
But more than anything, they’ll have to be ready. Because whether they are or not, their time has arrived early.
Albert R. Breer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.