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Advantage, Patriots

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 16, 2011 11:11 AM

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An extra point on the Patriots while trying to figure out whether Wilfork has Brady by a step there . . .

bradyvince816.jpg

Maybe it's because we're so eager for football to return to get underway that we can't help but overanalyze the new season's first sites and scenes. Maybe some of us just don't know any better than to draw conclusions from the cautious Patriots' first exhibition game of an abbreviated training camp.

Or maybe Taylor Price and Stevan Ridley are the Terry Glenn and Curtis Martin of a new generation and we're just fortunate enough to catch those first glimpses of greatness.

[Pausing for a beat so you can admire my hyperbole. It's nice, isn't it?]

martinglenn816.jpgOK, I'm being facetious, and Glenn is a horrible example. Hopefully the only thing he has in common with Price other than some level of raw talent and a position on the football field is matriculation at an Ohio-based university.

It's just that whenever Ridley's three-touchdown performance against an apparent sandlot team from Jacksonville the other night has been mentioned, the famous Bill Parcells quote delivered to reporters about a certain rookie running back after a sterling debut in 1995 seemed to follow: "Don't put him in Canton just yet, fellas."

Which is rather funny given that the player he was talking about, Martin, should have been put in Canton by reporters last year, and almost certainly will this year, provided Peter King and his cronies see fit to do more back-slapping good work and enshrine the NFL's fourth all-time leading rusher, a true class act, and the rare New York superstar who was stylish, charismatic and yet somehow underrated.

Yes, I'm digressing before I even get to the fifth paragraph here, and no, I'm not suggesting Stevan Ridley is the second coming of Curtis Martin. (If you want to make a Robert Edwards comparison based on Thursday's tiny sample size, I'm not going to bicker with you. I saw the hints.) What I'm saying is that exhibition games -- the first one in particular -- are for getting those hints, those clues, not drawing drastic, unassailable conclusions. Taylor Price looked good from the perspective of my couch. But when Tom Brady is asked about him and his reply is that the key to young players' development is eliminating mistakes, you wonder if the perspective from within the Patriots' huddle is as enthusiastic. Yes, Canton can wait.

Of course, drawing conclusions is one thing. Looking for those trends and clues is another. And what I saw Thursday supported a couple of theories and suspicions I had entering the game.

One, that the Patriots have one hell of a junior varsity team; as one colleague noted, their backups might win the NFC West, if not the Southeastern Conference. Brian Hoyer will be a good starting quarterback in the NFL, and -- at the risk of contradiction about the importance of Thursday's exercise -- Ryan Mallett has the raw ability and apparent poise to be a great one. They appear to have very high-quality depth on the defensive line (loved bringing back dependable Gerard Warren), running back (could one of the rookie relegate admirable but open-field slowpoke BenJarvus Green-Ellis to a lesser role coming off his 1,000-yard season?), and cornerback (Leigh Bodden is a perfect complement to Devin McCourty, and Kyle Arrington just kept getting better last season).

It's apparent that Bill Belichick is going to have to cut some players who neither they nor us want to see go, though I would be completely staggered if the thin speculation that Albert Haynesworth or this accomplished but apparently puzzled pass-catcher . . .

ochocincofinn816.jpg

. . . were among them. Even if it takes Mr. Ochocinco awhile to prove he has golden hands to go with the golden shoes. (Aside: Don't worry about his route-running despite what the semi-informed skeptics say. Darius Butler's tailspin began in Week 1 last season when Ochocinco diced him up with precise cut after precise cut. It was something to behold.)

Such depth is going to be essential this season. Around the league, numerous knees, Achilles' tendons, and hamstrings have already been the victim of the abbreviated camps and probably in many players' cases, a workout routine in the offseason that was practically dormant compared to what their coaches would put them through in OTAs and mini camp. It's why Belichick was cautious in playing his starters against Jacksonville, it's why he has taken the path of due diligence and worked out the likes of Darren Sharper, Reynaldo Hill and T.J. Houshmandzadeh in case they are needed down the road, and it's why I bet there will be some intriguing players put on the physically unable to perform list, starting with Ron Brace and Kevin Faulk. The Patriots have serious depth, and that is going to be a tremendous advantage this season.

There is another significant advantage they will have entering this season, one we have believed in with great reward for more than a decade now. It's an advantage that should be obvious even to the desperate contrarians, one that again was magnified Thursday night: Having Bill Belichick on the sideline running this whole operation rather than, say, an apparently disorganized preener such as Jack Del Rio, matters even more this season than it ever has, save for possibly 2001 when the 20-something veteran free agents and the scrawny former sixth-round pick at quarterback were molded into something unforgettable.

This season, continuity is crucial, and having a system in place -- with players well-versed in running it -- is imperative for success in the early weeks, and probably beyond. The Patriots have made some fascinating changes -- the arrival of Haynesworth and Ochocinco, the increased defensive flexibility. But the veteran core of Wes Welker and Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins and many more remains in place, the sophomore class of Devin McCourty, Rob Gronkowski, and Aaron Hernandez is poised build on a collectively spectacular debut . . . and once more for emphasis, having arguably the greatest quarterback/coaching tandem in NFL history in place is even more beneficial than ever.

You can go ahead and put them in Canton already, fellas. Just hold off on the carving their accomplishments into those bronze busts. This year, Belichick and Brady have a golden chance to enhance their legacies even more.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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