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Touching All the Bases

Projecting the Patriots' 53-man Roster is a Fun Exercise in Utter Futility

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Covering sports for a living is a (mostly) wonderful gig, a dream gig for so many of us fortunate enough to make a decent living doing it. I recognize that readers couldn't care less about the grueling aspects, the relentless demands of a baseball season, the nights and weekends spent with colleagues and rivals in a press box rather than with family.

Just give me the score, get me the quote, and do it all again tomorrow. I get it.

Filing 800 coherent words 20 minutes after a game ends is never going to seem particularly impressive to the truck driver or waitress who faithfully stays up to watch the Monday night football game, then begins the work day a few hours later, before the lights are even turned on in the neighborhood Dunkin's.

Hell, this probably doesn't even sound like work. The sweet little secret is that for those who have found their true calling covering sports, it doesn't often feel like work, either.

But it is. And there are jobs in this business that I can't fathom having for any length of time. Foremost is the baseball beat writer. I love baseball, I do, but it's a shallow, insignificant emotion compared to the depth of my love for my kids.

It would feel like a Louisville Slugger to the gut every time I had to miss a soccer game or school play because the Red Sox were heading to Kansas City and then Cleveland before a brief stop in Chicago. And that wallop to the stomach would recur when I got home, and noticed that, damn, did they each grow an inch while I was gone?

As usual, I've meandered off on a detour, this time down Maudlin Dad Lane. Funny how these instances multiply the deeper I get into my 40s. So, 400 words and 10 minutes later, let's return to the starting point, and the intended original point. Which is this:

Sometimes I don't know how NFL beat writers -- especially Patriots beat writers -- do it, and I mean that as a high compliment. There are just 16 games -- actual, meaningful events -- during an NFL season, which naturally leads to warped ratio of signal to noise. And with limited access and so much space to fill and content to provide, it requires both dedication and innovation to resist falling into a rut, or appearing to readers that you're in a rut.

There's room to carve out a specific niche within the beat or as a columnist, to master the nuances of the sport, with the additional benefit of winning Bill Belichick's respect. The best choose that approach. But it's a challenge for everyone, even the best, to meet that unofficial quota of quality content. Especially at this monotonous time on the calendar, when training camp is slogging to its conclusion and the games are a few weeks from beginning. The dog days of August occur in football, too.

Which is how we've arrived at an entertaining and pretty much worthless milepost in the preseason: the onslaught of 53-man roster projections.

Oh, I understand -- heck, I've explained -- why they do them. They're fun to read, and perhaps more important, they are read by a large audience. Fans enjoy this stuff. They can be used as an entry point to discuss various relevant issues throughout the roster: Will the Patriots keep three quarterbacks, or is Belichick comfortable enough with Jimmy Garoppolo that Ryan Mallett will be sent elsewhere? Is Patrick Chung actually in the picture at safety? Will Malcolm Butler come from nowhere -- well, technically, West Alabama? -- to earn a roster spot?

lynchjohn820finn.JPGThe roster projections are entertaining stuff, worthy of debate and discussion -- provided that they are not too premature, and the saturation of them doesn't become overwhelming. I found one going back as far as May, and it's actually held up surprisingly well save for the retirement of Canadian Football League mystery man Armond Armstead.

But most don't hold up well at all, which is my beef in putting any faith in them beyond finding that entertainment in speculation. When I searched "Patriots projected 53-man roster,'' Google gave me 256,000 results. It is my staunch belief that you could do 256,000 different versions of projecting the Patriots' roster for their opener Sept. 7 at Miami and not get it perfect, 1 through 53.

If I were charged with projecting the roster, it would come with this permanent disclaimer:

If I'm lucky, I've got 40-something right here. You know how this goes. They'll claim four guys on waivers from other teams, then cut them and claim four more the next day. They'll cut two veterans whom we thought were locks -- those of you who bought John Lynch jerseys in August 2008 know this well -- and keep two kids who barely got our consideration. Also, let's acknowledge that it's basically a 57-player roster, maybe 58, possibly 59, based on the way Belichick manipulates his final spots week to week. He probably has seven special-teams guys hiding out in the Renaissance Patriot Place right now. OK, to the projection ...

tebowtim820.JPGIf you think I'm being facetious there, I suppose you have a point. But that's also pretty close to the whole truth. Consider what The Roster Projectors (terrible band name) were debating at this point last year:

Will Leon Washington stick? He has to, I say. Jake Ballard is a lock, right? They'll definitely keep Zach Sudfeld, too. LeGarrette Blount, though, he's no sure thing since he doesn't play special teams. Does Adrian Wilson have anything left? They do need a hitter back there. Who the hell is James Develin? Would they really consider keeping Ryan Allen over Zoltan Mesko? Oh, and about that Tebow guy ...

There will be more surprises when the Patriots cut down to 53 this year, and there will be even more surprises after they cut to 53. It's the Belichick roster-maximizing way. And one constant from the past is no longer part of the process -- there's not a single Ventrone brother this year to cut and bring back seven times before the bye week.

We have no idea if Belichick is seeing the same promise in Butler or Brian Tyms as we are, or whether he's noticed that a popular veteran's performance no longer justifies his salary. We just do not know.

It's fun to speculate, and it's fascinating when we eventually find out. But I'm glad I don't have to pretend I have insight into what his depth chart will look like two-and-a-half weeks from now, when Stephen Gostkowski kicks off at Sun Life Stadium. I mean, I assume it will be Gostkowski ...

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