The Patriot Way met the Milky Way Thursday. Patriots owner Robert Kraft and players Rob Gronkowski and Zoltan Mesko chatted with astronaut Sunita Williams, who is living on the International Space Station, via cellphone and iPad.
No doubt coach Bill Belichick spoke with Williams, a Needham High graduate and Patriots follower, earlier to ask if the holes in the Patriots’ pass defense are visible from outer space or if it just feels that way. That’s one reason that Belichick traded for space cadet cornerback Aqib Talib.
How Talib impacts the Patriots is among the many questions for the second half of the season, which kicks off Sunday at home against the Buffalo Bills. With eight games to go, here are eight Patriots-related thoughts.
1. I applaud Belichick for the addition of Talib, who cost the Patriots a fourth-round pick, with Tampa Bay shipping back a seventh-rounder. It’s a move based in maximizing the precious present. But as comforting as it is to compare it with the acquisitions of Ted Washington, Corey Dillon, and Randy Moss, it reminds me of another move: the trade Belichick made in August of 2009 for defensive end/linebacker Derrick Burgess.
The Patriots had traded Mike Vrabel to Kansas City and failed to land Jason Taylor that offseason. They were in desperate need of a pass rusher, so they sent third- and fifth-round picks to the Raiders for Burgess. Like the trade for Talib, it was a move born of desperation and exasperation with what was currently on the roster. Burgess had five sacks but little tangible impact in his lone season in Fort Foxborough, then was cut coming out of training camp in 2010.
Talib, 26, should have more in the tank, but his arrival comes under similarly exigent circumstances.
2. The Talib deal really comes back to this inescapable fact: “It’s hard to get an Asante Samuel, No. 22. You know what I mean?” Those words were uttered by Samuel last November after the Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, then Samuel’s employer. The Atlanta Falcons, headed by Belichick acolyte Thomas Dimitroff, acquired Samuel in April for a seventh-round pick. That was the price for a four-time Pro Bowler who has twice led the NFL in interceptions. Compare that with what the Patriots paid for Talib.
Samuel isn’t what he used to be — he has just one interception this season and wouldn’t tackle a bag of marshmallows — but he is still better than anything the Patriots have at cornerback. That has been the case since he left five seasons ago.
3. Every time the Patriots trade for a player with a reputation, a rap sheet, or a combination of both (Dillon, Moss, Albert Haynesworth, now Talib) we hear about how said player gets a slate so clean it should be sponsored by Clorox. Talib is the latest member of the Clean Slate Club. There is a difference between a transgression or two and a deserved reputation.
Talib, who got in a fight with a teammate at the 2008 Rookie Symposium — the equivalent of engaging in fisticuffs at an employee orientation meeting — has a Reputation. It has been earned through recidivist outbursts and poor choices, from punching a cab driver to pulling a gun on his sister’s boyfriend to violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. It’s OK for the Patriots to give Talib a clean slate, but the rest of us are under no obligation to engage in such selective amnesia.
4. When the Patriots were stacking draft picks like poker chips (they selected 33 players from 2009-11), the value of those selections was always espoused vigorously. Now, when they ship a fourth-rounder for seven games of Talib (he’ll miss Sunday’s game against the Bills serving the final game of his four-game suspension), suddenly a fourth-round pick is less valuable than a Bob Zupcic baseball card. That’s convenient logic.
Fourth-rounders under Belichick have included Samuel, Aaron Hernandez, and Stephen Gostkowski. Notable fourth-round picks in the NFL today include Brandon Marshall, Jahri Evans, Elvis Dumervil, Dashon Goldson, and Red Bryant.
5. Can we all agree that Stevan Ridley has rendered moot any notion that the Patriots made a mistake in letting BenJarvus Green-Ellis take the money and run to the Cincinnati Bengals? There was some hand-wringing after the lovable and reliable Green-Ellis took his dreadlocks and fumble-free digits to Ohio. Ridley is seventh in the NFL in rushing yards (716) and has five rushes of 20 yards or more this season — as many as Green-Ellis had in his Patriots career.
When teams dare the Patriots to run, Ridley can make them pay in a way Green-Ellis never could. Green-Ellis’s longest run this year is 20 yards, and he has fumbled three times, one more than Ridley.
6. The Patriots should keep Devin McCourty at safety. This is the complete opposite of the Red Sox’ ill-fated attempt to move Jacoby Ellsbury to left field in 2010. McCourty is a better safety than a corner and can affect more plays from the middle of the field than from one side of it.
7. Look for a big second half from tight end/new father Hernandez. It’s tough to improve upon the top-rated scoring offense and total offense in the game, but Hernandez at full speed could provide the Patriots with more of a downfield element. A healthy Hernandez can run by cornerbacks (just ask Miami’s Sean Smith) and give the Patriots the outside option they haven’t fully gotten from Brandon Lloyd.
8. The one team in the AFC that should really scare Patriots fans right now is the Pittsburgh Steelers. They handled the Patriots last year in a game that was not as close as the final score, 25-17. They have the league’s top-rated pass defense, which made Super Bowl hero Eli Manning look like he had “Sanchez” on the back of his jersey last Sunday, and they have an elite quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who has shredded the Patriots secondary in the past.