In the 14 years since Tom Brady became the Patriots’ starting quarterback and with Bill Belichick running the ship in Foxborough, there have been only two times New England has not claimed the AFC East title: 2002, when the Jets won, and 2008, when the Dolphins won.
In recent years, as Miami drafted its best quarterback since Dan Marino and the Jets rode the bombast of Rex Ryan to back-to-back AFC title game appearances, there have always been some who proclaim that this is the year one of their three rivals knock the Patriots from the top of the division.
Thus far, it’s been wishful thinking.
That sentiment has intensified this offseason. New England parted ways with all of its experienced cornerbacks and the team may be without Brady for as many as four games, while the other three AFC East teams have bolstered their defenses.
Here’s a ranking of the 10 best offseason moves in the division:
1. Bills hire Rex Ryan as head coach: When Doug Marrone decided to opt out of his contract and the Jets let go of Ryan, Buffalo pounced on the chance to get Ryan. The ever-quotable coach has injected tremendous enthusiasm into the fan base, wrapping his pickup truck in the Bills’ logo and talking up the team’s chances at every turn. A team with an already strong defense added offensive weapons, though the question of who will play quarterback could determine the Bills’ fate.
2. Miami signs defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: Suh was the marquee player on the open market this year, and the Dolphins paid handsomely to add him — six years, $114 million. He’s played just eight career games against AFC East teams, with 28 total tackles and three sacks, but Patriots fans would rather forget how disruptive Suh has been against them in preseason and regular-season matchups.
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3. Jets sign cornerback Darrelle Revis: This move was a two-fer. It made New York’s secondary much better while weakening the Patriots’. Revis was New England’s best cornerback in a decade, but the Jets opened their wallet to bring back their prodigal son with $39 million fully guaranteed in the five-year deal. The Jets also signed cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Antonio Cromartie in free agency.
4. Jets draft defensive lineman Leonard Williams: It’s tough to say how much credit the Jets should get for this move. Williams, the mammoth DL from Southern Cal, was surprisingly on the board when New York’s turn in the draft came at No. 6, so it was pretty much a no-brainer to grab him. In light of Sheldon Richardson’s four-game suspension, Williams will be called on early.
5. Bills re-sign defensive end Jerry Hughes: Hughes, 26, nearly hit the free agent market, but Buffalo sewed up one of the best young pass rushers in the league with a five-year extension. He recorded 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons and should continue to flourish under Ryan.
6. Bills acquire running back LeSean McCoy: Buffalo traded away talented-but-recovering linebacker Kiko Alonso to get McCoy. The Bills are unlikely to have a stud quarterback running the offense, and with Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman preferring a ground-and-pound style, McCoy and the seemingly ageless Fred Jackson will fill the bill.
7. Patriots sign DL/LB Jabaal Sheard: Versatile, he played under three defensive coordinators in three years in Cleveland, as a defensive end and outside linebacker who also had to drop into coverage at times. Signing Sheard (two years, $11 million, $5.5 million guaranteed) was one of the quieter moves of NFL free agency but could be one of the more impactful.
8. Dolphins re-sign quarterback Ryan Tannehill: It’s probably damning Tannehill with faint praise to say he’s the best quarterback in the division not named Tom Brady, but he is. He has solid skill players around him, but outside of center Mike Pouncey, Miami’s offensive line isn’t stellar.
9. Jets hire general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles: Ryan did the best with what he was given his last two years in New York, but former GM John Idzik did him no favors, which is why he lasted only two years with the Jets. Maccagnan is highly regarded after his years with the Texans, and Bowles, the latest in a long line of defensive-bred Jets head coaches, is finally getting his chance to lead a team.
10. Patriots draft DL Malcom Brown: Like the Jets and Williams, it was a surprise to the Patriots that Brown was still available at the end of the first round. It’s unfair to dub Brown the next Vince Wilfork, but he comes to New England with a strong work ethic, versatility, and maturity.
DROPPING THE BALL
Vincent keeps coming up short
Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, may have been a fine cornerback during his 15-year career, but he’s not excelling when it comes to public relations in his current role.
Earlier this year, Vincent admitted that he didn’t read the Mueller Report, which found that the NFL did not properly investigate the Ray Rice case before handing down its initial two-game suspension. Vincent dismissed his failure to do so by telling “60 Minutes Sports” that the league, and commissioner Roger Goodell’s crime “had already been committed . . . We acknowledge that we made a mistake.”
The NFL paid former FBI director Robert Mueller to conduct the investigation into where it went wrong during the course of determining Rice’s initial punishment, and in his position, it might have been enlightening for Vincent to have read the report and see where things could be done better in the future.
Last week, ESPN.com had an interview with Vincent that touched on several topics, and again Vincent didn’t come across well. (This reporter has made several requests to speak to Vincent since the Deflategate saga began, all of them unanswered.)
From a Patriots’ perspective, Vincent did not correct reporter Ashley Fox when Fox asked, “Why did you decide to suspend [Tom Brady] for four games?”
This is problematic because the collective bargaining agreement explicitly states that Goodell be the one who decides player punishment that falls outside of the substance abuse/performance-enhancing drugs scope; those punishments that have been collectively bargained and have set structure.
In its letter to the league appealing Brady’s four-game suspension, the NFL Players Association noted that it was Vincent and not Goodell who decided the penalty, and therefore it was not valid.
Goodell shot down this notion, saying the “identity of the person who signed the disciplinary letter is irrelevant” and that he did sit in on discussions concerning the punishment for Brady and the Patriots.
Of course, Brady’s appeal has already taken place, with Goodell acting as arbiter, so while the NFLPA may have noted this discrepancy in its day of defense, Goodell has already stated he disagrees.
More laughably, Vincent took aim at the NFLPA for spending, in his opinion, too much money on “legal fees for a handful of people” — i.e., the players who have appealed the inconsistent punishments Goodell has handed down in recent years.
“It’s millions and millions of dollars,” Vincent said. “We’ve got players that are hurting. We’ve got young men who don’t know how to identify a good financial adviser. Men are in transition who aren’t doing well, yet $8 million to $10 million a year is spent in court fees about who should make a decision on someone, who in some cases has committed a crime.
“Think about that logically. Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time and resources on the issues that are vital to our players — past, present, and future — such as the players’ total wellness and growing the game together?”
Oh my. Where to begin?
First, for every dollar the NFLPA spends appealing punishments, the NFL is spending at least that much making the case that they were right.
A streamlined, agreed-upon schedule of discipline would be the resolution here, but Goodell still has sole power in such cases, and with several of his recent decisions overturned by a third party, he clearly has a tendency to go too far.
Secondly, and what caused the greatest uproar, not just with Patriots fans: Does Vincent not know that the NFL paid Ted Wells an estimated $5 million to come up with his widely debunked, full-of-holes report on the Patriots’ footballs in the AFC title game? Talk about a questionable expense.
Thirdly, it’s rich that Vincent is being critical of the Players Association when it wasn’t too long ago that he was heavily involved in the organization and in theory would have been one of the individuals pushing for his fellow players to get a fair shake.
Vincent ran for executive director in 2009, losing to DeMaurice Smith in the election to replace longtime director Gene Upshaw after Upshaw died of cancer in August 2008.
He was unable to overcome whispers and allegations of wrongdoing, including the NFLPA investigating whether he had disclosed confidential personal and financial information about agents to a business partner with whom he owned a financial services firm, and a union lawsuit in 2008 alleging that Vincent was trying to undermine Upshaw through secret correspondence and meetings with Goodell.
Nothing came of the charges that Vincent was sharing information with his business partner, but after Upshaw’s death, his widow, Terri, told Sports Illustrated that Gene was planning on confronting Vincent with evidence of wrongdoing but was unable to do so before his death.
Just months after losing to Smith for the position that would have put him toe-to-toe with Goodell, Vincent was hired by the NFL as senior vice president of active player development, which was renamed the NFL Player Engagement Organization. He was promoted to his current position about 16 months ago.
It’s hypocritical that Vincent would remark about the amount of money the NFLPA spends on legal fees when the organization he works for now clearly has its own issues — and he can’t be bothered to read a costly report that might give an indication of how to fix some of them.
Stallworth shares painful memory
The annual rookie symposium was held late last month, with all drafted rookies (it’s a shame undrafted players aren’t also included) getting a few days of lessons in transitioning to the NFL, how to handle finances, taking care of their physical and mental well-being, and matters like sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.
They hear from current and former players, men who have been in their position and have something to offer.
One of the presenters was former Patriots receiver Donte’ Stallworth. Stallworth’s message is a cautionary tale: don’t end up like me.
On the morning of March 14, 2009, Stallworth struck and killed Mario Reyes as Reyes was crossing a Miami causeway. Stallworth had a couple of drinks three to four hours before the accident and had slept for about 90 minutes, but his blood-alcohol content still came in at .12, over the .08 nationwide legal limit. He pled guilty to DUI manslaughter instead of putting Reyes’s family through a trial, reached a settlement with the family, accepted a punishment that included lifetime revocation of his driver’s license, and was suspended for the entire 2009 season.
“I shared two quotes that are really two of my favorite quotes,” Stallworth said from his Florida home. “The first is from [19th-century German statesman] Otto von Bismarck: ‘Only the fool learns from his own mistakes; the wise man learns from the mistakes of others.’ That was me standing in front of them and saying, ‘Hey, I made the mistake, and you should learn from my mistake.’
“It’s 100 percent preventable. There’s always an excuse for driving under the influence, but it’s never a good one.”
The second quote Stallworth used was from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
“I piggy-backed that with, yes, I [drove under the influence] every year in college, every year in the NFL, until that day,” he said. “The main thing I preached was to be preemptive when going to dinner or for drinks or whatever. You can’t wait till you’ve had too much to drink and then you make a bad decision.”
Stallworth does not tell the players not to drink or not to enjoy themselves; he simply stresses not getting behind the wheel when they have, and to plan ahead when they know they’re going to be drinking. There are plenty of alternatives, from private car services to Uber to the NFL-provided safe-ride service, that can ensure none of the league’s newest players find themselves in the position Stallworth is in now.
Sharing his story is painful, as it brings the memories of that morning flooding back, the horrible feelings as fresh as they were that day. Compounding things, the 34-year old isn’t comfortable speaking in front of large groups, but the rookies are his peers, and spreading his message is something he’s passionate about.
“You can lose everything in a matter of a split second,” Stallworth emphasizes. “You’re playing Russian roulette with your life, the lives of others, and your career. You don’t want to take that chance.”
“It’s more of a culture thing — yes, this is a major problem in the NFL, but also in society too. It’s something people just do and most people don’t take it seriously until they’ve been affected directly or indirectly, and it’s too late by then.”
If a former player who had committed DUI manslaughter had talked to Stallworth’s rookie group in 2002, would the message have gotten through?
“I would like to believe so, but at that age you think you know everything and you think you’re invincible, whether you’re an NFL player or not,” he said frankly. “I would like to believe so, but it’s really hard to say.”
Ryan-era Jets dot roster in Buffalo
No one can accuse Rex Ryan of not being loyal. On Wednesday, the Bills signed offensive lineman Wayne Hunter, a move Ryan had told Buffalo reporters was likely on the horizon after Hunter spent minicamp working out with the team.
Hunter, 34, hasn’t played in the NFL since 2012. He was at best average during his four seasons with the Jets, though he did have a fan in Dave DeGuglielmo, then New York’s offensive line coach and now holding that same role with the Patriots.
DeGuglielmo said in May 2012 that Hunter was the Jets’ starting right tackle “until they ship him out of this building or until they shoot me dead in my office.”
Hunter was traded to St. Louis three months later. The Rams cut him in March 2013 in a salary-cap move.
There are now five former Ryan-era Jets on the Bills roster: Hunter, receiver Percy Harvin, quarterback Matt Simms, fullback John Conner, and tight end Matthew Mulligan.
Ryan also brought much of his Jets’ coaching staff with him to Buffalo.
The NFL and Hyundai announced a new sponsorship agreement this week, with Hyundai replacing General Motors as the league’s official automobile. The agreement will net the NFL $50 million a year over the next four years according to ESPN — further proof that companies are more than willing to pay a premium to be associated with the league, no matter the issues it has had over the last year . . . Despite concerns that Super Bowl XLVIII would be played in a blizzard at open-air MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it was an unseasonably warm night when the Seahawks and Broncos met. The success of that game is apparently leading other cold-city teams to throw their hat in the Super Bowl ring: Pittsburgh announced last week its intention to bid for Super Bowl LVII, the game to be held in February 2023. On Feb. 1 this year, the day the Super Bowl was played, more than 2 inches of snow fell in Pittsburgh with a high of 36 degrees. The game will be played in Minneapolis after the 2017 season, but the under-construction U.S. Bank Stadium will be an indoor stadium . . . This mom of multiple daughters has a new player to root for: Brooke Liebsch. Liebsch has been named starting quarterback of the Liberty North High (Kansas City, Mo.) freshman football team. “Some girls say girls shouldn’t play football, which I don’t get why, because girls can do anything guys can do,” Liebsch told her local Fox station.
Russell Wilson’s rookie contract is set to expire after the 2015 season and multiple media reports indicate the Seattle Seahawks quarterback wants to become the highest-paid signal-caller in the NFL. He has good reason to seek such a deal. Here’s how Wilson compares statistically with the quarterbacks with the highest average salaries:
Shalise Manza Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.