Yesterday’s release of Albert Haynesworth was another in a long line of headline player releases from the Patriots this season. It started with James Sanders in the summer and continued with Brandon Meriweather. Before the Steelers game a couple of weeks ago, veteran corner Leigh Bodden was released, further weakening the secondary as rookie Ras-I Dowling was placed on IR a day later. Now, safety Josh Barrett has been placed on IR as well. To take his place, the Patriots promoted Sterling Moore from the practice squad. Unless Moore is a diamond in the rough, the loss of Barrett and the promotion of Moore is hardly a step forward.
These moves, especially the Haynesworth move, highlight what has been a dark few years in terms of personnel decisions from Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
Tune into WEEI sports radio or 98.5 The Sports Hub and you can hear the backlash at the Patriots. Check out ESPN Boston’s weekly fan mail posting by Mike Reiss for a sampling. The backlash hasn’t come from Belichick’s coaching decisions necessarily but his personnel decisions. The absolute gutting of the secondary, especially the release of James Sanders, has puzzled fans and analysts. Sanders would look pretty good out there right now considering what the safety position outside of Patrick Chung has looked like this season. Sanders was a good locker room guy as well and was coming off arguably his best season, so why release him? The gutting of the secondary, when Belichick said earlier this season that you can never have enough defensive backs, has yielded what you will find on an NFL stat sheet: The worst-ranked defense and passing defense in the NFL.
Instead of drafting a pass rusher at the top of the second round, someone like Brooks Reed (4 sacks) or Jabaal Sheard (2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles), he instead elected to draft an injury-prone corner and go with veteran help on the defensive line. One of those, Albert Haynesworth, did nothing and is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Mark Anderson and Andre Carter, the other veterans brought in to rush the passer, both have 4.5 sacks but haven’t been consistent. While Reed and Sheard don’t have those sack numbers, they’re both young with potential to grow. We know who Carter and Anderson are. That injury-prone corner, Ras-I Dowling, barely played this year and is now on injured reserve.
There are other examples of personnel misfires, such as Adailus Thomas and Chad Ochocinco (so far at least), and there are few late-round draft picks that have stuck around to provide solid depth. To be fair, you can’t ignore last year’s draft, which yielded Devin McCourty (despite his recent struggles), Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Deaderick. Jermaine Cunningham, the second-round DE/OLB, has been a healthy scratch the past two weeks and could be another misfire at a position that can ill afford personnel mistakes. This year’s first-round pick, Nate Solder, has also been solid.
So what’s the solution? The Pats have a personnel guy in Nick Caserio and a consultant/cap/contract guy in Floyd Reese. Perhaps Caserio and/or Reese should be given more say or voice any disagreements with Belichick more. Taking personnel decisions away from Belichick, or not letting him “shop for the groceries,” would be disastrous and might begin his departure from New England. Let’s face it, nobody wants that. In terms of coaching, he’s still the best in the business. But more strong voices, like Scott Pioli had, would be beneficial to the team. It will be interesting to see how things play out once the Pats’ season is over, especially if they don’t win the AFC East or fail to make the playoffs.