by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff
Everybody needs a solid partner. Johnny Unitas had Raymond Berry. Wyatt Earp had Doc Holliday. Heck, even a solo guy like Michael Jackson had Quincy Jones.
In about a month my partner and I will be walking down the slope to the Patriots practice fields to check out New England’s first day of training camp (I married well, if I do say so myself). In honor of our wedding anniversary Monday, this edition of picks involves the top half-dozen New England pairings during the Bill Belichick era.
Bob Kraft & Bill Belichick: Um… yeah. In other breaking news, Pangaea looks ready to separate into continents. We take this match-up for granted now, but remember, it took a couple of bad break-ups to get these kids together (Kraft and Pete Carroll, Belichick and the NYJ). Since then, Kraft has done a great job of letting Bill do what he does, i.e., create an expectation of winning. A blessing to any Patriots fan, long-term or no.
Tom Brady & Corey Dillon: You might think of Brady eloping with a particular pass-catcher, but when it comes to receivers, Our Tom gets a bit fickle. He’s had plenty of top targets, but only one top rusher. In 2004, his first year with the team, Dillon ran for a club record 1,635 yards at 4.7 yards per tote. Meanwhile, Brady passed for 28 TDs and a 96.2 rating, his best numbers until the insanity of 2007 (50 TDs, 117.2 rating).
And, oh yeah: 2004 was New England’s last Super-Bowl-winning season. If that doesn’t get you at least a little intrigued at how Fred Taylor will do in Foxboro, well then I just don’t know what makes you tick.
Randy Moss & Wes Welker: More than Brady and any one receiver, this tandem brought spectacular numbers to New England’s offense. They met cute in 2007 (one traded for a second-rounder, the other for a fourth) and hit it off: Moss scored a record 23 TDs while Welker tallied a franchise-record 112 receptions. They made it through a difficult time (The Game That Shall Not Be Named) and even found success with new acquaintance Matt Cassel last year. Moss and Welker brought the type of fireworks not seen at Foxboro outside of the Fourth of July. They hope to have a repeat performance this year as they reunite with Brady. Call it a renewal of vows.
Rodney Harrison & Ty Law: The wily veterans got to a point in their relationship that they could afford to improvise, at times switching positions to confuse quarterbacks (such as with Peyton Manning in the January 2004 AFC Championship). When Law went down on the hellish Heinz Field turf in the fall of 2004, Coach Belichick did an amazing job of improvising with the likes of undrafted rookie Randall Gay, receiver Troy Brown and oddly-named Earthwind Moreland. Blame it on bad luck, bad officiating, or bad hands, but since that season, the Patriots secondary’s playoff effectiveness has been only slightly better than that of Roger Clemens.
Tedy Bruschi & Mike Vrabel: Now that he’s off to revitalize the Kansas City defense, it’s time to give Vrabel credit for what he and Bruschi did together for New England. Whether rushing Kurt Warner into an ill-advised pass in Super Bowl 36, holding down the middle in lieu of the failed Chad Brown/Monty Beisel experiment or catching touchdown passes, Vrabel did everything asked of him except stop aging. Bruschi enters his 14th year in New England looking to continue contributing on the field and off, helping along the new crop of linebackers who hope to take the team into another era. This area won’t see a tandem like that in the foreseeable future.
If Belichick’s defense relies on its linebackers, the last pair from its three Super Bowl wins will be missed. How much they’re missed will depend on…
Belichick & Undrafted Free Agents: One aspect of NFL Draft weekend that New England fans have come to enjoy actually begins right afterward, when the Pats start picking up undrafted rookies. This year’s linebacker group will include Pierre Woods from Michigan, Gary Guyton of Georgia Tech and possibly Vince Redd out of Liberty. Whether it’s the linebacking crew or players like Gay, Mike Wright or BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Belichick looks like he sure can pick ’em, especially after others don’t.
Now a bonus pairing, in honor of my wife’s and my seven years together. Call it Six In One Plus One:
Patriots Place and The Fans: Yes, Foxboro Stadium had its high points, including its ability to amplify crowd noise (and its tendency to engender touching relationships – literally – with fans sitting on either side of you. Oh, you metal bleachers!). Still, what used to be little more than a plot of Astroturf in the middle of a parking lot is now a destination, a modern stadium surrounded by enough shops and restaurants to keep fans occupied between morning and afternoon training camp sessions. Plus, now that the hotel is open, we can watch practice, go to the spa, get some dinner and check out a movie.
My heavens. Maybe we should postpone our anniversary for a month. I’ll consult with my partner.
Chris Warner can be reached at [email protected].