Departures aside, Pats are 'talented' bunch

Despite the offseason departures which have folks thinking they are vulnerable, this could be the best-assembled Pats team.

Updated: August 29, 2005, 9:18 AM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

FOXBORO, Mass. -- It could be I'm just way too into electronics, but when I consider the Patriots and all the challenges they've overcome the past four seasons -- and the new ones some feel will lead to their dethronement -- I can't help thinking of … Radio Shack.

We've got questions. The Patriots, well, usually they've got the answers. They have a way, by the end of the season, of turning "How in the world are they going to?" into "How on earth did they?"

Inside Patriots camp
PatriotsWhy is RB Corey Dillon still hungry? What does S Rodney Harrison think of the Pro Bowl selection process? Those are just a couple of the things Michael Smith touches on in his observations from Patriots camp.
• Inside Patriots camp
"We have handled a lot of change in the last two years," said linebacker Don Davis, who played two games at safety last season. "Tons and tons of change. Whether we're going to Washington and we have four starters out, or our safeties go down and we have a linebacker playing safety, or we have two street free agents playing corner -- we've been able to step up to the challenge, every single time. So why would this year be any different?"

For starters -- and this is just what some people say -- former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is now the head coach at Notre Dame, and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is the head coach of the Browns. And if that weren't enough, Joe Andruzzi, Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Ty Law, David Patten and Roman Phifer -- all members of three championship teams -- are gone.

But if we've learned anything about the Patriots, it's that they know how to plug in players. New inside linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown are having trouble plugging holes, but there are a few things to keep in mind about their struggles. First, they're learning a new, highly complex system. Together. Bruschi and Johnson played thousands of snaps in Belichick and Crennel's defense. Together. And it isn't as though Bruschi was the same guy in 2000 that he had been the past two seasons. He got better, enough to become a Pro Bowler. Not to sound like a coach, but if Beisel and Brown continue to work at it as diligently as they have been, they're bound to improve.

The Patriots' problems defending the run in the preseason aren't all their fault, either; there have been breakdowns in other areas, committed by veterans of the system. Plus, there is a lot of thinking that takes place in this defense. Miami is adopting a similar scheme, and after the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, Zach Thomas talked about how the Dolphins were a step slow because they were thinking and not reacting. The same thing is happening in the middle of New England's defense. The coaches are working to try to figure this out, too, while the rest of the league has spent the last four years studying the Patriots. For all we know, Beisel and Brown might not even start on opening night.

"Anytime a player goes from one system to another," Belichick said, "one thing that could be a problem is breaking old habits. It's not that you don't understand what the new responsibilities or plays are, but just the fact that you've been doing something a long time and you're kind of used to doing it, it's a habit, and that's not what's required in the other system and that means kind of undoing something before you can even start to do something new … There's a period of time where you are a little bit, I don't know, unsure might be the word, or it might just be that you're not reacting as quickly as you would when you become more confident and have experienced more plays."

"I can remember my first year coming here," Davis said. "When you come from a 4-3 to a 3-4, it's just totally different. Your thinking is different. I consider myself a fairly intelligent guy, but it took me a minute to pick it up."

It may take a while for Belichick's young offensive assistants to develop the feel for the game and the gift of anticipation Weis possesses. Certainly, the Patriots will miss him on game days. Still, the offense shouldn't miss a beat. Belichick knows offense; you don't get that good at defense without knowing something about how the other side lives. Belichick has thought this offensive coordinator plan through, for sure, and he believes it will work.

So do his assistants. Ask Belichick the best way to become a good head coach, and he'll tell you it's to hire a good staff. Ask anyone who's seen Belichick then (Cleveland in the early '90s) and now, and he will tell you Belichick isn't as much of a micromanager today. Depth isn't limited to the Patriots' roster. Belichick has coached his young coaches on how to coach his way, a la Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells and Bill Walsh. Receivers coach Brian Daboll, 31, and quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, 28, who appear to be the key members of the coordinator committee, both will hold the title of offensive coordinator for some team in the very near future.

Fantasy focus: Deion Branch
Deion Branch Injuries have always been an issue for the very talented WR and Super Bowl MVP. After his great postseason performance, his fantasy value has predictably seen a minor spike. But health isn't the only issue with Branch. The fact that the Patriots spread the ball around so much in the passing game is another reason he hasn't been dependable.

Branch is tough and very reliable for the Patriots when healthy, but while he often makes timely catches, he doesn't make enough of them to be a fantasy standout. Be careful not to overrate Branch. He might be an integral part of the New England offense, but he might not produce above-average fantasy totals even if he can stay on the field and out of the trainer's room.
-- Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games

  • Sign up for free FFL
  • More fantasy football
  • For now, though, it's likely that Belichick is trying to protect them by not naming one OC and making him accountable/accessible to the public. "We'll work it out," he said. "We'll call something. Ultimately, in the end, I think I will be responsible for it, just like I've always been. I'm sure when [something] goes wrong you will be asking me about it. I understand that. Whatever we call, ultimately that will be my responsibility. If you want to put me down as the play caller, then go ahead and put me down."

    Eric Mangini will do just fine running the defense. He's coached with Belichick for eight years and knows how to teach his scheme. You've seen him work miracles with the secondary the past two seasons. "Sometimes people can be so smart and lose their personality and it's difficult to learn from them," Chad Brown said of Mangini. "He has that teacher side that makes him a great communicator."

    I hear folks talking about the Patriots being vulnerable, but I just don't see it. They are deeper in the secondary and they're still stacked at D-line. They look loaded at receiver and should be better on special teams. Tom Brady, Deion Branch, Corey Dillon, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Adam Vinatieri, et al -- New England still has enough good players to make the new coaches look good.

    "Sometimes, when it seems like we've had the most changes," Belichick said, "those have turned out to be some of the better years."

    The knock on recent Patriots teams always has been that they "lacked talent." Each championship season they've improved as the year progressed, and they always seem to peak around playoff time. But not this group. This has the potential to be the best of this run.

    Two exhibition games. We've had what amounts to a peek at the Patriots. It's too early to declare the dynasty dead.

    Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

    Michael Smith

    NFL Senior Writer
    Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

    ALSO SEE