Pats face challenges in wide-open race to Super Bowl
Posted: Monday July 25, 2005 11:38AM; Updated: Monday July 25, 2005 11:56AM
The Patriots will spend training camp preparing for life without linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a mild stroke during the offseason.
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Peter King will answer your questions each week in Monday Morning Quarterback: Tuesday Edition.
New England vs. Minnesota.
That was my Super Bowl XL pick in the spring, and as I prepare to leave today for a 15-team, 17-day scurry through NFL training camps, that's still my call, though I was shaken by linebacker TedyBruschi's decision not to play this year.
I'm shocked by Bruschi's announcement, quite frankly. Everything I heard (which was hardly Biblical in its truth) was that Bruschi was leaning strongly toward playing. Feeling good, getting ready, training. And then boom, he dropped the news on BillBelichick last week. This is worrisome because Bruschi is New England's second-most-valuable player behind quarterback Tom Brady. It doesn't show up in Pro Bowl balloting, but all Bruschi did every game is play a huge role in the team winning. He's tremendously instinctive. Gets to the hole quickly better than any linebacker playing today, and that includes Ray Lewis. Great vision and anticipation. I can't count how many times I Bruschi flood a hole on the perimeter and said, "How'd he get there so fast?"
You think the Patriots will just find a way, like they always do, to replace another valuable player. Well, that's what I think will happen. But before I put all my trust in Belichick to figure this one out, let me pay tribute to Bruschi, in selfish hope that he comes back in 2006 -- only if he feels right -- because you hate to see great players go out before their time is up. Bruschi played 86 percent of the Patriots' defensive snaps last year, which is above the average for an NFL defensive starter. But he also participated in 40 percent of the Patriots' special-teams snaps in 2004, an absurdly high percentage for a starting player -- especially such a valuable one. A regular on the punt team and kickoff-return team, Bruschi was as intense on those jobs as he was in the middle of the defense.
The Patriots have worked outside linebacker Mike Vrabel on the inside during spring minicamps. They've signed inside linebacker Monty Beisel (Chiefs) and the versatile Chad Brown (Seahawks) in free agency. Bruschi's 86 percent will be shared, in some combination, by those three players. But I worry about the impact his loss in the locker room will have. Now it'll be up to Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour (when he comes in, because he will come off his contract holdout sometime before opening night) and WillieMcGinest -- all fine men, all extremely respected voices in that locker room -- to take up Bruschi's slack in the leadership area.
It's so good to be talking football again. If you're like me, you're sick of hanging on the ridiculous words of Terrell Owens, caring that Brett Favre has an opinion on JavonWalker's holdout, and worrying about whether Edgerrin James or Shaun Alexander will play for one-year contracts. Who cares? Play the game. Practice the game. And let's worry about actual football, not silly fighting words.
As I've talked to friends and fans in the last couple of weeks, I've heard more enthusiasm for the game than ever at this time of year. I know why. When people like me and Sports Illustrated counterpart Mike Silver are picking Arizona to win a division, you know anyone's got a chance. That's good for football and it's good for fans to know their team could be competitive. In no other sport does hope spring quite so eternal when teams report to camp as in the NFL. Bring it on. Bring on the two-a-days, the heat, the great training-table meals, the relentless optimism from cellar-dwellers. I can't wait.
Last year, in Carson, Calif., I watched a bunch of no-name Chargers practice one early camp day. Afterward, dripping-with-sweat wideout Eric Parker stood on the side of the practice field and said to me: "Our goal is nothing less than the Super Bowl and we feel we can get there. We've got just as much of a chance as any team in this league." He was serious. I thought he was a loon. But you know what? He was a lot more right than I was. I'm looking forward to Dre Bly telling me this weekend in Detroit: "We're going all the way, baby." And maybe hearing the same thing from Rex Grossman at Bears camp. Dream big, guys. It's that time of year.