NFL fans are often of two minds at this time of year--intensely eager for the start of the season and "real" football, but also alternately sad, confused, angry, or disappointed as the final roster falls into place. My guess is that most Patriots fans are in exactly that place: anticipating the Bengals game now less than a week away and trying to figure out how and why the roster includes and excludes the names it does.
But when those roster cutdowns come--from 80 to 75 to 53--it becomes impossible to sustain some of the fictions that we fans live by in the off-season. Because as players are cut, waived, or placed on IR or PUP lists, inevitably we have to admit that our favorite team didn't hit the jackpot with every draft pick; that some of the free agent signings were busts; that some trades completely fell through; and that not every player coming off an injury or last year's practice squad has healed, improved, or developed enough to make a contribution. And sometimes the brutal reality hits you right in the face--not only did player A not produce, neither did players B, C, and D. What seemed in June like a deep position is suddenly filled with serious questions as none of the team's possibilities became realities. And now here's the season-opener only days away.
Where are the Patriots in all this? Well, as fans I'd say we all have some questions, some disappointments, and some confusion as we absorb the news of the past few days. We all have our favorite rookies who got unceremoniously cut, second and third year players we got to know and expected much from only to see them go. And a number of us are scratching our heads over what we might consider sins of omission ("how could they cut Tyrone McKenzie?") or sins of commission ("how can they keep Matthew Slater?").
But we Patriots fans know how our team works. If you can't play, you don't stick around. If there's someone better at your position, you will be shown the door. Ask Drew Bledsoe and Lawyer Milloy. Or this year, ask Derrick Burgess or Damione Lewis or Pierre Woods or Tyrone McKenzie or a bevy of young offensive linemen. Even at the team's areas of greatest need, if you can't play at a certain, expected level, the Patriots will find someone who can--or at least someone who seems to have a better chance at doing so. Some of these roster cuts puzzle me. Maybe they reflect mistakes in drafting or scouting or trading. Maybe they reflect players who simply never got it, who never grasped the system or the playbook, or who never improved over a certain level. Whatever the reason, I thought Burgess and McKenzie and several others were at least the best we had at their positions or on their line on the depth chart. And yet they are gone--at least for now.
But they are gone because Bill Belichick and his coaches made the hard and ruthless and unsentimental calculation that they weren't good enough, that somebody else was better, that another player was more likely to give New England what it wants and needs at their positions. Maybe the Patriots will be proven wrong. But even if our favorite players who got cut land elsewhere and play well--if McKenzie catches on somewhere else and becomes a tacking machine or Burgess becomes a great spot pass rusher in a different environment--it doesn't necessarily mean the Patriots made the wrong choice. It could simply be that McKenzie and Burgess and any other favorites who no longer wear Patriot colors were just not right for THIS team, for THIS defense and offense, for the roles they were asked to play on THIS team. Keeping Marques Murrell and Dane Fletcher and Matthew Slater and several others who surprisingly made the team over Burgess, McKenzie, etc. may seem to make little sense, but I suspect there are good reasons for each roster addition and subtraction.
The main reason in each case is simply that the coaches think the 53 guys they ended up with have the best chance to help. After all, it's the coaches who have to put the best team on the field. They have to find the guys they think give the team the best chance to win. It will be their names linked to the Won-Lost record. And they (and by "they" I mean Bill Belichick) must think that keeping Murrell and Ninkovich and Fletcher will give us a better team than keeping Burgess and McKenzie and company. Belichick and his staff are the ones charged with fielding the best team they can; it stands to reason that they choose to keep or cut players based on that simple fact alone. Anybody who makes the roster has received a vote of confidence that they can help; anyone who gets cut failed to get that vote of confidence for whatever reasons (and they are often many and varied). But coaches who plan to survive and thrive in the cut-throat, bottom-line, performance-driven business that is the NFL can't keep players because they were big names in college or because they played well a few years ago or because they've developed a fan following. They have to pick the players who they think give them the best chance to win now, this year, this season. Next season is a new year and there will always be plenty of new players to scout, draft, trade for, sign, try out and then either keep or cut based on performance. But that will be then, this is now. The Patriots have to field a team to play a game next Sunday and then the next and then the next and then the next. They need guys who can get it done NOW, as in every Sunday. Maybe the players on the current roster won't be able to do that. If they can't, they'll be gone, too. But the players who made the final roster have been judged by the coaches, after months of meetings, camps, practices, scrimmages, and games to be the ones best able to help the Patriots win games. No one wants to win more than they do, and they are uniquely responsible for putting together the team they think gives them the best chance to do so.
We'll know in a few weeks or a few months if they were right or wrong. But there are two more things that keep me from getting too worried or bothered by the cuts, even of players I really liked. One is Belichick's mantra: "you're building a team, you're not collecting talent." The players New England kept weren't necessarily the 53 best players; they were the 53 best members that made up a team. Talent alone--as valuable and rare as it is--does make a successful team. And a roster is assembled not solely on the basis of talent but of who can fill what roles and offer something valuable to the building of a team. Teams win championships, not simply collections of talent.
The second example is even more specific. Two years ago at this time many of us were puzzled (also angry) that Matt Cassel was still on the team after he had what could only be called a terrible pre-season. It took less than one full quarter of the first game for us to realize what wisdom it was to keep him around. Despite the poor pre-season play, the Patriots figured they were better off with a backup who at least knew and grasped and could run the system than with someone else. My point is that, even if we can't always see it or understand it, there is a logic to the roster decisions that have been made. Much as we can't now fathom how player X made the team when player Y was cut, there are reasons behind it and, for all the complexities that may be involved in each individual decision, the ultimate reason a player is cut or kept is amazingly simple: the coaches think (or don't think) they give the team the best chance to win. So let's take a deep breath and not worry too much about who's NOT on our favorite team and start getting used to cheering those who are our 2010 New England Patriots.