I think I've established, more times than any man probably should, that I'm no expert on relationships. My understanding of the opposite sex is about as broad as Keanu Reeve's acting range. Or Keanu Reeve's intellect, for that matter. And to make matters worse, it seems that the harder I try, the less I know. The only thing that I have managed to piece together after all these years of bumbling incoherently down the Road of Love is that there seems to be somewhat of a shaky checklist to the whole romance process, one that is fairly well-known and followed by most love-seekers out there; unfortunately, we can't just pass notes or have friends do all the dirty work for us forever.
First, you find that you are attracted to someone. Then, once you gather up your nerve, you ask him/her out and you go out a few times. Then, a few dates later, you become a couple (which nowadays is more or less determined by a conversation as to whether or not to change your Facebook status to "in a relationship." Weird). Then, if all goes well, you move in together. If all is still bright and sunny after that, it's time for The Big M. The Plunge. Cashing it all in. Tying the Knot. The list goes on.
And it's this final step where America has lost it's way - the institution of marriage has really taken a hit over the past few decades. There was once a time when it truly was "till death do us part;" a couple got married, they worked at it, they stuck it out when it got rough, and they grew old together. Now, it seems like all it takes is a funny look or a few too many reminders to put the toilet seat down to send a couple to court. The average American marriage lasts for eight years - I have underwear older than that.
But they don't all end in divorce, do they? Once in a while, you'll see an old couple sitting in the park or walking down the street, smiling at each other, happily holding hands, and it restores your faith in the world. You realize that for every sham marriage, shotgun wedding, celebrity cry for attention, and we're-young-and-in-love elopement, there are still some people out there who know how to make a relationship work.
But how do they do it? That really is the million dollar question - what are the keys to a long, healthy relationship? Ask ten married couples that have been together for an extended period of time what their secret is, and I bet you'll get ten different answers as to why their relationship works. And that makes sense, to be honest; everyone is different, so it's only fitting that every marriage is different. However, I think you'd be hard pressed to find those who would disagree that there are at least a few universal truths that make for a long, successful relationship. There needs to be trust. There needs to be stability. An open line of communication is a must. Willingness to work hard and to work together. A desire to help the other succeed.The knowledge that you will always have someone who is behind you at all times, will catch you when you fall, and be there for you in your time of need.
Looking back on that list, those are all qualities that the Patriots were missing at the safety position last year. In a position where strength, trust, and communication are so important, the Pats were forced to shuffle guys in and out of the lineup with the kind of nightmarish frequency that I thought was once reserved only for the night shift at a telemarketing firm. In fact, for a large portion of the 2011 season, I considered it a win if I even knew who was back there at safety and I was able to yell out the right name when he bit on a playfake or was caught way out of position.
Yelling out the right name. Now that should definitely be on the list.
The Patriots need help at safety - this much is obvious. Unfortunately, safety is one of the areas where the 2012 Free Agent Class is relatively thin. More likely than not, this will be a position that gets addressed through the draft. However, there are definitely some safeties of note that will be available, and any one of these players would represent a nice step up from... well, whoever our starting safeties were last year.
OUT OF MY LEAGUE
These are the two best safeties available in free agency, but I don't really see them signing anywhere other than with their original teams.
Dashon Goldson. Goldson is coming off a career season in which he had six interceptions and a fumble recovery. He also was a key cog in preventing the big play, as he is one of the most disciplined safeties in the NFL. I don't see him going anywhere; the Niners with either be franchising him or Carlos Rogers, and whichever one doesn't get the franchise tag will be getting a longer-term deal. If he walks for whatever reason, I'd throw some decent money at him, but I simply don't see it happening.
Tyvon Branch. Branch is coming off consecutive solid seasons for the Raiders, and they will be making their desire to retain him well known - especially since they cut Stanford Routt. However, even if he was available, I don't see him on the Patriots. Branch is more of a strong safety than a free safety, and can't do a whole lot in man coverage. He is great against the run and very dependable in zone coverage, but so is Chung. The Patriots need a free safety who can cover and establish a presence over the middle, and Branch isn't really that player. I don't see him as available, but even if he is, he doesn't quite have the skillset New England needs.
SO YOU'RE TELLING ME THERE'S A CHANCE...
Both of these safeties, at the moment, have too many question marks to make them slam dunks. They both have potential, but if the season were to start today I wouldn't feel comfortable having them on the roster.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Landry is an extremely talented safety who would make an excellent complement to Pat Chung. He's good in coverage, has no problem getting up to the line to stop the run, and understands most defensive schemes. He has been inconsistent in the past, but overall he is one of the better safeties available from a sheer talent standpoint. A healthy Landry would be a fantastic addition to this secondary, and I highly doubt Washington brings him back.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: "Healthy" really is the key word here. Landry was lost last season to an Achilles injury, and he has opted not to have the recommended surgery to repair the heel. I don't know why anyone would forgo surgery to just hope a serious injury simply heals on its own, but that is the risk Landry is taking. And since Landry is taking that risk, any team that signs him takes that risk as well. Some injuries you never fully recover from even if you get surgery and rehab properly; there are a lot of question marks surrounding this guy, and he might not even be worth a short-term, low-risk contract. Landry has also been hitting the weight room hard - a little too hard if you ask me. Safeties should not be more jacked than defensive linemen.
Overall: This is definitely the time to take a "wait and see" approach; maybe Landry's heel will be 100% by the time the season rolls around and he will be ready to make an immediate impact. If I could get a guarantee he'd be healthy, and that he was fast enough to keep up with the speedier receivers with all that muscle mass, I'd peg him as a great fit. I just don't think he's going to be able to do either of those things, so I hope the Patriots stay away until they know for sure.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: Leonhard is a cerebral, instinctive safety that can pick up a defensive scheme very quickly and knows how to adjust plays based on what the offense is showing. He's a hard hitter, and while he won't intimidate receivers, he will certainly make his presence felt. New England would have given up less big plays last year if they had a safety with Leonhard's understanding of the game on the field.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: Leonhard is coming off season-ending leg injuries in back-to-back years, and that has to have taken its toll. Leonhard also doesn't have the size to be a major presence over the middle and works best in a defense with solid cornerbacks that rely on safety help over the top as opposed to a purely cover-based scheme. Based on the Patriots secondary of 2011, I don't think that Leonhard is the kind of safety this team needs.
Overall: I like Leonhard a lot and think that he would make a good Patriot - but I don't think he's the answer long term. I'm also concerned about his injuries and how effective he'll really be in 2012. I say bring him in, work him out, but look elsewhere first.
MOM, DAD...THERE'S SOMEONE I'D LIKE YOU TO MEET.
These are the safeties that I think would make the most sense for the Patriots to bring in. They are almost polar opposites of each other in terms of consistency and playing style, but either one would work well at free safety.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: DeCoud isn't a name you hear announcers say a lot, which means that he's a solid, consistent safety that doesn't give up many big plays. With Atlanta likely prioritizing re-signing Curtis Lofton and Brent Grimes first, I think DeCoud will be unrestricted and available at a reasonable price. DeCoud and Chung would complement each other well and would provide some stability at a position that was pretty much a revolving door last season.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: While DeCoud doesn't give up too many big plays, he doesn't make many either. I think the best word to describe DeCoud is "serviceable." While serviceable is a pretty big step up for New England at this point, I don't see why they would shell out money for a non-playmaking safety when they can acquire one through the draft and spend their cap money elsewhere.
Overall: If the Pats were to sign DeCoud, I wouldn't consider it a bad move. I wouldn't be doing cartwheels over it, either. He is definitely a step up from James Ihedigbo or Matthew Slater, but he's not the next Rodney Harrison. Still, there is something to be said for reliability at the safety position, and in that respect DeCoud could be one of the safer signings out there.
Why he will play for the Patriots in 2012: When he is on his game, Griffin is one of the better safeties in the league. He has a nose for the ball and isn't afraid to go for the big hit without being reckless. He is adept at both zone and man-based defenses and can be a dominant presence in the middle of the field.
Why he won't play for the Patriots in 2012: After a monster 2007 year, Griffin has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any player I can remember. He comes off as both Pro-Bowl and practice squad caliber safety, and all within the same game. You never know what you are getting from down to down, and in an already shaky defensive backfield, Griffin could be a huge headache. I don't know what it is about Griffin that makes him so streaky, but that kind of play makes him a real liability. Plus, even with his inconsistency, he still the best safety the Titans have, so they may try to keep him around.
Overall: Call me crazy, but I see a lot of Brandon Merriweather in Griffin - minus the me-first attitude, off-the-field issues, and unwillingness to listen to the coaching staff. He has underachieved the past few years in Tennessee and he would do well from a change of scenery. I think that Belichick will be able to get a lot out of Griffin and help him to maintain some consistency in his play. If the Titans let him walk, I'd definitely bring him on board. He'd have to earn his spot on the team, and if he has a weak camp/preseason, he's gone, but he has the skills to be one of the better safeties in the NFL
IF NEITHER OF US ARE MARRIED BY THE TIME WE'RE 40...
Honestly, other than Goldson, who I see getting franchised, none of the above safeties really excite me too much. I see New England targeting a safety via the draft, or going after one of these lesser FAs as part of a safety rotation.