It's Combine Weekend, so for all intents and purposes, it's time to start looking ahead to 2017. So what better time to kick off our countdown of the Top 20 Patriots Moments of 2016?
As many of you have already pointed out, limiting this series to a meager 20 plays is an absolutely Herculean task. After all, there are certain games, which may or may not show up later, that have 20 moments all on their own that could take up this entire list. However, the point of this series is not only to highlight the greatest moments from the previous year, but also to create a snapshot of the 2016 season as a whole. Ideally, we'll all be able to look back at this list come late August/early September and be able to relive the entire journey all over again. There are going to be some tough cuts along the way - but luckily, when it comes to making tough cuts, I learned from the best.
And as we kick off our countdown, I'm going to use the Number 20 Patriots Moment as the yin to the Number One Moment's Yang and highlight a time during which there were those who began to doubt the Patriots and wonder what Bill Belichick was thinking. In hindsight, this moment seems as insignificant as it gets and almost an afterthought, given how the season ended. But at the time, this was a pretty massive deal and occupied sports headlines for a full week following the move. Absolutely nobody saw it coming and little, if any, of it made any sense at all.
At the same time, though, as is often the case, it represented a critical turning point of the 2016 season.
20. The New England Patriots trade all-star linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland for a bag of peanuts.
One of the major questions on everybody's mind as the 2015 season came to a close is what the Patriots were going to do with three key defensive players about to enter into the final year of their contract: Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, and Jamie Collins. The general consensus was that there simply wasn't enough cap room for all of them, and so Belichick was going to have to make a difficult decision in the following offseason regarding who gets paid and who doesn't. However, when the Patriots traded Chandler Jones to Arizona for a 2nd round pick and enigmatic lineman Jonathan Cooper, the muddied picture seemed to clear up a bit. With Jones gone, New England could turn its attention on negotiating long-term deals for both Hightower and Collins in order to keep the best linebacker duo in the league intact. Patriots fans were sorry to see Jones go, but ultimately the move made sense; Jones had a tendency to fade down the stretch, whereas Hightower was the most cerebral defender on the team and Collins was an absolute athletic freak. As the season got underway, both Hightower and Collins proved their worth to the Patriots, combining for 45 tackles and two interceptions through the first seven weeks of the season. And while the New England defense was something of a mixed bag, playing a lot of soft zone and giving up chunk plays between the 20s, a 6-1 finish through seven weeks more or less spoke for itself. The real concern was whether or not Collins and/or Hightower was playing himself right into a massive contract.
Cut to October 31st, 2016. Halloween. The time for spooks, treats and tricks. And in a trick that nobody saw coming, the Patriots announced that they had traded Collins to the Cleveland Browns for a draft pick.
Shocking? Definitely. But hey - it's Cleveland. They draft in the top five year in and year out. Maybe they put together a package of picks that the Patriots simply couldn't refuse. There was at least a chance that Collins was gone next year anyway, so why not get maybe a 2nd rounder for him? Maybe even a 1st in 2018?
Nope. None of that happened.
All Cleveland had to give up to obtain the most athletic linebacker in the league was a compensatory 3rd round pick - assuming they even got one. If they didn't get a compensatory pick, then compensation came in the form of a fourth rounder.
And due to the language of the Deflategate punishment that states that New England must forfeit the highest fourth round pick they had, there was a good chance that the trade would literally yield zero return.
None of it made any sense. I mean sure, Collins was in a contract year, so it was essentially a half-season rental, but still - having the inside track on one of the best linebackers in the league had to have been worth a compensatory pick, right?
The head scratching was audible. The usual suspects railed Bill Belichick, calling him a moron of epic proportions for letting Collins go. There were some rumors that the coaching staff was unhappy with the way Collins had been "freelancing" on plays and not sticking to the gameplan, but for the most part, this was just one of those moves that the Patriots are infamous for and that everyone hates.
But you know what? It worked.
The defense turned a corner. Role players like Elandon Roberts and Shea MccLellin stepped up. The Patriots acquired Kyle Van Noy, who became a crucial part of the defense. The Patriots gave up more than two touchdowns only twice following Collins' departure, and the chemistry and synergy that was lacking in the early part of the 2016 campaign was there.
Maybe Collins was a distraction. Maybe the Patriots system just worked better without him. Maybe all the players decided to straighten up and fly right out of terror of being shipped off to Cleveland unless you do what the coaches tell you. Whatever the reason, after all the initial furor, it was business as usual for the Patriots.
Sure, it seems silly now, but at the time, people were FREAKING OUT over this move. You'd think we'd learn by now to stop throwing a fit every time an irreplaceable player leaves the team, but we never do. It's bound to happen again this year as well. But that's one of the main reasons why the Collins trade made this list at Number 20 - if Bill Belichick jettisoning one of his best players right smack dab in the middle of season for a roll of duct tape and a high five doesn't tell you everything you need to know about this team, nothing will. The 2016 Patriots were, in every sense of the word, a unit. They all came together as one, and anyone who didn't buy into that was gone. The Patriots went on to win a Super Bowl by getting rid of a player that many experts listed as a top priority for retention. They were a better squad without Jamie Collins, and that speaks to the respect and leadership that comes from the top.
The other reason I have this moment at Number 20 is to give you all a stern reminder of how you all felt when it happened vs. how you're all feeling about it now. It isn't going to make a lick of difference when something similar happens in a few months, but at least now I can say I tried.