Could anything possibly derail the Patriots this season, and prevent them from making another Super Bowl run, if Tom Brady remains healthy? That question was posed to several noted ESPN Football analysts last week, and it was interesting to see how some experts view the team externally.
Asked what area might prove to be the team's Achilles' heel - perhaps the defense with its thin linebacking corps and revamped but unproven secondary, or something else - the analysts' answers fell into the latter category.
Keyshawn Johnson and Cris Carter targeted an offensive line that that had some difficulties keeping Brady clean during the preseason.
``Tom Brady looks like the Tom Brady of old,'' Johnson said. ``To me, it looks like he hasn't missed a beat. But if they can't keep him upright, and he continues to get hit, all quarterbacks are the same. When you hit them upside the head, they're a different breed.
``Eventually, (the Patriots ) have to figure out what to do with their offensive line, whether it's a protection issue, or whether it's changing some guys out, or getting some (new) guys to really shore up things and protect him.''
Carter was not afraid to point fingers, singling out Pro Bowl left tackle Matt Light and newly extended right tackle Nick Kaczur as the soft spots.
``The weakest part of their offense, are the two tackles,'' Carter said. ``Right now, they're in love with the short passing game. They want to throw the ball 35-40 times. So for me, the downfall for New England is Tom Brady getting hit.''
The two-time Hall of Fame finalist, who played with Randy Moss on the Vikings, cited all the recent examples, including the third preseason game, in which Washington's Albert Haynesworth drove Brady into the turf after the quarterback threw an incomplete pass. Brady, who was expected to play into the third quarter of the game, didn't play from that point on due to a ``sore'' shoulder.
``I don't know if you noticed,'' Carter said, ``after Albert Haynesworth hit him, Albert tried to help him up, and Tom wouldn't take his hand. No quarterback wants to get hit. And the more they get hit, the more they become average Football players.
``Tom Brady got knocked out of last season after getting hit on his knee. The game before that, he got the stuffing knocked out of him (by the Giants) in the Super Bowl. So the more they try to throw, the more Brady is going to get hit. And if you don't think teams around the league (game plan it) - every time they play New England - the No. 1 objective is to get Tom Brady on the ground.
``That's going to be the goal, and the weak part of the offense are the two tackles. So Tom's going to get hit this year.''
Vrabel's Chief concerns
Former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel, who was dealt to the Chiefs as part of the Matt Cassel trade, seems to have adjusted to his new surroundings in the Kansas City area.
``It's actually pretty nice, similar to Columbus,'' the Ohio native told the Herald last week. ``The kids are settled. They started school a couple weeks ago. (Eldest son) Tyler is playing tackle Football for the first time. He's playing with some buddies in school. They all seem to like it. We'll see what happens.''
As for the new team he's joined, and the veteran leadership he's expected to provide, Vrabel said it's a growth process.
``They're still trying to build a team,'' Vrabel said of the Scott Pioli-led front office. ``It's crazy. There's a lot of different people, a lot of different faces. It's new for everybody.
``The coaching staff's new. We just need to keep working to build a team, because that's what it takes. There's talent here. We just have to keep plugging away. Knowing that, we can't afford . . . we're not good enough to have any little slip-ups. . . . We have to be perfect with everything.''
Naturally, Vrabel couldn't stop talking about his good friend and former teammate Tedy Bruschi, who decided to call it quits last week after 13 NFL seasons.
``He's a guy that would do anything for his team, and did anything for his team,'' Vrabel said. ``He's someone who, if you know him, is a great father, a great husband. Those are the things I respect about him. I think I always knew he was a great player. If you got to know Tedy, you were lucky, because a lot of people didn't get inside that group he had that was very small.'' . . .
Like Vrabel, Rodney Harrison last week spoke with Bruschi about his decision.
``One thing I told him is `Now, you're really going to enjoy life, because now, you're no longer going to have anxiety.' That's one thing people don't realize,'' Harrison told the Herald. ``Football players have a lot of anxiety. Since I walked away from the game myself, I can't tell you how many people have walked up to me and said, `You know, Rod, you just seem different. You don't seem pressured or stressed or on edge.'
``That's the one thing when I talked to Tedy, he said, `You know what? I don't feel the anxiety any more. I feel relief.'
``We're always trying, and especially as you get older, you try to stay young . . . you've got the young guys trying to take your spot, and it's a lot of pressure all the time. When you get to a point where you don't have to worry about that pressure, you can sit back and enjoy life. And now, he's able to do that.''
Leon can Barry 'em
NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk, on a conference call last week, spoke glowingly about New York Jets running back Leon Washington, whom the Pats will face in Week 2. Faulk went as far as to compare Washington with the great Barry Sanders.
Said Faulk: ``There are not many players in this league, especially playing running back, that when you put the ball in their hands, something good is going to happen. I've been watching Leon since he was wearing No. 3 at Florida State and I thought the guy had a knack when the Football was in his hands, he was going to make a play. I call it the Barry Sanders effect. Whenever they handed the ball to Barry, you knew something good was going to happen. Even if it was a 2-yard gain, it was the best 2-yard gain you've ever seen. Leon has a lot of that in him. He is learning how to run in between the tackles in the NFL.''
Washington is a handful, for sure. Chiming in on the all-purpose back, ESPN analyst and former Bucs and Raiders coach Jon Gruden said: ``I get whiplash watching him run around.'' . . .
Speaking of Gruden he had some interesting remarks about the firing of Tampa Bay offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, the former head coach at Boston College.
``I was obviously surprised. I just got fired from Tampa Bay, so I'm sensitive to that,'' he said. ``That's a strange situation. I know Tampa Bay has a lot of really good players on offense. I can attest to that. I can swear on a (witness) stand they're a talented Football team.
``This is strange, it's uncommon this would happen, because all I've read is how excited they were about the acquistion of Coach Jags. I'm just eager to hear what transpired to cause this. Obviously, they have someone in-house to take the reins. They don't have a lot of time with the regular season closing in, but I wish them the best.''
GRAPHIC: When Tedy Bruschi walked away from the Patriots last week after a 13-year career, he left behind a rich NFL legacy that -- while it may not warrant enshirement in Canton -- is sure to resonate for years to come.
Bruschi's penchant for game-changing plays produced one of his more remarkable achievements -- one that may never again be replicated: an NFL-record four straight interceptions returned for touchdowns. Those four came during a one-year stretch at the peak of Bruschi's career, when his uncanny playmaking ability was at its zenith.
Here's a look back at Bruschi's awe-inspiring Pick 6 x 4:
DATE OPPONENT FINAL RESULT
Nov. 17, 2002 at Oakland L, 27-20
THE SKINNY: The Patriots are trailing, 24-6, in the third quarter when Lawyer Milloy tips a Rich Gannon pass intended for Joey Porter. Bruschi snatches the deflected ball at the Oakland 48-yard line and rumbles into the end zone, giving the Pats new life with 1:276 left in the quarter.
Nov. 28, 2002 at Detroit W, 20-12
THE SKINNY: This is the ``perfect read'' Bill Belichick referenced on Monday. Ahead, 3-0, in the Thanksgiving Day game, Bruschi steps in front of a Joey Harrington pass intended for Larry Foster and returns it 27 yards for the TD.
Sept. 14, 2003 at Philadelphia W, 31-10
THE SKINNY: In shotgun formation, Donovan McNabb fires a pass toward Freddie Mitchell. Bruschi anticipates the throw, steps in front of it and jaunts 18 yards for the TD.
Dec. 7, 2003 vs. Miami W, 12-0
THE SKINNY: A signature moment in the famed ``Snow Throw Game,'' with the Pats clinging to a 3-0 lead, Bruschi again makes a quick read as the Dolphins ill-advisedly attempt a pass in the shadow of the goalposts. Bruschi snags a Jay Fiedler pass intended for Chris Chambers at the 5-yard line and parades into the snow-slicked end zone, dropping to crawl the final few feet on his knees. The dramatic display sets off an impromptu celebration with the Foxboro fans throwing handfuls of snow in the air in a geyser-like display.
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