This may be a tale of apples and oranges. Or, maybe it is a tale of apples building teams like oranges. Either way, it's a story about how the Red Sox and Patriots are moving forward from very different places in similar fashion, both looking for a fruitful future.
The 2014 Red Sox endured their second-worst season in 20 years. The 2014 Patriots enjoyed their fourth Super Bowl championship since the turn of the century.
Still, as we sit here with spring just underway, with a new Sox season rapidly approaching, and the Pats not too far removed from the beginning of free agency, there’s a striking and potentially disturbing similarity emerging:
Each decimated a strength with the hope of rebuilding on faith rather than a proven track record.
At this point last year, Boston had a surplus of pitching. Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront, and – for a fleeting moment – Ryan Dempster filled out their rotation. A host of talented prospects provided depth for the future.
Thing is, the offense never really came around. The Sox fell out of the race early in their title defense, and the organization decided to take a time machine back to 2012, dealing off the pieces it felt it either couldn’t or didn’t prefer to retain. By season’s end, we were left with Buchholz. He was accompanied by the likes of Joe Kelly, Rubby De La Rosa, Brandon Workman, Anthony Ranaudo, and Allen Webster.
There was a lot of chatter about the team re-signing Lester in free agency, but it elected not to pay top-dollar on the open market. The team also chose not to shell out big money for experienced No. 1’s like Max Scherzer (Nationals) or James Shields (Padres). Instead, the Sox proceeded to sign a collection of perceived No. 3’s in Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, and Justin Masterson.
Short of a trade for Phillies front-man Cole Hamels in the near future, it’ll be ace-by-committee to open the season in Philadelphia on April 6. He’s the ace. You’re the ace. I’m the ace. Who knows, really? Spring performances from the staff, for whatever those are worth, haven’t been overly encouraging thus far.
That brings us back to the Patriots.
Bill Belichick’s team wasn’t statistically superior in the secondary last year (the pass defense allowed 240 yards per game, ranking 17th) but sometimes you have to throw the numbers out the window. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner were game-changing catalysts for arguably the NFL’s most fearsome passing defense. Of course, sticking with the mantra that no one player is bigger than the system or his impact on the salary cap, Revis’s $20 million contract option for 2015 and its accompanying $25 million cap hit were deemed too expensive for his talents and he was permitted to hit free agency. Once he was there, the Patriots didn't outbid his old team in the Meadowlands for his services. Browner, apparently, was deemed expendable without Revis and signed with the Saints. If the NFL operated like MLB, without a cap, both would perhaps still be around.
So how did Belichick elect to replace his two veterans? With a group already featuring Logan Ryan, Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, Alfonzo Dennard, and Kyle Arrington – none of whom are ideal starters at this time, let alone players who can be regularly depended upon to shift the balance of a game – was bolstered by free agent signings Chimdi Chekwa (formerly of the Raiders), Bradley Fletcher (Eagles), and Robert McClain (Falcons).
You probably shouldn’t rush out to buy a new replica jersey.
The three new additions have combined to play 14 NFL seasons with just 74 starts. Chekwa is better known for his contributions on special teams, Fletcher’s emerged as a regular starter in his last two years in Philadelphia but reportedly lost his confidence last year, and McClain’s been durable (he’s missed just one game in four seasons) but an inconsistent starter.
The Pats could still draft a corner, should they opt for a defensive back over someone to help in the trenches. The top options coming out of college are Trae Waynes (Michigan State), Marcus Peters (Washington), Kevin Johnson (Wake Forest), Jalen Collins (LSU), P.J. Williams (Florida State), Ronald Darby (Florida State), and Quinten Rollins (Miami of Ohio), though at least the first couple could be off the board by the time New England’s first pick comes around at 32.
Just as the Red Sox are prepared to rely upon a collection of starters who have either trended in the right direction (Porcello), are hoping for bounce-back years (Buchholz, Miley, Masterson), or are simply hoping to stay healthy (Kelly), the Patriots are presently operating in the land of the unknown as it pertains to a former downfield defensive power.
Yes, safety Devin McCourty re-upped for big dollars (five years reportedly worth $47.5 million, with $28.5 million guaranteed) and the veteran leader is prepared to anchor the secondary but, no matter the sport, there’s only so much ground a center fielder can cover.
While Chekwa’s no guarantee to even make the roster, Fletcher and McClain are more interesting cases. No matter how well they perform, it will be immensely difficult for either to fill the void left by Revis.
Between the Rams and Eagles, Fletcher has started the majority (54) of his 71 career games. He’s 28 and has appeared in at least 13 games each of the last three years. Over the last two, he’s totaled 131 tackles. Revis had 47 in his lone season in Foxborough, though it should be noted opposing quarterbacks often elected to stay away from the Island. In the past, receivers have generally taken a ferry to visit Fletcher, though he did successfully defend 22 targets his way. Even so, he had a poor season as part of a lackluster Eagles pass-defense.
McClain has totaled at least 59 tackles in each of his last three seasons and picked off two passes last year, but has just 21 career pass deflections. Revis had 14 in 2014 alone. The 26-year-old out of UConn has spent four years between the Panthers, Jaguars, and Falcons. He started six games last season and often struggled.
According to Pro Football Focus, the pair gave up nearly 1,600 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
None of this is to suggest the Red Sox and Patriots can’t -- or won’t -- be successful in 2015. It’s simply worth noting both franchises, neither more than two years removed from championship glory, have chosen risky personnel strategies heading into their new seasons in areas historically proven to require star power and not merely depth. Generally unproven or previously middling players will be looked to rise to greater heights, perhaps unreachable ones for them.
Whether John Farrell’s influence on his pitching rotation or Belichick’s track record of revitalizing careers and coaching up previously unheralded players will carry forward will be fascinating to watch. As things stand, though, we’re likely looking ahead to a year in which both teams' fortunes will be heavily dependent on offense. If healthy, that should be enough to make the playoffs, but is it enough to earn another duck boat parade?
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