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After groundshaking trade, will Belichick stand tall?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 6, 2009 03:17 PM

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On the very fine line between today and tomorrow, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots now teeter dangerously. Richard Seymour is gone. Questions abound. And the most steely-eyed franchise in sports suddenly sits in a rather worrisome transition.

Eight days before their scheduled season opener against the Buffalo Bills on Monday Night Football, the Patriots today traded Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for a first-round pick in the 2011 draft. In the long-term, the deal seems to make all the sense in the world. The question is how much the Pats sacrificed in the short term during the rapidly advancing career of quarterback Tom Brady, creating another hole on a defense that had enough issues to begin with.

You may be in favor of this deal. You are just as likely to be against it. That very fact only accentuates the truth that Belichick may have just gambled on the 2009 season and his legacy going forward.

``Any transaction we make is with the goal of what is best for our team and, as difficult as it is to part ways with a player of Richard’s stature, many factors were taken into account when we considered this trade,’’ Belichick said in a statement. ``As an organization, we feel the trade with Oakland brings sufficient value and is in the long-term interest of the club. We are extremely grateful for the huge impact Richard’s elite level of performance had on our success and we wish him the very best during the rest of his career.’’

So there you have it: long-term interest of the club. Meanwhile, Brady is coming off a knee injury and the Pats are about to begin another season, and we must now wonder whether they have the horses on defense to win the Super Bowl this year.

By now, we all know how it works here regarding the Pats and their brilliant, distinguished coach. In the eyes of many, Belichick earned a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card the moment Adam Vinatieri’s kick sailed through the uprights in Super Bowl XXXVI. If Belichick didn’t get one then, he certainly did three years later, when the Pats toppled the Philadelphia Eagles for their third title in four years. As if tapped below the kneecap with a rubber mallet, the card-carrying Belichicklets heard the news of Seymour’s departure and immediately went into propaganda mode.

He must know what he’s doing. In Bill we trust.

In the long-term, for certain, the Seymour trade is entirely logical. He will be a free agent at the end of this season. The Pats now appear to have the money to sign Vince Wilfork to a new, long-term deal. As colleague Mike Reiss points out, the NFL might very well have slotted rookie salaries in time for the 2011 draft, when the Pats will have Oakland’s selection in the first round. Come that time, the Pats could have both a selection in the upper tier of the draft and a cost-efficient one, too.

In the interim, here’s the problem: what about this year? Doesn’t this deal another potential blow to a Patriots defense that already looks a little shaky? And haven’t we learned by now that the Pats must maximize every year with Brady, particularly after his cataclysmic knee injury of last season?

With regard to the 2009 Patriots defense, let’s not delude ourselves. After the preseason and entering the Sept. 14 opener, the defensive line was the only area that looked to be trouble-free. In Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, the Pats had three first-round picks that were the foundation of the unit. Those three players might very have comprised the best defensive line in the game. Now Seymour is gone in favor of Jarvis Green, Ron Brace, Mike Wright or Myron Pryor -- or any combination of them all -- and the simple truth is that there is enough reason to question every one of them.

Meanwhile, the Pats seem to have only two proven and capable linebackers -- Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas -- in front of a defensive backfield that seems currently entrenched in a game of musical chairs. Beyond the defensive line, especially, there are lots of new faces and a cast of new draftees, which cannot help but make you wonder if the Pats will need to score 40 points a game through the first two months of the season while Belichick sorts out all the pieces.

The point? If the Pats lose another chance at a title this year because their defense proves incapable of making a big stop -- doesn’t that really cover the last three years in a nutshell? – Belichick will have some questions to answer. (Of course, that hardly means he will actually answer them.) For a man with a well-earned reputation as a defensive mastermind, Belichick’s last three teams have been exposed when it came time to make the defining stop, which is the biggest reason the Pats have now gone a full, four-year term without a championship.

In the even bigger picture, of course, transition was inevitable. At this stage, we can only wonder whether the Pats put it off too long after winning the Super Bowl in 2005. In the last year, through the retirements of Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi as well as the trading of Seymour, the Pats effectively have ripped out the spinal cord from the defense that backboned the consecutive titles in Super Bowls XXXVIII and XXIX. From those teams, the centerpiece defensive back (Harrison), linebacker (Bruschi) and defensive lineman (Seymour) are now all gone. Maybe Brandon Meriwether, Jerod Mayo and Wilfork are the heirs to those thrones. Maybe they are not.

For Belichick and for the Patriots, this suddenly appears to be a pivotal time in their evolution. Their dynasty from the first half of this decade is now a thing of the past, symbolically and otherwise. The Pittsburgh Steelers have won two titles since the Pats last won a Super Bowl and the Indianapolis Colts have won one. The core of Belichick’s defense now has been transplanted. Belichick has not made a move as this one since releasing Lawyer Milloy just before the start of the 2003 season, a move that seemed to blow up the coach’s face when the Pats subsequently absorbed a 31-0 loss to the Bills in Week 1.

By the end of that season, the Patriots were Super Bowl champions and Belichick looked like a genius.

But what happens if this one goes the other way?

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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