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The ins and outs hint at Patriots' long-term plan

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  September 8, 2010 11:18 AM

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As surely as the ball has traveled from one to the other, the focus shifts now, from Brady to Moss. The former appears on the verge of getting the contract he wants. The latter does not. And so continues the story in the never-ending evolution of the once-dynastic New England Patriots.

A mere four days before the 2010 season opener, these are truly fascinating times in Foxborough, where the Patriots clearly are taking names, punching tickets, making decisions. So who’s in and who’s out? Most everyone knows that the Pats are at a crossroads in their organizational development, glorious photos of yesterday replaced by the fresh faces of tomorrow, a true team in transition. And yet, amid it all, there is the indisputable expectation that comes with any team guided by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, a coach and player tandem like few in the history of sports.

Brady? He’s in. Logan Mankins? He’s out. Vince Wilfork? He’s in. Randy Moss? He’s seemingly out. Labor uncertainty or no labor uncertainty, the Patriots are designating their future cornerstones and building blocks with a most deliberate precision, sparing some, eliminating others. It’s as if a plague has been wafting through Gillette Stadium, passing over only those who have been marked with Belichick’s seal of approval.

Think back to last weekend for a moment. Derrick Burgess? You’re out. Jarrad Page? You’re in. Despite a thin linebacking unit, recent draft picks Shawn Crable and Tyrone McKenzie were relegated to the practice squad – the injury-prone Crable was released early in training camp – and 2009 draftee Rich Ohrnberger was ousted with them. Meanwhile, undrafted free agents Kyle Love and Dane Fletcher were added into the mix of a 53-man roster that has been in a state of flux since the spring of 2009.

All of these may seem like relatively normal machinations in any football season, but they are not. Not in Foxborough. Not in some time. The Patriots historically have stockpiled draft picks in the spring, but over the past two years, they have used. In the 2009 and '10 drafts, Belichick has selected a whopping 24 players, some of whom remain with the club, some of whom do not. The Patriots have undergone a massive transfusion while seeking to remain among the most competitive and elite teams in football, something many organizations have tried but relatively few have succeeded at.

Don’t you see? These decisions are not about 2010 as much as they are about 2011 and beyond. What we are saying about the Pats now will not matter nearly as much as what we will be saying about this period come September 2011, 2012, or 2013. We will have our answers on Darius Butler and Devin McCourty by then. We will have answers on Brandon Spikes, Taylor Price, and Ron Brace too. We will know whether the Patriots have effectively rebuilt their empire or effectively allowed it to crumble, all through a blizzard of roster decisions comprised of seemingly insignificant snowflakes.

But put them all together and, well, who knows?

All of this brings us back first to Brady, the ultimate no-brainer among no-brainers. Of course the Patriots were going to keep him. If they were going to cut ties with him, they would have done so in the wake of the Matt Cassel ascension. The Patriots instead shipped away Cassel and now appear on the verge of recommitting to Brady through at least 2013, by which point the quarterback, too, will know whether his best days in Foxborough were well behind him when he signed this current contract.

Moss, for his part, is another matter entirely, his dissatisfaction with his own status coming to light earlier this week, when he told CBSSports.com that he felt "not wanted" in the absence of a contract extension. Those who scoffed at Moss for opening his mouth badly miss the point, if for no other reason than the fact that man is entitled to open his mouth, speak, to express his opinion, to vent. The concern comes in whether Moss will be distracted and dragged down by his sentiment in what is a contract year for him, though there is even some question as to whether that will be of consequence.

Again, think about it: if the Patriots aren’t going to win the Super Bowl this year, and if Moss is likely gone, anyway, then what difference does it make to them if Moss is on board? What the Patriots truly have at stake this season is their future. At the moment, Moss doesn’t project to be a part of it. If New England had a great deal at stake this year, Mankins probably would be in camp by now, by hook or by crook. But the simple truth is that the Patriots don’t have time to diddle around these days because there is a great deal of construction to be done.

Early on in the Belichick tenure, as the Patriots annually contended for championships, we all knew the protocol in Foxborough: the bus leaves promptly; be on it or under it. The Patriots ended up with a roster so deep, talented and committed that the locker room steered itself, a development that is every coach’s dream. Now, the coach has taken the wheel again as the Patriots once again prepare to put the rubber to the road amid an array of issues that have them venturing, for the first time in years, into unclear territory.

Once again, the bus leaves promptly.

Destination: unknown.

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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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