To most NFL observers, one of the more surprising stories of the regular season was the Patriots' ability to win 14 games without their usual starting cornerbacks. With Ty Law placed on injured reserve yesterday, the Patriots could surprise the NFL world again if their makeshift secondary can beat the likes of Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger on their way to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville Feb. 6.
Law's broken left foot apparently didn't heal enough to satisfy the Patriots' coaches and medical staff. Though Law seemed willing to play at less than 100 percent, the Patriots ultimately decided against it.
"I know that Ty wanted to come back to play. We talked about it," said Law's agent, Carl Poston, who is hopeful the cornerback can avoid surgery. "If he didn't come back it's because he absolutely couldn't. He's seen the doctors and they didn't think he could go."
And now Law could be on the go. He has one year remaining on his contract, but all signs point toward Law not being willing to restructure his deal to reduce his huge cap number next season. Law is due $9.75 million next season, including a $1 million reporting bonus.
"I'm sure the Patriots want him back, but we haven't talked at all," Poston said. "Whatever they propose we'll deal with it. Ty's a great corner who they're going to miss in the playoffs. He has so much experience covering those premier receivers. I know it's killing him not being out there."
Law called the Patriots' four-year, $26 million offer "an insult" and "a slap in the face" last March. Poston countered with a seven-year, $63 million offer that included a $20 million signing bonus and $28 million over the first three years.
Instead, the Patriots opted to carry Law's $10 million cap number into this season.
"We are disappointed for Ty," coach Bill Belichick said in a statement. "He has worked extremely hard to return this season and we all hoped it would happen. But unfortunately that will not be the case."
Efforts to reach Law were unsuccessful.
The 30-year-old Law started the first seven games of the regular season at left cornerback until his injury in the first quarter of a 34-20 loss at Pittsburgh Oct. 31. The early prognosis was that Law would be out 4-8 weeks. The Patriots worked him out before the Dec. 20 game in Miami, but the workout was cut short when Law was seen limping.
Law had said he wanted to return for the final two regular-season games so he could shake off some rust before the playoffs, but that never materialized.
The Patriots have prepared for many games without Law, using a bevy of combinations and zones to make up for the loss of their All-Pro corner, as well as Tyrone Poole, who was placed on injured reserve Dec. 17 with a knee injury.
Eugene Wilson, who was considered by many to be one of the premier free safeties in the league this season, could shift to corner. With Wilson opposite cornerback Asante Samuel, the Patriots would at least have more experienced players (instead of rookies Randall Gay and Earthwind Moreland) to line up against the likes of Marvin Harrison, Brandon Stokley, and Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis, and Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress, and Antwaan Randle El of the Steelers.
If Wilson shifts to corner, the Patriots would have the option of using Gay or Moreland at free safety, a position both have played this season.
Law's loss also throws Troy Brown into the mix as a slot cover man. Both the Bengals and Dolphins were able to exploit Brown in that role. Another option is to activate third-year cornerback Omare Lowe from the practice squad. NFL rosters are frozen, preventing teams from adding players for the playoffs.
Terry Robiskie, the interim coach of the Cleveland Browns, saw his team get throttled by the Patriots and a Law-less defense, 42-15, Dec. 5. But the playoffs are another story.
"Law is a such a great player," Robiskie said. "If he's not in there, that'll make it very difficult for the Patriots, but they've proven all year they can overcome these things. We'll see."