Thursday, February 25, 2010

Three Players Impress in United States' Win Over El Salvador

AP Photo/Mike Carlson

Three players who all but disappeared from the national team scene fully immersed themselves back into the equation in Wednesday’s victory against El Salvador.

Brian Ching, Sacha Kljestan, and Heath Pearce were regulars in the beginning stages of World Cup 2010 qualifying but were absent from the roster since the Confederations Cup.

With question marks at their positions and strong performances tonight, all three vaulted back into the picture.

These three played a role in the team’s two goals, but it isn’t just the scoring that made their play impressive.

Ching, coming on as a second half substitute for Conor Casey, scored and had an assist. Kljestan, starting at center midfield, scored the game winner in stoppage time. Pearce, getting the start at left fullback, assisted Ching’s goal on a beautiful cross.

Pearce was the guy at left back for Bob Bradley’s squad in 2008. He was third on the team in minutes played that year. However, Pearce fell out of favor with club team Hansa Rostock and was even suspended from the first team. The less time he got on the field at the club level, the more his quality dipped on the country stage. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, Pearce did not see any playing time and watched his job go to Jonathan Bornstein.

Pearce transferred to FC Dallas over the summer and finally got back onto the field, getting some confidence back. Against El Salvador he was given another chance while Bornstein was slotted at center back.

Pearce was solid defensively the whole game and was a big threat in the attack. He was able to get up and down the flank effectively and had quite a few good crosses, including an assist to Ching.

Ching was the target forward of choice for Bob Bradley in the beginning of qualifying, but injuries throughout the year sidelined him and gave Casey a chance to become that player. A knee injury left Ching out of the January camp roster.

However after a sub-par first half for Casey who had some opportunities to make something happen but did nothing with them, decision making was less than desirable, and looked sluggish, Ching came in at the start of the second half and gave the team a jolt of life.

Ching had some opportunities turned away by El Salvador keeper Miguel Montes (who had an amazing night) but finally was able to beat him with a nice header to tie the game. He also provided the give-and-go pass to Kljestan for the game winner.

Ching put together some great passes and he made himself a target to get the ball to.

Kljestan didn’t have an injury and didn’t get permanently benched. Something happened to him after his three-goal game against Sweden, though. Maybe it was overconfidence, but Kljestan was in poor form for the U.S. team as well as his MLS club, culminating in a horrid performance in the Confederations Cup.

While he wasn’t as strong throughout the game as Pearce and Ching, he did provide some proof as to why at one time he was considered a candidate to start in the midfield alongside Michael Bradley.

Kljestan came through with a number of good scoring chances in the first half, but was unable to finish. He had some very crisp passes, although at times he missed his mark. Still, he was aggressive and, most importantly, played with urgency and confidence.

He attacked the goal and stood strong on defense. And speaking to his confidence level, he didn’t have his head down in shame; his head was up and alert, which allowed him to swoop in behind and steal the ball leading to scoring the game-winner.

What do these performances mean to their World Cup chances?

Pearce was the only one named to the roster for the friendly against the Netherlands, but that means very little. This is just an opportunity for Bradley to give the same chance to the European players to state their case.

Left-fullback has been a problem position for the U.S. Bornstein is the main option right now, with defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Spector switching spots on the line to the left also options. Pearce has a chance though to gain his spot back.

Bornstein is a nice player, especially in MLS, but Pearce is a better option. He is a bigger and stronger defender than Bornstein and makes better decisions than Bornstein, who tends to panic or forget where he is on the field at times.

Bornstein’s strength is considered to be his ability to get forward, but Pearce did that even better.

The reason Bornstein was made the starter to begin with was because Pearce was out of form due to lack of first team playing time. That isn’t the case now, and Pearce looks to be ready to fight for his job back.

Kljestan has the most difficult road ahead of him. He played a good game, but it may be a case of too little too late.

The U.S. has a glutton of central midfielders: Bradley, Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Torres, and Kyle Beckerman to name a few. While only Bradley has cemented his spot on the roster, the rest have all played well enough to merit selection over Kljestan.

Kljestan did play for Bob Bradley with Chivas though so that may help him, and he can also slide out to the right side, which isn’t one of the U.S.’ stronger spots on the field, especially with Dempsey currently injured.

Ching probably played himself back onto the roster last night.

The forward position has a lot of question marks.

Jozy Altidore will make the team, but after that the picture gets muddier. Charlie Davies is still recovering from a tragic car accident at the end of qualifying. Dempsey, although hurt right now, is a candidate to play up top. Robbie Findley and Jeff Cunningham are options to fill in for Davies as speed options at forward. Eddie Johnson has also put his name in the hat after moving to a new club in Greece and he is playing well there so far.

What we do know is that Bob loves holding forwards and there are only two of them in the player pool currently: Ching and Casey.

He was the favorite before he got hurt and Casey has been very ineffective (save for his two goal game against Honduras in World Cup Qualifying).

It’s been a long and difficult road for Ching, Pearce, and Kljestan. Some U.S. supporters left those three for dead. But here we are right before the World Cup roster deadline and all three have played their way back into consideration.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Basics of Curling

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

The Winter Olympics features quite a few competitions most Americans aren’t familiar with. One that is constantly on the butt-end of jokes in the country is curling.

Although being a demonstration sport in the Olympics as early as 1932, curling became an official sport in the 1998 Nagano games.

People just don’t understand it. Since it’s easier to enjoy a sport when you know what’s going on, I’ve researched the sport and provided a basic viewer’s guide to how the game is played.

There are two teams of four players. Instead of quarters or innings, curling has ends. Each end consists of each player on both teams throwing (delivering) two stones (rocks) each down the ice for a total of eight stones a team per end and 16 total. Games last ten ends (extra as needed if there is a tie).

Then comes the infamous sweeping. Sweeping is done, if needed, to make the stone travel farther and/or change the amount of curl. The stones begin to curl as they slow down, so sweeping earlier increases their distance and straightens their path and sweeping when the stone begins to curl increases sideways distance. Pressure and speed of the brush are determining factors in sweeping.

The objective is to get your stones closest to the center (button) of the target (house).

Like in bocce ball, the team closest to the center gets a point and an additional point for everyone of their rocks closer to the button than the closest from the other team.

The most points a team can get in one end is eight, which is referred to as a “snowman”. These are rare and are said to be the equivalent of a perfect game in baseball.

No points are awarded to stones that are outside of the target rings.

There is the matter of the hammer, similar to getting “last licks” in baseball. Who gets the hammer (last-stone advantage) in the first end is determined before the game, usually by coin-toss. The hammer then is awarded to the team that did not score in the previous end. If no one scores the hammer stays with the same team.

There is also a timer; each time is allowed 73 minutes to throw all their stones and have two one minute time-outs. If the score is tied after regulation each team is given an extra ten minutes and one more 60 second time out per extra end.

If you’re a casual watcher of the sport during the Olympics and are curious as to what the game play is, than this is a good, basic, easy to understand starting point.

For more details visit the World Curling Federation’s rulebook at (PDF File):

New England Patriots' Stephen Neal to Try His Hand at MMA?

AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

Stephen Neal is a free agent and word coming out of his camp continually is changing. He’s been rumored to be retiring, then it was that he was going to test the free agent market, and now the latest rumblings have him possibly giving the UFC a shot.

At first the rumor seems a little ridiculous but there is some legitimacy behind it.

Neal didn’t play football in college; instead he was a spectacular amateur wrestler at Cal State-Bakersfield.

Neal went 151-10 in his wrestling career, won national titles his junior and senior year, and in 1999 was awarded the Dan Hodge Award, which is referred to as the Heisman Trophy equivalent in collegiate wrestling. Neal also competed at the 2000 Summer Olympics trials.

He has success against the best in the business too.

Neal’s final championship came in a win over future NCAA wrestling champion, WWE Champion, and UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar.

Still, that was in amateur wrestling not mixed martial arts.

There are a lot of potential pitfalls to a potential switch to the UFC.

For starters, Neal has had injury problems in his NFL career. He has been placed on both the injured reserve list and the physically unable to perform list multiple times in his nine-year career.

Especially at the offensive lineman position, nine seasons and 78 games played really takes a huge toll on one’s body. Neal may not have the juice to compete with the toughest fighters.

He’s also about 20 pounds heavier than his wrestling weight in 1999 (286 pounds), and at his position on the field, it isn’t 20 pounds of pure muscle. He is certainly strong and athletic, but it’s tough to imagine him moving swiftly in the octagon.

There’s also one very serious concern with a move like this.

A recent hot topic in the NFL is concussions and the risk of serious brain damage that plagues football players beyond their playing days. It cannot be good at all for Neal to step into the ring and get punched in the head, and in the UFC he wouldn’t have pads and a helmet to protect him.

At the end of the day though, this could still be a far-fetched rumor drummed up by Neal’s agent in order to drive the market for him. Agents lie about these things frequently, and with the potential struggles and dangers that Neal would face, it is tough to imagine the three-time Super Bowl champion making such a drastic career change.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Patriots Should Stay Away from the Branch

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

This past season the Patriots did not perform to fans’ expectations. Fans are yearning for the earlier years in the decade when New England won three Super Bowls in four years.

By remembering those magical teams, some prominent names long gone are thought of once more. One of those players is open to a reunion.

Seahawks receiver Deion Branch told the Boston Herald Thursday that he would be open to a trade that brought him back to New England, where he won two Super Bowls and was named Super Bowl XXXIX MVP.

Seahawks general manager John Schneider has reportedly said while he won’t release Branch, he would be open to trading him.

Branch has responded that he enjoyed his time in New England and liked the coaching staff and players. It’s good to know there’s no ill will with Branch.

That being said, as things are now the Patriots should not be tempted to go after him.

The Patriots could use some help at wide receiver, especially after the injury to Wes Welker, but there are more glaring needs for pass rushers and help in the secondary. Those need to be addressed first.

What really makes Branch not worth going after is his current salary.

According to the Herald article, Branch will receive, in base salary, $5.47 million this season and $5.95 million next season.

Take a look at his production with Seattle and one will realize he is not worth that much money.

In four seasons as a Seahawk Branch has only 177 catches for 2,235 yards and 14 touchdowns (only two last season) compared to the 213 catches for 2,744 yards and 14 touchdowns in four seasons as a Patriot.

Some may argue that the Seahawks have not been nearly as efficient on offense as the Patriots, but Branch has also had health concerns missing 17 games due to various injuries in Seattle, compared to missing only 11 games as a Patriot.

Not only does he not merit making that kind of money but that is money that the Patriots are having issues giving to their own free agents, such as Vince Wilfork, who would have a much more positive impact on New England than Branch.

Not only would they have to pay him money he isn’t worth, they would also have to give up something to Seattle, most likely draft picks, to get him.

In a piece on the New England Sports Network website the author writes that if the Patriots don’t make a move though that someone else could come in and make a play for him.

Is that really a concern for New England though?

If a player isn’t good enough to make an impact or isn’t worth the value of his contract, why should the team even think of adding him, especially when there other positions of much higher concern?

Just because Branch enjoyed success as a Patriot five years ago does not mean he will enjoy the same success now.

In hoping to perform like they did in the past decade the Patriots should not fall into the trap of trying to recreate those teams with the same players when they just aren’t who they used to be.

New England Patriots' Free Agents: Who Should Stay and Who Should Go?

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

The Patriots are heading into a crucial offseason. After an embarrassing performance against the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, it was obvious that changes need to be made to the team.

Still, there are a number of free agents that the Patriots should also bring back.

The Patriots have nine unrestricted free agents and three restricted ones.

Who should be kept on to help get the team to Super Bowl XLV at the new Dallas Cowboys’ Stadium?

Who should be looking for work elsewhere?

Tully Banta-Cain, LB


Keep him.

Banta-Cain was the best pass-rusher the team had, finishing in the top-15 in the NFL in sacks with 9.5. Even if the Patriots get players through trade, the draft, and/or free agency, Banta-Cain has always been an asset on special teams. He was also around for two of the Patriots’ three Super Bowls in the past decade.

Leigh Bodden, CB


Let him go.

The Patriots secondary was bad and they need to completely retool, save for Pro Bowl safety Brandon Merriweather. Sure, Bodden lead the team in interceptions with five, but three of those came all in one game against Mark Sanchez.

Derrick Burgess, DE/LB


Keep him.

His stats were not that good. That being said, it was his first season in New England and he could have just been getting used to not only a new defensive scheme but also a new position, playing mostly at linebacker.

He is a two-time Pro-Bowler. He has the talent. With many possible departures at both linebacker and the defensive line, Burgess would be nice to have for added depth and should be more productive with a year with the Patriots under his belt.

Kevin Faulk, RB


Keep him.

Faulk is the ultimate team player, willing to do and take whatever role as long as he can contribute. These are the kind of guys that the Patriots dynasty was built around.

He is not a starting running back, but he is a good backup and a good locker room guy. He does a little bit of everything: runs, catches passes out of the backfield, blocks, and returns kicks and punts.

Faulk should be brought back and should be favored over the oft-injured Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor.

Jarvis Green, DE


Let him go.

For a guy that gets starts, his numbers aren’t that impressive. He registered 36 tackles and one sack in 13 games, certainly adding to the defense’s pass-rushing woes.

He has, on multiple times, stated he would like to test the market in free agency. His numbers show that there really isn’t much of a reason to stop him.

Chris Hanson, P


Let him go.

For the first time in his career, excluding his rookie season when he only punted in one game, Hanson's average yards per punt was less than 40 (39.7). It was a poor performance from him. Out of 33 punters listed on the individual stats leaders on, Hanson tied for last in average yards per punt.

For a team that expects to be elite, this is not acceptable.

Stephen Neal, OG


Let him go.

He’s been a mainstay on the O-line and has been a part of all three Super Bowl teams, but Neal didn’t actually play at all in the first two Super Bowl seasons.

The running game hasn’t been strong, part of which is the offensive line’s responsibility. Also, ever since the Super Bowl loss to the Giants, the Patriots line has struggled significantly.

Neal has mentioned possibly retiring, and the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era have done a very good job drafting offensive lineman. It looks like it is time to thank Neal for his services and move on.

Benjamin Watson, TE


Keep him.

He’s not the best pass catching tight end in the league and won’t help your fantasy team, but Brady has a good connection with him and he’s made some big catches, including getting two touchdowns in the final 2:06 of the Week One comeback against the Bills.

Stephen Gostkowski, K


Keep him.

Gostkowski has been under a microscope since taking over for the heroically clutch Adam Vinatieri, but he has performed admirably.

He’s been selected to one Pro Bowl, one All-Pro team, and was the NFL scoring leader in 2008.

He’s been good in the postseason too, making his first eight field goal attempts in the playoffs as a rookie, and is 9-11 in his career, while never missing a kick that cost the Patriots the game.

Logan Mankins, OG


Keep him.

Mankins has started every possible game of his five year career. He’s been a key member of the offensive line and is only 27. He has two Pro Bowls on his resume and there is absolutely no reason not to bring back such a reliable and productive player.

Pierre Woods, LB


Let him go.

A good special teams guy but he doesn’t really make an impact anywhere else on the field. The Patriots need to improve their pass rush and Woods does not factor into that.

The Patriots need to find improvements at linebacker and Woods would just be taking up a roster spot.

Vince Wilfork, NT


Keep him.

Wilfork is an elite nose tackle, a position that's crucial to the 3-4 base defense but extremely difficult to fill. The Patriots need him on defense and his backups are a significant drop off in talent.

The team is willing to put its franchise tag on him. Wilfork wants a long-term deal and is offended. The Patriots need to make this man happy.

If he leaves they will not be able to find a suitable replacement, in or out-of-house, and they need to improve their defense not lose the unit’s best player.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Boston Celtics Hitting the Wall

AP Photo/Mary Schwalm

Boston fans thought the Patriots were the only team that couldn’t close out games.

The Celtics have lost five of their previous eight games dating back to January 28. Twice they lost to the Orlando Magic, who sit two games ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings. They lost to the Atlanta Hawks (one and a half games ahead of Boston in the East), Los Angeles Lakers (Western Conference’s number one team), and a Chris Paul-less New Orleans Hornets.

Not only have they not beaten good competition, but in four of those losses they blew double digit leads in the second half.

They blew leads of 16 and 11 points against Orlando (the latter just one day after Orlando blew a 21-point lead to Washington), 11 points against the Lakers, and 12 points against the Hornets.

If you cannot close out games, then you cannot win. Period.

“One of the guys said, ‘We’re better than Orlando,’ and I said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Celtics Head Coach Doc Rivers said. “They knocked you out of the playoffs last year. Orlando’s better than us right now. Atlanta’s better than us right now. L.A. [Lakers are] better than us right now.”

What has happened to the dominating team just a season and a half removed from their 17th NBA championship?

There have been the injuries. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Rasheed Wallace, and Marquis Daniels have all been banged up and missed time at one point or another in the past month.

Every team goes through injuries though.

For starters, almost all those names mentioned have put on a lot of NBA miles and are just simply breaking down. It takes them longer to get back to form as well.

A tweet from Bill Simmons, the famous ESPN writer and Boston sports fan, exemplifies this when he quotes the announcer during the Boston-New Orleans game: “A year ago, Kevin Garnett would have caught him. Not this Kevin Garnett.”

They also don’t have a deep enough or talented enough bench. Their starting lineup is very talented but if something happens to them, there isn’t anyone to step up.

If Tony Parker of San Antonio gets hurt, like he is right now, George Hill can come in and score 17 points, dish out four assists, and grab six rebounds.

If Paul Pierce gets hurt who backs him up? Marquis Daniels? That’s a grave drop-off. Rasheed Wallace was supposed to help with depth but he is having his worst season, statistically speaking.

Two problems pose the biggest threat to the Celtics success however, and they go hand-in-hand: bad defense and a lack of discipline.

During their championship run, the Celtics played tough, strong team defense. Now there is zero help-side defense.

When Rashard Lewis made the game-winning layup in the first victory mentioned above, Lewis received a pass and was one-on-one with Kevin Garnett. Garnett was defending a little outside of his range and Lewis spun against him and went baseline to the hoop. Instead of being met mid-way by a defender attempting to thwart Lewis’ attempt to be the hero, he was uncontested and made an easy lay-up.

“Turned the corner with my right hand, took it to the basket and was expecting the defense to collapse,” Lewis said. “I was surprised when I turned to the basket there was nobody there.”

In the second Magic game referred to, at the end of the first half Jason Williams took the ball coast to coast without much pressure. He beat Eddie House and with time running out leaped from around the free throw line to get in a runner before the time expired. Already beat, House turned around and reached out, knocking Williams in the head. Not only was Williams awarded free throws but House is lucky he was not given a flagrant foul.

If you aren’t going to play defense on a guy fine, but why at the last minute, after you’ve been beat, hit him in the head?

And while they aren’t as young and fresh-legged as they used to be in their careers, their experience should make them smarter. Not knowing where the ball is, not helping out your fallen teammate, and not being in the proper position to help is unforgiveable. These players should know better. Kevin Garnett is a former Defensive Player of the Year.

The Celtics were once a team with great leadership thanks to the big three’s motivation for a championship.

Could it be that they see the end is near and just aren’t as hungry anymore?

Something needs to change—GM Danny Ainge has been rumored to be shopping Glenn Davis and Ray Allen—because the Celtics will be lucky to get out of the first round of the playoffs the way they’re playing now.

“We were getting what we deserved,” Rivers said after the second Orlando Magic game. “I love our team on paper, but we tend to be front-runners. When we get a good lead we relax and teams take advantage of it and then you’re caught and it’s tough to turn it back on.”

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Miami Dolphins Should Regret Passing on Drew Brees Twice

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.

The Dolphins organization must feel really stupid for passing on Drew Brees not once, but twice.

Brees, a two-time Heisman finalist, Big Ten MVP, Maxwell Award winner, Academic All-America Player of the Year, and a 2001 Rose Bowl appearance at Purdue was sliding down the 2001 NFL Draft board.

The Dolphins were up with the 26th pick. They had just gone through their first season without Dan Marino (some referred to it as 1 A.D. for “After Dan”) and while Jay Fiedler was serviceable, he was not the quarterback of the future. Miami needed a quarterback and their fans knew Brees was still around.

The Dolphins went with cornerback Jamar Fletcher from Wisconsin instead. Brees was taken six spots later by San Diego. Fletcher, who was only a backup to Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain, lasted three seasons with Miami before being traded to San Diego for David Boston who played a grand total of five games in two seasons.

At the quarterback position the Dolphins trotted out Fiedler, Ray Lucas, Brian Griese, A.J. Feeley, Sage Rosenfels, and Gus Frerotte. In those five seasons the Dolphins made one playoff appearance.

Meanwhile, after playing in only one game his rookie season Brees took over the starting quarterback role for the Chargers, was selected to one Pro Bowl (he was first alternate to a second but couldn’t play because of injury), was named the 2004 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and also went to the playoffs once.

A shoulder injury and a ton of money invested in backup Philip Rivers signaled the end of Brees’ time as a Charger. Miami would get another crack at him.

Obviously still unsettled at quarterback Brees again was available, and he was very interested in joining the Dolphins.

Nick Saban balked at Brees’ shoulder injury though, and decided to trade for Daunte Culpepper instead, even though he had a knee injury himself.

The only other team to have interest in Brees—the Saints—signed him after Miami went in another direction.

Culpepper never really recovered and the Dolphins had a losing season. After the season Nick Saban bolted from Miami back to college football and Alabama and Culpepper was released.

Since the decision to go with Culpepper over Brees, the Dolphins have used seven different quarterbacks: Culpepper, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Trent Green, John Beck, Chad Pennington, and Chad Henne.

Brees has made the Dolphins look ridiculous.

He’s accomplished an incredible amount as a Saint: three more Pro Bowls, three All-Pro selections, one NFL offensive Player of the Year award, countless franchise records, and oh yea, a Super Bowl championship and Super Bowl MVP.

And Brees’ shoulder? Well, he has played in every single game possible in his career as a Saint, minus one game this past season when head coach Sean Payton sat him because the Saints had home field advantage locked up.

Since Dan Marino retired the Dolphins have been looking for a franchise quarterback to replace him with. That was a decade ago. Chad Henne had a solid first year as a starter, but it’s been a painful ride for Dolphin fans.

Dolphin fans watched Brees holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy Sunday night and could only wonder what if, as their team has only been to the playoffs twice in the past decade losing in the first round both times.

They wanted Brees all along.

They could’ve had him twice.

They won’t get another crack at him, and who knows when they’ll get another shot at either their franchise quarterback or the Super Bowl.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Should the New England Patriots Go After Julius Peppers?

AP Photo/Rick Havner

The Super Bowl has crowned its champion and they’ve had their parade. Party’s over.

Well in New Orleans it’ll go on for another month, but in every other city it’s time for their NFL franchise to begin their offseason.

For the Patriots, yes, the Vince Wilfork situation is huge (much like Vince Wilfork himself), but obviously the Patriots need more to get further.

Addressing the defense should be the biggest priority, evidenced by Ray Rice’s brilliant performance dominating New England’s defense in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

One name that has been a constant, since last offseason in fact, has been (former?) Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

Peppers is a free agent, feels that the Panthers have ignored him, and does not want to sign a long-term deal with the team.

Carolina could use the franchise tag on him and have until February 25 to do so, but Peppers didn’t want to be there last season after a career year and he doesn’t want to be there now.

The leading suitor is New England, and on the field at least the two would be a perfect match.

The Patriots pass rush is sorely lacking.

The Patriots finished tied for 23rd in the NFL with 31 sacks and were the worst amongst playoff teams. Tully Banta-Cain, surprisingly, led the Pats in sacks with 9.5 and was tied for 14th most in the league, but the drop-off was drastic, as the second most on the team was defensive ends Derrick Burgess and Mike Wright’s five sacks, tied for 59th in the NFL.

The Patriots had slow and aging linebackers who too often were dropping into coverage to make up for a lackluster secondary, and the trade of defensive end Richard Seymour allowed teams to double Wilfork.

Peppers would immediately become the defense’s focus and take pressure off of Wilfork and add much needed experience to a defensive line that featured four rookies.

In six of his eight seasons in the NFL Carolina’s all-time sacks leader has registered double digits in sacks. Peppers is also a five-time Pro-Bowler.

A defensive end his entire career in a 4-3 base set, Peppers has also expressed a willingness to drop back to play linebacker in a 3-4.

He also has been to the Super Bowl, facing the Patriots, and knows what it takes to win.

If he is franchised though, the Patriots would have to give up compensation to get him, most likely a first round draft pick at least, and Peppers would demand a hefty contract.

The reasoning why Peppers may not be worth the price is because of questions about his attitude.

The past few years Peppers has constantly complained about his situation in Carolina. While he has performed, the past couple of seasons, he and his contract situation have also been a distraction in the locker room.

He also has been criticized for taking plays off.

New England has already had Adalius Thomas causing headaches in the locker room this season and Bill Belichick does not want another one.

All signs point to Thomas getting a ticket out of New England, either by trade or being released. That would leave room on the defense for an elite playmaker, which Peppers certainly fits the bill for. But while replacing his skills on the field, would he present the same problems off it?

Or would he be more like Randy Moss, a player that had attitude baggage with former franchises but flourished under Belichick, as well as Tom Brady’s, leadership?

While the defense needs help, the defensive line was the most productive of all the units. Could the Patriots use their money and resources on a linebacker or defensive back?

Or do they make Peppers a linebacker?

Peppers is still a playmaker and while the Patriots have a few on offense, they are in desperate need of some on defense.

Will Peppers be the answer?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Peppering the Defense

AP Photo/Sephan Savoia

The Patriots defense was often criticized.

The media was harsh on them and their own coach lacked faith in them sometimes, the glaring example coming when head coach Bill Belichick chose to go for it on fourth-and-two with just over two minutes to go while ahead by six points.

Many thought the personnel on the field would see some changes, but now the team also has to find a new defensive coordinator.

Dean Pees stepped down from the job in the middle of January after holding the position for four seasons, and has since joined the Ravens coaching staff (bringing major insult to injury to the Patriots organization as Baltimore whooped New England in the playoffs) as the linebackers coach.

The Patriots still have not filled that void.

On the field the Patriots were not very talented in the secondary.

The linebackers were old, slow, and banged up, and they frequently dropped back to help in pass protection to make up for the sub-par defensive backs. Thus the quarterback had plenty of time to throw the ball and the running backs had plenty of open lanes.

The defensive line was the most productive of the group, although they missed end Richard Seymour who was traded before the season. They do, however, have two free agents, including elite nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and the rest of the line is comprised mostly of rookies.

Now they also need to find a man that will be the leader of the unit and turn them back into a dominant force.

Who will they turn to though?

Some Patriots fans were hoping that the team would go back to their glory days of the past decade and hire former defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. However he chose to be the Chiefs’ defensive coordinator.

Mike Nolan was on the market but he didn’t last jobless for long. The defensive whiz that helped revamp the Broncos’ unit was quickly snatched up by the rival Miami Dolphins.

Even Buffalo hired a new defensive coordinator, reaching into the college ranks to grab George Edwards.

Belichick, from the Parcells tree, is well known for finding guys he really likes and sticking with them. All signs point to the Patriots filling their vacancy in-house.

When Crennel was hired to be the head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2004 Belichick hired Eric Mangini, his defensive backs coach who had been a part of his staff for nine years and was a 23-year-old ball-boy when Belichick was in Cleveland.

Then when Mangini left a year later, Belichick turned to Pees.

So if Belichick and the Patriots continue the trend of sticking with guys they know then one person is supremely qualified for the job. That man is Pepper Johnson.

Johnson is an NFL lifer as well as being a Belichick guy his entire career. In Johnson’s 13 NFL seasons as a player, 10 of them were spent with Belichick.

He was drafted in 1986 by the New York Giants, whose head coach was none other than Bill Parcells and the defensive coordinator was Belichick.

In 1993, two years after Belichick became the Cleveland Browns head coach, Johnson joined him again. The Browns then moved to Baltimore and the men went their separate ways, but it would last only one season.

After reuniting with Parcells in New England in 1996, Parcells and Belichick migrated to the New York Jets and brought Johnson in with them for the final two seasons of his playing career.

When Belichick became the head coach of the Patriots in 2000 he brought Johnson on to his staff, and Johnson has worked his way up ever since. Johnson started as an assistant linebackers coach, was promoted to inside linebackers coach, and has spent the past six seasons as the defensive line coach.

So in total Johnson has spent 23 seasons in the NFL and all but three have been with “The Hooded One”. So he’s definitely a Belichick guy. His unit this past season was also the most productive of all the Patriots’ defensive components.

Not enough reason to merit another promotion?

Well it wouldn’t be the first time Belichick handed over the keys of his defense to Johnson.

According to reporting from an piece by Mike Reiss, Johnson was asked to lead the Cleveland Browns defense in a preseason once.

Defensive coordinator Rick Venturi was having health issues and was absent from the team. Belichick called in Johnson and asked him to run the defense, “like he was a player-coach” said teammate Carl Banks.

Johnson has been getting a lot of attention lately and has his supporters. Banks, Crenel, and free agent nose tackle Vince Wilfork all have openly backed Johnson for a promotion (could making Johnson defensive coordinator help keep Wilfork in New England?).

Johnson is comfortable with both the 3-4 and 4-3 base defenses and has earned a lot of respect throughout the league.

It may be time for Belichick to put him in a leadership role once again.