The Patriots shipping Randy Moss to the Vikings on Wednesday is the boldest move in the NFL since, well, at least Easter, when the Eagles sent Donovan McNabb to division rival Washington. And the more I think about it, the more telling that comparison is. The parallels are striking.
Both trades -- rare NFL swaps involving marquee stars at glory positions -- are emblematic of the differing management philosophies of the clubs involved. It's a microcosm of the kind of thinking that has helped the Eagles and Patriots become two of the NFL's premier franchises of the last 10 years, a brashness that has served them well. Both trades carry significant inherent risks, but are totally in character for the teams that were parting with the stars and speak to what has set them apart from the pack.
Whether you love both deals -- few fans seem to -- or hate them, you can't deny that the Bill Belichick and Andy Reid/Joe Banner philosophies of defying conventional wisdom, always keeping one eye on the future and making moves that resonate far beyond the here and now, has helped enabled them to win as many games as they have. They're willing to absorb some short-term pain -- unlike the Redskins and Vikings -- paying as much attention to 2012 and 2013 as they are on the present.
"You don't win as many games as Philadelphia and New England have the last 10 years without being willing to sacrifice something here and there," said one longtime NFL executive. "New England is not a better football team without Moss, but Bill realizes he is rebuilding his program from within and he's looking at sustaining his product. You need draft choices to do that.
"In the short term it might hurt, but they know the blueprint for sustaining success. Moss wasn't going to re-sign with New England. McNabb wasn't going to re-sign with Philadelphia. McNabb has what, three or four years left? The Eagles have depth at quarterback, and they used that pick for (safety) Nate Allen, who is going start for them for 10 years.
"One guy does not make a winning program. He can help, but he can't make it. If you're making moves that are one-year, win-at-all-costs, then you're going to lose for three or four years after that. These kinds of trades are about sustaining success."
Indeed, the teams that acquired these two veteran stars, Minnesota and Washington, are very much all about 2010. Both have unsigned QBs beyond this season -- Favre says he will retire; McNabb is likely to re-sign with Washington -- and the Vikings' handling of Favre, and now this trade, prove they are all-in for this season. Nothing else matters. The window closes when Favre leaves.
Similarly, Washington has the oldest roster in the NFL in Mike Shanahan's first season there, has dealt a ton of picks for older players and is not taking its time in this rebuild attempt from a 4-12 season.
If anything, these two trades crystallize the dichotomies at play: The long-term organizational strength of the Pats and Eagles vs. the short-term desperation for certain pieces shown by the Vikes and Redskins. It illustrates the difference between making proactive moves (dealing an asset before the value sinks and/or before that player departs as a free agent) vs. making reactive moves to fill immediate voids.
Going for the long view will engender a fair amount of criticism, but that's never seemed to bother Belichick or Reid. Without a doubt, Moss's departure leaves a void. The Patriots have no other proven deep threat, teams can smother Wes Welker and the young tight ends on the inside, and New England's running game will see more of a safety presence now, as well.
All of that is significant. "I'm glad he's gone," said one AFC exec of Moss.
I don't buy that Brandon Tate instantly fills the void, and let's not forget what Moss has accomplished. In his three full seasons as a Patriot (2007-2009), Moss caught 47 touchdowns -- 12 more than any other NFL player (yes, 12 more over just a three-year timeframe). Only two players in the league had more receptions over 25 yards in that span, and only three players had more total receiving yards (Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Reggie Wayne).
He only runs a few routes at this stage of his career, but he demands double and triple coverage, and he's still feared by coordinators and defensive backs. The Pats can spread teams out and dink and dunk you to death, but that's what defenses are OK with giving up these days. Take 10 plays to move between the 20s and let us pound on your receivers.
Without Moss leaping for jump balls in the end zone, those drives won't end with as many TDs. And given the state of the Pats' transitioning defense, it's going to take 30 points for New England to beat the better teams in the league. Doing that without Moss won't get any easier.
But I get the gamble on the macro level, and I'll take the Pats as one of the dominant teams of the next decade, what with two picks in each of the first four rounds of the 2011 draft and all, but there will be some short-term pain.
As for the Vikings, this won't solve all that ails them. They lack a third-down back who excels in protection and have an aging offensive line that struggles to provide pass protection on seven-step drops, making the vertical game difficult, even with Moss. Favre's ankle and the myriad injuries of Visanthe Shiancoe and several receivers are very real. Moss can't heal them all up.
But they badly needed a big target for Favre, the kind that Sidney Rice was to him last season. In Moss, the Vikes have a guy to just go up and get the ball. They have a real red-zone weapon.
Minnesota ranks second-worst in passes over 20 yards (seven), and Favre has a woeful 53.6 rating on passes of 21 yards or greater (he led the NFL with a 118 rating in that category last season). Adrian Peterson should benefit as well -- getting a safety to shade to the outside now -- and riding AP remains the best bet for this outfit.
Moss will help, but he's not a panacea, and the Vikings are still going to have to be more of a run-based team to enjoy real success (they're running the ball 61 percent of the time on first-and-10 this season, compared with 55 percent a year ago).
Ultimately, though, I'll defer to Belichick about knowing when to cut ties with a player, as his record in self-scouting is remarkable. And, according to several sources, Moss's grousing about a contract and behind-the-scenes antics had plenty to do with the move, as Belichick is trying to mold a young nucleus for years to come.
(Speaking to agents who interviewed with Moss before the season, the Pro Bowler is seeking $10 million per year on a multi-year deal and also wants to pursue options in Hollywood/reality TV).
I thought ultimately the Patriots might be able to squeeze a second-round pick or a young player for Moss, given Minnesota's plight, but a third was the best they could do. Still, with all the draft picks at their disposal, the Patriots will once again control the selection process and be in position to deal for current players as well, with no present-day ramifications. The organization remains primed to be competitive well into the future.
Like McNabb, Moss wasn't part of the future, so now he's no longer part of the present. That's the business. I'll take the upside of the Patriots and Eagles for years to come. And we all know anything less than a Super Bowl will amount to failure for the Vikings, a team with an uncertain future and now one more star heading toward possible impending free agency.
Change for the better
Kudos to Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett for curbing his aggressive nature and helping his club smother the Eagles on Sunday. No one has blitzed more than Haslett this season -- not Gregg Williams, not Rex Ryan, nobody -- but he toned it down against the Eagles, adopted a Cover-2 approach and provided a huge element in Washington's victory.
Haslett has been going gung-ho early on, even when milking a lead. Third-and-long he would bring the heat, relentlessly. Not so against the Eagles, particularly once Michael Vick was knocked from the game. Haslett left emerging safety LaRon Landry, who had been playing around the box, deep in coverage over the top of DeSean Jackson. The other safety, Kareem Moore, was shaded over Brent Celek or Jeremy Maclin, and the Eagles had no recourse but to check down repeatedly to running backs and fullbacks.
"We pretty much used the game plan against them from last year," linebacker London Fletcher told me after the game. "We definitely were a little more conservative with some things and focused on having two deep safeties."
It worked wonders, and given where Kolb is in his development right now, other teams will copy. Without Vick's elusiveness and unpredictability around the line of scrimmage, and now with running back LeSean McCoy nursing a broken rib, too, there isn't much reason to put an extra safety in the box. Kolb doesn't seem willing to challenge much down the field and tightened up some when the field got constrained as the Eagles drove downfield.
All of a sudden that top-ranked Philadelphia offense faces some real problems. Getting all of these weapons involved, sans Vick, won't be easy. The good news is this is likely a one- or two-week injury for Vick. The bad news is this offensive line doesn't look like it will right itself.
It never ceases to amaze me how much things can swing from one week to the next in this league. Injuries seem to haunt the Eagles. The prospect of playing in a very mediocre division helps, but this is a different team right now with Kolb under center.
Rams' success beyond Bradford
St. Louis has allowed just four touchdowns thus far, putting it with the elite groups in the league. The Rams rank seventh in passer rating allowed (71.8), fifth in third-down defense and sixth in points allowed. They have struggled against the run, but this group has come a long way in a short period of time.
The defense has finally been able to play with a lead, which has been huge. Coach Steve Spagnuolo believes in a pressure, aggressive defense, but that's' difficult to run when you are always trailing and teams are running to milk a lead. Young linebacker James Laurinaitis has been performing at a very high level and drawing rave reviews within the organization, and the signing of Fred Robbins has stabilized the defensive front.
I'm not sure the Rams can continue to play at this level on that side of the ball, but playing in such a weak division, they have every chance to compete and make things very interesting in the NFC West.
» Speaking of the NFC West, I'm still not writing off the 49ers, 0-4 start and all. Again, that's a very weak division, and 7-9, with four or five wins within the division, could still get it done.
I spoke to someone who had scouted the 49ers on more than one occasion, and he thought the same thing.
"That's the best 0-4 team I've ever seen," the scout said. "They could easily be 2-2. They had New Orleans beat, and they had Atlanta beat and let them both off the hook. But they have 11 first-round picks on that roster. I respect their players. They have talent. Are there holes there? Yeah. But trust me, at the end of the year they're very capable of being 8-8."
» I wonder if Mike Martz goes with more three-step drops and running plays in Carolina this week after that mauling Jay Cutler endured on Sunday night. It's hard for him to curb the deep stuff and spread formations, but that offensive line is in trouble. Chicago's offense has 32 negative plays already this season, most in the NFL.
The picks are in
Rallied to go 9-5 with my picks last week. Also won with Green Bay as my lock of the week -- barely. So I'm 38-24 for the season, and 3-1 with the only-pick-'em-once -lock-of-the-week. This week give me the Jags, Ravens, Colts, Packers, Rams, Panthers, Bengals, Falcons, Giants, Saints, Cowboys, Chargers, 49ers, Jets. I'll take the Saints as my lock of the week (already used the Dolphins, Falcons, 49ers, and Packers).