I am sure most NFL fans have noticed that the Patriots are fortifying their roster for another Super Bowl run. The aggressive signing of linebacker Adalius Thomas early in free agency for big money was not in the typical Patriot style of dong business, but if anyone claims they're sure of how Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli operate year in and year out they don't know the New England braintrust very well.
Certain traits are back in fashion as the Patriots make their predictable run on old veteran talent to fill up the roster with experience.
Half of the coaching staff is younger than the last half-dozen players signed. Chad Brown (36) is the latest old timer to sign a contract and he joins Vinny Testaverde (43), Troy Brown (36), Junior Seau (38), Kyle Brady (35), Tory James (34) and that youngster Randy Moss (30) who have been assembled to help bring a trophy to Foxboro. Belichick is an NFL historian in many ways. He's not afraid to tear a page out of a book his dad found in a used book store for a dollar and he remembers how the great coaches of the past built championship teams. The late great George Allen would be proud of the personnel work Belichick did this spring.
The Patriots are a unique team when you study them closely. The players who play with their hand on the ground -- the offensive and defensive lines -- are young, players who were acquired through the draft. The starting offensive line averages 28 years of age and the defensive line averages 26. Many teams find themselves with their older players on the lines, where experience really matters. Belichick has been drafting linemen on the first day of the draft and playing them early. But when it comes to other positions he has no problem with a bunch of over-30 types.
What he wants to get done scheme-wise, especially on defense, makes experience critical. Having enough players on the roster who have successfully rushed the passer as well as play coverage is a very important trait for a Belichick team. Tedy Bruschi (34), Mike Vrabel (31), Rodney Harrison (35), and Rosevelt Colvin (30) all have those attributes and are now complemented by Seau and Chad Brown. The critical point to using older players is how you package them into the defense and, most importantly, how you practice.
Belichick uses many small packages on defense where one of these guys might be in for 10-15 plays in certain situations. The coach might see a need for a special pressure package against a certain offensive personnel grouping on a specific down and distance and it might call for Seau and Vrabel blitzing while Bruschi and Colvin drop in coverage and Thomas puts his hand on the ground. Belichick has the flexibility to do whatever he wants as long as he doesn't wear the old guys out. That's where practice philosophy comes into play.
The Patriots have to practice smart in order to get through the season with so many over-30 types on the roster. What you see in this group of football senior citizens is also a lot of character. These guys push themselves and need no prodding from the coach to be prepared.
As Pioli likes to say when describing his roster, "We have a culture in the locker room." What he means is that this team can take care of itself, police its own problems, and insure that the newcomers do things the Patriot way. Moss is surrounded by so many great people on this roster, starting with Tom Brady, but he also has to look across the locker room at Seau and the other players who command respect. I expect Moss to experience at least the same success that Corey Dillon experienced when he turned in his Bengals uniform for a Patriots one.
The one area that has it tough with all the older players is special teams. Troy Brown (36) and James (34), among other, are backups. Backups and role players usually are the core of the special teams. Heck, the best special teams player is 32-year-old Larry Izzo and the punter may be 37-year-old Josh Miller. It is possible the Patriot punt coverage unit on any given Sunday could average 34 years of age and that would be some kind of record.
Don't misconstrue what I am trying to present. The Patriots have plenty of talented young players on the roster and aren't becoming a one-year wonder team intent on one last Super Bowl run. They are just different and because the head coach is the GM, older players are a big part of the roster. A GM from the personnel side of the business would cringe at the last few signings, believing that the old-timers would take valuable practice time away from young draft picks, probably break down in midseason, or simply run out of gas before the playoffs started.
Belichick and Pioli know all about those risks and don't run this team with their heads in the sand. The young ones will develop, the older ones will lead, they'll practice smart and execute on Sundays. A few of the late additions to the roster may get cut at the last cut this summer and be brought back on the roster a week or two later but they will be in game shape, they will know the game plan and they will be ready to go. I'm just not to sure many of them can still run down on kick coverage like they used to.