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What if the Red Sox….

            Watching David Murphy’s sweet swing launching balls in the gap and over the wall against the Yankees got me to thinking – what if the Red Sox didn’t have to work with such urgency? I say “have to”, because the demand to win championships, either real or self-imposed, is so great that the Red Sox end up with itchy trigger fingers.

            Murphy was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick, and before he could develop into a serviceable outfielder who’s averaged 15 homers and 65 RBI the past three seasons, he was traded away with two other prospects for Eric Gagne. A failed trade.

            So, what if the Sox never traded Murphy? What if they had him in right field instead of J.D. Drew for a fraction of the cost? Maybe they could have gotten Mark Teixeira. What if they never signed Daisuke Matsuzaka? Or Matt Clement? What if they never traded Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell? The argument against that, of course, is that both Beckett and Lowell were key parts of the 2007 championship team. But how many championships could the Red Sox win with an infield consisting of Mark Teixeira, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Ramirez? Each one of them would be a perennial MVP candidate for ten years. Plus, they wouldn’t be saddled with Beckett’s current contract, and they wouldn’t have paid Lowell 18-million dollars during his injury riddled final two seasons.

            What if the Red Sox actual success rate with their draft picks matched the public’s perception. Yes, the current regime inherited Youkilis and Jon Lester and drafted Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon, but we’ve also seen the likes of Devern Hansack, Kason Kabbard, David Pauley, Kyle Snyder and Lenny DiNardo on the mound at Fenway. But what if they were as successful as the Tampa Bay Rays who saw their own draft picks win 59 games this year for a combined salary of 6.5 million dollars?

            That would be money saved to go after Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford this season. Hindsight is 20-20, and I’m not ripping the Red Sox for their frenetic deal making. They have to do it. But each deal leads to the next one, and I’m just wondering where a lot more patience, luck and intelligence could have led them.

            The Red Sox could have done a lot less and ended with so much more. Understood – these what if’s are basically asking: “If the Red Sox had a crystal ball and had done everything right….”  And that’s not fair. But, if those what if’s had worked out for the Red Sox, they could have that all-star infield next year with an outfield of Murphy, Jacoby Ellsbury and Crawford. Plus they’d have a rotation headed by Lee, Lester, and Buchholz. And it would be affordable!

            Instead, Theo the rototiller will turn over his roster once again, and we can play the what if game again in a few years.

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Arrogance Or Humility — The Moss Trade

Many, many ways to look at this Randy Moss trade. First thought: the Patriots just made themselves worse, because they lost one of their best players. It’s that simple. In 2006, the Patriots scored 385 points, an average of just over 24 points per game. Not bad at all. Then they went out and got Randy Moss (and Wes Welker) and they scored 589 points. A 204 point increase. Per game, they went up by 14 points. Moss is what you call an impact player.

So, what impact was he having in the locker room and behind that scenes that was so detrimental that it negated all his positives on the field? Must have been pretty bad. The only reason to make a trade is to improve your team, either now or in the future, or both. Some will argue, or maybe it’s only one will argue (Mike Felger) that the team instantly improved by getting rid of Moss. It’s the Alex Rodriguez theory. When he left the Mariners, they won 116 games. The Rangers won 91 games the year before he arrived, and averaged 90 wins while he was there. And for his first few years in New York, they couldn’t win it all. Moss has never won it all either. Maybe A-Rod and Moss are all style and no substance. And teams that are truly “teams” are actually better without a supremely talented “stats” guy. Even against the Jets, we all thought we saw the Jets defense play better in the second half after they had lost their best player, Darrelle Revis. It sounds a bit illogical, but maybe there’s something to it.

Fans hoping that there is will point to the Patriots three Super Bowl wins – all without Moss, and all without anyone even approaching Moss’s abilities. But if we stick to this team concept, we have to remember that the Patriot defenses in 2003 and 2004 were ranked one and two, respectively, in points allowed. Right now, the Patriots are ranked 25th. They’re going to have score more points this year than they did at their peak, and they just made that a lot harder.

This is nothing like when the Patriots suspended Terry Glenn early in the 2001 season and then went on to win the Super Bowl. Glenn wasn’t even close to Moss’s talent level. He never caught more than 6 touchdown passes. In fact, it’s a flawed comparison, because the Patriots are much better offensively now than they were in 2001. That team had the dink and dunk version of Tom Brady, and all he really had was Troy Brown. Brown’s 101 catches was 50 more than the next best receiver on the team, David Patten. Wes Welker is a better version of Brown and Brady is a better version of himself.

This trade shows an awful lot of confidence in Brandon Tate and the tight ends, but it could be too much confidence too soon. The kids look good, but how much were they helped by the presence of Moss. If we’re to believe that Vince Wilfork is playing great football even when he doesn’t have a tackle or an assist, because he ties up two and three guys, then what about Moss. If he’s double-covered throughout the game, isn’t he playing great football even when he goes without a catch? What if, without Moss, teams are able to take away or severely limit Welker? Are Tate and Aaron Hernandez ready to step up and carry the offense? We’ll see.

Finally, there’s either arrogance working here or humility. Bill Belichick may think he’s good enough, and his team is good enough to overcome the loss of an impact player and still go on to win the Super Bowl. That would be arrogance. Or, he may think the Patriots weren’t good enough to win the Super Bowl even with Moss, so they’re better off trading him for someone who can help them down the road, at a time that they can win a Super Bowl. That’s humility. Yeah, you’re right. Go with the first one.

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Advice For Theo

Theo Epstein hasn’t called. So, he apparently thinks he can handle all his off-season questions without my help. But I offer some unsolicited thoughts.

You just failed to make the playoffs with a $170 million dollar payroll. Nobody blamed you because Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Jacoby Ellsbury only played in a combined 195 games. You very wisely didn’t use injuries as an excuse. It’s wise, because you don’t have to do it. Everyone else will do it for you.

But the real failure of this team was the 3, 4, and 5 starters, the closer, and the middle of your bullpen. What you need to do is fix those things. What you don’t need to do is overpay for Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Victor Martinez. Understood, they were your three most productive hitters in 2010, but this is about 2011 and beyond.

David Ortiz recovered from another slow start to hit 32 homers and drive in 102 runs. A team with your deep pockets can afford to pay $12.5 million for that kind of production. Problem is: you’re not going to see that production from him next year. His age, his declining batting average and increasing strikeouts indicate he’s ready for a dip. You might project 26 homers and 90 RBI. Not bad. It’s kind of what Jason Kubel did for Minnesota for $4 million, or what Shin-Soo Choo did for the Indians this year for $460-K. You can find similar production for a lot less. Say good-bye to a Red Sox legend.

Adrian Beltre will never be this good again. His last three healthy seasons in Seattle, when he was at the age of his power peak, he averaged 25 HR, 90 RBI, and a .275 average. His two best big league seasons both came in the final year of his contract. He’ll be very good for several years, but he won’t live up to the contract some foolish team will reward him with this off-season. Don’t be that fool.

Victor Martinez? You kind-a need him. You can’t assume Jarrod Saltalamacchia can be a number one catcher. He hasn’t played 100 games in a season yet, and he’s underperformed relative to the hype he received. He’s only 25, so he might be the catcher of the future. But you just don’t know, and Jason Varitek isn’t quite the insurance policy Martinez is. Still, Martinez is waiting for crazy money. And he comes with enough age and injury questions to suggest it might just be crazy to pay what he’ll command.

Additionally, trade Daisuke Matsuzaka. He’s in the way of a more productive pitcher. And let Jonathan Papelbon go. He’ll get about $12 million in arbitration, and he won’t be worth it. He’ll be very good somewhere else, just not $12 million worth of good. Shake things up, Theo. Coming back with the same team – even healthier – might not be good enough. And call if you want more advice.

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Injuries Were Not The Problem

Just a quick post today, because not a lot needs to be said on this issue. Namely – the Red Sox failure to make the post-season has nothing to do with their injuries. Nothing. Note that I said “nothing”. In fact, I repeated it, because I didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding. The injuries to MVP caliber players like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis were absolutely non-factors when trying to figure out why the Red Sox failed so miserably this year.

Here’s why. The Red Sox are currently second in MLB in runs scored. Granted, Youkilis and Pedroia are excellent defenders, but fans who lament their absence are not overly concerned with their defense. They miss their presence in the line-up. It’s their bats that were lacking for the second half of the season. But the Red Sox scored runs. They scored enough runs. They scored the second most runs in all of baseball. More than seven playoff teams.

There is only one reason the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs this year. Pitching. The under-performance of Josh Beckett specifically is why the Red Sox are ending their season a bit prematurely. Throw in Jonathan Papelbon, the bullpen in general, and John Lackey’s overall mediocrity, and you have your explanation. If those guys did as they were expected to, the Red Sox would have been the five to ten games better that they needed to be to cruise into the playoffs.

Of course, this is not to say that great players like Pedroia and Youkilis don’t have an impact on how a team does — in most cases. Just not with the Red Sox, or for that matter, with the Yankees. Those teams are loaded with great players. Take a couple of way, and there are plenty left. Take Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer away from the Twins and they’re done. While the Red Sox fielded a team with a bunch of Triple-A caliber guys, they also had Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, and Victor Marinez. They had enough to finish second in runs scored. Again, that wasn’t their problem. Unexpectedly bad and over-priced pitching is what did them in.

Keep in mind, the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation made a combined 9-million dollars this year. Their payroll was 100-million dollars less than the Red Sox. In fact, six of the eight playoff teams will have payrolls under 90-million dollars. Wouldn’t it be great if the Red Sox could knock 80-mil off their payroll, lower ticket prices by an average of about 25 bucks, and still contend because they managed their club intelligently and efficiently? Too bad that ship sailed a long time ago.

Spend more money! Charge the fans more! That’s the answer. Right?

I really intended that to be a quick post.

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Premature Surrender

A couple of Sundays ago, sometime in the early evening – the Red Sox quit. It was the day after the Jonathan Papelbon implosion against the White Sox. The Red Sox had just lost their third in a row and were 8.5 games out of the Wild Card race with 24 games to play. The next day – against Tampa Bay – they came out with a line-up that included Daniel Nava leading off, Lars Anderson making his big league debut, Yamaico Navarro at short, and Ryan Kalish in center. But surprise, surprise, they won the game. If they were able to sweep the Rays, the team they happened to be chasing, they could be 5.5 out with 21 to play. A very long shot, to be sure, but a sliver of hope would exist.

So, the Red Sox re-thought their quit. The next day, Kalish, Nava, Navarro, and Anderson were back on the bench where they belong, but the Red Sox were drubbed. They put their best line-up on the field, but they still lost. Back to 7.5 games out. So, they quit again.

Clay Buchholz was scheduled to pitch the following day on short rest, but after the loss, the Red Sox decided for a second time that there was no longer a reason to keep trying. Why run Buchholz out there when the season was over?  So, they sent Tim Wakefield out there to make his first start in two weeks. It would be only his 6th appearance in a month. They were simply sendin their 44-year-old out there to gobble up some innings. Once again, however, weren’t the Red Sox surprised when Wakefield and a line-up that included Anderson, Kalish and Reddick won the game? Red Sox management had given up, but somebody forgot to tell Marco Scutaro who homered twice despite playing with a sore neck. So, when I say the Red Sox quit, I’m talking about management, not the players.

Understood – 7.5 games out with 23 to play is a long shot at best. But 6.5 back with 22 to play is a little bit more hopeful, and that’s where the Red Sox stood after surprising their bosses that day. So, why not re-think the quitting again? Especially when the next six games were against Oakland and Seattle — two teams that were both under .500 at the time.

Now, the Red Sox have lost six of their last ten, and remain 7.5 games out of the Wild Card race. That’s because Tampa Bay hasn’t been playing very well. What if the Red Sox were actually still trying to win games, and they had won 6 of their last ten, or 7 of their last ten? Now, imagine if the Red Sox win their next ten in a row while the Rays go 5-5. Then it would be a tight race again, wouldn’t it? Impossible, right? Absolutely not.

The Red Sox gave up too early. Way too early! On this day three years ago, the Colorado Rockies were 6.5 games out, and in fourth place in the National League West. But they won 14 of their last 15 games and went on to win the National League pennant. That seemed pretty impossible, too.

So, why give up – ever? I understand why fans give up when things look bleak. And I’m not suggesting that I thought the Red Sox still had much of a chance after Papelbon blew up against the White Sox, but the Red Sox should still approach every game like they can make the playoffs until it’s literally impossible for them to make it. Guys should play hurt. The best line-up should be out there every day. And hope should rule the day every day!

I know the players are still trying. And I know that Terry Francona is still managing each game to the best of his ability. But he and his bosses sent a message to the team when four rookies were in the line-up in that first game against Tampa Bay and again when Buchholz was replaced by Wakefield. The surrender flag went up. All the players knew it. And the spirit was taken out of what could have been an uplifting stretch drive.

Oddly enough, it could still happen. Consider Colorado. But if it does happen, it’ll be an accident, not by design, because the Red Sox gave up a long time ago.

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Singular Focus Is BoguS (without the “ogu”)

Tom Brady didn’t shower today. Didn’t eat. Didn’t put on his shoes. Didn’t brush his teeth, kiss his wife, change a diaper, call a friend, put gas in the car, tweet, email, facebook, or even position every hair on his head to make it look just like Justin Bieber’s. And he certainly won’t watch “Hard Knocks” tonight. Why? Because he’s apparently incapable of multi-tasking. Brady can’t do anything this week except prepare for the Bengals. The same is true for Bill Belichick. No showering, eating, diapering, or gassing up the car for him either. I know this to be true, because when they were both asked about Brady’s contract status, one said: “I’m just focusing on the Bengals”. And the other said, “All my focus this week is on the Bengals”.

It doesn’t really matter who said what. It’s either true or it isn’t. And since it isn’t, it must be a lie. Not the first one either will tell, and in the world of deceit, it’s pretty small and harmless. Still, it’s time to get a new lie, or better yet, it’s time to start telling the truth. Let’s start with the same question I ask my kids, “What’s the downside of being honest?”

When Brady was asked about his contract, he could have said, “It’s none of your business.” — which is true.

He could have said, “Nothing’s done yet. I’m sure you’ll know all about it when it is.” That’s also true.

He could have said, “Oh, we’re going to talk about how much money we all make? Why don’t you start?” — which would truly shut the media up.

He could have said, “I want to stay here, and I get a strong sense Mr. Kraft wants me here, and since both sides want the same thing, I feel very good it’ll happen. But these things take time, and I guess it’s going to take a little more time.” — and that’s not only true, it’s almost fifty words, and it contains more than one complete thought!

And really what’s the downside of admitting that negotiations are taking place, that you’re involved, that you’d like to have something done before Sunday, that of course you think about it, and that your entire focus isn’t on the Bengals. Nobody believes that anyway. Brady’s building a home in Los Angeles. He must be putting some thought in to that. Is that a distraction from his focus on the Bengals? He just threw a surprise birthday party for his wife. How could he have planned that while all his focus is on playing football?

The point is, the “singular focus excuse” is ridiculous. It’s just silly to hear a grown man pretend that he doesn’t think about anything else, because he’s got a job to do. When his wife asks him to take out the garbage, does he say, “Sorry, honey, focusing on the Bengals”? Does he call out the name of Bengals linebacker Ray Maualuga at inappropriate times? (That’s the nicest way I could write that joke, but you’re free to use your imagination and make it better).

One of the things that makes Brady a great quarterback is his decision making. He should decide on a different answer to the contract questions — something true, perhaps.

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Trade Drew

I sure hope the Red Sox are hungry, because it’s time for them to fatten up on another fat contract. No team – not even the Yankees – eats as many contracts as the Red Sox. They chomped on the 7-million dollars that was left on Manny Ramirez’s contract when they parted ways with the apologetic slugger. They nibbled on 11-million dollars still owed to Edgar Renteria when he was traded to the Braves. They swallowed another 13.5 million dollars of Julio Lugo’s contract while he played for two different teams, first the Cardinals and now the Orioles.

That’s nearly 32-million dollars thrown away. Add that to the 51-million they paid the Seibu Lions for the rights to negotiate the under-achieving Daisuke Matsuzaka, and you can begin to see why those ticket prices are so high. It’s not the small ballpark, or the annual renovations. It’s not the bad economy either. It’s waste management. The Red Sox are forced to pass the hat around to the three million fans who step into Fenway Park every year. If everybody chips in an extra 30 dollars or so, that’ll just about cover the wasted dollars.

(And by the way, by any measure, Matsuzaka has under-achieved. Combining the posting fee and Matsuzaka’s salary, the Red Sox invested 103 million dollars in him over six years. That’s an average 17.1 million per year. Over the last two years, that’s about 3 million dollars per win. Awful!)

Back now to the original point, the Red Sox contract diet. It’s time to cut the chord with J.D. Drew. It’ll be their biggest meal so far, but what a treat to see him go. Drew is due to receive 14-million dollars in the final year of his contract. Let him play somewhere else. Make some room in the outfield for a better player. The problem with Drew isn’t just the money anymore. He was grossly overpaid the moment he put pen to paper to sign that 5-year, 70-million dollar mistake. Now, the problem with Drew is that he’s taking up space on the roster. He could be replaced by a more productive player.

Allowing for some projections from now until the end of the season, Drew’s average year in Boston is this: 131 games, 80 runs, 120 hits, 19 homers, 67 RBI, and a .278 batting average. There are about 80 guys in the big leagues doing better than that this year. The Red Sox should go get one of them, because Drew’s not producing like a right fielder should.

And it won’t get any better. For all his flaws, Drew is remarkably consistent. In his first three years in Boston, he drove in 64, 64, and 68 runs. In those three years, he walked 79, 79 and 82 times. In two of those years he had exactly 126 hits, 30 doubles, 4 triples, and 84 runs scored. He batted .280 and .279 the last two years. You know what you’re getting from this guy, and it’s not nearly enough. The Red Sox have been willing to cut their losses with other mistakes they’ve made.

There must be at least three teams that would be willing to take on a guy who can put up mediocre numbers, especially if they didn’t have to pay him. And there needs to be three teams, because in his sweetheart of a deal, Drew has a limited no-trade clause in which he can veto a trade twice. The Red Sox should seriously consider finding three takers and telling Drew to pick one.

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Contenders Or Extenders

First, calling to mind the previous post about Bill Belichick being so upset after the Rams game, anybody else wondering why he was downright cheery after the Giants game? The overall performance didn’t seem significantly better to me. Anyway…

If it’s possible for a team to make the playoffs and still not truly be “contenders”, I think that’s where we are with the Patriots. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady make the playoffs. That’s what they do. They’ve gotten into the playoffs in every year they’ve been together — except one. It’s quite possible we’re on the verge of

Contenders, at least the ones who win championships are great at something, and tend to be average in everything else. Last year, the New Orleans Saints were the best offensive team in the NFL, which made up for their average defense. The year before, the Super Bowl champion Steelers had the top ranked defense, which made up for their slightly below average offense. In 2007, the Patriots were the best offense and fourth best defense, and it remains a mystery how they didn’t win it all. In 2006, the Colts had a great offense and lower third defense. And the list goes on. Super Bowl Champions have a greatness about them, and that greatness makes up for minor deficiencies.

An argument can be made that the Patriots have a great offense. They ranked third last year in total yards and sixth in points per game. This year, Brady is a year removed from his surgery. The tight ends, especially Rob Gronkowski, look like viable options in the red zone. So, it’s quite possible the Patriots will have a better offense this year than last. That would raise them to the “greatness” level on that side of the ball. And that brings us to the defense.

Certainly, there’s a chance a Belichick coached team will rank in the top 20 or so in total defense. That’s where the Saints were last year, and where the Colts were when they won it all. That’s the formula. Great on one side of the ball, and good enough on the other. The Patriots could be both those things. So, they could be contenders. That’s where the optimism stems from. Brady on one side of the ball. Belichick on the other. And we’re ready for some football!

Problem is, the Patriots weren’t as good as the best teams a year ago, and nothing appears to have changed. Brady may be better, but the running game, Wes Welker coming back from injury, and an unpredictable and older Randy Moss maybe worse. And that defense! And more sobering than that is the fact that the best teams of a year ago don’t look like they’ve taken a step back. The Saints, the Colts, the Packers, even the Vikings, Cowboys and Ravens are stronger than the Patriots. (Notice, I didn’t even mention the Jets who should also fulfill the formula — great on defense, average on offense — but like the Patriots, they look like a notch below the best of the best).

Granted, the “any given Sunday” argument is a strong one, especially when you tie it into the Belichick-Brady argument, but on “most given Sundays”, the Patriots will lose to those contenders.

second exception, but it’s just too hard to come right out and predict failure for those two guys. And that’s where the bar has been set for them. A non-playoff season would be considered a failure for a couple of guys with more rings than Saturn. But Belichick and Brady are the only reasons to think the Patriots are contenders, and that’s probably not enough.

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Lackey OVER-achieved

John Lackey got a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar contract from the Red Sox, and he’s given them exactly what they should have expected. I’m not saying the Red Sox got their money’s worth. I’m saying they overpaid, and in return, Lackey has slightly over-achieved.  Fans might not believe that’s true. They hear about a guy who’s going to be paid 16.5 million dollars a year, and they think: “That’s the kind of money usually reserved for top of the rotation guys. He must be right up there with Josh Beckett and Jon Lester.”

Well, they were half right.

Problem is, Lackey has almost never been the guy his reputation suggests he is. He’s a workhorse, they say, but he’s thrown over 210 innings only twice in his career. He’s a proven winner, they say, but he’s won more than 14 games just once in his career. He’s a fierce competitor, they say, and they may be right, but so is Josh Beckett, they say, and where has that gotten him this year?

Lackey signed with the Red Sox after coming off seasons with 11 and 12 wins. So, while his ERA has ballooned along with his arrival in the American League East, he already has 12 wins, and if he gets to 15, it’ll be the second most in his career. Forget the ERA. No matter how you shake it down, he’s a 12-to-15 game winner. Basically, the guy had one monster season in which he went 19-9 with a 3.01 ERA. He was great in 2007. In his other 8 big league seasons, he’s been the guy you’ve seen this year, and he’ll likely be that guy for the next four years while he collects the remaining 63.8 million dollars on his contract.

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Belichick Knows The Truth

An awful lot of time is spent analyzing what we see in the NFL’s pre-season, and most of it follows someone saying: “Even though the pre-season doesn’t really tell us anything, I still think….” That would be a good time to stop talking, but not many ever do. So allow me to chime in.

Even though the pre-season is a predictor of nothing, I still think Bill Belichick’s reaction to the Patriots third pre-season game tells us something fairly significant. Forget that his post-game press conference was hysterically funny, and that his behavior would have been embarrassing for a 6-year-old, the very fact that he said almost nothing tells you, perhaps, that he had no explanation for how poorly his team played. That alone should worry Patriot fans.

Belichick didn’t lead the masses in making convenient excuses. He didn’t talk about vanilla defenses and the absence of game-planning. He didn’t say it was only a pre-season game, or that they were only trying to get a look at different players. He didn’t consider this a glorified practice. He was livid! He was also despondent.

Optimistic fans reminded themselves the pre-season is a predictor of nothing. And then Belichick looked like somebody shot his dog. Granted, he’s never been a good loser, and the Patriots had just lost, but I didn’t interpret his little snit as a reaction to the losing. It was a reaction to the playing. It was the third pre-season game, the only one that almost matters. It was his last good chance to see how far his team has come and how far it has to go. He won’t get much of a gauge in the Meadowlands against the Giants. And what he saw made him feel like a statue in Capistrano when the swallows return.

Belichick told us something in that stand-up routine he did after the Rams game. He let it slip through his tight lips that he’s worried. Maybe he couldn’t think of anything else to say, because he didn’t know what to think. The team he hoped would be further along might be further away. Or maybe the pre-season tells us nothing, and Belichick is just grouchy. That’s plausible, too.

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