Beth here from Cursed to First. I've been asked to come over and contribute some Patriots content to MVN. It'll be a new experience for me in a few ways, including the fact that I've never written for a group site, and the fact that normally, I don't think about football during baseball season, and vice-versa.
Fandom-wise, though, I'm cleanly divided down the middle between the Patriots and Red Sox, which are the teams I focus on at C2F. So this will be a chance for a new perspective on following the Patriots, one that I hope brings me closer to my team.
The New Kids
So far, the biggest off-season move by the Patriots has been the signing of Donte' Stallworth and Kelley Washington March 13. I figure it's appropriate for my first post to focus on them a little bit since they and I are all new kids around here.
Since I'm in a baseball frame of mind, it's interesting to me to think about the Pats' pickups from a perspective that traditionally has been the purview of baseball: formulaic statistical analysis. It isn't like football doesn't have statistics, but I would venture to guess that Baseball Prospectus is far more widely read than its cousin, Football Prospectus, which is digested through a site that is among the most indispensable football resources to have come out of the Internet era, www.footballoutsiders.com.
As in most other ways, of course, the sports are apples and oranges. For example, baseball players are at once more individualistic and interchangeable. Aside from pitchers, every baseball player in the field has the same essential skills: running, hitting and fielding. Football players, on the other hand, have more differentiated skills by position, say, between a wide receiver and a fullback, than there are between a shortstop and a second baseman. So while some of the essential concepts in statistical analysis between the two sports are the same--in baseball, the chief differential statistic is called "Value Over Replacement Player" or VORP, in football it's known as "Defense-Adjusted Value Over Replacement" or DVAR--they are calculated a little differently across positions in football than in baseball. So for wide receiver the essential component of DVAR is actually DPAR, or Defense-Adjusted Points Above Replacement, since WR is a point-scoring position. There is also DVOA, or Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average.
According to the Football Outsiders charts on Wide Receivers, the good news for Patriots fans is that Stallworth ranks in the top 50 active wide receivers in the league in DPAR (39th, and 33rd without adjustment for defense, and 35th in DVOA). That's pretty impressive for $3.6 million for 2007!
Kelley Washington, meanwhile, doesn't rank since he didn't catch more than 50 passes. Therefore he has a DPAR of 4.3 compared to 12.3 for Stallworth--but his DVOA is 36.6%, compared to Stallworth's at 10.3%. The two of them are clearly in different classes as receivers, but these numbers at least allow for appreciation for the Patriots' nuanced approach to players, since like Stallworth, Washington has an incentive-laden contract, but with such a high DVOA, the Pats have locked him down for five years which could amount to $22 million.
I've been a bit puzzled by the reaction I've heard--including from Patriots players--that portray the Patriots as somehow changing tack and breaking the bank to revitalize the roster. In fact, considering his numbers, they've gotten an absolute steal in Stallworth, and did it in a very smart way, by including a "balloon payment" of $11 million if they decide to keep him for 2008. It's far from a blockbuster splurge on, say, a Randy Moss type of free agent, which is why it's funny to me to see this termed a "spending spree" or even a roster overhaul. Stallworth's enrollment in the NFL substance abuse program as well as his previous hamstring injuries are widely reported, and he's coming off a season in which the Eagles are judged by some experts to have overpaid for his services.
In other words, he's a young player with big upside and non-negligible downside being brought in off another team's scrap heap for short money until and unless he proves himself. There's not much difference between that and what the Pats have done so far to bring home three championships and five postseason appearances in six years.
Except, perhaps, for the matter of Stallworth's balloon payment. Where I believe the Patriots have shot themselves in the foot in the past was in trying to buck the trend in professional sports of big contracts for prior, rather than future, performance. Players, as we've seen, have an entirely different expectation. Obviously teams shouldn't load a rookie contract with money based on predictions that a player will become great--hence why players typically cash in after proving themselves, even if their best years are behind them while they play out the fat contract. The Patriots have essentially attempted to avoid both paydays with players like Deion Branch and Troy Brown, and as we've seen, the results vary.
That's why a contract with built-in incentives is a win-win situation, in the case of Stallworth, and a tacit application of lessons learned from the Branch saga going forward (note also that Branch himself encouraged Stallworth to sign with New England--given the merit-based incentives for Stallworth I don't even think it's contradictory to what Branch has been saying all along, which is that the Patriots should have paid him what he was worth).
That's the change--not an interest in talented free agents or a somehow novel desire to give Tom Brady a talented receiving target. No team that's been as personnel-savvy as the Patriots have been would ever let Tom Brady go the entire length of his "hometown discount" contract without at least making a documentable effort to surround him with good teammates.
Or maybe that's too optimistic of me to say. It remains to be seen.
The Borges Situation
However, it seems that in recent years "In Belichick We Trust" has lost some of its luster in Boston, and at least some of the reasons for that are understandable. I'm as stung by the Patriots' loss to the Colts as anyone. But I've found some of the harping and carping on Belichick by some members of the Boston sports media over-the-top as usual.
What I've read of it, anyway. I've been boycotting Boston's chief football columnist, Ron Borges, since 2002. So it was through alternate channels that I learned about his plagiarism and subsequent suspension from the Globe.
I personally view this as a slap on the wrist, and a slap in the face to Patriots fans. I base that at least partially on the fact that I've thought Borges doesn't best serve our interests long ago, when it became clear whatever personal issues he has with Belichick skewed his judgment (picking Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII is one shining example of this; the only alternative is stupidity). It's similar to the personality conflict between Dan Shaughnessy and Theo Epstein--it does take two to tango, but the end result of these behind-the-scenes spats and personal vendettas is that the journalist is compromised far more than the team official they're out to tarnish. That is, of course, if you believe that a sports journalist's primary function is to use heightened access to a team in order to report information and insights beyond what a fan can observe on TV or from the stands.
If you accept that definition, the Globe's Patriots audience has not been served well by Borges. Right now, for example, instead of a clear-eyed ability to compare at the Patriots of the Dynasty Era vs. the last two thwarted years, which would require an objective body of work in the paper of record during those years, our columnist / representative in our paper of record recorded a body of work that reflects little beyond his personal and possibly irrational issues with the head coach and general manager of the team. Rather than such useful information, Borges has instead offered laughably biased (and usually wrong) predictions and any number of pointless sourball columns. Thanks a ton, Ron.
As a believer in the concept that the significance of sports lies as much in the way people talk and think about a game as the action on the field, I have also believed that Borges has done a disservice to his audience--just by being a mediocre journalist. But still, to discover that he has actually committed a documentable act of plagiarism--and personally, I don't care if "all his friends were doing it"--and will retain his status and position at the Globe is something I can't quite accept.
There are any number of political intricacies I've read about when it comes to Borges which might have influenced the decision. I don't work for the Globe and I have never been a pro sportswriter, so clearly I don't know all the facts of the situation. Still, whatever the basis for the decision was, I hope it was justifiable against the message sent to the Globe's audience by keeping Borges on the staff, which is that for whatever reason, the Globe would rather let a biased plagiarist continue being the columnist of record for the Patriots in their own hometown than find someone willing and able to do the job in a way that contributes something to the audience's understanding of the sport. Honestly, I hope there's something really big I'm missing there.
Among the most baffling aspects of the attitudes of both Shaughnessy and Borges is in the scorn they heap on people naive enough to admire the work of the team and its management, despite that admiration being the chief reason anyone reads what they have to say. Shaughnessy is known to mock "fan-boys", for example, and Borges has in the past made sarcastic allusions to Belichick's supposed omnipotence. It makes me wonder, if they have no respect for their audience and no attraction to their subject, why are they writing?
Maybe there are reasons. Whatever they are, I still have trouble giving Borges and his ilk the benefit of the doubt over a coach who, despite his personal shortcomings, at least has demonstrated he has my best interests at heart as a consumer of the sport. I can't say that much for the columnists these days.
P.S. As long as we're talking wide receiver stats, you might be interested to know the top two receivers in DPAR are Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. Just two more reasons Peyton shouldn't have been the Super Bowl MVP, but that's another post, maybe, for another time.