In 2001, when New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe was ready to return to his starting job after missing several weeks as the result of a vicious hit by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis, head coach Bill Belichick stood pat and stuck with the backup who had acquitted himself so well in Bledsoe's absence. Despite the fact that the franchise had signed Bledsoe to a 10-year, $103 million contract that very year, Belichick stuck with the hot hand in the face of a hailstorm of media and fan disapproval. So far, that whole Tom Brady thing has worked out fairly well.
When Belichick released safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) a few days before the start of the 2003 season, Tom Jackson of ESPN said the following of the Patriots players on national television: "Let me say this clearly: they hate their coach." The Pats hated Belichick so much, they won the next two Super Bowls. When the Pats let stud cornerback Asante Samuel(notes) go ... when they traded dominant defensive tackle Richard Seymour(notes) to the Oakland Raiders ... when they dumped Adailus Thomas ... and now, when they trade Randy Moss(notes) to the Minnesota Vikings for a third-round pick, it can safely be said that the one common denominator in all these moves is the idea that Belichick will sacrifice the present to feed the future. The man who runs things in Foxboro clearly wants to stay one step ahead of the age curve, and, as has been true of Billy Beane and many other "Moneyball" mavens, he's less concerned that his [expletive] works in the playoffs and more worried about getting there in the first place -- rolling the dice at that point, and betting that anything can (and will) happen.
Belichick's moves haven't always worked, and there's no question that 99 times out of 100, the idea of dumping your franchise quarterback for a sixth-rounder who lagged behind Drew Henson(notes) on Michigan's depth chart would be the definition of a coach-killer. When he gets too cute with the age-curve idea, he can out-flummox himself (as I believe he did with Seymour, and Milloy, who is now playing some of the best football of his career in Seattle), but if you step away from the Moss move and break it down, it makes a lot more sense than I thought it did when I knocked the Patriots for not extending his contract.
According to Stats, Inc., Moss currently leads the league with five dropped passes. Football Outsiders has the Pats as the best offensive team in the NFL despite the fact that Moss has been targeted just 22 times this season and went catchless for the first time in his Patriots career last Monday night. Stats for other New England receivers are affected to a degree by how defenses are forced to handle Moss, but the fact is simple -- he's not the double-team breaker he used to be, even though he still draws them.
The guy who has been New England's most explosive receiver through the 2010 season reflects another Belichick belief: You must always stay ahead of NFL trends, especially when you're the one setting them. It was no surprise that the Pats started running more true 4-3 fronts just as the rest of the league went crazy for the 3-4 that had helped win so many Super Bowls for the Patriots and Steelers in the past decade. And now, as the rest of the NFL tries to catch up with New England's heavy shotgun trend (in 2007, it was the first NFL team of the modern era to go with more than 50 percent shotgun snaps), it would make sense that Belichick, who selected tight ends Aaron Hernandez(notes) and Rob Gronkowski(notes) in the 2010 draft, would "revert" to more of a power-running, ball-control, yards-after-catch system.
And so far this year, Hernandez has clearly been the beneficiary of this change in thinking. Through four games, Hernandez ranks eighth overall, and first among tight ends, in average yards per reception at 16.23. He also reflects the move to an after-catch idea for the offense. On his 15 catches, Hernandez has averaged 7.0 "air yards" (yards that the ball is in the air before it hits the receiver's hands) and 9.23 average yards after catch.
Does this mean that the Pats are doomed to become a dink-and-dunk offense? Hardly. Youngster Brandon Tate(notes) is on the radar, and the team has a huge load of 2011 draft picks it can use to spring loose a Vincent Jackson(notes) or Lee Evans(notes) if it so desires. If the Pats turned around and spent the third-round pick it got for Moss, and would up with Jackson ... well, they were going to have to spend big money on a No. 1 receiver next year either way.
The younger version is always going to jibe with the Patriot Way, and that is what this trade is all about. Intelligent or not, and whether you agree with it or not, it is absolutely consistent with the philosophy of an organization that has stayed closer to the top more consistently that any other team in the last decade. For that reason alone, it's wise to wait and see before bashing the move.