As Aqib Talib readies himself for flights to potential free-agency destinations this coming March, he might need some new reading material.
Charles Dickens might not be high on his reading list—although it wouldn't surprise me—but he might want to read up. Talib's career seems to parallel the opening words of Charles Dickens' 1859 classic novel A Tale of Two Cities.
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."
There is little doubt that the Patriots would not have made it to the AFC Championship Game in 2012 and 2013 without the help of Talib. Unfortunately, his health failed him when it mattered the most.
Talib was injured in the first half of each of the last two championship games and was unable to return to action. When he left, the Patriots were down only 3-0 to Denver—and they lost 26-16—and they had been up 3-0 on Baltimore—but they lost 28-13.
The makeup of each of those games drastically changed when Talib was sidelined. Against Baltimore, the Ravens had only managed one first down before Talib's injury. Denver was a similar story.
Instead of Talib, who measures 6'1" with long arms, on Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas—a built receiver with a long 6'3" frame—the Patriots were forced to play rookie Logan Ryan, only 5'11". As the final score indicated, the size and talent differential were too big to overcome for Ryan.
Thomas only had one catch before Talib was injured. He ended with seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdowns.
While the ending of these chapters certainly weren't to his liking, Talib's story in New England started well before these January disappointments.
"It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..."
Eventually, NFL teams will learn to stop dealing with New England. Like all NFL teams, the Patriots have made some bad trades—Doug Gabriel comes immediately to mind—but the positive far outweighs the negative. Wes Welker, Randy Moss, LeGarrette Blount and Talib all came to Foxboro via trade.
Like Moss—who only cost a fourth-round selection—Talib was practically a gift. Due to myriad issues off of the playing field, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers jettisoned Talib for only a fourth-rounder.
The Buccaneers picked defensive lineman William Gholston with that pick, who totaled 31 tackles and two sacks in his rookie season. Talib, however, has provided 60 tackles, five interceptions and a contagious swagger that has infected the Patriots locker room.
Talib certainly has embraced his role with New England. Jeff Howe from the Boston Herald (subscription required) interviewed Talib back in January (h/t Pro Football Talk): "It’s totally different here. It’s big games after big games. It’s Monday nights after Sunday nights, playoffs. Tom Brady is walking around here. There are countless people and media in the locker room. This is the NFL right here."
Tampa Bay, meanwhile, is picking in the top 10 of the NFL draft again.
Despite what Talib has brought to the table in New England, not everyone is convinced that the Patriots should ink him to a long-term contract.
"It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."
From the moment that the Patriots traded for Talib, there have been questions whether he belongs with the team.
Greg Bedard of The Boston Globe—now with MMQB.com—was certainly skeptical in November 2012:
“Are you kidding me?” one AFC personnel executive said when told of the terms. “A fourth-round pick for a character risk? How was Tampa Bay able to land that price? Who were (the Patriots) competing against?”
That’s why, as a low-round trade, the move makes a lot of sense. But by sending a fourth-round pick and signing Talib to a contract extension -- which is likely given the terms; you don’t send a fourth for a seven-game rental -- then the Patriots are essentially doubling down on a player who has consistently been a character problem before and after entering the league.
Talib's concerns off the field are nothing new. Far more troubling is Talib's issue with staying on the field in crunch time. The Associated Press via NESN.com brings up Talib's injury history when questioning whether a long-term deal is prudent:
Aqib Talib is the Patriots’ best player in free agency, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the No. 1 priority. Talib hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a full 16-game season his entire career. He’s been forced out of AFC Championship losses in two straight years. If Talib comes at a reasonable price, the Patriots should absolutely re-sign him. But it’s dangerous to franchise a player like Talib or make him feel too safe with a long-term deal.
Even Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who spoke with 98.5 The Sports Hub's Felger and Mazz, seems to be hedging his bets when it comes to Talib:
Well we want to retain all the good players we can retain. It’s not like we have unlimited funding so . . . He wasn’t on the field a lot of the time since he’s been with us. It’s a balance of us balancing all that out and what is he worth. I think he’s happy here and would like to be here and we’re happy with him and we’d like to have him here and now it’s just about doing business.
Love him or loathe him, whether or not the Patriots sign Talib will have a profound impact on the outlook for 2014.
"It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."
A Patriots squad with Talib has a fighting chance against any offense in the league. Losing Talib would change things considerably.
Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan have had success as the No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks covering the No. 2 and No. 3 receiver.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Ryan ranked as the second-hardest cornerback to throw against—measured by opponent's passer rating—as a rookie. He trailed only Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman.
As talented as Ryan is, put him against each opponent's best receiver—like Talib—and those numbers quickly evaporate. Talib drew some of the toughest matchups in the league and thrived, especially before he injured his hip against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6.
He played well after returning in Week 11 against the Carolina Panthers, although his performance against Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns in Week 14 certainly left a lot to be desired. However, Talib certainly wasn't alone in getting beat by Gordon in 2013.
|Aqib Talib vs Top NFL Receivers|
|Vincent Jackson||3||6||34||2 (1 interception)|
|Julio Jones||0||4||0||2 (1 interception)|
|Pro Football Focus|
If the Patriots don't want to put their 2014 season in the hands of Ryan, Dennard and Kyle Arrington, the choice is clear. Pay Talib. Pay him now.
Talib is eligible to be given the franchise tag on February 17. If no extension or tag is in place, teams can being negotiating with Talib on March 8 and sign him on March 11.
If Talib isn't locked into a contract on March 8, the Patriots will have to start thinking about other options. They have shown in the past—think Wes Welker and Danny Amendola—that they will quickly move on if you don't acquiesce quickly to their desires.
Patriots fans constantly express their trust in Belichick. However, if Talib, after reading "A Tale of 32 NFL Cities" come free-agency time, ends up in a city not named Boston—like Washington for example—the 2014 season might not have the happy ending they were expecting.