Reflecting upon the last decade of New England Patriots football, one phrase comes to mind: low risk, high reward.
In the last 10 years, the most successful Patriots teams—the dynasty of the early 2000’s (2001, 2003, 2004) and the now infamous 2007 team—made controversial rosters moves which, in one way or another, lead to successful seasons.
In 2001, the Patriots were faced with an impossible decision after Drew Bledsoe was replaced by Tom Brady for the majority of the regular season. Bledsoe, who had received a 10-year contract extension before the season, was eligible to return to action before the November 25 game against the New Orleans Saints.
However, Coach Bill Belichick decided to stick with 6th-round draft pick Tom Brady for the remainder of the season. Belichick made the same controversial decision prior to Super Bowl XXXVI against the St. Louis Rams after Bledsoe had replaced an injured Brady during the AFC Championship against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the previous game. Once again, Belichick used the low risk, high reward philosophy to lead the Patriots to their first Super Bowl in franchise history.
All along, if Brady did not perform up to Coach Belichick’s standards, it would not be unreasonable to bench him for the veteran Bledsoe, making the situation low risk.
In 2003, the Patriots made another extremely low risk, high reward decision by cutting captain and Pro Bowl selection Lawyer Milloy just days before the start of the season. Prior to that, the Patriots had signed San Diego Chargers castoff safety Rodney Harrison to a contract. Harrison, who was cut by the Chargers because of salary cap restrictions, had a reputation of being a dirty player because of his vicious and sometimes unnecessary hits on the field. Harrison, soon after replaced the Milloy as defensive captain.
During the playoffs, Harrison had an interception in the divisional playoff game against the Tennessee Titans, and in the Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. He then went on to help the Patriots defeat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, giving the Patriots their second Super Bowl in three seasons.
In 2004, the Patriots made perhaps their most controversial move to date. The Patriots acquired disgruntled Cincinnati Bengals running back Corey Dillon in exchange for a second round pick in a trade before the 2004 NFL Draft.
Dillon had caused controversy in Cincinnati for comments such as, “…we will never win with the Brown family in Cincinnati,” which he said in 2001. It was because of comments like those, along with his public complaints when Rudi Johnson took the majority of the workload for the Bengals that led the Bengals to trade him. With the assumption that this was Dillon’s last chance to make an impact on a contending team, as well as his last opportunity to salvage his reputation, the Patriots took a chance on him. In response, Dillon set career highs and franchise records with 1,635 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. En route to the Patriots’ third Super Bowl in four years, Dillon rushed for 292 yards, caught nine passes for 53 yards, and scored two touchdowns.
In 2007, the Patriots made another Corey Dillion-esque roster move when they acquired Randy Moss from the Oakland Raiders in exchange for a fourth round draft pick. After a controversial departure from the Minnesota Vikings, in which he muttered the famous quote ending in, “I play when I want to play,” Moss landed with the Oakland Raiders in 2005.
When the Patriots gave up only a fourth round draft choice to land Moss, it came with the condition that it would not cost them a fortune to rid themselves of Moss if he caused problems with the team—a low risk move. As for the high reward part of the equation, Brett Favre was quoted as saying, “There is no one in this league who puts fear in people more than Randy Moss,” as the Packers were interested in trading for Moss as well. As the high reward for their risky move—bringing a known locker room disruption into the organization—Moss gave the Patriots a record setting year. He caught an NFL record 23 touchdowns, and helped Tom Brady throw an NFL record 50 touchdown passes.
It is because of these four previous instances that I believe the New England Patriots should make perhaps their most controversial move of all and sign Plaxico Burress.
When he delves into free agency, it is doubtful that any team will be signing Burress to more than the veteran minimum contract. Therefore, if the Patriots do sign Burress, they will not have to pay a steep price. There is very little downside to giving Burress a shot. However, there is a monstrous upside.
At worst, Burress has lost a step and some athleticism while serving his prison sentence for two counts of second degree criminal possession of a weapon. However, Burress stands at 6’5’’and weighs 232 pounds—a combination of size and bulk that is a rarity for wide receivers. Burress, at worst, becomes a huge threat in red zone situations for his jump—ball abilities.
With Wes Welker entrenched in the slot, Brandon Tate showing only flashes of brilliance as a go-to receiver, and Deion Branch on the wrong side of 30 years old, it may time for the Patriots to take a chance on a go-to receiver—a role that Burress may have been the best at when he last played an NFL game. Adding a true go-to receiver would certainly take coverage away from Welker’s side of the field, and also free up Tate to stretch the field vertically.
If Burress does not show a resemblance of the player that crushed the dreams of many a Patriots fan in 2007, including myself, it will be easy to cut him and move on with the current receiving core. However, with cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Nnamdi Asomugha all residing in the AFC, Burress can provide a matchup problem with his height and strength.
Plaxico Burress represents the embodiment of a “low risk, high reward” roster move. I can only hope that the New England Patriots feel the same way.