It's funny, but there is a mammoth difference in the world of the NFL between old and experienced. When a player is playing well, regardless of his age, he is labeled as an experienced veteran. Should his play decline, the value of his experience is thrown out the window and he is simply old.
The Patriots have a number of players dancing that fine line on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. Roman Phifer, Anthony Pleasant, Otis Smith and even fan-favorite and offensive sparkplug Troy Brown and others are all at a point in their careers where sub-par performances are viewed as ominous signs of the end. Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick talked a bit about this idea and how the team is working to fight the hands of time by combining an injection of youth with the aging wonders that are still counted on for considerable contributions.
"I can't ultimately orchestrate how any transition is going to go, but whenever you have players who are closer to the end of their career than the beginning then at some point you are going to have to think about a transition," Belichick said at his Friday morning press conference. "Maybe it is somebody who comes in from another team in the middle of his career or maybe it's a younger player who develops and somehow transitions into that role. There are obviously a number of different ways to do it. But sometimes that transition can be in a year or two; sometimes its four or five years. Sometimes the guy you think is going to transition, it ends up being someone else instead of him. All those things are decided out on the field. Who is going to play better, how much one guy is going to take over for another guy, if at all, is all determined by how the players do when they are out there on the field. And as much as we want to train them and teach them and all that, in the end we really don't have any control over it."
Belichick also quite frankly admitted that his team's defense, one that struggled especially against the run a year ago, is moving on in years.
"Defensively, the overall age of the defense as a unit is a matter of record," Belichick said. "It was the highest in the league last year. Whether it be the defensive line, the linebackers, the defensive backs, [age]'s really an issue at every position. We've had some elder players in each of those spots, and not to say those players won't again be good productive players, with a lot of experience, but you do have to keep the competition going in case it's not and that's my responsibility.
"It is an inexact science, but you do have to have a vision of that when you are running a football team. You think about what is going to happen when this player can't play any more?"
To that end, Belichick has overseen quite an influx of youthful talent on defense in the last two years. In free agent addition Rosevelt Colvin and draft picks like Ty Warren, Dan Klecko, Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel and Jarvis Green, the Patriots have brought in a group of young players who are competing for playing time across the board. And thanks to the number of players who have missed the early practices of training camp the younger guys, most notably Wilson and Samuel, have had a chance to gain significant reps with the first unit.
While it is still infinitely early, Belichick said that some of these young guys are taking advantage of the veteran's absences.
"It is [good] for them," Belichick said of the significant reps some of the younger guys are getting to start training camp, specifically Wilson and Samuel. "One man's trash is another man's treasure. It's good for Asante. It's good for Eugene. It's good for the players who are out there. It is not as good for the players who are not, but that's the way it falls. The guys who are out there need to take advantage of those opportunities, learn, get reps and try to create an opportunity or a role for themselves."
But those chances aren't just thrown at the youngsters. They must earn them and then earn the right to keep getting them.
"I think they are doing OK," Belichick said of Wilson and Samuel. "Some of the time is because they've shown some skill and we want to look at them in certain scenarios like on sub defenses and that kind of thing where they would be able to help us. And some of it's been because other guys haven't been able to participate. It's been a combination of things and they've done enough to be able to show that they can keep up with the pace to this point. Things are going to pick up quite a bit so I don't know what happen when we turn the dial up a little bit faster. But to this point they have been able to keep up and they've been competitive."
And the developing players aren't' limited to the defense. Belichick had some positive comments about second-round pick Bethel Johnson. Coming out of Texas A&M the knock on Johnson was that because he wasn't coming from a passing offense his hands and route running were a question.
"I think that Bethel has had a good learning camp," Belichick said. "He's taken the instruction and the route running that maybe he hasn't had as much experience with as say a guy like Deion Branch who played in a much more sophisticated college passing offense. He's been able to show that he can understand some techniques and also apply them and use them in practice. So that's been encouraging. He did show some of those things in college, again we talk about relative to Deion, not as much. But he's done a good job of picking those things up."
Belichick also hasn't seen anything yet to cause serious concern in terms of the speedy receiver's hands.
"They are good," Belichick said. "I hate to…those are tough words to use, but I'd say average to above average. I don't think his hands are going to be a problem, but like every receiver I'm sure, everybody is going to drop some balls."
So although it might not be overly evident this season, or maybe even next, there is a bit of a youth movement going on in New England. From Daniel Graham and Branch to Warren, Wilson and Samuel, the Patriots hope they have the players in place to retool a championship team with a solid foundation for years to come. But as Belichick, and everyone around the game, knows, only time will tell.