False Start: Overreation on Wilfork, Gronk, Austin Collie, Aqib Talib

Vince Wilfork Patriots
Vince Wilfork is lost for the season after suffering an injury last Sunday in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images

The False Start is a weekly football column consisting of nonsensical analysis about how we, as consumers, think about the New England Patriots and the NFL – excuse me, THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE. This week’s title:

“You’re Just Remembering the Good Stuff.”
PREGAME: Points of discussion this week: Rob Gronkowski, Austin Collie, and Aqib Talib. But first, as always, let’s deep dive into every football fan’s consciousness this week – “Look, I know you think Vince Wilfork was THE ONE, but I don’t. I think you’re just remembering the good stuff. Next time you look back, I really think you should look again.”

My apologies for only getting the audio – turns out, Google and YouTube don’t have every scene, of every movie, in stock. You get the point here, though, right? Once news broke of Vince Wilfork’s season-ending achilles tear, Patriots fans mourned like we were breaking up with the guy.

Part of this reaction is strictly emotional. Off-the-field, Wilfork is viewed as a gentle giant. On it, he was an all-business, no BS guy. Even when contractual matters between the Patriots and Wilfork turned dicey, as they often do, he never held out or started a war through the media. A reserved leader. Which, for my money, is the most impressive kind.

So yeah, there’s all that.

Then there is the other part to the hopelessness — you know — that whole “DEAR-GOD-JUST-WHEN-OUR-DEFENSE-WAS-TURNING-THE-CORNER-WE’RE-SCREWED” mindset that penetrated every medium Out There (e.g. sports talk radio, the blogosphere, and terrible talking head television shows). And, to a degree, this thinking makes sense.

Look, I hate using the word “anchor,” especially in football, and super-especially (I know, not a phrase) while discussing a player not named Tom Brady. But Wilfork was just that, a stalwart of the Patriots defense, for a decade.

By nature of his position, his greatness never showed up on the stat sheet. There is no metric that counts how often he commanded a double team (which, for the most part, was every play he saw the field). His dominance wasn’t visual, yet he was so, so good that we knew his presence is (almost) essential. And that makes his ability even more impressive.

Moreover, remarkably, even as he entered his 30s, Wilfork’s prominence and importance to the defense had increased over time. Check out his usage rates in terms of overall defensive snaps played, courtesy of Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com:

2009: 51.8 percent
2010: 69.8 percent
2011: 86.8 percent
2012: 81.3 percent

So yeah – there’s also that. And, of course, THIS:

But here’s what I can’t wrap my head around. From 2009-2012, in FootballOutsiders.com’s excellent defensive statistic, DVOA, the Patriots ranked 14th, 21st, 30th (YES! 30th out of 32 teams!!), then back to a respectable 15th last season.

Now, that ranking isn’t totally Wilfork’s doing. The Patriots have always been stout against the run, and the fact he took on two offensive lineman every play should have opened up opportunities for others in the pass rush. (Prime example: In 2011, during his lone season as a Patriot, Mark Anderson tallied 10 sacks and led to him being absurdly overpaid by the Buffalo Bills the following offseason – mostly because they are the Buffalo Bills, but also because Wilfork consistently demanded a double team, which made Anderson’s life much easier.)

But my point is this: We’ve always called Wilfork THE GUY. And while that’s true, wasn’t he just was THE GUY on a putrid defense – kind of like how, in (500) Days of Summer, Zooey Deschanel ostensibly was THE GIRL to Joseph Gordon- Levitt in a doomed relationship? With Wilfork, this week we’re remembered the good stuff, because, at times like this, it’s natural to do so. Once we get beyond that, however, he’s simply the best player on a crappy defense.

The real holes are found in other spots of the unit. In a way, I’m relieved: This isn’t Alfonzo Dennard, or Aqib Talib (more on him in a bit), or any other starter in the paper-thin secondary going down. To me, there’s less wiggle room to play with on the back-end of the defense. But throughout the elongated rebuilding process of the porous Patriots’ defense, we’ve always said that the team has a great front seven, right? It’s the strength of the unit, albeit a weak unit, thus the impact, while devastating, is not beyond repair.

KICKOFF: I covered the mysterious – and scandalous – drama surrounding Rob Gronkowski’s pending return in a column earlier this week. If you don’t know what I’m talking about – first off, that’s weird – but second of all, the team allegedly wanted him back for the Falcons game last Sunday night. Gronk’s camp was reluctant – including his father, Gordy Gronkowski, who always seem to matter way more than he should – to the point where it was reported that the team and tight end were at odds.

This week Gronk cleared the air, purportedly putting matter to bed, saying he and the team are on the same page.

Here are three immediate reactions to this “story”:

To take the stance that Gronk should have been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list at the beginning of the season to preserve a roster spot during his recovery is extremely misguided.

First of all, the obvious: doing so would’ve precluded him from coming back before Week 6, and it’s not a long shot for Gronk to make an appearance this week or next. Having Gronk > Not Having Gronk.

Secondly, being on the PUP list also prevents a player from practicing with the team. Suffice to say: Gronk catching up to speed with the rest of the offense > Gronk lifting weights, drinking protein shakes and watching from afar.

The NFL is a sketchy league. Between the Aldon Smith and Von Miller stories and the concussion risks, that’s not a sexy comment. It’s more matter of fact. But I don’t think there is seediness here. I think the Patriots want Gronk back much like any team would want Gronk back. Still, there is a penchant from those silly voices Out There to drum up drama around Foxboro. As much as those voices want, Bill Bellichick isn’t Coach Killmer from Varsity Blues.

The most worrisome aspect to the everything Gronk remains his return to form, not the timing of his comeback. We forget now, but no matter how you look at it, despite just being 24 year-old and only playing in three seasons, Rob Gronkowski is already viewed as one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history. He’s already set the single-season record for most touchdowns by a tight end. Crazy, right?

Not really. When at his best, in his own regard, Gronk was just as exciting as Barry Sanders in the open field. Yes, a tight end AS EXCITING as a running back. Hyperbole? Nope. I’m dead serious. You’ll tell your kids about Gronk – the way he dominated by fearlessly running over opposing players. Nevermind the legendary partying. Although, let’s be honest: in all likelihood, the partying will last as folklore too.

Yet, it’s sad: I can’t help but wonder if we’re ever going to see the Gronk we once knew and loved. (Well, except for the debauchery. I’m confident his lifestyle will live on. And it will be glorious.)

HALFTIME: Feels appropriate to briefly touch on the Austin Collie signing. My thoughts?

Unfortunately, given his substantial concussion history and blown out knee, I don’t see the former Colt standout making an impact. As my friend put it in a recent text exchange: “Did you see how many concussions he’s had? What about his blown out knee??? He probably moves around like one of us after a few hours at Lucky’s [bar]!”

I don’t disagree.

TWO MINUTE WARNING: How twisted is it that I was actively panicking about Aqib Talib’s pending free agency as Cris Collinsworth was gushing about his stellar play against the Falcons on national television Sunday night? I was consciously hoping Collinsworth would stop, in a deranged desire to keep anyone else from noticing what was so obvious, because free agency – which is, like, eight months away – is already going to suck.

And you know why: New England cannot win with Talib. He has a checkered past, resulting in a conundrum for the decision-makers: On one hand, if Bobby Kraft elects not to open up his wallet and pay Talib – just like they did with Ty Law or Asante Samuel — then they are cheap. But pay him and the inevitable echoes about the price of victory will surface, because Talib is a character risk for an organization that, at this juncture, can’t afford to take on character risks.

So yeah, I yelled at my television when Talib broke up Matt Ryan’s fourth down pass to preserve last Sunday’s victory. I yelled out of joy, and I yelled out of despair. This made sense at the time, I swear.

FINAL SCORE: If you’re not looking forward, you’re looking backward. The offense continues to heel the early season hiccups and the defense continues to impress. Patriots 24, Bengals 10.

Follow Ryan Hadfield on Twitter @Hadfield__



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