As the month of March came to a close, ending what is generally the most active free agent period of the NFL offseason, Patriots fans were left wondering what the three-time Super Bowl champions were doing to restock a dwindling roster. While teams like the Browns, Redskins and a whole slew of others were wheeling and dealing their way through the veteran retooling process, New England signed just one unrestricted free agent, wide receiver Reche Caldwell.
Worse yet the fans also watched as key veteran contributors and long time Patriots Adam Vinatieri and Willie McGinest donned new uniforms in Indianapolis and Cleveland respectively. And young playmaking wide receiver, a key contributor to New England's offense in his four seasons in the league, followed the free agent dollars to Tennessee.
Add the free-agent losses of middle-of-the-roster types like Tom Ashworth, Tim Dwight, Christian Fauria, Matt Chatham and Andre' Davis and it's clear to see fans will be watching a very different Patriots teams take the field when the 2006 regular season rolls around.
But fans aren't the only ones having to rationalize their way through the departure of key players. Former teammates have the unenviable job of moving on without guys they've played with for a long time, some a decade or more. Linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who played alongside McGinest and Vinatieri for all four of the Patriots most recent Super Bowl appearances dating back to 1996, addressed that issue last week as he kicked off the team's offseason program with the understanding that there are going to be some key faces missing from the Gillette Stadium locker room next season.
"This year was a little bit different, seeing Willie go and Adam go," Bruschi said of the business side of the game. "I mean I was a rookie with Adam here. And Willie, I've won a lot of football games and lost a lot of football games with him. So it was especially hard this year seeing them leave because those are my guys that you won Super Bowls with and you get discouraged about it but you realize that once they held up those jerseys with different colors that's it and they can't help us win football games anymore. So I've got to help lead the guys that are here now to help us win football games next year."
Not surprisingly, the loss that most closely relates to Bruschi is McGinest. He played with the veteran throughout his entire career and understands there's now a serious hole on the outside of New England's 3-4 front. So who does he think could fill the void?
"Initially you think Matt Chatham, but Matt Chatham went to New York. So he's gone too," Bruschi said with a laugh. "You just think of the linebackers you have and at outside linebacker I think Tully [Banta-Cain, a fourth year player] has had some reps in the past. So is Tully ready to do something? I don't know. Is he ready to show that he can do what we want? I don't know. It's up to him."
Bruschi also acknowledged that with Mike Vrabel having successfully made the transition to inside linebacker out of need last season, New England has some flexibility. With Vrabel's newfound ability to play inside or out, the Patriots could fill the linebacker holes in a variety of ways, either through free agency or the draft.
"It can be either. I believe it can be either because of the flexibility Mike Vrabel showed last year," Bruschi said in awe of Vrabel's swift transition. "He was able to come back and play inside linebacker. Come on. It took me three years to play inside linebacker coming from the defensive line out of college. So what he did in three weeks really impressed me. I mean he's the MVP of the defense last year by far if you ask me. [If] you bring in an inside linebacker, move Vrabel to outside. You bring in an outside linebacker, move Vrabel to inside. That's the flexibility he gives us. I'd rather have him next to me, to tell you the truth, because he's a good friend of mine, he's a playmaker and I like playing next to him. But if he needs to play outside he can do that too. So we have a lot of flexibility when it comes to picking a linebacker."
Regardless, Bruschi and Patriot fans will have to move on and focus on the new season. Because the games will soon come, and as Rick Pitino once said of former Celtics legends like Larry Bird and Robert Parrish -- Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri are not walking through that door. But someone who'll fill their roles is going to have to.