Former Celtics coach Rick Pitino once lamented that Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parrish were "not walking through that door." Pitino's point was that Boston fans had to get used the players the team had in the present and move on.
A similar sentiment is becoming more and more true these days in Foxborough as it looks increasingly likely that the Patriots will head into the 2010 season without Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins and veteran outside linebacker/rush end Derrick Burgess.
Mankins is a restricted free agent who, after not reaching an agreement on a long-term agreement with the team, demanded a trade. He has not signed his RFA tender, has come nowhere near training camp and has left a hole on the line as the group's most talent, consistent, durable member.
Burgess, on the other hand, is under contract but seemingly wishes he had never re-signed with New England this spring. After nine NFL seasons he's apparently mulling retirement. He's on the Patriots reserve/did not report list and has yet to indicate he'll end up anywhere else.
At some point the Patriots will have to move on at both positions without the guys penciled in to start because those guys, as Pitino would say, aren't walking through the Gillette Stadium door.
The plan at guard, at least heading into camp, was to move former starting right tackle Nick Kaczur to Mankins' spot. The problem is, just a couple practices into camp Kaczur went down with a reported back injury that's sidelined him since and could force a change in plans.
Now, the team has been experimenting with unproven backups like fifth-year career receiver Dan Connolly and second-year players Ryan Wendell and Rich Ohrnberger. It also went out and signed veteran free agent center Eric Ghiaciuc. But none of the players has stood out for the better early in camp, and to the contrary the entire line has struggled mightily in run blocking, especially in "live" goal-line segments.
If Mankins felt he had the leverage in his contract dispute heading into training camp, the man who's never missed as much as a single play to injury over his five seasons has to feel even stronger about his position today.
The situation at outside linebacker is equally as unsettled and probably more concerning. With Burgess either retiring or doing his best Brett Favre impression, New England is left with a bunch of never-haves or might-bes to fill the void. With Tully Banta-Cain, who a year ago before his 10-sack season was a street free agent cut loose by the 49ers, assuming the leadership and top-dog role at the position the rest is a mess.
The spotlight may shine most brightly on second-round pick Jermaine Cunningham. The former Gator clearly looks the part of the 3-4 OLB in Bill Belichick's scheme. But so did Shawn Crable, a former third-round pick out of Michigan who was cut on the eve of camp after two injury-marred seasons. Cunningham has gotten plenty of reps with the first unit in the first two weeks of camp. He's gaining experience and showing his stuff, but to date he hasn't really stood out.
Beyond Cunningham it's unproven veteran Rob Ninkovich and a pair of career special teams types in Pierre Woods and Marques Murrell. Who? That's the point.
Right now the slogan for the New England pass rush might be "Banta-Cain and pray for rain!" You get the point.
Training camp is about filling holes, winning roles and preparing a team for the regular season. It's something the Patriots have done as well as anyone over the last decade. But the task is as daunting as ever in 2010. The job was made all the more difficult when Mankins and Burgess, for very different reasons, decided training camp wasn't for them.
And it's left Belichick and Co. scrambling in August to be ready for September.
CAMP CALENDAR: Aug. 10-11 -- Joint practices with the Saints in New England. Aug. 16. -- Public access to training camp 2010 concludes. Aug. 17-18 -- Joint practices with the Falcons in Atlanta.
Hot Topic: Possible help at LB
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