Believe it or not, the worst thing about Ty Law leaving the Patriots after the 2004 season was not how bad the classy cornerback looked in an ugly Jets uniform.
Law’s departure, while certainly a gut punch at the time, was also the end of an era in New England.
The Patriots, who had won three Super Bowls in four years behind Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in a way that made some wonder whether this group would ever lose (Brady was undefeated in the playoffs until the following year), were on the eve of a long drought of postseason success when Law left the team the way many other veterans under Belichick’s reign have. The Patriots would win playoff games here and there, and they would even return to the Super Bowl twice, but New England never regained the championship form of those early years — and it wasn’t a coincidence that that happened after Law left.
The Patriots built their early success on the back of an excellent defense, and the ball-hawking secondary led by Law was a huge part of it. When Belichick let Law go, it was the beginning of an erosion that would bottom out when the Patriots couldn’t stop the Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl. New England had let other key players go before, but after Law, the trickle of high talent leaving the defensive side of the ball turned into a flood. Richard Seymour was sent away before Belichick would refuse to pay him more, and everyone from Willie McGinest to Mike Vrabel to Tedy Bruschi (retired, not traded) aged out of the system without a top-tier replacement.
When Law left after 2004, the Patriots knew they would miss the cornerback — but few knew that missing him would last more than a season or two, or that his departure would become a harbinger for a defense that would only deteriorate further.
Belichick and Co. have put serious effort into rebuilding the defense since. There were a few free-agent busts and draft hiccups, but starting with picking Jerod Mayo in 2008, New England has slowly been adding the pieces, player by player, to get the unit back to its former glory.
That progression appears to be mostly complete this season. A defense that just a couple of seasons ago was known to give up 30-plus points a game while hoping Brady could outgun an opponent has looked impressive. The Patriots haven’t played uber-talented offenses so far, but the players on the defensive side clearly have it. From the semblance of a pass rush to a stout linebacking corps to a secondary that has snapped into place, New England could have one of the best defenses in the league if each member plays up to potential.
That’s the key — the players. Belichick and his coaches have shown they can coach all kinds of players and use a variety of skills to their advantage. But sustained success over a season and into the playoffs requires a certain level of talent, and the Patriots finally have that in bulk on defense.
New England has struggled defensively when it mattered in recent years because it didn’t have the right pieces to make its defense work. Now that it has those pieces, only improvement can be expected — but the Patriots must hold on to those pieces.
That’s where the discussion circles back to Law, and the only cornerback who’s been able to hold a candle to what Law did in his Patriots days (except maybe Asante Samuel) — Aqib Talib.
Talib, always a talent, has become locked in with the Patriots, especially this year. Talib has had a troubled past and, as recently as last year, with New England, was drawing concern as being a possible locker room hindrance. He’s done nothing but shine this year, though.
He’s holding opponents to miniscule yards, clearing the way for his teammates to gang up on other players and making huge plays in big moments (sealing the Patriots’ wins over both the Jets and the Buccaneers). That’s the kind of work that makes a defense hum, but Talib has also provided the flash, pulling in four interceptions (tied for the league lead).
Talib has shown himself to be not only a talented player but also one who fits the Patriots well, doing his part of the job but also freeing up his teammates to do theirs. With that in mind, it’s no longer a question of whether the Patriots need to keep Talib around, but when — as in, when they can sign him to an extension of the one-year deal he got heading into this year.
Character concerns continue with Talib, and they always will. The Patriots can’t know, now more than ever, if giving a player more years and more money will cause problems once he signs.
But New England can know that, for the first time in nearly a decade, it has a defensive unit that can contend. It’s built on many talented pieces, but the biggest piece so far has been Talib, who brings memories of what the Patriots could do when they not only rushed the passer and patrolled the middle but also intercepted and batted down balls deep.
If the Patriots want to continue their progression out of the defensive doldrums, they need to make a commitment to the players who have helped them finally get back to form. Many players fit that description, but none have a contract so short, or a track record so bright so far, as Talib. New England may have had reason to try to work around a hole at cornerback before, but it doesn’t now — not after seeing how neglecting that spot can cause larger, long-lasting problems.
Plus, the Patriots’ red, white and blue just seems to suit good cornerbacks the way no other team colors can.