Thursday July 28th, 2011

Well, I suppose we should have seen this one coming. Albert Haynesworth to the Patriots. Of course. Every few years or so, Bill Belichick lives to take one man's trash and prove there's still some treasure there if you know how to find it.

He did it in 2004 with Corey Dillon and New England rode him to its third Super Bowl trophy. He did it in 2007 with Randy Moss and the Patriots simply re-wrote the NFL record books that season and nearly pulled off that improbable 19-0 perfect season. Neither one of them wound up being long-term Patriots, but both served Belichick's purposes plenty well enough throughout most of their time in New England. Baggage and all.

And here comes Haynesworth, who proved himself the ultimate headache in football last season in Washington, when he and first-year Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan co-existed as well as Cain and Abel. And that doesn't even begin to tell the whole story of his debacle in 2010, with the perpetually unhappy Haynesworth adding a couple of off-field legal incidents to his resume as well.

Once again the Patriots have decided to take a relatively low-cost, calculated risk on a player others wouldn't touch, but whose talent offers a tempting upside if their outside-the-box thinking pays off. It all depends on Haynesworth, and his ability to shed his reputation for being overweight, selfish and unproductive. (Remarkably, the Patriots even chose to double down in their roundup of unwanted players on Thursday, trading for the always talkative Chad Ochocinco, the Bengals receiver who clearly wore out his welcome in Cincinnati).

In New England, the pattern is well-established. You either get along or you're gone. Belichick sets the all-business tone for the locker room, and the team's veteran leaders set the example for others to follow. Like Dillon and Moss before him, Big Albert comes to town in search of his first Super Bowl ring, and that seems to be just the right motivational carrot that former malcontents need to make the most of their fresh opportunity in Foxboro.

If the Patriots can get him back to anything approaching his dominating 2008-level game in Tennessee, Haynesworth in exchange for a measly fifth-round pick in 2013 could be another Moss-like masterstroke for Belichick. When he's in shape and wants to play, Haynesworth is one of the NFL's most disruptive players. But as last year in D.C. proved, his disruptive ways are both a strength and a weakness, and he's a player who has to buy into the program he's in, and the coaches he's playing for, or things can real ugly, real fast.

History says Haynesworth will find the will to submerge his selfish tendencies, the ones Redskins teammate and defensive captain London Fletcher so publicly called out last year, and fold his personal opinions and goals into the team-oriented Patriot Way of doing things in New England. After all, he has his money now, thanks to Daniel Snyder's generosity and lack of foresight in Washington. After getting paid, what players want more than anything is to win, and most seem willing to be molded by Belichick and fall in line in New England if they think the end justifies the means.

The intriguing question, of course, is what's so different about the 3-4 defense that New England runs compared to the 3-4 formation that Haynesworth chafed in last year with the Redskins? Haynesworth and Shanahan got their relationship off to a horrible start when the ex-Titans star immediately balked at playing nose tackle in the 3-4, loudly making it known that his skills are best utilized at tackle in the 4-3 scheme he's more familiar with.

I'm going to take a not-so-wild shot and predict the whole 3-4 versus 4-3 issue won't be a land mine whatsoever for Haynesworth in New England. Because the Patriots in reality play in a 4-3 front about half the time, and it's likely that Haynesworth will be in the game at tackle on the vast majority of those snaps. He's not in New England to replace Pro Bowl pick Vince Wilfork at nose tackle, and Belichick is known for finding what his players do best and putting them in position to do so as often as possible.

Let's face it, the Patriots' pathetic pass rush (just 17½ sacks from the defensive line in 2010) could use a motivated Haynesworth. New England surprisingly didn't draft any defensive linemen or pass-rushers in April, and haven't had a legitimate sack threat since Richard Seymour was traded to Oakland two years ago. Tully Banta-Cain led New England in sacks the past two years (15 total in 2009-10), and he was informed this week that he'll be released in a salary cap move Thursday.

Washington, of course, is just happy to have gotten rid of its Haynesworth problem, even if it meant in essence giving him away. The Redskins succeeded in at least this: They weren't forced to release him and watch him sign with NFC East rival Philadelphia, where he would have been playing for his former Titans defensive line coach, Jim Washburn. Having Haynesworth in the AFC is a far better scenario than competing against him twice a year within the division.

The Patriots, with their never-ending supply of future draft picks, were no doubt happy to oblige the desperate Redskins. At his well-conditioned best (which is never a given), Haynesworth can give opposing offenses someone they must game plan for, playing a penetrating style of game that can wreak havoc in the backfield and command double-team blocks. With Wilfork, Haynesworth and veteran Ty Warren returning from a hip injury that cost him his 2010 season, the Patriots at least look more formidable up front on paper.

Now they have to hope Haynesworth will be hell-bent on proving that his career is not in decline, and that the only problem with his game the past two years has been where he was playing and who he was playing for. Belichick and the Patriots will benefit if Haynesworth's pride drives him to seek redemption and return his level of play to an elite status.

It's a blueprint that has worked superbly in the past for New England with both Dillon and Moss, and the Patriots are betting this is a case of the right kind of history repeating itself. But it could backfire, because it's another gamble on another player with a full set of baggage. Jumbo-sized, as it were.

Perhaps trying to compete in the same division with the go-for-broke Jets (see: pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugha) has Belichick in a mood to take some chances. As we saw last season with Moss, he's not afraid to cut his losses and walk away once he thinks the risks have started to outweigh the rewards.

In Haynesworth's case, if that tipping point doesn't arrive in New England for another few years, and plenty of wins ensue in the interim, we'll probably chalk him up as another Patriots heist. The kind they're specialists at pulling off. In Foxboro, the mantra remains "In Belichick we trust.'' Given his track record of reclamation projects, for now he gets the benefit of the doubt.

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