Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Community in Transition

Every community changes...constantly.  Just as with any living thing, there are endless adjustments.  There are moments of birth, of growth, and of death.  Every era in an organization comes into being, cycles through its life, and then moves on.  However, there are times when astute observers notice previously unseen changes in a system and are then able to see other shifts that are no doubt on their way.  We are only human, after all.  Many times a change that seems sudden is really a long time in the making.

Consider the National Football League, for example.  Changes are coming soon.  The economy has altered the playing field.  Its major actors have as well.  There are new safety rules.  There are new issues around competitiveness.  There are, of course, issues around compensation.  This past week the owner-enforced lockout was briefly lifted.  Then darkness came again as the the league filed an appeal and was granted a "stay".  This conflict didn't happen overnight.  It comes from years of record profits and the final pressure to find new ways to share them. It gets increasingly difficult, I believe, for the owners to cast themselves as victims.  However, perhaps when you are that privileged, it is hard not to see yourself as snubbed and oppressed by all around you.  Those cruel, cruel, baristas didn't get your coffee right this morning, Mr. Kraft.  You deserve a better coffee and a nation weeps with you...

Far away (but not far enough, sadly) from the board room, actual teams are in transition.  The draft wrapped up and (someday) there will be free agency, retirements, and such that will remake teams and cultures.  These changes will determine the future success of these organizations.  I am talking football here, but feel free to insert your own organization.  In many ways we are all the same.

One team in transition is Mr. Kraft's New England Patriots.  This is clear from the draft news.  The Pats picked players to fill important holes and maintain their perennial contender status.  They first chose an Offensive Tackle.  This is no surprise.  Next came a Cornerback.  This is...a bit.  Last year's big draft acquisition was a corner, too.  The backfield, it appears, will become a strength next year.

Then things got a little odd for a while.  They drafted two Running Backs, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, who possess complimentary skills.  Then they picked a Quarterback, Ryan Mallet.  Remember what I said about noticing changes that have already occurred and planning for ones that will come soon?  Well, here you are.  Sometimes the changes we recognize aren't always that welcome are they?  Even if everything turns out OK in the end.

Let's start with the Running Backs.  What change did the team recognize?  For years the Pats have had a backfield committee, led not by their ostensible starter (or "premier" back) but by the consistent third-down, change-of-pace presence of Kevin Faulk.  Faulk is in his late thirties, which in RB years in like your late 90's.  His committee includes a couple of other  grey and grizzled old guys, Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor.  They are some of the most popular Patriots on the current team. Faulk is one of the most popular ever. 

When Faulk was lost for the season early last year, the fan-base went into mourning.  Others stepped up, of course, and things went on.  Now change has come in the form of younger legs.  At least two of the old guys will probably have to leave the team.  It is quite possible that all three of them will retire together.  I hope that it is a good departure.  When Faulk leaves (either this year or next), the only player on the roster to have participated in all four Belichick-era Super Bowls will be Tom Brady.  That is organizational change.

Speaking of Brady.  That Ryan Mallet is no normal third round QB.  He dropped on draft day because of "character issues".  Do not doubt for a moment that he is a contender.  No, Mallet won't be replacing Brady soon, but he is a real presence and will influence the narrative from now on.  He is very good.  Interestingly, during the draft more than one analyst described Mallet's game as being like that of the man Brady replaced, Drew Bledsoe.
This is Tom's first time as the old guy fighting off the youngster.  All his other backups have been just that (Matt Cassel was a surprise).  I wonder how he will handle it?  Organizational change, after all, often reflects of brings about personal change.  Bledsoe did as well as anyone in this situation so there is at least one example of moving on gracefully.  Bledsoe--a huge star in his day who led the Pats to a Super Bowl against Brett Favre's Packers--saw his demotion as a time to start planning for the future.  He started for five more years on lesser teams (Bills and Cowboys) and then retired to make wine and roast coffee.  He wanted to be near his family.  Now his only football connection is coaching his son's Pee Wee team...the Patriots.

The Bledsoe story is a telling one in this case, actually.  Brady is quoted as saying that he plans to play the next ten years.  He didn't say that they would be with the Pats.  Brady is not the young man who rose to prominence so many years ago.  He is now a husband and father.  He is also a supermodel (and, yes, married to one).  Boston isn't big in the supermodelling world.  At some point he will want to be with his family in California doing celebrity things, maybe shilling his buddy Drew's wine.  The Bay Area teams stink.  He could end up playing there for a few years while getting ready for his new life.

Change is coming.  It is coming to football teams, to billionaire owners, and it is coming to you and me.  Maybe your changes don't quite fit with my examples.  That's not much of a surprise.  We don't really live in a sports metaphor do we? Still,  how we deal with change is important.  Does it crush us?  Are we unable to let go?  Or do we move with as much grace as we can muster into new arenas?  Brady, Faulk, and all the rest of us need to ask ourselves at times whether we want to be like Drew Bledsoe or like Brett Favre.  Really, its not that hard a choice.

Oh...and vote for Drew Bledsoe for Patriot's Hall of Fame.  You don't want Parcells to get in on his first year of eligibility, do you?

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