TAMPA, Fla. — As far as rebounds go, this was a fine find. In November, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Aqib Talib was searching. He was forced to scratch out a new start after being shipped from the lone NFL franchise he called home to the land of “Cheers” and chowdah.
Quickly, a trade to the New England Patriots became a union of mutual benefit. Talib sought to buff a “troubled” image. Meanwhile, his new team looked to boost a secondary splitting at the seams.
After six regular-season games under the Hoodie, one divisional-round showing and a short appearance in an AFC Championship Game loss to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the verdict is in: For Talib, this was a solid recovery after whiplash change near the trade deadline, about the best reconstruction he could hope for after switching cannon fire for musket shots late in the fall.
Where will he go from here? Well, that remains to be seen.
“I had a lot of fun here,” Talib told reporters Monday, a day after he was sidelined with a thigh injury in the first quarter during the loss at Gillette Stadium. “Definitely enjoyed my time here. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I definitely had the most fun I’ve had playing football in a long time.”
Like other players who succeed after a move, it’s easy to wonder many things about the 26-year-old Kansas product.
What if Talib, set to become an unrestricted free agent, had become a fit in coach Greg Schiano’s and general manager Mark Dominik’s plan? What if, near the start of this past training camp, Talib hadn’t taken an Adderall pill without a prescription, which led to a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances? What if he hadn’t been arrested twice? What if his history with Tampa Bay hadn’t led Dominik to say, after the trade was announced, “The thing that you have to keep in mind as an organization is your body of work is what it is.”
What if things had worked out?
The NFL is littered with stories of revival, so the question is well worn. Drew Brees, after leaving the San Diego Chargers for the New Orleans Saints. Brett Favre, after leaving the Green Bay Packers and New York Jets for the Minnesota Vikings. Peyton Manning, with the Denver Broncos, after his time ran out with the Indianapolis Colts.
The list goes on and on. The professional world, after all, is about circumstance and fit.
“We will not make any decisions on any players into the future now,” New England coach Bill Belichick said Monday, when asked about Talib’s future. “You just can’t do it. There are too many factors, too many unknown things.”
It’s too early to claim winners and losers after Talib’s detour. The gifted talent, drafted 20th overall in 2008, became the needle that stitched a dreadful secondary. Before his arrival, the Patriots defense ranked 30th in passing yards allowed per game (281), including 28 plays of more than 20 yards, and opposing quarterbacks owned a 96.9 rating against them.
By regular season’s end, the Patriots were allowing 271.4
ypg (29th), and Talib had accounted for 19 tackles and one interception —
which was returned 59 yards for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in
Week 11. In the six regular-season games in which Talib appeared, New England
surrendered 16 or fewer points three times. Prior to his arrival, the Pats held opponents
to 15 points or less just twice.
Sunday, Baltimore’s Joe Flacco ripped New England for 240 passing yards and three touchdowns in Talib’s absence. Clearly, he was missed.
Still, Talib’s past became too heavy to ignore in his former home. His baggage was always there, even if he showed growth along the way. Trading a player with 18 career interceptions at the time, in addition to a seventh-round choice in the upcoming draft for a fourth-round pick this spring, probably was best for all involved.
Sometimes, it takes pressing the reset button to find focus. Sometimes, a change just works.
“I don’t want to comment on that, because I don’t know the inner-workings of the Buccaneers and what all went on there during his time there,” Mark Mangino, Talib’s former coach at Kansas, told FOXSportsFlorida.com, when asked if Tampa Bay made a mistake in letting Talib go.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for Greg Schiano. I think he’s an outstanding coach. I think he has a structured atmosphere. It’s well organized. … It’s probably a situation where it was in the interest of both the Bucs and the Patriots to make that trade.”
Mangino can recall an earlier time when it seemed Talib made strides with Tampa Bay. Last summer, during training camp, the former coach spent a day with the Buccaneers and heard updates from several voices within the organization. He gathered positive reviews from many angles: Trainers, assistants and strength coaches told him Talib showed a positive work ethic and displayed strong leadership traits.
Mangino felt good after his visit. He assumed his former player was well on his way. Then came, as the former coach calls it, a “bump in the road.” Then came Talib’s suspension.
“Certainly, I felt bad about what had happened at Tampa Bay,” said Mangino, who lives in Naples, Fla. “But I also knew that New England was an organization where they have a lot of structure, discipline. They like cerebral players. They’re team-oriented as well. Bill Belichick really does a good job of reaching out to guys like Aqib and getting them to play well and do good things.
“For him, it was a fresh start, which he probably needed. I think he fits nicely with the Patriots and what they do on defense and the way they run their operation there. He likes structure and discipline.”
Did Talib have regrets about the way his Tampa Bay career ended?
“We talked about it,” said Mangino, who coached Talib in Lawrence from 2004 to ’07. “The only thing I would say is that, sure, he was remorseful. He’s sorry that it happened. He told me that he’ll learn from it.
“The thing that I told him is, ‘Now that you’re going to New England, go to work every day. Bust your butt like you did,’ because he loves football. He’ll practice every day if you want him to. If he’s not at work, (I told him) just kind of lay low and relax. Just enjoy life and just relax.”
Talib found life to be rewarding after a move the the Northeast. As far as rebounds go, this was a keeper: A player was paired with a team which coveted him, and both benefited from the fresh start.
Where will Talib go from here? That remains unclear. But even though he found success elsewhere, his former franchise has little reason to look back.