By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- With Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, there's a surprise cut nearly every summer. This year, that distinction belongs to center Bryan Stork.
Considering he doesn't catch passes, run with the ball, or make any tackles or interceptions, one might not think that the release of a third-year offensive lineman would fit the bill as a "surprise" cut. Yet the instant reaction in New England and beyond showed that this move did indeed send some shock waves through the region.
Whenever such a move is made, the question must be asked: Is the football team better or worse off without him?
It's a question that can't be answered with a simple yes or no.
When Stork is healthy, he's proven to be a rugged, fierce interior lineman. He rose quickly to the position of starting center by Week 4 of his rookie season in 2014, at a time when the line was in desperate need of solidarity. He helped provide it, seizing the starting job for good by Week 8 and hanging on to it all the way through the Super Bowl. He did miss the AFC Championship Game after suffering what looked to be a nasty knee injury in the divisional round, but it didn't affect his play in the Super Bowl win.
Heading into 2015, the future looked good both for the Patriots and for Stork. But that's when two events worked against him. First, he suffered a concussion and neck injury in the summer, which would force him to miss half the season. Secondly, an undrafted kid out of Georgia turned out to be pretty darn good at playing center for the New England Patriots.
In some sports, players can't lose their jobs due to injury. But not in the NFL.
David Andrews filled in well, and guard Josh Kline also made major strides in 2015. Adding to the limited options for Stork were the two 2015 draft picks, Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason. If not for them, Stork might have been utilized as a guard upon his return to the active roster. Instead, he was relegated first to the sidelines, then to emergency tackle duty against the Redskins.
He eventually regained his starting job, sending the rookie Andrews to the sideline, but another concussion this summer -- his fourth in four years -- likely made the Patriots wary of his ability to avoid such problems in the future. Considering Andrews looked good as a rookie and continues to look good through camp, the team felt comfortable enough in making the move.
Many folks have included Stork's pair of practice ejections as part of the reasoning behind the move. I'm not so convinced. Yes, discipline is important, but the ejections were just a matter of the Patriots' zero-tolerance policy for fighting during practice -- a rule that's especially enforced in joint practice sessions. Surely, nobody was saying that Malcolm Butler's practice ejection spelled doom for the cornerback's chances of making the team.
But then, some would say that the practice ejections were a carry-over of Stork's not-so-smart personal foul penalty in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. You know, this one:
Yet somewhere in the passage of time, this penalty went from being generally unremarkable to one of the key reasons they lost the game. In reality, it came in the first quarter. It killed one drive ... but once Denver got the ball back, Peyton Manning threw a pick. The Patriots scored two plays later. The penalty didn't really hurt the Patriots at all.
In fact, what the Patriots lose most in Bryan Stork is the nastiness that's been present on the interior of the line going all the way back through Logan Mankins' tenure. The Patriots have enjoyed a line that has at least one player willing to be the bad guy, the player eager to impose his physicality on opponents by any means necessary, and the player who tends to live on the edge.
You know -- this guy:
Andrews is a sound player, but he's not that. Mason, Jackson, Kline and Joe Thuney don't appear to be either. Perhaps Jonathan Cooper can be that guy, but he's had a hard time getting on the field thus far, so even the Patriots don't really know the answer there.
That being said, the team doesn't necessarily need that guy. Surely, many teams have won some games with a crew of nice guys lining up in front of the quarterback, so a memorial service need not be held for the loss of some attitude and snarl.
And considering Andrews performed reasonably on the same level as Stork, the team can survive. The real test of the decision will come when Stork signs elsewhere. If he performs well for another team for several years (he'll turn 26 in November) and if Andrews and/or Kline regress this year, it could end up looking like an unwise move in retrospect.
Plus, if Brady finds himself under immense pressure coming from the middle of the line, a la early 2014, this move will be looked upon with great regret. (We heard, approximately 100,000 times during the bad stretches of 2014, that the team never should have traded Logan Mankins.)
But Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia are keenly aware of that and wouldn't have made the move without giving it due consideration.
That's the look from the football perspective, which is cold and hard. There's no room for emotion. But from the human perspective, given all that we've been learning about concussions and the lasting impact of players suffering brain trauma, the hope here is that the guy is healthy -- to live, first and foremost, but secondarily to continue playing the game that he loves. This is a man, mind you, who tattooed the NFL logo permanently on his arm as a freshman in high school.
The fact that a team would be so willing to release a capable player at this point in time indicates that perhaps that dream will be cut short.
If so, it is just the latest reminder of how cruel the sport of football can be.
If not? Well, Patriots defensive linemen and linebackers better hope that Stork doesn't land on the roster of a team that has New England on its schedule this year. Being on the other side of an inspired Stork is not a coveted position.
UPDATE: Later on Wednesday, it was reported that the Redskins actually acquired Stork via trade. Then, it was reported that Stork may just retire from football.
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