So here I sit in disbelief at a second straight loss by the Patriots. It's actually not the losses that I find shocking, but in the manner in which they lost. This isn't the Patriots team that once made me believe they could win every game. This isn't the team that proved me wrong by winning the Super Bowl after Bledsoe went out with an injury in 2001. This isn't even the close to the team that was the best I'd ever seen not so long ago. I'm not talking about the 16-0 team from two years ago, I'm talking about the team that won two straight Super Bowls in 2003 and 2004. Yes, the Patriots are a very different team than they used to be. What happened?
At the beginning of the Belichick era, the Patriots were firing on all cylinders in the draft and free agency. From 2000 to 2004, the Patriots acquired either through draft, trade, or free agency, a total of 31 key players that helped them win three Super Bowls in four years. These players ended up starting or becoming important backups in the rotation and range from Tom Brady on offense to Vince Wilfork on defense. A truly impressive run.
When the Patriots were winning Super Bowls, they had a very simple formula. The offense was basic. Prior to 2004, the Patriots had little to no run game so Brady was forced to use the "dink and dunk" strategy of short passes to supplement the offense. There were very few big plays in this offense because there weren't any legitimate deep threats. The big plays that did occur often were the result of luck more than anything else. Patriot receivers had good hands and were mostly interchangeable, so defenses had trouble figuring out who to double-team. This was the era when Brady was said to have only one favorite receiver: whoever's open. He spread the ball around as well as anyone, often completing passes to eight or more players in the course of a game. When Corey Dillon was added in 2003 and introduced a legitimate run game, the Patriots became that much more devastating an offense.
The defense was also quite simple. The tag was "bend but don't break." Defensive players were smart, really smart, and everyone knew not only what they should be doing but what everyone else should be doing. Belichick made his name as a defensive genius during these years mostly due to the intelligence of the players who carried out his schemes. With on-field coaches such as Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison, it was difficult to catch the defense in a misread or blown assignment. Younger players such as Eugene Wilson and Asante Samuel benefited from being on the field with the more experienced players, who helped to cover up many of the mistakes of the inexperienced players.
This system worked great as long as the team had the personnel on both sides of the field to carry it out. Clearly, the league was having trouble figuring out how to stop the Patriots as they rolled to an NFL record 21-straight regular season wins. Then a shift started. The Patriots couldn't keep the team together. In 2005, they lost number three receiver David Patten, followed by losing both starting receivers Deion Branch and David Givens as well as running back Corey Dillon in 2006. That left Tom Brady with completely new starting skill players for the 2006 season. Still, the Patriots made it to the AFC Championship game that year and had the lead with four minutes left in the game before finally succumbing to the eventual champions, the Indianapolis Colts.
After that, everything changed. The team realized that Brady deserved better than a patchwork offense and in 2007 traded for receivers Wes Welker and Randy Moss. With the ascension of Josh McDaniels to the offensive coordinator position, the Patriots changed from a "dink and dunk" passing offense to a big play offense, scoring the most points in NFL history, while Brady set the record for most TD passes and Moss for the most TD receptions. The team finished 16-0 and was finally stopped in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants. The way that game, and the rest of the playoffs, were played have frustrated me now for a while.
The reason that the Patriots got beat in the Super Bowl was because of their reliance on the big play. Instead of going for five- and six-yard plays, they constantly went for 20-yard plays. If a team is able to stop the big play, then you're sunk, and that's what the Giants were able to do successfully. No place was this ever more evident than with the Patriots' final drive in that game, which saw Brady more or less focus in on Randy Moss with each snap. The team that won the Super Bowl in 2001 went 53 yards in 9 plays and 1:30 to win the game. The team that lost in 2007 has 29 seconds and three timeouts to go 40 yards for a legitimate chance at a field goal and they ended up gaining zero yards. Two of the four downs were long tosses to Moss that fell incomplete.
Big play teams can't win over the long-term, and history has proven this over and over again. It's too easy for talented teams to take away the big play. Just ask the Colts. In 2003 and 2004, they were the big-play team and came storming to Foxboro to play the Patriots in the Playoffs only to be sent home packing both times. Why? The Patriots took away the big play and made them try to get small yardage to win the game...and they couldn't. Ironically, just a couple years later the Colts had morphed into a more-balanced team with the addition of Joseph Addai and his powerful running. The Colts offense became more effective and they won the championship.
Last year, when Brady was hurt, the Patriots offense was more balanced. Brady's fill-in, Matt Cassell, could not throw the long ball anywhere near as well, and so the offense needed to adapt. And it did. Last year's offense, while not explosive, was solid and played within the team's strengths. This year's offense, with Brady back at the helm, is once again too reliant on the big play to win games. That was never more evident than today, in the Patriots' loss to Miami where all three touchdowns were the result of big plays.
Most of Brady's interceptions have come on throws to Moss that, were it any other receiver, undoubtedly would not have been thrown. There seems to be too much emphasis on getting the ball to Moss, all the while Welker cannot be stopped. If the Patriots had any real running game, the combination would be devastating...but they don't. Laurence Maroney has never emerged as a valid number one running back and the veterans behind him have mostly been injured all year.
When you add in the incredible changes on defense this year, the Patriots are in shambles. The league has mostly figured out how to take away the big plays and they're left reeling. If the defense could hold its own, the team would have a legitimate shot at a playoff run. However, the patchwork defense is made up mostly of young, inexperienced players who repeatedly make mistakes and get beat by more experienced wide receivers. The losses of Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Rodney Harrison in the past year have left zero on-field coaches on the defense, and the confusion is obvious.
The Patriots are still leading the division by one game, but who knows if they can hold onto that slim lead over the younger, hungrier, and more creative Jets, Dolphins, and Bills. At this point, I'd be fine if the Patriots missed the playoffs because I don't see any way that this team can complete with any of the other current AFC division leaders. After this season, I think the Patriots suits need to take a good, long look at the steady decline over the past couple of seasons and figure out how to right the ship. Brady possibly have five more good years left, and how much of that time is going to be spent with an ineffective offensive strategy and lousy defense?
The window of opportunity isn't starting to close yet, but it will soon, and there isn't going to be another Tom Brady in New England for a very, very long time.
At the beginning of the season, I never would've thought that week 17 would see me rooting for the Jets and Brett Favre, and then agonizing when he threw yet another interception. It goes against every fiber in my being to root for the Jets at any point in time, let alone Favre. Don't get me wrong, I used to be a Favre fan, but that was before he jerked around the Packers for three years straight. Now I think he's just a selfish has-been who doesn't know when to hang 'em up. And hang 'em up he did today in a truly pathetic showing of the largest magnitude in his career with the Jets. So what if you needed help to get into the playoffs? The role of spoiler tastes mighty good as well (ask the Texans).
The Patriots played what I considered to be a great game of football earlier today, defeating Buffalo 13-0 in a game that featured 70 mph winds. To me, this game is exactly what football should be: two teams pounding it out. There's no freak plays where coverage is blown, no ridiculous long bombs that are more luck than skill, just old-fashioned, hit-the-hole running with a small amount of passes thrown in (pun intended). The Patriots really showed that they are a playoff team...except that win doesn't mean anything. They're 11-5 and not in the playoffs. A bit ironic that their record when they won the 2001 Super Bowl was 11-5 in the regular season. This is also just the second time since 2001 that they haven't made it to the playoffs.
But really, the Patriots have no one to blame but themselves. Whenever you take your fate out of your own hands, you have failed. There were several games that the Patriots should have won this year, and if they had won even one of them, they'd be in the playoffs right now. The most glaring example was the game against the Jets that went to overtime. They made a spirited effort to come from way behind to tie up the game in the last minute but then blew it in overtime with shoddy defense. If that one game had gone the other way, we'd be talking playoffs right now.
The Patriots did have a good season thanks to mostly solid play from backup quarterback Matt Cassell. He started out the year pretty slow but got some good momentum going towards the end. Now he's played himself into what surely will be a nice payday after the season is over. Most of the talk will focus around whether or not the Patriots will keep Cassell. He's now an unrestricted free agent that is sure to draw interest from quarterback-starved teams such as the Lions, Buccaneers, Chiefs...and Jets. Conventional wisdom was that the Patriots can't afford to pay Cassell millions to be a backup to the returning Tom Brady. Until otherwise noted, the Patriots are Brady's team, and they can't afford to pay two starting quarterback salaries when only one will play.
For a while, it was looking like the Patriots would either let Cassell go or franchise him in the hopes of orchestrating a trade. However, NBC Sports is reporting that Brady's rehab isn't going well, and that he may require additional surgery on his knee. Brady would likely miss a large portion of next season, if not the whole season, should another surgery be required. If that's truly the case, then the Patriots really can't afford to let Cassell go because otherwise all they have are inexperienced quarterbacks on the roster. The question then becomes how can they keep both Brady and Cassell? Would Brady take a pay cut to allow the team to sign Cassell? Perhaps more importantly, how good will Brady be if he doesn't play again until 2010?
Knowing how Belichick and the rest of the organization works, I'm sure they're already pondering these and other moves that will have to happen in the offseason so the team can regain its AFC East dominance. Until then, my only football-related actions will be rooting against the Giants and the Colts. On to the Celtics...
I haven't written much about my beloved Patriots this year, mostly because they haven't looked much like my beloved Patriots this year. Since Brady went down, everything has been a crapshoot. This week the Patriots proved what I've been saying along: they are an average team at best. As such, they do what average teams do. They win against the crappy teams most of the time, they win against the other average teams 50% of the time, and they can't win against the good teams. With today's loss to the Steelers, the Patriots have lost to all of the good teams on their schedule this year so far.
Anyone who has suggested that the Patriots trade Brady and keep Cassell is a complete idiot. There's always a fair amount of that whenever a backup steps in and does well. News flash: Cassell is the quarterback of an average team...a team that was spectacular last year under Brady. For those who said that anyone could've done what Brady did with Moss and Welker, I submit this season as evidence to the contrary. Great players don't make a great team, great leaders do. Brady is a great player and a great leader, Cassell is a decent player and an okay leader. There's really no decision here.
At this point, the Patriots chances at making the playoffs are incredibly thin. Their best chance is to win the division, and this week would've been the week to pull even with the Jets. The Jets got pounded...but so did the Patriots, so no ground was gained although Miami is hot on the Patriots' heels. The Patriots will likely have to win out in order to even have a chance because the Jets' remaining schedule is pretty light. The wildcard picture is very competitive, and since the Patriots already lost to the Colts, they would get the nod if the two teams ended up tied.
In our weekly Patriots analysis phone call, my Dad and I have been discussing this issue: the Patriots seem to move the ball okay initially but can't get any points or have to settle for a field goal. They did that against the Jets and the Colts, and also did that against the Dolphins before pulling ahead to win. They did that once again this week. The difference is that when you do that against good teams, the good teams punish you for it. Randy Moss had at least two big drops in the first half that could've kept a drive going or scored a touch down. You need to convert those in a game against a good team. And of course they didn't, so the Steelers took advantage, which is what good teams do. Too many issues, too many mistakes, and you lose against good teams.
I started writing this with 9 minutes left to go in the fourth quarter and the game just now ended...and I don't need to go back and edit anything I've already written. So sad. I guess there's always next year.
So here I am, once again, mourning a horrible Patriots loss. This brings me back to the pre-Brady days of the Patriots where each and every week was a tossup and Boston sportswriters proclaimed the Patriots the only team in the league to have a prevent offense. Looks like we're back. The question is how long will Belichick stay will Matt Cassell? The fourth-year quarterback has looked completely befuddled and unable to do the job. Not only does he make bad decisions, but he also completely misses seeing open receivers...frequently. I watched the Atlanta Falcons yesterday with envy as their first-year quarterback, BC's Matt Ryan, cooly led his team down the field with just 11 seconds left to seal the win. I'd trust Brady to do that too, but I wouldn't trust Cassell.
I expected the Patriots offense to struggle without Brady. What I didn't expect was the complete lack of defense I've seen in the two losses. Belichick is supposed to be a defensive-minded coach, a defensive genius in some people's books, and yet the defense looks about as good as pathetic as can be. There's no pass rush. The defensive backs regularly get beat on long passes. The entire defense seems unable to adjust to changes from the offense. We first saw this in preseason, where teams were marching up and down the field on our defense with ease. It's just preseason, we said, it'll change in the regular season. We were wrong. The defense couldn't stop a slow-moving bowling ball at this point.
As much as I'd love to blame Matt Cassell for the two losses, it was really the defense that lost both games. You won't win many games giving up 30 or more points. Last year, the Patriots could overcome this because they'd just score 56 points and be done with it. However, the defense was better last year. They only gave up over 30 points once, when they played the Giants in the final game of the season. In fact, they gave up over 14 points only seven times the entire season. The defense was good if unspectacular last year; this year, they're practically non-existent.
If Brady was playing this year, we probably still would have lost both of those games. When the defense can't stop the other team...at all...it really wouldn't matter who was on offense. And given the way the offensive line has been playing, getting completely run over by the defensive line, Brady would likely be running for his life more often than not.
The big question is this: how long does Belichick let all of this go? How long does he let a quarterback who's clearly outclassed and will likely be out of the league next year lead his team? How long before drastic changes are made on the defense, perhaps benching longtime starters and throwing in some young blood to see if they can do anything? How long will Belichick allow the team to be mediocre and uncompetitive? It's really going to be a long rest of the season. Here's to six wins.
I tuned in today to watch the first game of the NFL season for my beloved Patriots. They were a bit out of sync early on, which was to be expected since Tom Brady hadn't played a snap in the preseason. The clock read 10:20 am Pacific Time when Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard rolled into Brady's left knee, forcing the reigning NFL MVP to let out a scream. Brady hasn't missed a start since he took over for Drew Bledsoe nearly seven years ago, a streak of 128 straight games that ranks him amongst the game's most dependable field generals. And yet there he was, 20 minutes into the NFL season, lying on the ground in pain. At that moment, I saw a return trip to the Super Bowl go up in smoke.
Even though the official word won't come until tomorrow's MRI, by all accounts it looks like Brady's ACL is torn. An ACL tear would mean no Brady until next season and would force the Patriots to run under fourth-year backup Matt Cassell. Cassell's New England career started out promising, drawing great reviews from coaches, sportwriters, and fans for his good arm and foot speed. After the first year, however, his production fell off significantly. There were questions as to whether Cassell would even make the team this year as he performed poorly in the preseason, never leading the team to a single touchdown. My dad and I spoke after each preseason game and we both had the same assessment, "if Brady goes down this year, we're screwed."
Cassell came in during the first quarter and performed admirably under pressure, successfully guiding the team to two touchdowns and a field goal, including a 50 yard pass out of his own end zone to Randy Moss. He's no Brady, but Cassell did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances. He got a lot of help from the running backs, with Maroney and Morris both running extremely well. The defense also played very well, especially against the run, for most of the game. It was at the end of the game that they gave up a huge pass play to Chiefs backup quarterback Damon Huard that nearly allowed them to tie the game. But the Patriots defense stiffened up and held out for the win.
The Patriots' future without Tom Brady isn't a good one. Cassell is unproven and if something should happen to him, we have only rookie quarterback Kevin O'Connell on the roster. The Patriots will surely be bringing in any out-of-work experienced quarterbacks they can get on speed dial this week. I said before the season started that the Patriots would win only six games if Brady missed the entire season. The Patriots are a very talented team on offense but Brady is their leader. How can you doubt a two-time Super Bowl MVP? Cassell hasn't started a meaningful game since high school, as he was a perenial backup at USC to both Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. In order for this team to win a much-improved AFC East, they'll need several things to happen:
- The defense must play better, plain and simple. The front three came up huge, stuffing Larry Johnson for most of the game, but the linebackers and secondary need to tighten up. They let too much get through today and put us in a bad position at the end of the game.
- The running backs must play well. If Maroney and Morris can provide the same one-two punch they had last year and average over 130 yards per game combined, they'll take pressure off of Cassell to win the game for the team.
- The offense is simplified. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels loves to throw the ball deep and has all kinds of gadget plays to get the ball into his playmakers' hands. Those work great for Brady, but I don't trust Cassell to make those happen. If McDaniels can dial it back and keep the playbook simple, Cassell will have a much better chance of succeeding.
Fortunately, the Patriots have the statistically easiest schedule this season based on teams' records from last year. That gives Cassell a good shot at getting some experience, and wins, against a good number of NFL teams. With that, we may be able to scare up 8 wins and challenge for the division. It'll be tough with an improved New York Jets team, a scrappy Miami Dolphins team, and an actually good Buffalo Bills team, but the Patriots still have the most talent in the division so it should, theoretically be possible.
The most ironic part of this whole situation is that Tom Brady has been listed on the injury list for nearly every game in the past five years. Today was the first game that Brady wasn't on the injury list at all and he ends up suffering the worst injury in his career. As Pollard rolled into Brady's knee, I foresaw myself reverting back to the Patriots fan I was prior to Bill Parcells arriving in New England: every game was a crapshoot, and I fully expected them to lose. I waited seven months for football to come back, and now it's gone again. I'll still cheer, but I have a feeling that this season is going to be painful.
This is the second weekend in a row that I've been able to say this: it's good to be a Boston sports fan. The Red Sox completed another sweep in the World Series. It's almost hard to believe that a few years short years ago Boston was bemoaning 86 years without a baseball championship. Now, with two championships in four years, the Red Sox are a model franchise that people can't figure out how to beat. The only thing that would've made this win better would have been beating the Yankees on the way. Oh well, there's always next year.
And of course, as I predicted a few weeks back, my Patriots systematically dismantled the Redskins (sorry Richy). The scary thing is that the Redskins are one of the better defenses that the Patriots have faced. They pretty much took away the long ball, with Brady completing only one long pass to Moss. The Patriots just did it around 10 yards at a time. A pass here, a run here, and they were down the field. It was great to see Maroney back and looking incredibly fast and tough, we're going to need the run game against Indy. It was also great to see the defense step up and play the way that they were playing in preseason. Vrabel was huge with three strip-sacks. I was bummed that they gave up a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but oh well.
Next up: the Colts. For the first time, I believe that the Patriots have more offensive weapons than the Colts, especially if Marvin Harrison can't play. The Patriots needed only one more first down against the Colts in last year's AFC Championship game to go to the Super Bowl, and they couldn't get it because they just didn't have the personnel. This year, they have it in spades. My official prediction: Patriots by at least two touchdowns.
Well, to start, you make the Arizona Cardinals' logo look meaner, or at least that's what the horrid football team's management thinks. They say this is just the first in a series of changes for the Cardinals, who have been a really bad team for as long as I can remember.
What's funnier is the article on ESPN.com with quotes from the management and players about how tough this little red bird looks now. I'm sorry, but a cardinal is not a football mascot (neither is a "brown" or a "bill", but that's another story). Plus, the changes to the logo are so minute, I'm sure none of the fans will be all that impressed watching from 20 to 100 yards away or on TV (if they're playing a good team). Especially as the Cardinals keep losing.
Your NFL Champions, the New England Patriots, have long had one of the worst looking Web sites in the entire National Football League. Finally, their newly redesigned site makes it debut and is a major improvement from the old design (while still not perfect).