Monday, August 06, 2007

Separating fact and fiction

I've been paid to write about sports.

I have been very fortunate, meeting Bela Karolyi, interviewing NFL Films president Steve Sabol, Olympians Shannon Miller, and Kate Sobrero, even talking to the Red Sox front office (that was back in 1996). One of the hardest things, I think, for a good sports journalist to do is to separate personal feelings as a fan from the truth of what is happening on the field.

As fans we can be either hyper-critical or hyper-sensitive about our teams, favorite players, or even executives associated with said team.

I try very hard, and with some difficulty, to look at my favorites with a jaundiced eye. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In order to prove a point to those of you who took exception to my analysis of your favorite teams or players in my NFL Questions segments, I will give a breakdown on my favorite NFL franchise from top to bottom - identifying strengths, questions, and areas that could be weaknesses -

The New England Patriots -

Bill Belichick, HC - As head coach and pretty much the last man standing in personnel decisions, Belichick generally gets the benefit of the doubt due to the Super Bowls and the multiple playoff berths. It's hard to fault a HC who has been at the head of the class in the NFL since 2001.

Josh McDaniels, OC - Still has some serious development issues as an offensive coordinator, as evidenced last season in a game against (I believe either) the Chargers (or the Dolphins) where McDaniels would call an abundance of runs in the red zone, but largely abandoned the run between the 20's in spite of the fact that the Patriots showed no ability to get the passing game working during the contest. During this game, McDaniels showed no ability to adjust to what was either working for the Patriots, or not working for their opponent. This is an area that needs attention.

Dean Peas, DC - Not much to complain about on the defensive side of the ball when your team allows fewer than 15 points per game (14.8).

All positions will list the players I believe are likely to make the team for both offense and defense.

Offense (up to 26)-

Quarterbacks (3) - Brady, Cassell, Testaverde
  • Last season Brady was erratic, although you wouldn't be able to tell based on numbers. His completions and yards were not outside of normal. However, watching the games, Brady often threw short of his receivers and his completion percentage was helped by receivers coming back on underthrown balls. A lot was made about the fact that Brady was getting used to a new wide-receiver corp. If that is true, then why should he struggle any less this season when the projected top three wideouts on the team will be three brand new receivers?
  • Cassell will be listed as second on the depth chart and is still a largely unknown commodity.
  • Testaverde will primarily be a clipboard holder and a sounding board for the younger quarterbacks. If Testaverde is in a game, the Pats are likely already running away with the contest and Belichick is just trying to get him one more TD pass for the consecutive season record. Either that, or something catastrophic has happened to the two who are ahead of him on the depth chart.
O-Line (9?) - Light, Mankins, Kopen, Neal, Kazcur, O'Callahan, Mruczkowski, Elgin, Hochstein
  • While the strength of this line lies in the middle with Kopen, Mankins, and Neal - Matt Light had a strong season last year - particularly against some of the speed rushers that he has traditionally struggled against, shutting down the likes of Dwight Freeney, but continued to struggle against his nemesis Jason Taylor. During the contest with the Dolphins, Miami moved Taylor around and he ate up the Patriots right-tackle-by-committee. The Patriots need one of the right tackles to step up and take the job. Right now tackle is the most likely point of attack for an opposing defense.
Receivers (6?) - Moss, Stallworth, Welker, Gaffney, Washington, Brown, (Jackson - IR)
  • On paper they look great. In reality - two burners (Moss, Stallworth) who have had trouble staying on the field, both due to hamstring issues, a reasonably well regarded slot receiver (Welker), a Texans bust (Gaffney), a speedster whose routes are raw even after several seasons in Cincy's receiver land (Washington), and a slot receiver who has lost a step (Brown). This group, to my thinking, is a total crap-shoot. If Moss and Stallworth can stay on the field this can be the strength of the team - Gaffney coming off the bench represents better value than having him as a starter. I gave Washington the nod over Caldwell only because he has special teams value - but I would not rule out Caldwell over Washington just because of the year in the Pats system. Brown will continue to have value to the team as a special teamer and a reserve corner.
Tight ends (4?) - Watson, K. Brady, Thomas, Kranchick(?)
  • With a fondness for creating mismatches with a big receiving tight end, Belichick will try to get the ball to Watson a lot. Unfortunately, unless he has worked on his hands, Watson was prone to drops and fumbles, many of which hurt the team on the scoreboard last season. If he has corrected that problem, then Watson becomes a strength - if he hasn't, then he is a definite problem. Brady is considered one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, and that's what he will be expected to do. Thomas showed signs of being a factor in the passing game last season and could develop into a legitimate weapon.
Running backs (4)- Maroney, Evans, Faulk, Morris

  • Evans and Faulk are known quantities, their jobs defined. Maroney needs to prove he can stay healthy carrying the load as the primary back after getting banged up while sharing it last year. Morris will likely be used as a change of pace from Maroney.
Defense (up to 25) -

Line (6?) - Seymour, Wilfork, Warren, Green, Wright, K. Brown
  • The strength of the defense, these guys take the punishment in order to allow the linebackers to make plays. The team can survive injuries to any one of their top three linemen, but there is a much more noticeable drop-off if two go down. Health is imperative here, as is the continued development of back-up Mike Wright.
Linebackers (10?) - Bruschi, Vrabel, Thomas, Colvin, Seau, Izzo, Alexander, Woods, Mays, Lua
  • A lot is being made of the age and the possibility that some of these guys may have lost a step. The bigger concern is health. Vrabel and Bruschi played less effectively last season due to being banged up, and Seau was lost for the season after a horrific broken arm. That was three of last season's top four 'backers. The Patriots need some of the younger linebackers to develop at a quicker pace in order to give the older guys breathers and minimize their chances for catastrophic injury.
Corners (4) - Hobbs, Gay, James, Andrews
  • For whatever reason, injuries have killed this position for the Patriots in recent years. With Samuel holding out, Hobbs jumps to the top of the depth chart and Gay gets the chance to prove he can stay healthy. Tory James, a long time starter provides depth as does wide-receiver Brown. Andrews makes the team primarily for his special teams contributions. Safeties Hawkins, Wilson, and Merriweather also have experience on the corner. Still, this is an area where the Patriots have the potential to be exploited.
Safeties (5?) - Harrison, Wilson, Sanders, Merriweather, Hawkins

  • Like corner, this has been a position hit by injury over the last couple of seasons. They are a better defensive team with Harrison on the field than without. As such, it might be worth limiting his workload to passing downs in order to try and keep him on the field. However, his injuries have allowed Sanders to develop, and Hawkins is better at safety than expected. Merriweather is still a largely unknown commodity that was drafted to eventually be Harrison's replacement.
Special teams (3)

Punter (1) - Miller
  • When uninjured, Miller is an excellent directional punter with the now rare ability to coffin-corner his punts. If he is not completely recovered from last season's shoulder issues, look for the Pats to go in a different direction.
Kicker (1) - Gostkowski

  • After a strong rookie campaign, Gostkowski needs to avoid a sophomore slump. If he struggles, the Pats faithful will give him an earful.
Long snapper (1) - Paxton
  • Solid, gets the job done and gets down the field quickly on punts.
Gunners - Andrews, Washington
  • Washington performed this roll in Cincy and Andrews acquitted himself nicely in this role in Foxboro last year.


sugarshane024 said...

Damn am I excited for football season. I just can't help but think that the Pats might go....undefea.....I can't say it.

Kevin Smith said...

For whatever reason, I've generally been pretty good at seeing the flaws of teams that I root for. That said, I still get hacked off when they lose games due to stupid mistakes.

And yeah - I can't wait for kick-off.