Friday, November 14, 2008

Pat Patriot and Mr. Hyde

It was a hell of a game, and a good win for the Jets, but this is not the sort of game where Eric Mangini is going to go back and look at the game tape and get the warm fuzzies.

This is what Mangini will see that was good - Brett Favre was 9 of 12 on third down. Leon Washington was a the difference in the game as a monster on special teams. And he has a physical, punishing rookie tight end that refuses to go down on the first hit.

This is what he's going to see that he won't be happy about...

Favre was 9 of 12 because he was able to look off rookies Gary Guyton, Jonathan Wilhite, and other youngsters. Even with the success he had, a veteran like Favre should have been able to torch this young defense (yeah, you heard me - young. The only starters over 30 right now are Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Delta O'Neal). Yes, he had a solid game, but this was a defense ripe for the picking and the Jets just barely eked out a win. Over and above that, the Jets were aided and abetted by a horrible defensive holding call on their last drive to go up 31-24 (if the refs wanted to call illegal contact, I would have understood, but that wasn't anywhere close to holding).

The Jets defense only came up with two stops - both in the first half. Otherwise, they got off lightly due to Patriot mistakes throughout the game - a Gaffney drop on what would have been a first down reception, Ben Watson's fumble that I can only conclude was forced by Claude Rains, an inexplicable offensive miscue when Dan Koppen snapped the ball before Matt Cassel was ready. Even with these miscues abetting the New York defense, they still gave up 511 yards (468 to what is essentially a rookie quarterback), 31 points, and the Patriots effectively removed the Jets best defender, Kris Jenkins, from the game by going spread.

I'm not writing any of this to make myself feel better about the Pats loss. It sucked, and I'm not happy about it. There was plenty I was not thrilled about there - their inability to get off the field on third down, blown coverages on defense, their attempts at ritual football suicide. It was, essentially, a Jekyll and Hyde performance.

These are all going to bring the Belichick beat-down on the players in the film room.

There were, of course bright spots - Cassel's play, the fact they roared back in the second half with 24 points, the play of Jerrod Mayo, the fact that the team is beginning to show they can overcome errors. All of that is good. But it wasn't good enough last night.

In spite of all the mistakes on offense, 31 points should be enough to win a game. This loss lies on the shoulders of the special teams and defense. Too often the Pats D was in position to get off the field, and too often they failed to do so. I won't even get started on special teams.

All in all, this means a division title is more difficult, but not impossible, but to do so, they will have to have a better record than the Jets at the end of the season.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Bottom End

The Pats enter the contest with the Jets tied for the AFC East lead at 6-3.

This record is a testament to a lot of things - the coaching, the will of the players, and, possibly most of all, the team's scouting department that has managed to find NFL caliber players at the bottom end of the draft to populate the bottom end of New England's depth chart. But it goes farther than that, as the scouting department has succeeded in finding those guys when the draft is over.

There are 63 players (10 on injured reserve) on the roster, of those listed below, none was drafted higher than the sixth round (although a couple were from other teams, I felt it worth noting their original draft status), and most were brought on as rookie free agents (noted as RFA). Almost all have had at least some, if not significant playing time with the regular units as well as with special teams.

Eric Alexander (RFA) - Linebacker, has only been active on special teams for one game this season, but saw action in 12 games last season and got the start in a postseason tilt against the Colts in 2006.

Matt Cassel (7) - Steadily improving replacement part for Tom Brady, progressing at roughly the same rate Brady did when he replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2001. Is 5-3 as a starter, and 6-3 through 8.75 games this season for the Patriots.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis (RFA) - Signed off the practice squad when the team was down to Kevin Faulk and Heath Evans, Green-Ellis has been solid, scoring four touchdowns in four games to go with a 3.9 yards-per-rush average.

Matt Guttierez (RFA) - Third stringer in 2007, and cut at the end of camp this season, Guttierez was re-signed as the third QB again. Has not seen any playing time outside of the pre-season.

Gary Guyton (RFA) - Has worked his way into a regular rotation with Tedy Bruschi that helps keep the veteran fresh, Guyton has 20 tackles this season playing primarily on third downs. More impressively, he's worked his way into a rotation under a coach that favors veterans at this position.

Larry Izzo (RFA) - Signed as a free agent from the Dolphins, Izzo was an established special teams demon when the Pats signed him. He's here only as a footnote as a player who went undrafted. Even though a smart signing by the Patriots that took an impact player from a division rival, this one I have to credit to the Miami scouting department and Jimmy Johnson.

Stephen Neal (RFA) - Didn't play a down of football in college, has developed into a solid right guard. At times, particularly in the running game, Neal has been punishing.

Lonnie Paxton (RFA) - Buried on the depth chart at tight end, Paxton has carved out a niche for himself as the team's long snapper and an absolute demon on special teams, sometimes making tackles on the same play wherein he snapped the ball.

Mike Richardson (6) - The second year corner out of Notre Dame is raw, but has shown flashes of potential when he's had the chance to play, and could develop into something special - especially now with the depleted secondary, he has a chance to show the coaches what he can do.

Le Kevin Smith (6) - Back-up nose tackle, Smith only has three tackles on the season, but all have come close to the line of scrimmage. Smith has been a solid, if unspectacular back up.

Antwain Spann (RFA) - Spann has appeared in only three games this season, and one last, but has appeared in as many as eight (2006), primarily on special teams, but has seen a little bit of time with the regular defense. Not really an impact player, Spann really has been the proverbial bottom of the roster, yet he has done enough to stick through into his third season.

Raymond Ventrone (RFA) - A hard-nosed, does whatever asked sort of player who has been asked to play downs in the regular defense, offense and special teams. Ventrone has the potential to be a fan favorite - that blue collar guy who does anything asked and doesn't complain. If he develops into any kind of impact player doing that, the fans will love him.

Wes Welker (Tr - RFA) - A walk on in college, undrafted, and later cut by the Chargers, then signed by the Dolphins who traded the guy they thought was a third receiver to the Pats for second and seventh round draft picks. He went on to lead the league in receptions in 2007 and is currently second in the league with 65 catches. Through the two seasons he has also been one of the top Yard After the Catch men.

Pierre Woods (RFA) - Woods is now in his third season with the team. While primarily a special teamer, Woods has seen time in the regular defense spelling Bruschi and Mike Vrabel. With the injury to Adalius Thomas, Woods is expected to pick up the slack left in the wake of that injury.

Mike Wright (RFA) - A personal favorite of mine, Wright is a high motor sort of guy that never stops before the whistle. How he wasn't at the very least a low-round draft pick is beyond me.

Billy Yates (RFA) - Yates is another one of those who was originally signed elsewhere (Miami), and was cut. Yates has developed into a solid back-up tackle, getting starts when there have been injuries along the line. While he was part of the problem in pass protection during the season, he's a guy that can come in and spell the starter for a while without significant drop-off. His issue is when he has to play the whole game.

Tom Brady (6 - IR) - Arguably the best quarterback in football for the better part of the last five seasons, inexplicably was still around after almost 200 players were drafted ahead of him. Every team in the NFL had multiple shots at Brady before the Pats got him. He's only gone on to appear in four Super Bowls, winning three, garnering two SB MVP's, one NFL MVP, and set the single season record for touchdown passes.

A whopping 27 percent of their roster came in the sixth round or later (20.6 percent of the roster went undrafted). Now, I can't say this for certain, having not researched other teams, but I would be surprised to find that one-fifth of any other team was made up of players that went undrafted, or that close to a third of the team came from round six or later (it goes up by another four players if rookie Bo Rudd - injured - and the fifth rounders are included in the list)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Triage and thoughts around the league

Adalius Thomas has joined the ranks of Tom Brady, Lawrence Maroney, Rodney Harrison, Tank Williams, and Ryan O'Callahan. Soon he will be put on the IR with them. All are lost for the season all players that were either starters, or were expected to be significant contributors.

Thomas played more defensive snaps than any other linebacker on the team - followed by rookie Jerrod Mayo, and Mike Vrabel. Rookie free-agent Gary Guyton has been rotating with Tedy Bruschi, allowing the veteran to remain fresh.

Like last season, the Pats got whacked by injuries at linebacker. Those injuries forced Bruschi and
Junior Seau to shift from platooning to sharing the box on defense. They played well, but they showed signs of wear and age late in the season - maybe at no time more than in the Super Bowl.

So this poses a question - Do the Patriots find their solution from within, or do they go out and get help?

The track record so far this season is that they look from within - consider: When Brady was lost for the season, Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick could have brought in a veteran - either Tim Rattay (whom the Pats considered drafting instead of Brady), or Chris Simms - or they could have even traded for a QB. The Pats took a lot of flak in the press for not bringing someone in.

They're down to a rookie free-agent running back that was buried so deep on the depth chart at the beginning of the season that he was somewhere below the ocean floor. The team could have gone and signed Najeh Davenport, recently cut from the Steelers. So far, they haven't.

When Rodney Harrison went down and the rest of the secondary got nicked up, there were a number of solutions available - including John Lynch. They brought back Jason Webster, who was with the team through the pre-season, but he hasn't played a snap yet.

There area few outside solutions to the Pats current dilemma, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them go to any of these, but I also wouldn't be surprised with a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude from Belichick. Roosevelt Colvin knows the system and is available, the same is the case with Junior Seau (assuming he's fully recovered from his off-season surgery). If Colvin can still play, he can fill the same roll as pass rusher that Thomas has been playing while keeping the current rotation largely intact. If Seau comes back, that allows the team to move Guyton to the outside, his natural position, while platooning Seau and Bruschi.

As for the defensive backfield, if the injuries continue to mount, I wouldn't be surprised to see Lynch brought back into the fold with Brandon Meriweather moving over to corner. Personally, and I don't think it will happen, but I would like to see Troy Brown brought back for the nickel package.


That sucking sound you hear coming from Oakland...well let's just say I now get why it's nicknamed the black hole. It's where careers go to die - whether as a player, coach, or executive, Al Davis is bound to suck the life out of you.

If Oakland fans are feeling...shall we say...put out, at least they're not Detroit which is not only looking at another likely round of layoffs after record losses by the auto industry, but also a football team that will almost certainly set a new record for futility with the first perfectly imperfect season. Looking at their remaining schedule, it wouldn't be surprising for the team to go winless.

Then of course there are fellow bottom feeders St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, Houston, and Cleveland. Fans of all these teams, particularly the Browns and Seahawks who both have been competitive in recent years, have to be wondering where it's all gone wrong for their hometown teams.

If the season ended today, the top eight positions in the draft (barring trades) would look like this -

1. Detroit
2. Cincinnati
3. KC
4. St. Louis
5. Oakland
6. Seattle
7. San Francisco
8. Houston

At the other end of the spectrum, you have upstarts and stalwarts turning in spectacular coaching performances -

Belichick has the Patriots positioned to possibly win the division again, in spite of injuries to the key players mentioned above. It may be one of the best seasons' worth of coaching in his career.

Mike Smith in Atlanta along with former Patriots employee Thomas Dimitroff has the Falcons four wins away from a likely playoff birth barely removed from the brutal chaos of last season's twin Michael Vick and coaching fiascoes. Considering there were those that knocked the Falcons for bringing in Smith, this has to be one of the top performances in the NFL this season.

Jim Zorn in Washington I was positive was a year away, at least, from being competitive. I figured the man who has never been a coordinator needed at least one season for his system to sink in. Boy was I wrong.

Jeff Fisher in Tennessee might actually match the Patriots' regular season accomplishment of last season. They have a tough road, with games against resurgent Jets and Colts teams, and what's sure to be a war of attrition against Pittsburgh late in the season. Fisher has done a hell of a job this season, but people are too quick to give him credit for doing it with their back-up, Kerry Collins, who's a better quarterback than Vince Young, and has piloted teams to the playoffs, and even as far as the Super Bowl before.

Any one of these four is worthy of coaching honors, and none would surprise me as the winner - barring an epic collapse by any of them.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Throughout the season the Patriots have either been without for part, or have lost for all of the season their starting quarterback, guard, right tackle, running back, strong safety, second running back, third running back, nickel corner, special teams gunner (Kelley Washington missed a couple of games), their starting tight end, and have been down to three rookie corners, two rookie linebackers, two no-name O-line men, a quarterback who hasn't started a game since high school, and a running back who went undrafted. That's nine (including second year tight end Dave Thomas who missed much of last year with injuries) of 22 starters who have not had significant playing time in the NFL.

They're tied for first after nine games.

Certainly, with Tom Brady under center the team would very likely own a record closer to 8-1, or even be pushing 9-0 again, but, considering the injuries, 6-3 and a share of first place with six games to go isn't only respectable, it has them positioned for the a playoff run with seven games left. Three of those games are against division foes - the Jets next week, Miami, and a rematch with Buffalo, - and another two against bottom feeders Oakland and Seattle.

It's not unrealistic to believe that the Pats could actually take all three remaining games in the division (or that they would go at the very least 2-1, go 1-1 against Pittsburgh and Arizona, and take the two from the Seahawks and Raiders) and win 11 or 12 games and lock up the number two seed in the AFC. Nothing short of miraculous with, at times, almost half the starting line-up nothing more than glorified back-ups or players not projected to start, or even see significant time until next season at the earliest.

A lot of people will point to their strength of schedule as being one of the weakest in the NFL - 32nd in a 32 team league - but that's based on 2007 results. Their opponents, based on 2007 results had a combined winning percentage of .397. This included the then 1-15 Dolphins, the 4-12 Jets, and the 7-9 Bills. Currently, the teams that the Pats have already played have an aggregate winning percentage of .438, and the remaining games are against teams with an aggregate winning percentage of .484 (minus the games against Seattle and Oakland, the percentage of the other five teams is .591). The rest of the AFC East alone has a winning percentage of .593, a significant improvement over last year's .250 for the Jets, Bills, and Dolphins combined.

While on day one this looked like the easiest schedule in the league, it's nowhere near the bottom. People still talk about the Pats' easy schedule, but has anyone looked at who the Giants have played lately? The aggregate record of their opponents thus far has been .386, with only three games coming against teams with a winning record higher than .333 (I note this because a lot of people want to discount the Titans undefeated record based on the quality of their competition, and rank the Giants higher, but the Titans have played four of their games against teams with winning records, and another two of their opponents have at least four wins).

Other items to note about the Pats -

Matt Cassel has now gone two games during which the opponents have combined to sack him once. I attribute that to two things - one; the returns of Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur solidifying the play of the offensive line, and two; the continued development of Cassel as an NFL quarterback.

Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis, the hard-running human hyphen who went undrafted, averaged 4.01 yards per carry, running for 105 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It was his best day as a pro, bringing him to 243 yards on 63 carries, upping his per carry average from 3.7 to 3.9, and (ties him for the team lead in touchdowns among running backs with) four touchdowns in five games.

The defense, in spite of injuries, has begun to look a little more consistent, and gotten more pressure on the quarterback in the last three games. The pressure has resulted in lower scoring affairs and more turnovers than what we were seeing early in the season.

These are all goods sign as the team prepares for its playoff push.