By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 08, 2003

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Too bad you're not allowed to drop the lowest grade in the NFL.

For a season which had such an ominous beginning, the Patriots sit at their bye week in the best shape they've been in since the late-1970s. They are 7-2 for the third time in their history, the other times being 1978 (AFC East champs) and 1980 (finished 10-6 but missed playoffs because five other teams finished with 11 or more wins). The Patriots have succeeded in completely obliterating their anomalic 31-0 season-opening loss at Buffalo, and they have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the conference.

And they have done this despite suffering a rash of injuries which might have caused Bob Kraft to bring Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt on board as full-time field surgeons. No matter which position has needed reserve relief, that relief has been provided and then some. Why else would an 8-0 team (Kansas City) be worried about this team if they had to play them in the playoffs, even at Arrowhead?

If the 2001 Super Bowl season was surrealistically exciting, one has to wonder how this season will rate if the Patriots continue to win. And moreover, if the Patriots continue to win the way they have been winning. Given how well Bill Belichick has managed to produce win after win despite injury after injury, this is shaping up to be a season which is even more amazing than the championship season of two years ago.

With this in mind, we now present our midterm grades for the 2003 season:

Quarterbacks Perhaps the one Patriot who would like to take a mulligan from the first week of action, more than any others, would be Tom Brady. The most glaring stat from that first game is 20.4, as in passer rating for that game. He was picked off four times, completed 14 of 29 passes, and threw for only 123 yards. He did suffer another "subpar" outing against the Giants, as he completed only 8 of 21 for 112 yards, his lowest of the season. But as you should ignore stats when you judge Lawyer Milloy, so should you on Brady. His value to the team is more in leadership terms, and the Denver win on Monday night was the only game this year where he threw at least one pick and still won the game. More important, the Denver game, despite Brady hitting season highs in passing yardage and touchdown passes, demonstrated Brady's continued acumen for big plays in big games. Brady will never put up Drew Bledsoe numbers, but then again, you may not care if he ever does as long as he continues to win. Tom Brady: B+

Running Backs You know things are different around town when the Chicago Bears are right now setting their sights on potential free agent Kevin Faulk. Nobody would have believed this as recently as two years ago, but Faulk is getting more reps on offense this year, and rightfully so. Whereas Antowain Smith is still the better power back who should be shouldering the bulk of the rushing burden, it is Faulk who is showing his stuff. He has 417 yards and a 4.0 average at this point in the season, so a 1,000-yard campaign may not be in the offing unless he has a breakout game or two along the way. Faulk has yielded his return duties to Bethel Johnson and Deion Branch, but is second to Branch in pass receptions. The Mike Cloud watch will continue into the second half, his nice game against Tennessee still on everyone's minds. Fullback has been interesting, in that Fred McCrary has been cut and brought back, Larry Centers has been cut period, and Patrick Pass made his way back, leaving us wondering why he was ever gone in the first place. Kevin Faulk: B Antowain Smith: C Mike Cloud: INC Fred McCrary: C+ Larry Centers: C- Patrick Pass: INC

Receivers David Patten has probably played his last game as a Patriot, and that's okay? The Boston Globe reported in its Saturday edition that Patten, who was placed on injured reserve on Friday, likely will not be brought back for 2004. Remember, this is a man who had the touchdown hat trick against Indianapolis in 2001, caught touchdown passes in both the AFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl in the same year, and is not yet 30 years old. The problem is that Branch and -- gulp -- David Givens have played Patten out of a job. Patten will be overpaid for a wide receiver deep down on the depth chart, and might be released sometime in the offseason. Meanwhile, Branch finds himself leading the Patriots with 427 receiving yards with Troy Brown right behind him at 342. In his second year, Branch is poised to break out and get to the proverbial next level, as he has shown to have Patten's speed and hands, but is younger and at about half the price. The speedy Johnson has emerged as the kickoff returner of choice, and as he gains more NFL experience he should provide another deep threat for Brady. Givens has 199 receiving yards but leads all Patriot receivers with three touchdown catches. On the tight end front, Daniel Graham is finally emerging from Christian Fauria's shadow, making 11 catches in his last two games after only seven catches in his first four. Graham is beginning to show some of the traits which made Ben Coates a star: using more muscle to get open, making catches while triple-covered, making catches while being held. Troy Brown: B Deion Branch: A- David Givens: A- Bethel Johnson: C+ Daniel Graham: B+ Christian Fauria: B-

Offensive Line Mike Compton is out with an injury. Ditto for Stephen Neal. Kenyatta Jones is waived because he got himself (and his assistant) into a ton of hot water. Greg Randall should still be playing for the Patriots and not the Texans. Adrian Klemm is still more of a dud than anything else. So what happens? In comes Dan Koppen, a rookie from BC, who takes over the center job so his fellow Eagle Damien Woody can move to guard (a position he may ultimately be better suited for). Tom Ashworth is now the right tackle of choice, and is making nobody pine for the good old days of Ed Ellis. They're not the best, but they are getting the job done. Since getting sacked five times against the Jets, Brady has been sacked only eight times since, none against Denver and only once each against Cleveland and Miami. That's just two sacks in the last three games, a nice omen. The 3.6 team average per rush could stand to improve, but as long as the Patriots continue to make more hay through the air and continue to win that way, sacks allowed will continue to define this unit. Matt Light: B- Damien Woody: B+ Dan Koppen: B+ Joe Andruzzi: C+ Tom Ashworth: B- Adrian Klemm: C-

Defensive Line To play in the front seven, you have to be versatile. Belichick's visions of a potent 3-4 defense perhaps went up in smoke when Ted Washington was carried off the field early on in the Jets game with a broken leg. The Patriots have "gotten by" with the help of emerging superstar Richard Seymour, rookies Ty Warren and Dan Klecko, veterans Bobby Hamilton, Rick Lyle and Anthony Pleasant, and second year man Jarvis Green. Seymour leads the team with 3.5 sacks and is a huge disruptive force for offensive lines to contend with. Lyle came up huge on Monday night against Denver when Klecko was overmatched and Warren couldn't overcome the big game jitters. For all the hoopla given to Klecko, he will perhaps be best suited in a position where his quickness will be needed more than his strength, as touchdowns like Clinton Portis running right up the gut cannot be tolerated. Richard Seymour: A Bobby Hamilton: B+ Ty Warren: B- Jarvis Green: B- Rick Lyle: C+ Anthony Pleasant: C+ Dan Klecko: C Ted Washington: INC

Linebackers Like the defensive line and the injury to Washington, the linebacker corps took a big hit with the season-ending injury to Rosevelt Colvin (remember him?). Ted Johnson has also missed a chunk of time due to injury, an all-too familiar recurring problem. The Patriots have nevertheless excelled with the constant and steady play of Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer (second and third on the team in total defensive plays) in the middle, and Willie McGinest and Mike Vrabel on the outside. When Vrabel went down with an injury a while back, special teams vet Matt Chatham filled in and even scored a touchdown on a pick return against the Giants. Klecko seems a better fit as an outside linebacker for the moment, and the Patriots should work him in with McGinest while Colvin remains on rehab. Klecko is too small to play down low, but too fast and agile to just not use at all. Tedy Bruschi: A Roman Phifer: A- Mike Vrabel: A- Willie McGinest: B Matt Chatham: B- Dan Klecko: B Ted Johnson: INC Rosevelt Colvin: INC

Secondary With Milloy and Otis Smith gone, who would have ever guessed that this unit would remain the heart and soul of the team, and perhaps its strongest unit? Rodney Harrison, who is making Belichick look even more like a genius versus any old long snap off of a crossbar, leads the team with 48 tackles and 23 assists, and does whatever Milloy did better. Rookies Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson, the latter a cornerback converted to free safety, have been nothing short of amazing this year, with veteran-like efficiency and hard hits to boot. Tyrone Poole has come in and, despite a subpar preseason, has given the Patriots a good effort this season. The other Ty, meanwhile, is still performing well when he isn't hurt, but Law has to be carefully watching the young'uns play so well, all the while remembering how his friend Milloy was shown the door so suddenly when money became too much of an issue. Chris Akins and Antwan Harris continue to make plays on special teams, but Akins has had some lapses in nickel and dime coverage. Rodney Harrison: A+ Asante Samuel: A- Eugene Wilson: A- Tyrone Poole: B+ Ty Law: B Chris Akins: C Antwan Harris: C+

Special Teams Yikes. Adam Vinatieri in a slump? The premier kicker in the league went through a three-game spell (Washington, Tennessee, Giants) where he hit on only three of seven field goals. Somehow, though, you get the feeling that if Vinatieri had to hop a plane from South Dakota today and get to a Super Bowl tomorrow, he'd hit the game-winning kick if needed. Ken Walter, despite making one of his best career kicks Monday night with that free kick, is coming under fire with some poor punting. He needs to regain his placement touch from 2001; when the busses returned to Foxborough from the airport the night after the Super Bowl win, the first person Jonathan Kraft could think of in terms of praise was Walter. Kickoff returns seems set for some time in Johnson and Branch, and either gent can help spell Brown in punt returns. Adam Vinatieri: B- Ken Walter: D Bethel Johnson: B Deion Branch: B Troy Brown: B Lonie Paxton: B

Coaching One man who needs to have a huge second half is Charlie Weis. On several occasions, Weis made some calls which simply did not work at all for the given situation (the end of the Washington game, the tosses against Miami). But Weis is still one of the best offensive minds in the game, and with the speedy weapons in his arsenal, there is no excuse for Weis to not air things out in the second half. Another thing Belichick and Weis might want to explore is the committing to either Faulk or Smith as the featured back, and abandon this committee sort of thing. This column suggests that they begin with Faulk. Romeo Crennel should start getting serious dabbles for head coaching jobs in the offseason, as his work with the defense this year, though Belichick gets a lion's share of the praise, has his name written all over it as well. As he and Belichick continue to work around all the injuries, what those two men have been able to do with their defensive game plans is nothing short of astounding. Bill Belichick: A+ Charlie Weis: C Romeo Crennel: A


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