August 14, 2002
Taking Giant Steps Towards Repeating
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
It's tough to watch the Patriots lose and not care at the same time.
Taking the field for the first time since the day the earth shook in February, the Patriots lost a 22-19 decision to the New York football (some people insist on still making that distinction; hey, both Bobby Thomson and Ralph Branca are still alive) Giants on Saturday night. The loss, if you care at all, came at the hands of players who won't be long for this team. The Patriots twice rallied from behind, but in the end fell prey to key turnovers, penalties and an inability to stick the ball in the end zone with regularity.
Bill Belichick was coaching to win in the end. Some first unit players gave an effort worthy of the real thing. Adam Vinatieri looks like he could win another Super Bowl tomorrow if you asked him to. Terry Glenn still wasn't there to help out the team, just like last year.
But anyone who really knows the game knows full well what Saturday night was all about. The first exhibition game of the season isn't going to tell you whether or not you'll be heading to San Diego in late January. All the first game is is a shakedown, seeing where your team is after two weeks of training camp, and looking at bubble players to see if they can show you anything.
Belichick got a good look at many players Saturday night. The first unit was not long for the evening, though the starting secondary did make a cameo appearance late in the first half to try and squelch a Giant scoring drive (which they did not, as Ron Dayne scored on a 1-yard touchdown run late in the half to put the Giants up 14-13). This was not a night for Tom Brady to play Joe Montana. This was a night for Rohan Davey to play Tom Brady, vintage 2000. Or, 2001 at this time of year, for that matter.
What did Belichick see? Only he really knows, and he won't tell you what you want to hear anyway. So, we'll try and make up for football's equivalent of Jimy Williams (from the standpoint of what he tells the media).
Obviously the star of the game for the Patriots was Deion Branch. The second round draft pick from Louisville was decried as a third rounder taken too early. But Branch had perhaps the best Patriot debut since Curtis Martin. On the game's first play, he caught a 62-yard pass from Brady, a play in which he had to come back for the ball, and then wriggle free for about 18 yards after the catch. He finished with eight catches for 129 yards.
The flip side of this is that the Giants did not dress Angie Harmon's hubby, and that Branch managed to find zone seams that might not be there in the regular season. One thing that Branch might learn from Troy Brown is how a smallish receiver can make tough catches in a crowd, and how to get open in general. Branch showed great speed and good hands, but he should receive a much tougher test against Philadelphia this Saturday night in Foxborough.
Damon Huard was razor sharp, and showed all of Patriot Nation that all will be at least fairly well if Brady goes down. Huard lofted a nifty timing toss to Donald Hayes from four yards out for the champs' only touchdown of the evening. He connected on a scintillating 13 of 17 passes for 118 yards and had a passer rating of 114.3. Huard did this against the second defensive unit for the Giants, but at least he made it look like he was facing scrubs.
If Jamal Anderson can be had, the Patriots need to grab him and turn him into the next Ottis Anderson. Simply put, the Patriot running game stunk. Patriot backs gained 69 yards on 25 carries for a 2.8-yard average. With Walter Williams retiring, it unfortunately provides less competition for Kevin Faulk and J.R. Redmond. Redmond again showed that he's a bust as a rusher and has value only as a receiver or a kickoff returner. Faulk looked even worse, and coughed the ball up in the second quarter. If Anderson can get anywhere near his halcyon days in Atlanta, that would be a huge coup for the Patriots.
Davey didn't make the kind of artificial splash like Michael Bishop did three years ago. He did dazzle everyone with his running ability and his howitzer for an arm. But he threw a foolish pick late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, and took the only sack of the evening for the visitors. The quarterback depth chart should be crystal clear for now. But if somehow Brady leaves the Patriots as an RFA, one might wonder if Davey becomes the next Brady (penny for Huard's thoughts).
The defensive unit that was out there for Antonio Warren's 30-yard touchdown gallop in the fourth quarter looked greener than a shamrock. Warren ran right by Ratcliff Thomas and right through Chris Hayes. The latter is ticketed for special teams duty (it's doubtful Larry Whigham would have made that play either), but the players out there either ought to be ashamed of themselves or preparing their resumes soon. Warren took a pitch and headed towards right end. The end was sealed off by Matt Chatham, but there was no inside containment whatsoever. When Warren cut back inside, the entire defensive unit took about three seconds to put on the brakes. Such lack of speed won't spell long NFL (and it really means "not for long" in this case) careers for most of these guys. This is picking on one bad play, but plays like this can expose bubble players.
As for the Superdome heroes, they did a little better. The first unit did allow back-to-back long passes in the first quarter. Kerry Collins hit rookie tight end Jeremy Shockey for 31 yards over the middle, then Collins found Amani Toomer for 34 yards in the end zone with Victor Green caught in single coverage. Other than these two plays, the first unit pretty much did a good job. Of the first four Giant offensive drives, this touchdown drive was the only one that was not a three-and-out.
Chatham committed an incredibly stupid penalty late in the game, which directly cost the Patriots a legitimate chance to at least force overtime. With 1:48 left in the game, the Patriots burned all three of their timeouts and forced the Giants to punt on fourth down. Only 24 seconds had ticked off on the three plays. The Patriots would get the ball back with about as much time and as many timeouts as they had at the end of Super Bowl XXXVI.
Gabe Lindstrom lined up in punt formation, and got off a fairly good punt which Faulk faircaught at his own 37. But the Patriots were in an all-out block situation. Chatham came in straight on Lindstrom and clobbered him while the punter was in full leg extension. Fifteen yard penalty, ball game. Coaches like Belichick usually come down very hard on stupid penalties like this. Chatham has previous game experience with the Patriots and is not some raw rookie. But you can bet that the coach will tuck this away somewhere in his memory bank.
The evening wasn't an exhilarating high, nor was it a devastating low. Nobody, except perhaps Branch, knocked your socks off. Nobody got seriously injured, though Ted Johnson got his bell rung in the third quarter and is expected to recover quickly. The Patriots got everything they needed out of this game. A win was not needed. Figuring out who'll form the depth of your team was needed.
The Eagles game this Saturday will go a long way towards determining the first round of cuts. The third game will be the "dress rehearsal", so look for bubble players to get a good amount of playing time this Saturday night. With 20 of 22 starters returning, it's the potential benchwarmers who'll be very much on Belichick's mind.
Expect a spirited game, especially with all those jobs on the line.
And perhaps the veterans really did take Bill Russell's "How To Repeat" speech to heart, and will also play the Eagles tough.
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