September 12, 2002
A Neat Night For The Newbies
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
The Patriots probably became one of the few professional teams to win a championship, and then finally become one on paper.
At least the rest of the league may agree. You still perhaps have a bunch of "experts" out there who don't believe in the Patriots. Three tough playoff wins, a Vince and a convincing home win against Pittsburgh with the visitors bearing a huge revenge grudge ought to be enough to convince you that the Patriots are Da Bomb. But many people who follow football may still not be totally sold on the world champs.
You do finally see some commentators across the country speaking up on behalf of the Patriots. Granted, it did take the 30-14 pasting of the Steelers on Monday night to finally sell them on the idea, and many of those writers are saying things like "Okay, I was wrong…". Slowly but surely, the football world is beginning to warm up to the hometown team.
If Patriot Nation was paying close attention, they should have gotten a glimpse into the proverbial "other side of the story" on Monday night. By "other side of the story", we mean that it portrayed the other guys' view of the Patriots, and why the rest of the country thought the way they did towards the Patriots. Simply put, the Patriots looked dynamic Monday night. Even more simply put, they looked just plain different, especially on offense.
It isn't often that a world champ goes out and improves at several skill positions. But the Patriots did just that in the offseason. And on Monday night, many of those new players were on display for the world to see, and many of them had a direct hand in the Patriot win in the 2002 season opener.
Perhaps the biggest splash by a "newbie" was made by Deion Branch. The second round draft pick out of Louisville made some noise in the preseason opener against the Giants, catching a 66-yard pass on the first play of that game. On Monday night, when the games finally counted, Branch caught six passes for 83 yards. He did a terrific job of getting open, and made one catch in the third quarter with a defender draped all over him. Not bad for a guy who is the newest member of the Troy Brown-David Patten-Wayne Chrebet height-challenged club.
One of Branch's grabs went for a touchdown. Deshea Townsend had what can only be termed as a pitiful evening, one that got him a public verbal butt-whipping from Bill Cowher. One reason that the neck hair on Cowher was standing on end was on Branch's touchdown, when Branch got open in the right flat, caught the ball, and put a beautiful fake job on Townsend. Townsend collapsed as he bit on the fake, and Branch did the rest for 22 yards and a score. Branch seems to know pretty well about the significance of "yards after the catch".
Yet, Branch's best play of the evening came on someone else's touchdown. Donald Hayes caught a 40-yard touchdown score just before Branch's scoring play. But Branch made the block that sprung Hayes. Branch, who gives away about 5-6 inches to Lee Flowers, clobbered the Steeler safety so hard that Flowers went sprawling to the ground in a heap. It was likely a moment that earned Branch instant respect from the team. It's like when Adam Vinatieri makes a big tackle on special teams. On that play, Branch ceased being merely a "wide receiver" and became a "football player".
Hayes had only three grabs, but each of them gave Patriot fans a great look at what they have in this guy. On the touchdown scamper, Hayes had plenty of speed to beat the other defenders not named Flowers to the end zone, and had enough size to withstand getting pushed at the end of the run and get in for the score. On the other two catches, they were both plays where he needed his six-foot-four height to snare the ball. Given that everyone else in the wideout corps is of the peewee persuasion, Hayes will be looked to for leaping grabs all season long.
One area the Patriots needed to upgrade over the offseason was the tight end position. Both Christian Fauria and Cam Cleeland had impressive debuts as Patriot tight ends. Cleeland tied Branch and Brown for the team lead with six catches, and many of the catches were of the diving variety. Fauria scored the first touchdown in stadium history with a four-yard grab in the opening moments of the game. The top draft pick, Daniel Graham, was one of the few newbies who did not do much of anything. Suffice it to say that Cleeland and Fauria will drive Graham to one day show everyone why he was picked over a bigger need position, that of linebacker.
Picking Victor Green up from the Jets was a nice move, in that it gives the Patriots two hammers at the free safety position (along with Tebucky Jones), as well as the ability for Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel to employ a "nickel safety" package. This package clicked quite well, and even helped produce one of the rarest things you'll see in all of pro football: a Jerome Bettis fumble. Early in the third quarter, Bettis tore up the middle for 14 yards off left tackle. But Green came up and knocked the ball out of Bettis' hands as if the ball were a loaf of pumpernickel. Green made his own recovery. Bettis left the field in total shock and disgust. Green gave his new team a huge lift, and they soon cashed the turnover with Branch's aforementioned touchdown.
Another Green had an auspicious debut. Jarvis Green, a fourth round pick out of LSU (like Rohan Davey; same round, same college). Green had a fourth quarter sack of Kordell Stewart, who coughed up the rock and Roman Phifer recovered. On the play, Green made a nice move on Oliver Ross and moved in quickly on Stewart. It was late in the game and Green was perhaps fresher than Ross, but it was still a good play and it did cause a fumble. No wonder Green was one of the highest-praised rookies in camp by Belichick this summer.
Steve Martin did not have any remarkable play at defensive tackle, as neither did his former Jet colleague, Rick Lyle. But the defense was so strong and consistent that you really didn't notice them. It is more of a testimonial to these guys along the lines of what Pittsburgh didn't, or rather couldn't do, versus what these guys did. The veteran Martin might possibly play the entire season in Richard Seymour's shadow, not that he'll mind that much.
If nothing else, the great play by all these new Patriots is a huge testimonial to Belichick and Scott Pioli, and their ability to acquire the right men for the job. All the 2002 draftees made the team (except Antoine Womack, on injured reserve), and all the new free agents made good sense and filled needs.
Perhaps the biggest contributions came from Branch and the tight ends. Branch looks like he could go on to be like some other great receiver in NFL history named Branch. And the tight end position for the Patriots no longer looks like a weakness, though none of these guys are known for blocking, and it remains to be seen if they can make catches in double coverage while being held (hello, Ben Coates).
As the Patriots prepare for Sunday's game against the Jets, these new guys, many of whom will be going up against their old mates, provide the Patriots with new blood to help wipe out all the bad mojo that has plagued the Patriots against the Jets since 1997. What Patriot Nation wouldn't give to see either Laveranues Coles, Wayne Chrebet or Santana Moss get laid out straight by a crunching hit from their former teammate named Victor.
The "Neat Newbies". Sounds kind of juvenile, but they really are neat right now.
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