February 04, 2008
Patriot Perfection Goes Kaput, Now What?
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
We thought Bill Buckner was off the hook in 2004. Maybe he finally is now.
It simply wasn't supposed to turn out this way. This is like you're still in the middle of a nightmare and you haven't woken up yet. You are probably waiting for the league office to say something like "The officials messed up on that last drive, we need to replay the game with two minutes to go and the Patriots leading, 14-10."
But none of it will happen, except the nightmare part. This really is a nightmare. It's right there with this error and this home run and that home run. Instead of 19-0 and a parade on Tuesday, now the Patriots have become the pre-2004 Red Sox.
Oh, yeah. The Red Sox. The current World Series champs. They get started on February 14. Anyone who thinks anything Patriot is arrogant never lived in these parts. The Red Sox know that they own this town. One must wonder what they think of 19-0 going kaput. John Henry and Tom Werner probably didn't call Jonathan Papelbon for dancing lessons, but perhaps Buckner and Mike Torrez did.
Truth be told, it would be a reach for the Red Sox to think of this as anything other than disappointing, as you could be sure that some of the Patriots would have been invited to the ring ceremony in April. With no championship for the Patriots to celebrate, the bill of fare (which will not be headed up by Dr. Charles Steinberg, as he is now with the Dodgers) will have to be changed.
But never mind the Sox for now. This is about the Patriots, and why what happened happened. More important, can what went wrong be fixed so that it won't happen next year if, pray tell, the Patriots once again find themselves on the precipice of a Super Bowl win. We will explore some of the major issues from last week and last night, and see if anything could have been done differently, or if it can be prevented in the future.
Overhaul of secondary in order?
We told you the Patriots were exposed in the Philadelphia game, and some of you laughed. That last drive for the Giants last night was the death knell of the Patriots, and it had its genesis back in the Eagle game at Foxborough.
Prior to that game, the Patriots were killing the league. Except for the Colts game, which was close like it should have been, the Patriots were massacring teams like no other team had done in recent years. Disregard the Colts game, and the Patriots had a five-game stretch where they scored 48 on Dallas, 49 on Miami, 52 on Washington and 56 on Buffalo, the latter tying the team record. By the time the Eagles came to Foxborough on November 25th, the Patriots had just beaten Buffalo 56-10 and were considered by many to be invincible.
And then came the Eagle game. A.J. Feeley, who as a Dolphin engineered a 29-28 upset win over the Patriots on their way to a championship, riddled the Patriots for 345 yards passing and three touchdowns. Instead of it being something like 45-28, it was only 31-28 as the Eagle defense was able to get pressure on Tom Brady and keep the score down somewhat. It was 28-24 Eagles in the fourth quarter. Only a late touchdown run by Laurence Maroney and a late pick by Asante Samuel allowed the Patriots to escape with a win. But this game revealed a major problem the Patriots had: The offense had been masking a suspect secondary which, if the Patriot offense could be held down at all, could be thrown on and be the key to defeating the Patriots.
The rest of the season went like this: Kyle Boller has the game of his life the following week and only a chain of freak fourth down plays allows the Patriots to beat Baltimore. Miami and the Jets lack the quarterback talent to exploit any Patriot secondary problems. The Steelers were dead ducks thanks to Anthony Smith.
Then there were the Giants. Eli Manning throws for four touchdown passes and completes 22 of 32 passes for 251 yards. The Patriots surrender an unthinkable 35 points, a season high. The Giants could not win because they weren't good enough defensively to hold the Patriots under 38. But the Giants furthered the exploitation the Eagles started in November.
Now come the playoffs. Look at what Jacksonville's David Garrard did. 22 of 33 passing, 278 yards, two touchdowns. And that was with that tall but mediocre bunch of receivers he has. One of these days, Garrard won't throw that key pick, and he'll have guys like Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell who will hold onto touchdown passes. The Patriots escaped with a win, but Garrard was making lots of hay against the Patriot secondary.
As for Philip Rivers, he was too hurt to do any good. The key defensive play of the game was made by a linebacker (Junior Seau), not a defensive back. The Patriots held San Diego to four field goals, but Rivers was still able to move the ball against the Patriots.
Now the Super Bowl. The Giant defense finally holds down the Patriot offense with an insane pass rush which finally wilted in the fourth quarter. Still, it worked long enough to limit the Patriots to 14 points. In the end, the defense was entrusted to protect a 14-10 lead, and it could not. Rodney Harrison simply did not make a play on David Tyree, and Ellis Hobbs looked totally incompetent on the game-winning play to Plaxico Burress.
So, here is the problem. Asante Samuel will leave via free agency, as someone will overpay for him. Hobbs is vastly overrated as a cornerback. Randall Gay does nice most of the time but is injury-prone. Harrison would have made that play on Tyree three years ago and might likely call it quits. Eugene Wilson is injury-prone also and is too reliant on Harrison for signals. Brandon Meriweather is still a work in progress. Only James Sanders makes you feel comfortable that his position is well covered.
The secondary is in need of retooling, especially if (when) Samuel leaves and if Harrison retires. Hobbs is nothing more than a kickoff returner and perhaps a nickel back. The Patriots desperately need shutdown corners. If Bill Belichick takes the seven pick and trades down, he should consider cornerback (along with linebacker) right up there at the top of the needs list. Value matters more than need with Belichick, but at some point the concept of "need" should not be ignored.
Simply stated, if the Patriots had the Ty Law and Otis Smith of 2001, the Patriots win the game 14-10.
No power run game? Here's why
Some people suggested that Belichick and Josh McDaniels erred greatly by not doing what they had done against the Chargers, that being going with the power run game when the passing game was being curtailed. Laurence Maroney finished with only 36 yards on 14 carries. Might he have been featured more in the second half to try and control the game and help open up other areas of the offense which was being stifled thanks to the ferocious Giant pass rush?
Not likely. The reason lies in a name you are not likely familiar with, but you should be: Stephen Spach.
Go back and watch a recording of the win over the Chargers. Go to the part where Maroney is featured in the power formation. See how many tight ends are in there blocking, and look for number 82. That's Spach, not Daniel Graham.
Spach was featured in most of the power blocking packages against San Diego, along with Kyle Brady and Ben Watson. The Patriots had three tight ends active for that game, and they needed them down the stretch to put the game away. Spach and the rest of the blockers up front more than did their job, and Maroney hit for 122 yards and a 4.9 yard average.
Where was Spach on Sunday? Inactive. Both Brady and Watson were listed as starters at tight end.
Belichick perhaps reasoned that he wouldn't need a three tight end package because the conditions inside the University of Phoenix Stadium were more conducive to the vertical passing game. What Belichick didn't count on was the offensive line having its worst game of the season (more on this later), and that the power run game would actually have been needed. Finding fault here is hard, anyone could have figured that Spach would not have been needed Sunday like he was against San Diego.
No more trust in Gostkowski?
One of the more controversial plays in the game occurred in the third quarter, at the end of the first offensive series for the Patriots. Facing fourth down and 13 at the Giants 31, Belichick opted to go for it instead of trying a 49-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski. Tom Brady dropped back, pump faked twice, then threw long into the end zone and over the head of Jabar Gaffney. The Giants did not answer with a score, but those three points Belichick eschewed equaled the victory margin.
After the Patriot touchdown in the second quarter, Gostkowski's kickoff was hooked and went out of bounds. There are those who believe that Belichick might have been upset with Gostkowski to the point where he didn't think he could kick a 49-yarder in that situation. Had Gostkowski missed, the Giants would have had the ball at the 39 and not the 31. Not that big a deal in terms of field position, but it did prevent the game from going to overtime if Gostkowski had made it.
Gostkowski is sick and tired of the comparisons to Adam Vinatieri. His demeanor does not suggest someone who is easily rattled. Not going to Gostkowski in that situation was wrong. At some point he has to show that he can make the big kick. Recall that in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Vinatieri missed his first two kicks before nailing the game winner. Gostkowski, who did kick a game-winning field goal last year at San Diego in the postseason, can and should be counted on to come in and nail a big kick. Not going to him in this situation was simply a bad decision.
Should the Patriots replace Gostkowski if they cannot trust him? No. He hasn't yet shown that he doesn't belong.
Bad offensive line play? Explain this
Three Pro Bowlers. Another one who will be one some day. And they looked like boys out there against men. This was the key ongoing element which cost the Patriots the game on Sunday, as opposed to the one key play in the fourth quarter (the Tyree catch).
How did the offensive line manage to lay such an egg? Randy Moss complained in postgame interviews that the Giants had more intensity than the Patriots. If so, how? How can 18-0 not motivate you? How can the Super Bowl not motivate you? Was it because Belichick cancelled Saturday walk-throughs and made the team more complacent than it should have been? Was it because Belichick seemed too confident in his press conferences on Friday ("We're ready to go!")?
Stephen Neal went down with a knee injury in the second quarter after a Justin Tuck sack of Brady, and never returned. That didn't help. But what of Logan Mankins, the All-Pro guard with attitude? Tom Curran of MSNBC.com said that Tuck killed Mankins out there. How? Mankins is someone that could probably pick Tuck up with one hand and calf-tie him with the other. Is it possible that Tuck was more ferocious than Mankins? How that happened is unfathomable. You do not get more ferocious than Mankins.
As for Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, those guys get their due props, but they are guys that Matt Light and Nick Kaczur (who missed the December game, as did Neal) should have handled. Again, was Moss correct? Did these guys bring more energy to the table than the Patriots? These are all matchups the Patriots should have won, and by that we mean not just until the fourth quarter when they all ran out of gas, but the whole game.
Maybe Dante Scarnecchia, one of the best line coaches in the league, didn't prepare them for the kind of intensity they would be facing. Maybe Brady should have rolled out more like he did against Carolina four years ago. Maybe Faulk should have been featured more as a blocking back, though he himself would pull up lame with a hammy in the second half.
Whatever the case, the Patriots lost this battle when they should have won it. These guys will never forget this. They will all be back in 2008, and should make a vow that they will never, but never, get out-energized again.
Distractions from Capitol Hill?
After a few days of relative calm, SpyGate finally reared its ugly head halfway through last week. Senator Arlen Specter (R -- Penn.), who is an unabashed Eagles fan, started questioning NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over destroying the tapes confiscated from the Patriots which were at the epicenter of SpyGate. Senator Specter wants Goodell to answer for this, and he made a second request when Goodell ignored his first.
Now you get stories surfacing of some guy who says he has tapes the Patriots made of the final walk-through by the Rams prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. Former Patriot video assistant Matt Walsh allegedly has tapes to prove this, and Senator Specter wants to question him also. Should this prove to be true, reports say that Belichick could be in for a year's suspension from the league.
Did this prospect upset the Patriots? Was this something that could have compromised the Patriots' intensity level?
The Patriots vehemently deny any such videotaping, and until any such hard evidence is produced, there really is no cause for concern. But since ten current Patriots remain from that Super Bowl XXXVI team, might they have had that on their minds thinking that their legacy would be tainted, and their head coach might soon be spending more time at home than at work?
This last item is a reach. Most players can ignore this sort of thing, especially absent of any hard evidence. But it is another possible reason why the Giants brought more energy to the table than a team trying to go 19-0 and carve out a permanent and legendary place in NFL history. There is no logical reason why the Patriots should have come out on the short end of the intensity equation.
For that matter, there is not logical reason why they should have come out in the short end of the scoreboard, too.
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