The last time there was this much optimism in Patriot Nation, Brett Favre was the opposing quarterback.
This is almost like Hideo Nomo’s no-hitter in April. Where’d this come from, you wonder. This supposedly forlorn Patriot team, looking battered and beaten once again after losing its first two games for the second straight year, now looks like a team poised for a second-half playoff run.
After a stinker in Cincinnati to open the season came the critical game at home against the Jets. Having had two weeks to prepare thanks to some creeps who made a hit on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Patriots fell to 0-2 after still another putrid effort against the Jets. The season was lost, Drew Bledsoe was perhaps out for the season, and the Patriots may never beat the Jets ever again.
And yet, out of the rubble and ashes of that deflating loss to the Jets (they all seem to be that way, don’t they?) emerged the play, and the man, who saved this season for the Patriots. You still wish that this play never happened, but you really have to think about this for a while if this play got the Patriots within striking distance of a Vince.
We did say “striking distance”. No reality detachment here, folks.
Bledsoe nearly lost his life on that critical hit by Mo Lewis. But the team, as well as the quarterback, went on immediate life support. Both have come out as fresh as a daisy. And both have to wonder what is really going on in Patriot Nation these days.
You can forgive Bledsoe if he is doing most of the wondering at present.
With that as a backdrop, we give you our Patriot midterm grades for the 2001 season, as the Patriots have reached the midpoint of the season at level par, 4-4.
It was Brian Griese who led Michigan to their 12-0 season in 1997. Tom Brady sat on the bench as his understudy. The next season, and the next, Brady fought a battle with Drew Henson for the starting job. Brady led the Wolverines to a 20-5 mark as a starter in this time period, but Henson was always the more heralded of the two.
So, Brady gets drafted by the Patriots and has to sit a few rungs under Bledsoe. Then in training camp this year, Michael Bishop and John Friesz are let go, and Brady manages to vault ahead of free agent Damon Huard on the depth chart. But Bledsoe still stood in the way of Brady’s Big Chance.
That Big Chance is being brought to you by Mo Lewis. Brady has led the Patriots on a 4-2 run. Take away the fourth quarter of the Denver game, and this man has put up numbers that ought to make Joe Montana, Otto Graham, Johnny Unitas and Dan Marino green with envy. Brady showed his real grit by playing brilliantly on Sunday against Atlanta, bouncing back from that bad quarter in Denver. The Patriots have a leader, a talent, and best of all, a man who passed the Bill Parcells Litmus Test. Grade: A.
Curtis Martin V answers to the name of Antowain Smith. Though not anywhere resembling the Jet star in terms of numbers, one has to wonder if Smith is ready to turn the corner soon with an offensive line that is now starting to come together. Smith ran for 117 yards Sunday against Atlanta, a sign that Bill Belichick might begin to feature Smith more as the season wears on and defenses begin to figure Brady out.
Kevin Faulk sticks around because of his flexibility. Fortunately, the ball is sticking to Faulk more often. Faulk has shown a good knack for pass catching as well as kickoff returning. He is the third-down back, and is an untapped gold mine if he will only keep his fumbleitis problems on permanent hold (no pun intended).
Not everyone is sold on fullback Marc Edwards just yet. Thus far, he has shown decent blocking skills, a good pass-catching touch, and a fairly good knack for tough yards. He doesn’t rank with the league’s best, but he was a good pickup and should enjoy a good second half of the season. Grade: B-.
This is an interesting group, made interesting thanks to the silly and unbelievable antics of its greatest talent. Troy Brown and David Patten have provided a solid starting duo, and Brown finally looks comfortable as a starter. Patten enjoyed one of the greatest single games in NFL history three weeks ago against the Colts, but Brown remains the most underrated player in the league. Backups Charles Johnson and Curtis Jackson are at best adequate.
Tight end remains an enigma for this club. Brady doesn’t throw to them much because they aren’t open much. Jermaine Wiggins looked nice at the end of last season, but can’t block and can’t wriggle free in critical situations. Rod Rutledge has hands of stone. Rumors are that rookie Arther Love is close to returning, and that will make this position a wee bit more interesting.
Terry Glenn? Can Jim Gould be banned from the league? Someone get Glenn a real agent. And a good shrink. You don’t suppose someone could drive Glenn down to Sea Girt, N.J. so he could get a good can of whoopass from his former coach? All Belichick has to do is to call him “she” and everything will be fine. Grade: B.
About the only thing not to like here is Damien Woody’s inability to long-snap and Adrian Klemm’s inability to stay healthy.
This group is jelling. It’s not Gray-Hannah-yadayadayada yet. But it is encouraging to watch the Patriots play and not see Brady get knocked on his keester six or seven times a game. How did this finally happen?
Matt Light looks like a plum at left tackle. He’s learning the game as he goes, and he’s okay now as long as he is dealing with strength across the line instead of speed. Mike Compton came as advertised, and Greg Robinson-Randall is showing that last year was indeed no fluke.
Joe Andruzzi is the feel-good story of the Patriots this year. He became an inspiration on September 11, but has managed to hold on to his right guard position. Some folks thought that tackles Klemm or Kenyatta Jones might be moved to guard if Andruzzi couldn’t do the job. Those plans may be on hold.
The offensive line cleared holes for Smith on Sunday, and he spanked Atlanta to the tune of 117 yards. That is the best thing the line can glean from the season so far. And the best may be yet to come. Grade: B+.
It’s not so much how well, but rather how many.
Top draft pick Richard Seymour has been hurt much of the year, and has only hinted at his potential future greatness. But it is crystal clear that with his drafting, Belichick sees his defense moving towards a 4-3 alignment, versus the 3-4 he had been using in New York.
Drafting Seymour made little sense in a 3-4. He’s too small to play the middle and tie up blockers, and too slow to play the end. But with the shift to a 4-3, Seymour will be less concerned with gaps and more concerned with run stoppage. His presence down low hasn’t been fully felt yet, as the Patriots have allowed 100-yard rushers in four of their first eight games.
Excepting the Atlanta game, the defensive line has been fairly passive. Anthony Pleasant and Bobby Hamilton have provided good work down in the trenches, and Brandon Mitchell is making Bobby Grier prouder each day. But these men are capable of much more, as the Atlanta game bore out.
And much of their success in the second half will hinge not on Seymour, but on Willie McGinest. McGinest showed in the Atlanta game what made him famous, and what might be in store for Patriot Nation in the second half. If Romeo Crennel continues with this more aggressive style after being prevailed upon by his players, McGinest and his line will be hounding opposing quarterbacks all season long.
The grade is based on the first half performance, not second half potential. Grade: C+.
Bryan Cox perhaps meant more to his club on Sunday in Atlanta than he has all season long.
Sidelined on crutches, his leg broken after a crunching clip from Denver’s Dan Neil, his mates played with his passion in his absence. His hit on Indianapolis’ Jerome Pathon in Week 3 set a great tone for that game and the season, but his inspiration makes him a unique player overall.
He is the Jim Loscutoff of the Patriots. The former Celtic was someone you hated as an opponent, but cheered like crazy for if he played for you. Cox is one such person. You hated him in Miami and Gotham, but you love him here.
Fellow free agent arivee Roman Phifer has brought a speedy and energetic look to the linebacking unit. These two are great compliments, with Phifer the better pursuit backer and Cox the stationary headache ball.
Another newcomer, Mike Vrabel, has atoned for his key play in the 1997 Divisional Playoff game at Pittsburgh with steady, if unspectacular, play. He’s no star, but his level of play has been at the worst adequate and at best very good.
Old foagies Tedi Bruschi and Ted Johnson have remained healthy by-and-large, and are getting back to their old sweet selves, especially the latter. With Cox playing in the middle, Johnson has seen some time in the outside slots. Grade: B-.
If the front seven will be more aggressive in the second half like they were against Atlanta, these guys will improve and benefit as well.
Lawyer Milloy is still the hardest hitter on the club. Milloy gave Michael Vick his first NFL love tap on Sunday. Milloy loves to pass rush and run stop, and blitz packages that involve him will greatly tickle his fancy.
Otis Smith has enjoyed a personal renaissance. His level of play has already exceeded his 2000 output, and is at times even better than 1996. He is showing a great deal of spunk at age 36, and at times is playing like 26.
Ty Law has not been embarrassed much this year, but he is still not being used like he should. He is still asked to play zones while all along he is a much better man-to-man cover corner. His holding and interference penalties are down, and he is not getting himself into those situations like last year and the year before where he gets beaten badly.
Free safety is not as settled as Belichick would like. Matt Stevens and Tebucky Jones have each shared starting duty. Both men hit like battering rams. But both have a penchant for at least one stupid play per game. It will either be in the form of a dumb penalty or a blown coverage. Or in Stevens’ case, a ball carrier he hurdles over instead of tackles. This position alone brings down the grade. Grade: C+.
Except for Adam Vinatieri, this area has been an embarrassment for Brad Seely and the team. Kick returners run wild, Lee Johnson was released in mid-season, and there is growing sentiment to get Troy Brown off of punt return duty.
Johnson’s replacement, Ken Walter, has only a 35.1 net average since joining the Patriots four weeks ago. Johnson’s numbers were a bit better, but the image of him botching that punt against San Diego provides a lousy valedictory to one of the best punting careers in NFL history.
Larry Izzo was brought in to help bolster kick coverage, but this is one of the remaining sore spots on the team that has not been remedied. Opponents are averaging 26.1 yards per kickoff return, and the field position the Patriots are giving up in this exchange often helps sway momentum towards the opponent. It in an area that absolutely has to be addressed in this second half. Grade: D.
Far too many fans have been harsh on Belichick and Charlie Weis. If nothing else, having to use Brady and the jelling of the offensive line has shown that given the right personnel, Weis can run an exciting and potent offense. This is not to say that Bledsoe can’t do what Brady can do, that would be preposterous. This is to say that the offense is clicking right now at levels not seen since 1996. And Weis has shown that he can open things up when he has to, as long as he doesn’t overdo the trick plays.
The coaches on the spot now are Crennel and Seely. Seely has a big mess to clean up and straighten out. But Crennel made a huge statement in Atlanta, both with the Falcons and his players. He listened to them, made some adjustments, and the result was phenomenal. Crennel should seize this moment and turn loose his bunch of hitters and blitzers, and lots of NFL teams will begin to fear the Patriot defense in due time.
As for Belichick, he has been tested by Glenn and his baggage. If this clinical depression is for real (the EEOC seems to think so), and if Gould and Glenn are trying to lobby for a settlement, fine. But Belichick has emerged as being in firm control of this club. Belichick also seems to have learned from his mistakes in Cleveland, thus far. Grade: B.
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