Hey PatsFans! Just because the Patriots had the week off doesn’t mean we don’t have some things to talk about with Steve Grogan. This week Steve reflects on the season and some of the Patriots players, and looks ahead to the game against the Carolina Panthers.
R.R. Marshall: Steve, this has already been a remarkable season for the Patriots and their fans but as a former player has this become a special kind of year for you to follow your former team?
Steve Grogan: This year reminds me a lot of the 1976 and 1985 season, which are two of the years that people remember the most around here. We had been 3-11 in 1975 and we weren’t expected to do too much and we wound up winning 11 games and going to the playoffs.
In 1985 we again weren’t expected to do anything special and we ended up marching through the playoffs and on to the Super Bowl. Now this team is doing the same kinds of things. There are no big time players on this team, just a bunch of guys that play well together with somebody different rising to the occasion every week. This team has really taken on the feel of my former clubs and it has been just as exciting for me to follow them this season as any Patriot fan.
RRM: If you look at the injury report each Monday you’ll find that after a game against the Patriots a team will have several of their players on that list. After having one of the weakest hitting units in the NFL last year it’s amazing how this defense has become on the hard-hitting units in football?
SG: This Patriots’ defense is playing really well. They hit hard and they all swarm to the football. Their level of aggressiveness and intensity is almost light years ahead of what they had here last year, and that is attributable to the players Bill Belichick brought in as free agents over the offseason.
But what really has impressed me with their play is that they have been successful in taking away a team’s strength and making them try to beat them with one of their weaknesses. So far teams haven’t been able to do that, and let’s hope that trend continues!
RRM: Let’s talk about some of the players that haven’t gotten a lot of attention this year. Who would you like to single out first for some well-deserved praise?
SG: Matt Light has been really overlooked this entire season. He has been playing some really good football for the Patriots and has helped then to stabilize that spot at left tackle which is so crucial to the success of your football team. For a rookie left tackle, which is no doubt the toughest position to play on the offensive line, he’s been pretty solid.
When you watch the Patriots run the ball 75% of the time it’s that toss play to Matt Light’s side, and that’s because he can pin the corner and give Antowain Smith some room to run. He’s also done a nice job in pass protection and guarding Brady’s blindside.
RRM: This offensive line has seemed to gel overnight into an effective unit.
Did it seem that way to you?
SG: The only way an offensive line gets better is to get experience playing together. I think the fact that you have Damien Woody maturing into one of the better centers in the league in his third season has helped to give them an anchor to build that line around. Then you have an experienced veteran like Mike Compton come in here as a free agent, and he is just the consummate professional. He has been a big addition to the offensive line, and the fact that he has been able to shift over to center to handle the snaps when the Patriots go into the shotgun formation has taken the pressure off Woody in that area. Then you have the lunch pail in guy Joe Andruzzi who has been a pleasant surprise. The good news is the longer they play together the better they will get.
RRM: Antowain Smith has cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for the Pats and has given them the running threat they have lacked since Curtis Martin and Robert Edwards. There is already speculation over whether he will be the long-term solution at running back for this team. What are your thoughts?
SG: I don’t think anyone expected for Antowain Smith to have the kind of season he has put together for the Patriots. They hadn’t had much luck finding a #1 running back the past few years with the free agents and draft choices they brought in, and Antowain has been one of the major stories in their success.
It makes you wonder why the Bills let him go. I’ve heard they wanted to convert him into a between-the-tackles kind of runner but he’s shown he is very effective with his cutback running style. The Patriots are going to have to make a decision after the season on whether to resign him, and I know there’s always the salary cap as an issue but it would be really tough to lose him.
RRM: Tebucky Jones is a player who has really come into his own this season. What have you thought about his development this season?
SG: Tebucky Jones has just been getting better and better all season long. You can just see his confidence level rising each week, and the thing about him is he hasn’t only been playing well at free safety. He’s on the special teams units and he’s been making plays there, too. The previous regime made a mistake trying to convert him into a cornerback, but he’s found his spot now, no question about it. He’s got great speed, great instincts, and does what a good free safety is supposed to do; he is not afraid to come up in there and stick his nose into somebody.
He was a major contributor to the Patriots win against Miami. He forced a fumble with a hit on Dolphin tight end Jed Weaver that set up the Patriots’ first touchdown, and then he delivered a hard hit on Lamar Smith that forced him to cough up the ball just short of the Patriots’ goalline. Tebucky’s future looks to be extremely bright in New England.
RRM: Larry Izzo is another player who hasn’t received any attention. He is among the league leaders in tackles on special teams and has been a real anchor on those units for the Patriots?
SG: I knew Izzo was making a lot of tackles but I didn’t realize he was that high among the league leaders. He’s just a guy that goes unnoticed to the untrained eye, but I have noticed he has been in or around most tackles on special teams. He’s one of those players that just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He reminds me a lot of my old teammate Mosi Tatupu who was the same kind of player. These kind of players go unsung but Izzo does a job that nobody else wants, and he does it as well as anybody in the league.
RRM: There are two trains of thought about the Patriots having their bye week this week. One is it will give all their players suffering some nicks and bruises like Antowain Smith a chance to rest up. The other is it will rob them of the momentum that they have built up the last few months. What is your take?
SG: The Patriots have been playing so well, and part of the reason they’ve been so successful is that they’ve stayed fairly healthy. The bye week is good if you have had a lot of players banged up, but you look at the injury list each week and they really don’t have a lot of injured players. Having the bye week right before the last game of the season kind of scares me a little bit. You can lose that intensity and that routine you’ve had going week-in and week-out when you have a week off.
RRM: The upset win by the Buffalo Bills over the New York Jets means if the Patriots beat Carolina this week they will clinch the divisional title, and they still have a shot at a first-round bye in the playoffs if the Jets beat the Raiders this week. Let’s hear it for the J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS?
SG: I don’t think there were any tears shed by anyone around here when the Jets lost that game. I don’t know what Vinny Testaverde was thinking about when he dumped the ball over the middle to Curtis Martin on that last play.
He either has to throw the ball into the endzone or throw the ball away in that situation, and he’s a veteran and he should know that.
Now this game against Carolina is even more important for the Patriots. A win gives them the division title which was not even dreamed about at the start of the season. I know I’ll find rooting for the Jets a hard thing to do but I guess sometimes sacrifices have to be made for the good of the team!
RRM: On paper this week’s game against the Carolina Panthers should not even be a contest. The Panthers have one of the worst defensive units in the league and have had a terrible season. This should be a mere formality for the Patriots, right?
SG: A lot of people thought the game in Buffalo would be a trap game, a game they would go into thinking they were going to win and then end up biting the bullet. But the game that scared me more than any looking at the schedule a few weeks ago was the Carolina game. That was because the Patriots would be coming off the bye week and after having two weeks off sometimes it’s hard to get refocused, particularly this late in the year.
I haven’t changed my mind about this game. Everyone’s been saying that Carolina’s not a good team, but they played the best team in football tough two weeks ago in losing 38-32 to the St. Louis Rams, and when you play a team of their caliber that well it tells me you have some talent. They lost pretty badly this week to Arizona so you have to hope that took some of the fight out of them. But the fact that they were able to get up for a strong opponent like the Rams tells me they will be up for this game.
I remember in 1976 we were fighting for the division title and our last game of the season was in Tampa Bay against the Buccaneers, who had not won a single game in their first year in the league. They looked at that game as their playoff game and we actually trailed at halftime in that game 14-7. We came on strong in the second half to win 31-14 but it shows you how strange things can happen in the last game of the year.
The Panthers may be looking at this game with the Patriots as their playoff game. The other possibility is that the Carolina players will have their bags packed and their cars running in the parking lot and just can’t wait to get out of there! That does happen a lot in football at this time of year with teams that are having a bad year, and they are ready to go home and just end up going through the motions. The Patriots had better hope that happens because if they allow the Panthers to hang around in the game like they did with the Bills in Buffalo they could be in for a long afternoon.
RRM: I heard they gave the former players a tour of the new CMGI Field last week. What did you think of the new facility?
SG: The day before the Miami game they gave the retired players that were in town for the ceremonies a tour of the new stadium but I was unable to make it. I was in there a couple of months ago when it was still under the basic construction and I got to see it then and it was pretty impressive. It’s going to be really nice and the fans are really going to love it. But let’s get through this season first. There’s another game to be played at the old stadium yet so there’s still some time for a few more memories to be made around here!