December 7, 2016

Midweek Thoughts

A few thoughts on the KC game, which I attended this past weekend. But first, I ‘d like to thank Scott for filling in on last week’s preview and game review in an encore performance for GDRV. As usual, both were outstanding. They were also much appreciated as with my travel and a couple busy days at work on my return, it really was a great help. Hopefully Scott will continue to be willing to make the occasional guest appearance on GDRV in the future, which I think is something readers want if he is willing.

A few words on Arrowhead, the Chiefs and the city of Kansas City. This is a pretty good take for a football fan. I am not sure when New England will be visiting the Chiefs again, but the stadium experience is similar to the excellent experience I expected. Lots of friendly, passionate Chiefs fans tailgating early, cooking their BBQ and other foods and having an all-around good time. The stadium itself is not quite as nice as Gillette, of course it was built thirty or more years earlier, but nevertheless has excellent vantage points to watch the game. The honored names of past Chiefs are an interesting feature, though I thought the fifty or so names honored by the Chiefs was a bit much. The reputation for noise is deserved, though the constant drum beat and self-promotion by the fans and the scoreboard at the stadium that its “the loudest stadium in the NFL” seemed a bit too self-congratulatory. In addition, its not quite accurate as the loudest stadium I have ever heard, by far, is in Tennessee which I visited in 2002. The fans in KC do make a lot of noise, but not especially more than many other venues I have been to and, amazingly, I found it odd they do not generally stand up on big third downs by the opponent (or at least not as consistently as I am used to at Gillette).

The city itself is decent, if a bit slow. Some good restaurants. We visited two bar districts, one was the Westport area and the other was The Plaza area. Both provided some good times, but are in general small areas that would represent probably just a small, non-descript few bars in Boston yet qualify as “entertainment districts” in Kansas City. There are also four casinos, one of which we visited for a few hours on Saturday. Overall, Kansas City is a nice town, a bit slow, but probably a nice place to live. The fans were friendly. Despite my Patriots hat I wore to the game and a Patriots wool pullover, I did not get one bit of grief from the fans there and most I spoke to were very respectful of the Patriots despite their poor performance Sunday. Good fans out there who love their team and respect the opponent and opposing fans was the impression left.

On to the game. As Scott detailed, it was abysmal and was just as bad in person as it must have appeared back here on TV. I was amazed at how poorly Tom Brady played. I would have to say, its the worst I have ever seen him play by far. It didn’t show up on TV as well, but even on some completions including the ones late in the game when they actually scored, he was electing to throw to shorter open receivers over ones who were more open further downfield. Perhaps it was the read, but having seen Brady play so many times now, I have never seen him miss so many open receivers so blatantly, even on some of the throws which ultimately ended up in completions elsewhere.

On the plays that ended up in sacks and interceptions and overthrows, well that was obvious as well. The throw down the middle on the first interception was a horribly forced throw that had no chance of success. The overthrow on the second interception sailed over Troy Brown’s head when Brown was wide open for an easy first down. The first field goal drive featured Brady missing a wide open Ben Watson who would have had a TD with a good throw. On and on it went like that all day for Brady. I couldn’t believe my eyes as its been a long time since he had a game this bad, if ever. Even last year against Miami down there when he played poorly it wasn’t that bad until the final four minutes. This was just bad all day.

Some of the excuse has to go to the receiver corp being a bit banged up. David Givens was out, which left a large role for Andre Davis. With his speed, Davis can be an occasional weapon for the Patriots, but its clear he is no David Givens and can’t be the consistent threat Givens is. Throw in a banged up offensive line which had three of their five starters out and a Kansas City team that started blitzing from the start and never stopped and it made even the usually calm Brady a bit antsy. This was the most rattled I have seen Brady since perhaps his second start ever versus Miami in 2001. And Kansas City blitzers and an apparent man on a mission in Jared Allen, never let him off the hook. They hammered him all day. All in all, it was a pretty humiliating performance from the offense.

And then there was the defense. This is the worst Patriots defense, so far, I have ever seen. I feel comfortable saying that. Worse than the 1-15 defense in 1990. Worse than the 2-14 defense in 1992. Worse than the 2-14 defense in 1981. Its horrendous. Right now, the secondary is not even NFL level. It is not competitive. Up front, the linebackers and linemen slept walked thru the entire first half, making few plays, getting blown off the ball and just embarassing themselves out there. The front seven did improve in the second half, even playing well at times and providing the first dose of consistent pressure seen since perhaps the Super Bowl last year. In particular, I thought Richard Seymour, Roosevelt Colvin, Monty Beisel and Ty Warren played well in the second half. For Warren, it represented his first appearance of the season as he spent the first 10 and a half games being present physically only.

Despite the improved second half play from the front seven, the Mickey Mouse secondary gave up enough awful, ridiculous gaffes in coverage to make any hopes of a comeback impossible. Nobody played well back there. Nobody. As we have seen week after week for some time now, the opposing QB seemed to toy with the Patriots defensive backs most of the time. Rarely having to look off to a second read, the first read is usually wide open by a few yards beyond the first down marker on every critical third down. If it even gets that far. Its maddening.

It got a bit annoying at the game hearing Patriot fan after Patriot fan make excuses to inquisitive Kansas City fans regarding what was wrong by focusing on injuries (I even heard one Patriots fan claim at the game to a KC fan “we have 18 of 22 starters out” at which point I got into a brief discussion with him that was incorrect. Not convinced, the debate continued with him until I pointed out about 13 or 14 starters who were, in fact, playing for the Patriots such that he had to concede the point). So, I got to thinking, who exactly was out for the defense Sunday?

Obviously there was Rodney Harrison. That’s a major loss. Huge. No debate there. But who else? I think Assante Samuel would have been a starter regardless of what other corners were healthy. He was for the vast majority of last year and they won the Super Bowl with him starting. At the other corner, who really would have been that big an upgrade over Ellis Hobbs? Ty Poole? Surely the 2003 Ty Poole, but that guy hasn’t been seen in two seasons now and wasn’t needed last year to win a Super Bowl. Randall Gay? Please. Yes Gay did a good job last year, is a nice player and prospect, but the revisionist history amongst rose colored glasses Pats fans regarding his value is amusing. At this point, there isn’t a significant difference between Gay and Hobbs and both are at similar points in their career. Gay is not a shutdown corner, nor would he make a significant different were he healthy and playing. Yes he would help. A little. But I venture to say almost every team in the league (save Indianapolis who never seems to get any injuries) are missing numerous Randall Gays. Just check the IR lists for each team.

Up front, who was out against Kansas City? No one. Not a single significant player. They were all there. And don’t give me Ted Johnson. Again, lets be realistic. Johnson was a good, solid player and much admired. But missing him is not the answer to what is wrong with the Patriots defense. If anything, its allowed Roosevelt Colvin to get on the field more and Colvin has been one of the few defensive players who has been mostly good this year. The answer isn’t Johnson.

So is it Harrison? Surely in part. But its not the difference between a Super Bowl defense and the worst Patriots defense in their history, at least since I have been watching (30 years or so). It just can’t be. Its impossible. And there were signs things were wrong before Harrison went out. Think of the first drive of the year versus Oakland. Think of the long pass to Moss. Think of the long pass to Proehl against Carolina. Think of the eighty something yarder versus Pittsburgh before Harrison got hurt. Just those three passes alone would be out of character for an entire season of the past few Patriots defenses. Yet those three alone happened in the nine quarters Harrison WAS on the field early in the year. Something was wrong even then.

So what is it? To some degree, its everything. Its Harrison. It is Gay and Johnson and other injuries a little bit (but only to a limited extent as discussed above). Its the strong opponents. Its the lack of confidence. Its the injuries and non-production on offense. Probably a hundred other things as well.

But for all those things, its also the coaching. Eric Mangini simply has not done a good job this year. There is no other way to spin it. I doubt he feels he has. He can’t. The results are simply not there where anyone could be satisfied. Yes he has somewhat been a victim of the injuries and every other thing that has gone wrong this year, but he hasn’t found a way to figure it out or even to show much improvement or stability as the season has gone on.

One problem is, I believe, Mangini has been exceedingly conservative with his defense this year. I find it hard to criticize this because I have totally bought into the philosophy the Patriots have had in the past of conservative defense, stopping the run, not selling out to rush the passer and patience while waiting for the opponents mistakes. They’ve also picked and choosed exceedingly well in past years their times to be aggressive, and I believe there is a time for that.

But this year, they have taken conservative defense to a new level, at least lately over the last few months. Early in the season I criticized Mangini in this blog that he was blitzing too much and at the wrong times. Now my complaints have shifted to the polar opposite. They do nothing and haven’t in weeks. They rarely blitz. They rarely challenge receivers. They rarely seem to give different looks. They do nothing. They come out and give one look and play it the entire game no matter how bad things start going. The few times they have blitzed in recent weeks the results have seemed better than the vast majority of time when they weren’t.

Perhaps Mangini is just frustrated. He is thinking, geez, early in the season I was blitzing a lot and trying different things and we were giving up long play after long play so I’m not gonna do it. To some degree, I can sympathize with that thinking, especially when they did get hit with a few injuries as the season went along. And although I think some of the problem was WHEN Mangini chose to blitz early on, nevertheless, I can see why he may be a bit gun shy.

But the problem I have with that is at some point in some of these games you got to try to do something. You can’t just sit there all day long and let Peyton Manning and Trent Green pick you apart and still be gun shy. They both score on the first drive. They go up 10-0 or 13-3 or 16-3 or 19-3 or by the time it gets to 26-3 you have to be thinking, hmmmm, maybe I won’t be able to just sit there in a soft base zone all day and get away with it. Or at least you’d think so. But the change up to something, anything, has seemed to come too slow in a lot of these games.

At some point you’d think Mangini would see them convert third down after third down in game after game and say, okay, scrap that idea, lets do something. But it never comes until the fourth quarter with six minutes left in the game down two scores like against Kansas City. And its too late by then. If they don’t start getting a little more bold on defense and taking the fight a bit more to the opponents, I don’t care if its Peyton Manning or not, its going to be too late for this entire season as well, if its not already. You can’t play the entire season scared. Its not working anyways.

For much of this season, I have dismissed criticism against the offense. I am not sure that was correct anymore. The way I saw it, the offense has been acceptable most of the time. They have been productive for periods of time, put some points up, had some impressive moments. Clearly they have not been the Dr. Richard Kimball gets tangled in a bus crash/flaming train wreck can’t take your eyes off the screen disaster the defense has been.

But despite that, perhaps more consideration and blame needs to be put on the offense and coaching there as well. Clearly, Sunday, they were way too ineffective until it was too late to escape blame. Now, some consideration has to be given to their injuries on this side of the ball. They are missing two significant running backs (and missed a third for a few weeks until recently), they are missing a top notch receiver, three linemen of note and have had some of their tight ends in and out of the offense as well.

But perhaps there is something to the notion that the playcalling has no rhythm and this causes inconsistency. The one criticism of the offense I have noted for some time now is they do appear to disappear for significant periods of time in almost every game, while also having periods of consistency and production in most game. That is the very definition of inconsistent, it would seem.

And, so, I took a look at some stats. Two things I looked at were three and outs (or less) on offense and drives with time of possession of less than two minutes on the theory that if you are sending your defense back out there in less than two minutes, most of the time that isn’t going to be what you really want on offense. Then I compared it to last year.

The three and out (or three or less play) drives really haven’t changed significantly. I went thru the drive charts of every game this year and last. In 2004, the Patriots had 52 drives of 3 plays or less or about 3.3 per game. This year, they have had 36 in 11 games or about the same average, 3.3. Now keep in mind, some of these are drives they actually scored in three plays or less, so that isn’t all bad. But both years featured a few of those, so the average is about the same either way.

Okay, so that isn’t it. How about the under two minute drives? I took a look at that. By my count, the Patriots have had 63 drives of two minutes or less in time of possession this year, an average of about 5.6 per game. Last year, the Patriots had 67 such drives in 16 games or 4.2 per game. So they are only 4 drives away from their 2004 figure for 16 games heading into week 12. Assuredly, they’ll easily eclipse that number this year. And interestingly, 14 of those 67 less than two minute drives in 2004 came in the Patriots only two losses against Pittsburgh and Miami. So when you take those out, they averaged 3.3 of those drives in their 14 wins last year, between 2 and 3 drives per game less than they are averaging this year. That could be significant. Too many short drives is killing them and the defense.

I also took a look at average drive length this year versus last year and found only marginal difference. Last year, the Patriots averaged 33.96 yards per drive, good for 6th in the NFL. They also averaged 2.37 points per drive, good for 5th in the NFL. This year, there has been some slippage, but not disasterous. They are averaging 30.59 yards per drive this year, good for 9th in the NFL. They are scoring 1.86 points per drive, 12th in the NFL. I will note their time of possession ranks 27th in the NFL and they are holding the ball approximately 5 less minutes, on average, than their opponents. So again, this points to their drives are too short this year, time wise, even if they aren’t resulting in that significant a drop in yardage.

So what is the answer to all this? Its not clear, but I do think there is at least a slight trend in the numbers that the Patriots are not or are not attempting enough to hold the ball longer. Obviously, the main goal on offense is to score and that is what they attempt every time they get the ball. But maybe their play calling isn’t quite the design to have the more plodding, consistent drives they have had in past years. Even if they are succesful at moving it at times and racking up yardage, the shorter drives that come with it at other times, i.e. the inconsistency, is hurting them and the way offense relates to the defense. Perhaps a more focused attempt to run, or even on a shorter, more controlled passing game, which will surely become easier when Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk return, can help lengthen time of possession, lessen the three and out killer drives and in some ways assist a railing defense regain its confidence. Just food for thought.

I’ll be back with a Jets game preview on Thursday or Friday. Thanks.

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