November 27, 2014

Disappointing

harrison.jpgBy Bruce Allen
[email protected]

That’s about the only emotion I can muster after reading Chris Mortensen and Len Pasquarelli‘s report on ESPN.com that Rodney Harrison is going to be suspended for four games “because he admitted to federal investigators that he obtained Human Growth Hormone.”

Very disappointing.

Harrison has been lauded as a stand-up guy and team leader during his time here in New England, and while this suspension doesn’t automatically wipe all of that out, it does add a taint to his career. Harrison has scheduled a conference call with reporters tonight, and I expect that he’ll take full responsibility for his actions, but the damage is done, and this is still a distraction that the team does not need.

This story is sure to be played up nationally as a hit to the “squeaky clean” Patriots image. This is not an image that the club has tried to put forth, mind you, but one that has been attached to them. They did after all sign Todd Sauerbrun last season afterthe punter was coming off his own four game substance related suspension.

With Eugene Wilson’s health again up in the air, is it possible that we’ll see James Sanders and rookie Brandon Meriweather manning the safety positions on opening day? The suspension also makes Asante Samuel’s return to the secondary all that much more important.

The receivers for the Jets, Chargers, Bills and Bengals can breathe a little easier now. On the flip side, this is four games in which we don’t have to worry about Harrison getting hurt.

Update: Albert Breer has Harrison’s full statement to reporters tonight. Harrison admits to using HGH, but said it was not for a “competitive edge” but instead for “accelerating the healing process from injuries I sustained playing football.” He apologizes to the fans, to kids who view him as a role model, his teammates and the Patriots organization and asks reporters not to hassle his teammates with questions while he is on suspension.

I don’t know…in my mind, while I want to fully accept the statement and totally forgive the guy, (and I’m glad he’s taking responsibility for his actions) it seems to me that accelerating the healing process IS a competitive edge…isn’t it?

Just End It

logo831by Scott Benson
[email protected]

You know, I might tend to agree with folks who say the NFL pre-season is too long.

I’m good with the first week, when the starters take a bow early and we see the rookies and free agents that are trying to make the team. The starters stretch it out a bit in week two, playing most if not all of the first half. The third week is the full dress rehearsal, and by now, the rookies and free agents are either stepping up, or stepping out.

Doesn’t it seem like it ought to end right there?

Well, the league evidently feels otherwise, and so last night the Patriots passed their way to a 27-20 win over the New York Giants at Gillette Stadium to finish out their pre-season at 2-2.

Matt Cassel, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Gutierrez combined to go 24-34-246 and a touchdown, a late Gutierrez to Bam Childress score that put the game away for the Pats.

Kelvin Kight, Marcellus Rivers and CJ Jones combined to catch 13 passes for 167 yards to lead the New England passing game.

The Patriots defense sacked New York’s quarterbacks eight times, including three from LeKevin Smith, who moved from end to nose in a test of his backup skills there, and two by outside linebacker hopeful Pierre Woods, who also forced two fumbles. Eric Alexander, who has probably made the team already, led all Patriots with 13 tackles (eight unassisted) anyway.

The only real justification for the fourth pre-season game is the final chance to look at the players, young and old, that are still competing for the final few spots on the Patriots roster. New England’s regulars dressed but did not play, save for staring fullback Health Evans, who took a turn at tailback and scored a touchdown.

The Patriots did not escape unscathed, as they lost rookie linebacker Oscar Lua to what appeared to be a serious right leg injury in the early going. After a week in which even his bilingual skills were touted, Lua was over and out before he could even get started. Further proof of our theory that the NFL really sucks sometimes.  

Yet there were a few players that were able to make their case before the final roster cutdown tomorrow.

Rivers, primarily known as a blocker throughout his spotty pro career, continued to show some receiving skills (5 catches for 47 yards) to likely cement a role as New England’s third tight end. Not bad for a guy that got a late start. Rivers may find a way to stick even after David Thomas returns, as Kyle Brady has done little this August to offer guarantee that he can fill the faux Daniel Graham role when the bell rings.

Chris Hanson, the former Jacksonville punter signed after the surprise cut of Danny Baugher earlier in the day, hit the ball reasonably well and even dropped one inside the Giants five with the help of veteran special teamer Dante Wesley. There’s still more than a week before the Pats travel to the Meadowlands to open the season, but Hanson may have done enough last night to survive the ax until then.

Sorry Chris, that one was just sitting there.

Wesley may have grabbed a spot with a late interception of Tim Hasselbeck deep in Giants territory to set up the Childress touchdown that provided the margin of victory. He knocked away two other passes and also impressed with his hustling charity-hop putdown of Hanson’s directional punt. He clearly outdistanced Tory James, the other corner, who did little to establish his value with New England as the two battled to grab one of the final roster spots.

Receiver CJ Jones, however, returned kicks with elan and took in an impressive catch and run for 28 yards. Where were you last year, CJ? Your timing isn’t great, nor is Kight’s, who seems to be developing at a time when the Patriots have more receivers than they have spots.

Speaking of receivers, Garrett Mills worked himself open for four catches of his own, lining up as a tight end and fullback and showing some of the versatility he’ll need to hang on. But with the running backs set and Rivers gaining control of the open tight end spot, where will he go?

Other players with more certain futures with the team also had their moments.

Cassel had his most impressive turn of the pre-season, directing two scores and hitting a few accurate throws to in-stride receivers. He gave way to Testaverde in the second quarter, and Vinny had a up and down performance in his first extended action of the pre-season. He led the Pats to a score in the third with crisp timing throws before throwing a bad interception while trying to force a ball in to a well covered Mills. Gutierrez did everything he could this August to win a spot with the team, and the Pats can only hope to sneak him to the practice squad this weekend.

Woods showed some burst off the edge as a pass rusher (and a knack for dislodging the ball), but in early action against the Giants first team, he was bowled over in goal line defense, giving way to a short Brandon Jacobs touchdown plunge.  Still, he could get the nod over rookie Justin Rogers, who wasn’t able to finish the pre-season as strongly as he started it, and veteran Chad Brown, was has been a non-factor to the naked eye.

Brandon Meriweather started at safety with Willie Andrews, and showed good range despite occasionally yielding some ground in coverage. Not surprising as he was seeing his first time at his most natural position. One thing is certain about Meriweather – he can tackle. He finished with nine. Andrews, another developing player who is likely to stick, had six of his own.

Smith has been a revelation this month, showing versatility across the defensive front with a strong start at the nose last night. He’ll join rookie Kareem Brown (who didn’t even play, giving way to folks like Santonio Thomas and Zach West) to give the Pats perhaps their deepest defensive line of the Belichick era.

Speaking of versatility, the game closed with Bam Childress playing halfback (another young receiver that is coming on at the wrong time for the Pats) and Gutierrez covering kicks, which was probably indication it was time, mercifully, to end the pre-season and complete the construction of New England’s final roster. 

College Season Underway

doyle.jpgby Greg Doyle
[email protected]

The opening weekend of college football traditionally features many mismatches, as powerhouses get their groove on by scheduling weak sisters. But there are always some good games sprinkled in, and that is the case again this year.

In this weekly column, I hope to spotlight some of the most interesting televised college games of the week and identify the key players that viewers will focus on. In doing so, I’ll take a close look at the seniors who will be in next year’s draft and in some cases, since this is a Patriots-themed website, speculate on how they would fit in New England. We’ll examine all the top propects, including juniors who could come out early. We’ll also talk about the games themselves and what to look for. I hope it proves to be an enjoyable read over the course of this season.

With that said, let’s move on to the opening week’s games, which begin tonight:

Thursday August 30th – LSU at Mississippi State (8:00 ESPN): This is a matchup that features one of the pre-season’s top teams, LSU, against a team they traditionally dominate, Mississippi State. Mississippi State is improved, but young, so expect LSU to dominate again if not affected by early-season rust. Keep that in mind when evaluating the LSU players, very many of whom will someday be playing in the NFL. Among those to watch:

LSU Quarterback Matt Flynn (#15): Flynn is a smart, game manager who showed his character by not transferring and staying for a fifth year after years of sitting behind last year’s number one pick in the NFL, JeMarcus Russell. Flynn does have some experience. He started for an injured Russell in the 2006 Sugar Bowl and led LSU to a 40-3 win over Miami and was named MVP. This is a true team player with a 10-2 TD-INT ratio for his career who has nice size, decent mobility and a good arm and should draw some NFL interest. Can move himself up to a mid-round pick with a solid year and is someone the Patriots might consider as a backup as Matt Cassel moves toward contract expiration.

LSU Right Guard Will Arnold (#73): Arnold is a huge mauler who can bench 550 lbs. 2nd team All-SEC last year and All-American candidate this year. Watch him dominate on the line.

LSU DT Glen Dorsey (#72): Dorsey would have been a top 10 pick in the NFL had he come out last year. He was a first team All-American as a junior. He could move into the top 5 with a good year this year. It’s at least a question if he’d fit with the Patriots, as he plays in defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s one-gap system. Pelini, incidentally, was the Patriots linebacker coach under Pete Carroll and is in my mind one of the top coordinators in college football, is likely headed for a head coaching job after this season. But then again, Vince Wilfork switched from a college one-gap player to a two-gapper with the Pats, so it is possible. In any event, it’s fun to watch Dorsey dominate.

LSU LB’s Luke Sanders (#35) and Ali Highsmith (#7): Sanders is less-heralded than fellow senior Highsmith, but Sanders may be a better fit with the Patriots due to his size (6’5″ 235) with the frame to put on more. Sanders reportedly is strong as an ox for a linebacker and capable of putting up a lineman like a 500 lb. bench press. Highsmith plays with quickness and is a better fit and could be a great player in a Bucs or Colts type system at only 225 lbs.

LSU CB’s Jonathan Zenon (#19) and Chevis Jackson (#21): Zenon and Jackson were tied at #2 in the SEC in passes defensed last year and have good corner size at 6’0″ 190. Given the Pats needs at corner, both could be possibilities. Jackson has been the better player so far but Zenon could move up into the mid-rounds with a good year, though he does not have top-end speed and has occasionally been burned deep.

Mississippi State WR Tony Burks (#4): Burks is a big receiver, 6’4″ 217, who led the SEC with a 24.3 ypc average last year. Has great hands and good speed.

Mississippi State TE Eric Butler(#88): Big tight end who can catch and has 42 career receptions. Big senior year could put him as one of the top 5 tight ends in the draft.

Mississippi State DE Titus Brown (#54): Brown is a college defensive end who projects as a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. Can rush the passer and generally plays down in college. Good athlete with good size, the kind of lineman the Patriots usually look to transition to the outside. Will need to show good quickness to make the switch in the NFL.

Friday August 31st – Washington at Syracuse (7:00 PM ESPN): Two teams that have struggled in recent years, but are traditionally powerful programs with the ability to turn it around. Both should be improved this year and there is some good talent in this game.

Washington DT Wilson Afoa (#74): A strong, powerful, hold the point type defensive tackle who does not make many plays himself. Clogs up the middle, but lacks a pash rush. Could be a role player in the NFL or possibly move up if he has improved his all-around skills. Worth watching.

Washington DE Greyson Gunheim (#7): An athletic and big defensive end who shows up at 6’5″ 265. Watch his skills to see if he has the speed and athletic ability to switch to OLB, as he is too small to play anything else for the Patriots. Had six sacks last year and was Honorable Mention All-Pac 10.

Washington CB Roy Lewis (#28): A solid corner with lots of experience. Had no interceptions in 12 games last year, though he did make 66 tackles. Needs to show more.

Syracuse WR Rice Moss (#12): I like Moss and think he is very talented. Hasn’t put up gaudy numbers due to playing with below average quarterbacks on bad teams, but this guy can play. Has good size and could move up with a big year.

Syracuse DE Jameel McClain (#52): Another of those college defensive ends who is difficult to project into a Patriots type system unless they have the superior speed and athletic ability to convert to LB. McClain can rush the passer, with 9.5 sacks last year. Played LB in high school, so has some experience and may be indication he can switch. Syracuse has their ends play up more than many college teams and has a former NFL coordinator in head coach Greg Robinson.

Syracuse S Joe Fields (#5): Former starting QB who switched to safety last year. Smart, free-safety type who showed promise in his first year on defense, coming up second on Syracuse in tackles and picking off four passes. If he progresses further, he’ll be a draftee.

Other Players to Watch: Utah takes on Oregon State on Fox Sports Northwest tonight (10:00 PM EST). Keep your eye on #26, Derrek “Don’t Call Me Golden” Richards, a 5’11” wide receiver for the Utes, who reportedly has amazing 4.25 speed and caught 60 balls last year. Elsewhere, Oregon Running Back Jonathan Stewart (#28) is a stud and could put up 1,500 yards this season. This guy has it all, size, speed and power. He is only a junior, but you’ll be hearing a lot about him in coming years. He’ll be spotlighted on ESPN Gameplan (for those that have it) when Oregon takes on Houston on Saturday. 

Boola Boola, Boola Boola…..hey, shouldn’t there be a band?

Won If By Land

snapp828By Dan Snapp
[email protected]

With the Asante Samuel impasse resolved, seemingly the final obstacle to a Patriots return trip to the Super Bowl has been removed. Now’s the time to plot the path.

So after an offseason rife with thrilling acquisition after thrilling acquisition at wide receiver, the plan must be clear: Air McDaniels ready for takeoff? We’d better hope not. The path of least resistance to Super Bowl XLII is on the ground.

Come again?

Look, we’re not kidding ourselves here. With Tom Brady choosing targets from amongst Randy Moss, Donte’ Stallworth, Wes Welker, Ben Watson, et al, the Patriots are going to pass the ball a lot. A whole hell of a lot.

Instead, we’re striking a cry for balance, and even a run-first mentality, if possible. Hopefully, Friday night’s exhibition – in which the Pats ran the ball the first nine snaps from scrimmage – was an epiphany for the coaches, showing what Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and the offensive line can accomplish if just given the chance.

The Patriots are the early media favorites to win it all, with the only possible impediments being injuries (how great is it, and what does it say about this team, that hoping for an injury is the best that rivals have got?), an aging linebacker corps, and the off chance Moss will blow up somewhere along the way.

Moss we can’t do anything about, but with a contract year, the chance for a ring, and the Hall of Fame in the balance, it’s a good bet we won’t be hearing, “That’s just Randy being Randy.” And running the ball will go a long way toward alleviating the other concerns.

Tom Brady getting injured is a Pats fan’s worst nightmare, and if Josh McDaniels succumbs to the temptation for the offense to become Indy East, we’ll all be living that nightmare.

The same logic follows for the talented but long-in-the-tooth linebackers, forever the key to Bill Belichick’s 3-4 scheme. The addition of Adalius Thomas helps immensely, but the position is still thin after the first five. With a pass-heavy attack lengthening games, by November we’ll be counting Tedy Bruschi’s reps the same way they’re charting Brady’s throws now.

A good running game, giving Brady relief from pass rushers, eating time off the clock to give the defense a rest, is the panacea to those fears. Moreover, history has shown that at some point in the season, they’re gonna need it.

John Elway had “Can’t win the big one” looming over his career before Terrell Davis’ monster seasons rewrote the script with two Super Bowl wins. Mike Martz foolishly, arrogantly turned his back on the run when it was being offered on a platter, and his Rams lost because of it. Just last year, the Colts and Peyton Manning shunned their usual pad-the-stats approach, and a balanced attack produced a Lombardi Trophy.

With the evolution of the game into a more pass-driven affair, fans today have missed out on the joys of a great rushing attack. There’s so much that goes into it – scheme, timing, aggressiveness, and practice upon practice to iron it all out – that when it all comes together, it’s truly a thing of beauty.

The psychology, and mentality, of it is also something to behold. There’s an old story about a game in the mid-70s in which Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks wanted to test exactly what he had in Sam Cunningham running behind John Hannah and Leon Gray. Fairbanks called the same play all the way up the field until they scored. Imagine the utter helplessness of that defense, knowing exactly what was coming and still powerless to stop it.

The encouraging signs out of Foxboro, especially last Friday night, are that the run won’t be forgotten. The line is shifting its philosophy toward more zone-blocking techniques to utilize Maroney’s great burst into the second level of would-be tacklers, and the team replaced blocking workhorse Daniel Graham with tight end Kyle Brady, possibly his equal as a blocker.

John Molori, in this week’s Media Blitz, had a great quote from Cris Carter about how the two elements – passing and running – work in tandem, and Randy Moss’s role in it:

“In the simplest of terms, the Patriots are going to be able to run to the strong side because their opponents are going to have to commit the safety to Randy. Strong side running is a key to success in the NFL.”

Giddy-up.

Three yards and a cloud of comments.

Inside Gillette

logo828By Christopher Price
[email protected]

During the preseason, the Patriots locker room has two types of lockers. There are the permanent ones made of rich, expensive-looking wood which belong to the returning players. They line the outer edges of the room in numerical order. And then, there are the cheap blue metal ones that stretch from one end of the room to the other — temporary storage facilities thrown together in the middle of the room meant to house the gear of rookies and undrafted free agents.

Rookie linebacker Oscar Lua wants a permanent locker, but he knows that it’ll take another week before he can truly become one of the fortunate 53. As the first series of cuts loom Tuesday afternoon — and the final cutdown on Saturday — it remains an anxious time for Lua and the rest of the rookies, who are going through the most stressful professional period of their young lives.

“It’s pretty tough for some of us,” said Lua, a seventh-round pick out of USC. “All us rookies can do right now is just go out there, do our job and compete within the standards the coaches have set out for us, and follow our game plans.”

The Patriots are one of the most veteran teams in the league, making it harder than most for a rookie to make the cut — it’s unlikely that more than four rookies will make the 53-man roster. But Lua has performed well throughout the first month of his professional career, which bodes well for his chances, at least when it comes to Tuesday’s cutdown. He’s is second on the team with 12 tackles through three preseason games, and came up with an interception in Friday’s win over Carolina. In addition, he has seen plenty of time on special teams.

But what might ultimately put him over the top is his football IQ, according to Head Coach Bill Belichick.

“He’s smart. He understands the defense. He communicates well,” said Belichick. “He’s able to not only do his assignment, but also control the guys in front of him, the front seven, and line calls and adjustments and things like that.

“He gets better out there everyday. He pays attention. I know he’s very attentive to what the veteran players do in the classroom and on the practice field. He’s always alert and trying to pick up more information. I think he’s working hard and he’s getting better.”

In football intelligence, overall approach and physical appearance, more than one veteran believes Lua compares favorably to Tedy Bruschi (both are listed at 6-foot-1, and Lua is 240 pounds while Bruschi is 247). It’s heady praise for a rookie who says he patterned his game after No. 54. Calling his own preseason play “fair,” he knows he’s got a ways to go if he wants to be in Bruschi’s class.

“My assignments — everything, actually — can be improved upon,” said Lua. “I think certain plays that should have been made didn’t get made. And there were certain plays that I made that were good.”

Presuming they survive Tuesday’s cuts, Lua is with a collection of rookie and undrafted free agents who will use Thursday night’s final preseason game against the Giants as their final chance to make the team. Just as long as they follow a simple maxim: just do your job, and everything else will take care of itself. Including that permanent locker space.

“I think if you try and do something out of the ordinary, you might make a mistake, and that would put you in a bad light,” Lua said of his overall approach to Thursday’s preseason finale. “I’m just hoping that myself and the rookies go out there and execute the game plan and do what the coach asks us to do.”

FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THURSDAY

1. The battle for roster spots 48 through 53. While the upper reaches of the roster have all been decided, there are plenty of players — like Lua, Justin Rogers and Mike Richardson — who are looking to make the final 53, and a good performance Thursday against the Giants can make all the difference.

2. The kicking game. Stephen Gostkowski missed two field goals against the Panthers, and struggled the week before against the Titans at Gillette in a driving rainstorm. Belichick seemed to indicate that the two misses against the Panthers were not Gostkowski’s fault, but a perfect night against the Giants would quiet any talk of bringing in someone to challenge the second-year kicker.

3. Heath Evans. Through the first three weeks of the preseason, the veteran fullback has become more involved to the offense on a number of levels. He’s gotten more overall reps than almost anyone on either side of the football — we’ll see if he keeps his iron man status Thursday night.

4. Wide receiver. Most of the spots are already locked up, but a standout effort from one of the wide receivers on the bubble (as well as a final decision on what the Patriots decide to do with Troy Brown and Chad Jackson) could cause New England to go with anywhere between five to seven receivers when the season begins Sept. 9.

5. Overall health. The starters won’t play much, if at all, and that’s not such a bad thing. Many fans can still recall the 1989 preseason finale when Andre Tippett, Ronnie Lippett and Garin Veris were all hurt on the same night. Don’t look for a replay of that Thursday.

STAT OF THE WEEK

0. The number of successful third-down conversions the Carolina offense registered in the first half of Friday’s game.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“If you want to work on your running game, you have to call running plays. I don’t know how else to do it.” — Head Coach Bill Belichick, responding to a question about calling nine straight running plays (and 15 of the first 19 snaps overall) to start the Carolina game.

Christopher Price covers the Patriots for Boston Metro. His book “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower” will be released in October by Thomas Dunne Books. He can be reached at [email protected]

Zant Hardly Wait

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

Don’t worry – no extra charge for the Replacements references.

Today’s the day most observers expect Asante Samuel to end his no-contract-out and return to the Patriots secondary, as the team begins to whittle its way down to a final roster by Saturday. In fact, the Providence Journal has reported that Samuel is already in town and will be with the team when it practices today.

Samuel will rejoin the team with no guarantees about his future, as the Patriots will reportedly not give up the option of franchising him again next spring. If so, New England has apparently survived its latest high-profile hold-out (isn’t it just semantics to call it anything else?) none the worse for wear.

The Pats beat writers are already contemplating the cutdowns this week, as both Mike Reiss and John Tomase have already taken a swing at projecting a final roster. Naturally, the wide receiver, tight end and linebacker postitions require the most cipherin’. Veterans Reche Caldwell and Tory James will be among those who hope they won’t have to Bring Their Playbook, and rookies Oscar Lua and Justin Rogers hope to add some needed youth to the Pats veteran linebacking corps.

I’m surprised at the writers’ mention of Richard Seymour possibly starting the season on the PUP list, as I’ve just assumed all along that the Pats were taking it easy with their best defensive player as he rebounds from off-season knee surgery, and that he’d be ready to go next week. If I’m not mistaken, starting the season on The List would mean the Pats would be without Seymour until late October, a prospect I never considered. The good news is that the Patriots seem to have built some real depth along the line this summer; still, that would only be small consolation for not having Seymour for 40% of the season.

The other curious thing I noticed this morning is the mention of a possible Eugene Wilson injury suffered during the Pats win over the Panthers on Friday. No indication as to the severity of the injury, but if Wilson is shelved long, Samuel will arrive just in time for another reshuffling of the Patriots secondary. Though James Sanders filled in for Wilson Friday, you’d have to think Brandon Meriweather may shift from corner to his collegiate position of safety. Which may be good news for Tory James, for example, but not such good news for the Patriots.

For other news, try patriotslinks.com for the rest of this morning’s headlines, and you may also want to check out our pal Christopher Price’s latest Metro column on the Pats, as Chris looks back at ten things we learned on Friday night.

Please report to the Comments section, and oh, yeah, bring your playbook.

The Sunday Links – August 26, 2007

logo827by Scott Benson
[email protected]

The glow is still on the Pats complete-game win over the Panthers on Friday night, so let’s open up the Sunday papers to see if the local scribes share our optimism.

And right on cue comes Shalise Manza Young of the ProJo, who is just busting over the Friday play of Tom Brady and the Patriots offense. Hey Shalise, did you just predict a Super Bowl win on August 26th? I like your spunk. Manza Young continues an upbeat morning by welcoming back Laurence Maroney. What the hell are ‘jitterbugs’, by the way? Any affliction with the word ‘bugs’ in it has to raise your eyebrows, even if you don’t have any eyebrows. Perhaps he has a FAQ on his MySpace page.

The ProJo finishes up its morning coverage with an uncredited (at least on-line) story about a group of Carmelite nuns who include the Pats in the daily prayers. Somebody Up There Likes The Patriots. If you think I’m snarking this piece, you’re nuts. Too risky. 

Over at the Herald, John Tomase demands that the Pats start the season now, after Friday night’s balanced performance. John, frankly, Shalise went as far as to predict a win in a game that won’t be played for five months, and the best you can come up with is “start the season”? Come on, Tomase, get on the bandwagon!

Foot dragger Tomase then follows with the day’s notes, including a vote of confidence from Bill Belichick to Stephen Gostkowski, and more comments from the coach as to his 4th and 1 challenge to his offense on Friday night. 

Speaking of the Herald, I’m kind of surprised there’s no Mike Felger column on Randy Moss this morning. After all, Felger’s been on every television and radio show in New England with his big ‘scoop’ on Moss (I think I saw him on ‘Daily Devotions’ this morning, calling Moss a ‘dog’), and he can’t file a column with his own paper? I thought he might want to, you know, get his big ‘scoop’ down on paper, because I’m sure he’s proven there’s no chance that Moss’s absence is simply a precaution by the Pats to ensure the receiver is ready to start the season. He has to have proven, with diligent digging backed up with attributed quotes, that Moss is holding back against the organization’s will. Otherwise, why would Felger, a highly trained investigative journalist, be shouting from the rooftops on this one? I mean, what reason would he have?   

At the Globe, Mike Reiss has Ellis Hobbs and the Pats secondary awaiting the return of Asante Samuel while boosting rookie Mike Richardson, who turned an impressive camp performance into some first team snaps on Friday night. Reiss has more Belichick on Gostkowski in his Pats notebook, and he chats with some guy named Bill Parcells in his weekly Football Notes. What does a toll collector know about running a NFL pre-season? 

Finally, David Heuschkel of the Courant has a solid piece on the Pats improved run defense against the Panthers. For other news, try patriotslinks.com.

Are you ready to pay the toll?

Power Pats

gdrv825by Scott Benson
[email protected]

At one point early in last night’s glorious first half, with the Ghost of Woody Hayes fully inhabiting the body and soul of Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, my wife turns to me and says, “if they did this (hand off every play) every week all season long, you’d be the happiest person on earth.”

Yes, dear.

The usually pass-centric New England Patriots instead strapped on the leather helmets and pounded away last night, rolling up nearly 150 rushing yards to key an impressively complete 24-7 win over the Carolina Panthers in the all-important penultimate game of the 2007 pre-season. 

Tom Brady passed for two short touchdowns and the Patriots special teams blocked two John Kasey field goal attempts to finish off the Panthers.

Save for one breakdown that resulted in a 48 yard Jake Delhomme-Kerry Colbert touchdown pass through the center of the Patriots first team defense, New England dominated Carolina throughout, collecting its first victory in three starts.

Laurence Maroney shed his ‘don’t touch me’ jersey and was thrown headfirst into the Patriots offense, lugging the rock on New England’s first seven plays from scrimmage (and eight of the first nine; now THAT’S balance, Josh!) in a scripted sequence intended to bust the cherry on the second year man’s comeback from off-season shoulder surgery. He finished with 58 first-half yards on 15 tries before taking his leave at the break.  

Heath Evans added 58 of his own yards (and two third-quarter touchdowns, including one from Brady) and Sammy Morris converted an early 4th and 1 deep inside Patriots territory as I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming all of it.

Oh, yeah, I guess the quarterback and receivers were pretty good too, particularly in extending New England’s 90 yard, 18 play field goal drive that ate up nearly ten minutes of the first quarter.

The Patriots offensive line, after a horrendous performance against Tennessee last week, fairly pushed the lauded Carolina front seven all over the field while walling off the pocket against one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing defenses. If they were an ‘F’ last week, they were ‘A+’ last night, in the practice game that most observers feel best resembles regular season action.

The Pats defense continued on its even keel, stunting the Panthers rushing attack from the start and rendering inconsequential a decent Delhomme performance, as his 11-18-162-1 line could produce only the six points that came from Colbert’s catch and run past Mike Richardson, James Sanders and the trailing Eugene Wilson.

Linemen Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green overwhelmed the center of the Carolina field goal unit to knock away Kasey’s attempts, each one setting up a short field (and subsequent touchdown drive) for the Patriots offense.

Both starting squads played well into the third quarter, as is the custom for third pre-season tilts, and in all respects the Patriots walked away with the decisive edge as rookies and backups once again ran out the clock to little effect. For the first time this August, the Patriots put together a complete game and looked damn near ready to start the season. Now, only the truly meaningless pre-season finale with the Giants stands between the Patriots and their opening day date with the Man-Genius.

If the Patriots go at the Jets with the same mix of aggressiveness and efficiency as they did the Panthers, I am SO reading all the New York papers on Monday, September 10th.

Some random thoughts:

*Belichick’s 4th and 1 challenge to his offense, issued despite field position at New England’s own 24, was THE highlight at this address. Who says this guy is no fun? The beauty, of course, is that the kick-in-the-ass challenge worked. Morris, coming in to relive Maroney after the latter had carried the ball seven straight times, left no doubt on the 4th down try, surging for five yards behind the right side of the Patriots line. The Pats offense then churned downfield in classic ball control style, settling for the field goal only after Ben Watson couldn’t hang on to a Brady toss in the back of the Carolina end zone. An accurate and catchable throw went for naught, with all due credit going to Chris Gamble, who stripped it as Watson fell to the ground. Small complaint on an otherwise complaint-free night: shouldn’t a tight end known for pass catching be a better receiver?

*Morris, on the other hand, is exceeding expectations. He’s falling right into the ‘power back’ role in a manner so solid and consistent that I can’t help but wait for the other shoe to drop. Wait – he doesn’t own a ‘kennel’, does he? He also reminded us of his Dolphin days when he grabbed a Brady third-down flip and slashed for a first down. He, with Evans and veteran playmaker Kevin Faulk (who didn’t play after excelling the two weeks previous), seemingly give the Pats the depth and versatility they will need behind Maroney. The Pats running game was tested last night and, ironically, it ‘passed’.

*Maroney was very good, I thought. At first, he hunted and pecked like me on this keyboard, causing him to be stacked up at the line, but he gradually loosened up and began leaning forward for four and five yards at a time as the Pats o-line gave him plenty of room for his quick cuts and darts. His best run came on one he bounced outside, a 12 yarder on the Pats clock-eating first quarter drive. The best news came afterward, when Maroney reported no trouble with his recovering shoulder. Like I said, am I dreaming this?

*The Patriot Most Likely to be Featured on Entertainment Tonight jumped back into the New England lineup after a couple of personal days (I’m still working my sources to nail down the reason for the unplanned absence) and had one of those vintage Brady performances. His direction of that 18 play, 10 minute drive  could have just as well come from your Three Games to Glory video library. Though the Pats were intent on grinding it out, Brady went to the air to convert key third downs to Morris and Wes Welker (best night so far), and probably should have gotten six points for his trouble (see above). He later finished another run-based drive with a touchdown pass to a wide-open Marcellus Rivers, and in his final drive of the night (to start the third quarter), he threw seven times in eight plays, completing six, to rip off a bang-bang 77 yard touchdown drive capped with a nifty Brady to Evans check down. On 1st and goal from the Carolina 8, the quarterback dodged and weaved through the pocket before spotting Evans as he worked himself free underneath the Panther coverage. The fullback, who later added a 43 yard cutback run to his full night, was terrific throughout. As was Brady, fresh from the coast.

*As noted, Wes Welker had his best game, taking in three balls from the slot, and looking more comfortable while doing it. He also looked collected in the Troy Brown ‘Fair Catch’ role as a punt returner, safely gathering in a couple of booming Carolina punts. Donte Stallworth made a nice adjustment on Ken Lucas when Brady underthrew him on a deep ball, and you know something? I can see Kelley Washington one day developing into a long-term receiver for the Patriots as he earns his keep on special teams. I don’t know what this guy’s issue has been, but so far, he’s been nothing but competent for New England, including some surprisingly smooth routes and catches. On specials, he’s routinely one of the first on the scene. How can he not make the team? As they say, it’s early, but the Patriots front office seems to be hitting on their mid-tier free agents, don’t they?

*I honestly cannot think of a particular highlight for the Patriots defense, aside from perhaps the continued success of the defensive line despite the absence of stars Richard Seymour and Ty Warren. They stuffed Carolina at the point of attack, led by the formidable Wilfork (if the Pro Bowl has any merit whatsoever, he’ll be there soon), the invaluable veteran Green, and youngsters LeKevin Smith and Kareem Brown. Please allow me to confirm that the Pats d-line is freaking deep.

*They did allow nearly 170 yards through the air, but hey, look at the scoreboard. They did not sack Delhomme, though they largely kept him in the pocket where he could do the least damage. Which seemed to be their intention. The secondary – which may welcome Asante Samuel this week – gave up the one big play but to the good, they didn’t make a habit of it. Mostly, they kept the ball in front of them.  Another unfettered night for Harrison, who looks as ready as anyone for September 9th, and Eugene Wilson is moving well, delivering a few hard hits is support of the run. Richardson, the rookie from Notre Dame, took some snaps with the big boys and mixed it up well, though it was he that Colbert first eluded before he raced past a diving Sanders as Wilson chased in vain.

*Oscar Lua had a smooth interception of a David Carr pass that stopped a 4th quarter Carolina drive that had taken the Panthers inside the Patriots 20 yard line. Generally, though, this was a night for the first-string, and Lua and other hopefuls will have to wait until Thursday night for the chance to play their way onto the team.

*Stephen Gostkowski had a great night of kickoffs but went just 1 of 3 on field goals. Both misses were long ones, yet they had plenty of distance and no accuracy. The Patriots had better be as dominant as they were last night if the Ghost is going to struggle from the field.

*Lastly, Matt Cassel directed a 69 yard touchdown drive that was largely the result of Evans’s 43 yard burst, and then went three and out in his only other possession. By the way, welcome back Vinny Testaverde, who went three and out himself, but to be fair, like Jerry’s grandma, he’s on a very fixed income.

Sorry for the late post this morning, but I too am on a very fixed income.

In My Mind I’m Goin’ To Carolina

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

I don’t know about you, but I’m struggling with these Friday night games.

I think it’s the ‘go to work for 8-10 hours first, THEN come home and watch the game’ thing that’s getting me. I like my job fine, but come on – I’ve got my priorities.

I guess if anything, this is our training camp for those two Monday night games the Patriots have scheduled later this fall. Push through the pain and drudgery now, and you’ll be ready to execute when the time comes.

Still sucks though. Here’s a few things I’ll be thinking about while pretending to pay attention in meetings today:

*What are we to make of these reports that say Asante Samuel is ready to end his holdout and rejoin the Patriots next week? I’ll use the most dreaded phrase in the English language here – “makes sense.” Samuel has staged his protest, and now he’ll return to the field, where presumably he can best position himself for another dash for the cash next spring (though there are no reports that the Patriots have conceded future franchise tags). I got to admit – out of all the posible resolutions here, I least expected Samuel to select the “makes sense” option. You know how these contract jihadists can be. Anyway, does he go right from Florida to the Pats starting lineup? Should he? I might suggest that he first watch the guys (Randall Gay) that have been putting the work in, at least for a few days, until he earns his way back out there. I can be a little jihadist myself.

*Will Laurence Maroney get a few touches against the Panthers tonight, and will we get a glimpse of the possibilities in the Pats new zone blocking schemes? Sammy Morris has shown promise as a solid backup so far, but there’s a lot of work still to be done with the New England offense, and finding a niche for the running game in and amongst all the spread formations would have to rank near the top of the offensive ‘to do’ list.

*Will the Patriots offensive line manage to get a finger in the dike tonight, or will they further bedevil Tom Brady with the missed assignments that plagued them last week? For that matter, will Brady even be in attendance? The man’s got a family to think of now. I hope he shows – I’m not sure my heart will stand Matt Cassel against the Carolina regulars. By the way, the Herald’s John Tomase has our Feature of the Day, an expansive piece on Brady’s prime years that features expert commentary from Roger Staubach, Ron Jaworski and Joe Theisman. For other news, as always, you can check patriotslinks.com.

*Will the Patriots defense continue their dominance from last week, and further assert itself as the true strength of the team? Will Rodney Harrison and Gay continue their impressive comebacks? Will Adalius Thomas step from the shadows into the spotlight? Will LeKevin Smith and Kareen Brown extend their push towards the final roster, giving the defensive line unprecedented depth?

*Will Danny Baugher continue to hammer the ball and nail down the punting job? Will Stephen Gostkowski smooth out the rough edges of the last two weeks? Will someone step forward as the primary returner?

You got me – that’s why we watch the games. But first, I’ve got to go to work. Groan.

Work avoidance issues? Tell me about it.

It’s A Boy!

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

I haven’t been this excited about a pregnancy since Murphy Brown went off the air. Can Dan Quayle be far behind? This one’s right up his alley.

The big day finally arrived for Tom Brady yesterday, as actress and former galpal Bridget Moynahan ended her strangehold on the AFC East divisional race by delivering the quarterback’s first child, a boy, in a California hospital.

Moynahan, who is clearly a Jets fan, had hoped to remain pregnant long enough to cause Brady to miss the season opener in New York on September 9th, which would have likely sent New England’s divisional hopes off the rails for good. At least that’s what I’ve been reading in the papers. Another Pats-tweaking scheme by the devious Eric Mangini? Was Teddy Atlas involved? Probably. Talk about tampering.

Anyway, congratulations to Tom, Bridget and son. Hey – what if Mangini tries to set up a baby shower in Santa Monica early next month? Don’t put it past him – he’s always thinking! Will coach Bill Belichick allow Brady to miss the game to be there when the gifts are opened? Isn’t it Tom’s call, really?

Alert Steve Buckley! This thing isn’t over, it’s just beginning!

In other news, the Pats sent punter Tom Malone packing yesterday, which means Danny (My Name Is Erle) Baugher has won the Patriots punting job. Ty (Long-Term) Warren came back to practice after hurting his elbow against Tampa. Albert Breer of the Herald has our Feature of the Day on the always entertaining (and seemingly overlooked so far) Mike Vrabel. For the rest of the morning’s headlines, check patriotslinks.com

Does the Patriots Pro Shop have little silver-somethings?

Let Man-genius know we’re on to him, here.

The Future Dynamics of Player Relations

By Bruce Allen
[email protected]

This is another peek inside Bill Walsh’s Finding the Winning Edge.

There is a chapter entitled “Handling The Pro Athlete” which deals with ways in which to promote sound player relations. It also addresses challenges that can arise, including substance abuse, diversity in the locker room, domestic violence and player assistance programs.

The chapter concludes with a look at the “Future dynamics of player relations” and tries to forecast circumstances and factors that may affect player relations in the future. Keep in mind that this book is now 10 years old, having been published in 1997. See if what Walsh predicted has come true:

  • Players will become even more preoccupied with “self.”
  • Agents will become even more dominating factors in the lives of the players they represent; these agents with provide counsel on all matters involving their players and will act in a self-serving manner.
  • Only the most informed (i.e. knowledgeable) and most talented (i.e. demonstrated ability to teach) coaches will gain the respect of players.
  • Because of the money involved, players will be even more concerned with their current situation, as opposed to having a long-term perspective.
  • Players will give even more attention to their “unique image”; as such, the media will become even more of a major factor in the player’s life.
  • As they earn and accumulate wealth, players will be even more susceptible to the “lure” of an unacceptable life-style.
  • Players will reprioritize their sense of loyalty; their allegiance will be given to their agents first, then to their friends, and next to the media. In this regard, the team will not fare well.
  • Players will be even more inclined to engage in histrionics on the field during the game. Such attention-seeking demonstrations will continue to be an outgrowth of a player’s attempt to achieve notoriety by drawing attention to himself.

These were only some of the items mentioned in a rather lengthy list. Of the above, I found several particularly interesting. The third one down, which deals with coaching, seems to fit well with Bill Belichick, who certainly fits both criteria. It also fits a coach like Mike Shanahan. These two are among the longest tenured coaches in the league and certainly considered at the top of the coaching pile.

The role of agents in the lives of players is right on the money, as well as the obsession with image. The “unacceptable life-style” one I found interesting. Could this apply to someone like Michael Vick, who perhaps felt that he was protected from the consequences of his actions somehow?

The last item is one that has become an everyday occurrence among all athletes. From Terrell Owens to Chad Johnson, Ray Lewis, and yes, Randy Moss, these on-field demonstrations just seem to get more prominent each season, despite the efforts of the league to keep them more subdued.

Was the coach a prophet here, or were these things easy to predict? Talk about it in the comments.

Safety in Numbers

By Dan Snapp
[email protected]

Here’s a nice surprise: the Patriots suddenly have a wealth of options at safety.

The return to health of Super Bowl tandem Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson has been the feel-good story of camp, but Bill Belichick said yesterday he’s just as comfortable with third-year pro James Sanders in there:

“Really, I think we’re at the point now where whichever two of those three are in there together, all of the communication is pretty good.”

Mike Reiss has more about Sanders in our Feature of the Day, describing his insatiable drive to improve, and his comfort soliciting pointers from anybody, including the star quarterback.

Laurence Maroney Redshirtless Vigil, Day Two, was the news of the day. Maroney chatted it up with the press, expressing his desire to get back out on the field. Both Dan Shaughnessy and Steve Buckley use the opportunity of a player talking to them to complain about when players don’t talk to them.

It’s Pronounced Leh-KEE-vin
With Le Kevin Smith looking more like a productive cog in the defensive lineman rotation, here’s a helpful mnemonic device to help in pronouncing his name: whenever you say his name, always say “look even” first. As in, “Look, even Le Kevin got a sack today! Good for him!” Once we get that squared away, maybe we can get announcers to remember the silent “K” in Gostkowski.

For all the people who saw the Pats extend Ty Warren and thought, “Why couldn’t they just do that with Deion Branch?” Reiss makes a key discovery: The extension was in addition to his remaining two years, not replacing them. So Warren is locked in for the next seven years. The Patriots tried to do the exact same thing with Branch, but Branch wanted to tear up the last year of his rookie deal.

Look, even Le Kevin knows the best place for one-stop Pats shopping is patriotslinks.com. See? You’ll never mispronounce it again.

Shed your red shirts in the comments area here.