by Scott Benson
The Patriots have already released four of the twenty-two players they must shed before their final 53-man roster is finalized late this afternoon. Pats fans are red-penciling their dog-eared rosters as we speak, considering the permutations of this guy or that. As fans, their conclusions will in part be driven by certain conventional wisdoms, honed through diligent watch over daily reportage and weekly exhibition games.
Yet I wonder, will they be vexed by the unforseen? Will they learn first hand of an Alternate Universe?
Matt Cassel Stays, Matt Gutierrez Goes
I thought Cassel looked better Thursday night than he had all pre-season. Of course, that’s not saying much, and when you factor in that he didn’t put a single point up, it’s saying even less. But he did improve, showing a more purposeful pocket presence and a quicker, more confident release. It was still inconsistent, but it was better. Gutierrez was just a mess. Though he’s largely outplayed Cassel to date, in our alternate universe, the Pats opt for Cassel’s experience for one more year, with the idea that Kevin O’Connell will be ready to compete with for the number two spot (maybe with a vet FA?) in 2009.
Pats Go With Four Backs
I don’t know whether it’s because he’s still coming back from an injury, or whether he’s suffering by comparison, but I’m not sure I saw anything special from Sammy Morris this month. I’ve bought into the five-back theory, but if one of them is just ordinary, then why not use the spot elsewhere? Morris played great for the Pats in 07, but LaMont Jordan looked like the better player in the pre-season. In the Alternate Universe, Morris looked like a less elusive Kevin Faulk.
First He Was Afraid, He Was Petrified
In an alternate universe, Victor Hobson Will Survive. He made more plays Thursday night than he’d made all month. Hobson seemed a shade more comfortable in his new skin, though like Cassel, it mattered not a whit. Still, this guy has too much experience and possible versatility (didn’t he play outside in New York?) to take him lightly as a backup to the top four. The prevailing theory is that his slow run-up on the playbook will ultimately cost him a spot, but maybe the Pats will decide to be a bit more patient with Hobson in the event one of their linebacking rookies (could be as many as three or four) someday finds himself in over his head.
Speaking of Rookie Linebackers
If the Pats go with ten linebackers as they did last August, only one linebacker still in camp would not make the team. Thomas, Bruschi, Mayo and Vrabel start, backed up by Hobson, Crable and Woods, and to a lesser degree special teamer Eric Alexander. That’s eight. That means it comes down to Larry Izzo against a tag team of UDFA’s Gary Guyton and Vince Redd to determine the last two guys standing.
That’s if they keep ten. Maybe with the infusion of youth, they try nine, and beef up eslewhere. Either way, in the Other Reality, Izzo may have been simply planning for his (near) future when he took that gig on the Red Sox dating show.
As good a word as any to describe the Pats offensive line play so far. Is it possible that this is (alomost) the same group that anchored the NFL’s highest scoring offense just a few months ago? You’d think CW’ers would be okay with returning pro bowlers Matt Light and Logan Mankins, as well as dependable pivot Dan Koppen. And Nick Kaczur has played an awful lot of minutes for some good teams, regardless of his proclivities. Yet a feeling of apprehension exists. Nearly all of them (Light is excused with a note) have been pushed around pretty good over the last four games, and without Stephen Neal for the first six weeks of the regular season, there are understandable concerns that Tom Brady will not remain upright.
In the other universe, though, the Pats open the season and Mankins, Light, Koppen and Kaczur quickly progress to form, bolstering fill-ins Billy Yates and Russ Hochstein, providing that’s he’s available. If he isn’t, veteran John Welbourn can call on his guile until Neal returns in October. Or he’ll just sit on the bench with Wesley Britt and Mike Flynn or Oliver Ross if they haven’t given up on him. Or maybe not playing this month was the best thing Ross could have done.
Slater Makes Six
There is something about Matthew Slater. For me, it’s his speed, athleticism and hitting in the secondary. Maybe for you, it’s the thought of Slater as a gadget wide receiver getting an occasional change-up in space. The esoteric among us may they favor his wing work on kick coverage. He needs work as a returner, but given a crease, he will split. The Pats need a spot to stash Slater and in an alternate universe, it’s as the sixth receiver, behind Moss, Welker, Gaffney, Jackson and Washington. Though that WR designation will have no bearing on what he does in practice, and maybe someday soon, in games.
On second thought, maybe they keep him as a safety. Who’s in front of him at, say, free safety? Like the aforementioned Morris, Antwan Spann didn’t stand out in the crowd in any of the four practice games (and he got a hell of a lot of reps, with Brandon Meriweather down) and while he’s always been useful on special teams, how exactly did he play himself on the team this August? Can’t James Sanders pick up some of the slack behind Meriweather? Slater was inconsistent like everybody else this month, but his varied potential puts him on the team. Plus it gives them a chance to slide Sam Aiken (if he’s okay) or even Ray Ventrone (like Slater, a multi-purpose backup) on the roster.
Last year’s Pats took ten defensive backs (and one video assistant too many) to New York for their opening game with the Jets. With Asante Samuel gone, what’s the chance they cut back at the position?
Here’s one where I can’t take issue with conventional wisdom. They’ll need at least ten to keep up with all the backpedalling. Rookies Wheatley and Wilhite are in behind Hobbs, Bryant and free agent Lewis Sanders, and in the end, they keep Slater as deep backup for the Meriweather, James Sanders and the Hall of Fame vets.
They Didn’t Kill Kenny
Okay, honestly, who had defensive lineman Kenny Smith making the 53? Do you even know who he is? Those who dwell in The Universe del Alternate do. Once a third-round choice (in 01!), there’s no record of him playing any football to speak of since 2003. Yet he’s shown some sturdiness as a run defender, with a flash of penetration. Fits as a Ty Warren back up. LeKevin Smith goes to IR and Kenny re-emerges to make the club alongside fellow reserves Jarvis Green and Mike Wright. Former practice squadder Santonio Thomas is denied in the realm of the alternate.
One Fan’s Guess
Quarterback (3) Brady, Cassel, O’Connell
Running back (4) Maroney, Faulk, Evans, Jordan
Wide receiver (6) Moss, Welker, Gaffney, Jackson, Washington, Aiken
Tight end (2) Watson, Thomas
Offensive line (9) Light, Mankins, Koppen, Yates, Kaczur, Hochstein, Britt, Welbourn, and Ross
Defensive line (6) Seymour, Wilfork, Warren, Green, Wright, K. Smith
Outside linebacker (5) Thomas, Vrabel, Woods, Crable, Redd
Inside linebacker (5) Bruschi, Mayo, Hobson, Alexander, Guyton
Cornerback (5) Hobbs, Bryant, L. Sanders, Wheatley, Wilhite
Safety (5) Harrison, Lynch, Meriweather*, J. Sanders, Slater
Specialists (3) Gostkowski, Hanson, Paxton
*Edited to conceal extremely stupid oversight.
The Patriots Were Just Playin’ Wit’cha All
Conventional Wisdom says that Gertrude Stein is full of shit; there IS a there there, when it comes to concerns about the Patriots lethargic August. Such talk is often dismissed – even mocked (gasp) – as needless fretting. Still, the first team offensive and defensive lines have lost virtually every physical matchup they’ve been involved in, and this in a nutshell is why the Patriots have been unable to run, pass, tackle, cover or do anything else positive with their summer. The funk has permeated its surroundings, much as a nasty hockey bag stinks up a locker room. Nobody’s no good for nothing if the front lines are buckling.
Alternately, one could say that Bill Belichick handed his team a bunch of seventh grade game plans and an edict not to hurt themselves. Have you ever seen a guy more intent on not hurting himself than Randy Moss this month? This may seem like a reach to you, but over the last couple of weeks I began to notice just how few plays the Patriots were really running. The little roll out and dump off to the tight end. The slip screen. The counter-style running play that seems to start 15 yards deep in the backfield, always on first down. And on defense? How many times did I see the Patriots bunch up on the line of scrimmage, d-backs up like d-ends like they’re bringing the house, and then on the snap they all retreat, linebackers and corners and safeties (and I swear the defensive ends sometimes too) fanning out in a soft zone that seems specifically designed to give up 11 yards on 3rd and 10.
Alternately, one could suggest that a week from tomorrow Belichick’s Patriots come out and, as a defending conference champion should, routinely defeat the Kansas City Chiefs – in their opening game, at home – by making plays on both offense and defense, as they have repeatedly done to some acclaim as recently as January of this year.