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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 1: Patriots vs. Dolphins

Things to consider while realizing your new quarterback isn't just Superman, he's the Dayman:

--First things first. Is it weird seeing football in an empty stadium? Of course it is. It's surreal. Like something out of one of those post-apocalyptic, cautionary tale "Twilight Zones" that's supposed to warn us about the dangers of nuclear war or teach us how dependent we are on one another or something. But let's grade on the curve here, shall we? Real tackle football games that count but have no fans in the stands are about 1/1,000,000th as weird as no sports at all. Months where every day was the day after the MLB All Star game. Sports radio hosts that were breaking down the Alex Cora situation in February turned into expert epidemiologists in April. Commercials all starting with the same somber, minor key piano music and "In these difficult times ..." voice overs. ESPN showing Cornhole and Rock Skipping. I think it's stupid that every stadium can't at least have the population density of your local Trader Joe's the way Arrowhead did Thursday night. But I learned a long time ago not to question anything and to take these little life victories as they come. As recently as two months ago we were hearing this day may never come. It's football. For now it'll have to do. 

--What's harder to process is the change at quarterback after twenty years. But a fella can get used to this. I watched this same team with a vastly different quarterback struggle against these same Dolphins in person right after Christmas and then scrape together 13 points in a home playoff loss. So this is change we can embrace. The best comparison I can come up with for the change from Tom Brady to Cam Newton is it's like going from Alec Baldwin playing Jack Ryan in "Hunt for Red October" to Harrison Ford playing him in "Patriot Games." One is an all time classic blockbuster starring a guy who's perfect for the role. The other is a taught, well-made thriller starring one of the best leading men of his generation. Both are great an eminently rewatchable. There are two just entirely different approaches to the role and completely different tones to the movie. Does that make sense? Or should I have gone with Charlie Sheen being replaced by Ashton Kutcher?

--Newton deserves a ton of credit, which he is about to get. But first I want to talk about what Josh McDaniels pulled off this offseason. Newton was signed in late June. Camp started in August. Newton spent much of camp splitting reps with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. And still, McDaniels managed to overhaul the system he's been running for over a decade. He's taken a pretty Transformable offense and converted it into something it has never been before. Instead of going from Optimus Prime to a tractor trailer, he's figured out how to turn a Ferrari into an F-150 in a matter of weeks. 

--And Newton, despite having so little time and so few practice reps managed to cram enough for the exam to seem to be comfortable and for the most part in command of all the aspects. The pre-snap reads, the route combinations, the checks at the line. It's a work in progress, to be sure. That first sack was the result of him taking a 5-step drop with Jerome Baker lined up right over the guard spot that was vacated by a Joe Thuney pull. And there were a couple other examples where it's clear the protection calls will have to improve. But all things considered, I thought the mistakes were pretty minimal. Even that second sack that Jim Nantz and Tony Romo kept harping on was less a mental mistake than it was a feet-slipping-out-from-under-him mistake, which in the big picture are sort of manageable.

--Much more important are the skills Newton brings, which are unlike anything we've ever seen here. Kyle Van Noy is the biggest linebacker on the Dolphins. And Newton is not only bigger than him, he can outrun some linebackers and probably a few defensive backs. So he can do all the zone read stuff we've seen other teams do, like Baltimore last year and Philly in the Super Bowl. Quarterbacks causing hesitation in unblocked defenders by holding the ball in a runner's gut and then handing it off or keeping it based on who the defender commits to. The benefit there is you turn the QB into a factor in the run game and, by leaving that one end unblocked, you decrease the defense's numbers advantage. The thing is, Newton does all that but adds another dimension by being the best power running quarterback the league has ever seen. On their final possession, they ran him out of Tank, with a nine man line and one back. When you have designed QB keepers like the Pats were running with Newton, you've legitimately got 10 blockers taking on 11 defenders, and you mathematically can't do better than that  without a Too Many Men on the Field penalty. 

--I'm talking about base runs you'd normally draw up for a running back. Draws. Powers. Sweeps. For instance, on that first touchdown drive, Newton ran a designed keeper behind a Thuney pull, with Ryan Izzo split wide and James White motioning out that went for a 1st. It was sandwiched between two plays where he froze Shaq Lawson by holding the ball on the runner's belt for what felt like an eternity, first with Burkhead who got to through the second level untouched for a 1st, and the second to White, who set up a 1st & goal from inside the 5. All these, plus the counters and misdirections put enormous pressure on a defense. 

--Take for instance, the jet sweep to Julian Edelman which went for 23 yards plus a penalty tacked on. Teams had begun to look for that once Edelman went in motion. But this time there was no end for him to get around because the whole Dolphins' front was densely packed in the middle. Basically forming a group hug (Remember those? They've gone extinct in the New Normal) between the tackles to stop the inside runs. So McDaniels attacked them horizontally. 

--All of which served to open up play actions, a lot of which were coming out of I formations and two- and sometimes three-tight end sets that give he defense no choice but to bite on the fake. Right after the 38-yard play by Edelman, we saw a shovel pass to White after he motioned in and then out again that went for seven. A run option carry by Burkhead for a 1st down. A play action out of the I that saw no one open so Newton pulled it down and ran for 11. 4th & a yard near the goal line, which Newton converted behind three tight ends. And the subsequent roughness call, which moved the ball half the distance to the goal. Or as Belichick once put it in one of his greatest lines ever, "about the length of my dick." That wordsmith.

--Again, the benefits of a 6-foot-5, 245 pound healthy grown man under center. Ordinarily you can afford to put a cover guy on every receiver with at least one safety out back to help out. That's not a luxury you can afford when the QB is a serious run threat. You have to commit extra bodies to the gap numbers and account for him. By the 2nd quarter Brian Flores was going to Cover-0 and even 11 men on the line of scrimmage. Which eventually opened up the passing lanes and should do so more going forward as the McOffense sees more reps. 

--Still, there were plenty of plays that looked familiar. Sony Michel running behind an actual professional fullback in Jakob Johnson, a luxury he was not afforded last year (though Elandon Roberts was a gamer, running through a mofo's face). You had Edelman running flats and curls. And hitting big on a crossing route where he scraped behind the Dolphins' line. White catching wheel routes. We even saw a tight end screen to Izzo, plus deep cross from him that went for 25 yards, two plays that were beyond out wildest dreams last year. Not much in the way of bubble screens to wideouts but that is such a staple it should be added soon enough. And to be able to run a hybrid of a run option offense while incorporating the passing game the Dynasty was built upon with so little prep time is nothing short of Herculean. And let's see Heracles capture the Erymanthian Boar and clean out the Augean Stables under Covid restrictions. 

--In all, they had six rushers with more than 20 yards, which is unheard of. And if you mention that to a Pats fan of a certain age and a good memory, expect to get a history lesson about the 1978 division champs who had five guys rush for 390+ yards on the season. They set the all time team rushing record that stood until the Ravens broke it last year.

--Maybe my favorite series of plays was the package that put all 5-foot-6, 185 pounds of UDFA JJ Taylor behind a fullback and ran him through the C-G and G-T gaps, with positive results. Now if he could just avoid getting captured by Orcs or being killed by Gollum, this could become a base run in their offense.

--The play that was most familiar though was Newton's second touchdown run. Because it looked exactly like Jacoby Brissett's unforgettable run when he beat Houston 27-0. Both were designed naked boots with great combination blocks on the play side. In Brissett's case it was Marcus Cannon earholing JJ Watt. This time it was Jermaine Elumenor blocking down on the defensive end while Shaq Mason pulled to seal off the outside linebacker. Set up by Newton motioning Burkhead across the formation, drawing a defender and clearing out the side for just Izzo, who threw a great goal line block on Eric Rowe, the only man Newton would've had to beat. That play must be buried somewhere in the appendix at the back of McDaniels' playbook. Or in an old Trapper Keeper he keeps in bottom drawer filled with unmailed love notes for Tiffany Amber Thiessen and drawings of WWII fighter planes shooting at dinosaurs. But so far it's 2-for-2.

--And as much as I appreciate Newton giving the ball to David Andrews to spike it after everything he went through last year, my favorite moment was him on the sideline phone, laughing it up with someone. If that was Ernie Adams, I'd sacrifice my Netflix subscription for a month to hear 30 seconds of that conversation. I bet it was the audio version of this:

--OK, I've held out as long as I could on this one. In that way that when a co-worker comes back from vacation you don't want to hit him with the bad news of the inane garbage he missed right away. Let him have his coffee at least and ease him into it. But we must talk about the N'Keal Harry situation. That fumble was unforgivable. It would be inexcusable if it was a UDFA in an exhibition game. For a guy with who arguably has more to prove than anyone on the field - including Newton - to try to reach for the end zone rather than take the 1st & goal when he has been coached repeatedly not to reach for he end zone under any circumstances and to happily take the 1st & goal, well that sounds a lot of warning signals. 

--The damned thing of it is, prior to that brainfart, this was his Debutante's Ball. He was playing great. He made a nice comebacker, disengaging from Noah Igbinoghene with quality hand fighting to square up and make a big target for Newton. He made an A+ hand grab of a bullet pass that was slightly behind him. He got inside Byron Jones on a quick slant that set up a 3rd & 1, which Newton converted. And then? Hero Ball struck. And, predictably, a momentum shift that kept Miami in the game. The resulting drive gave them the score and the conversion, so it was a 15-point swing. Harry was back on the field right away, so he wasn't put in the time out chair. But hopefully this was what child-rearing experts (and no actual parents, believe me) call "a teachable moment." Just remember, yer not a wizard, Harry. 

--By the way, gigantic kudos to the Gillette Stadium game presentation team for piping in boo noise as the subsequent drive went on and on. That is one group of AV Club kids who gives a damn about the quality and accuracy of their work. Respect.

--My apologies to the defense for taking so long to get to them. Because I'm sure they hang on my every word looking for approval. There's a lot to unpack here. But from the SkyCam view, they looked very much like they did last year. Ball hawking. Aggressive man coverage. Sacks coming off that coverage. A base nickel with a lot of Cover-1 and some Cover-0. With bodies rotating through on the front-7 and in situational subpackages. More than anything, I was impressed with the tackling. Which sounds basic but is always the first point of emphasis but something they haven't been able to work on with no preseason fauxball. Aside from a runner bouncing off a shoulder pad or two (I recall Devin McCourty losing a ball carrier who picked up extra yards, but I didn't make note of who because I was Tweeting), they were wrapping people up for the most part. 

--As far as replacing their veteran losses, the role of Pat Chung was mainly split between Adrian Phillips, Terrance Brooks and Joejuan Williams, with their top draft pick Kyle Dugger seeing some limited action. Predictably, Ju'Whan Bentley has graduated to the Dont'a Hightower role of every down, green-dotted linebacker. Van Noy's and Jamie Collins' spots were taken by increased roles for Deatrich Wise Jr and Derek Rivers, with Chase Winovich basically now a starter. As far as the other new linebackers, No. 2 pick Josh Uche was out but No. 3 pick Anfernee Jennings played, mostly in the goal line/short yardage package. The rest of the reps alongside Bentley went to John Simon and Shilique Calhoun, no surprises there. 

--Sure there were glitches in the Matrix that caused the best cornerback in football to pick up some impactful DPI calls. But Stephon Gilmore isn't turning into Brandon Browner on us. On one of those calls, his feet came out from under him and he grabbed the receiver to prevent a big play. On the other, he had perfect position and just got grabby unnecessarily on a 4th & 2 that kept a touchdown drive alive. Beyond that, he was vintage Gilly Lock. Matching up mainly against Preston Williams, he was getting his hands on the receiver to sort of "feel" the breaks of his routes while keeping his eyes on Ryan Fitzpatrick. He mirrored guys routes and perfectly timed when to jump them, like on his interception where he just out ran the target to get to the ball first. He puts the first option's blood in the water and makes it so the rest of the secondary can come in and start the feeding frenzy.

--Which is precisely what happened on the other interceptions and break ups. Phillips was in Robber, patrolling the middle underneath zone with his eyes in the backfield and stepped under a slant for the pick. On the end zone pick, JC Jackson had outside leverage on Jakeem Grant who was running a flag. But once the ball was in the air, he peeled off his man to get over the top of Mike Gesicki, who was battling Williams. Whether that should've been DPI is a debate I will leave to Mike Perreira, the philosophers, the scientists and the clergy. I'm just a humble blogger. Add to those plays a PBU from Jackson just before the half and another by William on Gesicki and they were all around the ball virtually the whole game. I could've used a little of that back in December on the final drive when I'd brought my whole family for the first time. But I'm not bitter.

--One guy who quietly played his ass off was Byron Cowart. He helped stall a drive with a run stuff where he and John Simon penetrated inside. Then with a rip/pull move on Ted Karras to make a tackle in the backfield. Then he got his hand on the subsequent field goal, but it was somehow still good. Danny Shelton was a guy who ran very hot and then would disappear for games at a time. It'll be worth keeping an eye on Cowart (2019's 159th pick out of Maryland) to see if he's made the Year 2 jump and can replace him.

--The quote of the day was from Romo, who started off the broadcast by going Big Picture on the task facing the Patriots as they go forward into this brave new world. Words to the effect of, "It's going to be hard to duplicate what they've accomplished over the last 20 years." That's the kind of insight he's making the big bucks to bring us. "You know Jim, the next baby born to abject poverty in Bethlehem is going to have a heck of a time duplicating the life of the Lamb of God who just changed the course of human history." - Tony Romo in 39 A.D.

--In case you didn't hear Newton's explanation for why he was jawing with Christian Wilkins at the end of the game, he said Dolphin players were trying to rip his chain off all game and called Wilkins "a guy known for doing splits:

That's one way to replace the irreplaceable man. With a quarterback who's capable of being impolite. 

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "If you fumble this football, I will break my foot off in your John Brown hindparts. And then you will run a lap." - Coach Boone, "Remember the Titans"

--What we saw Sunday was the Wikipedia definition of a mixed bag on special teams. Damiere Byrd muffing a punt after Jackson bumped into him. Edelman coming in to replace him and then Byrd getting more chances. Jake Bailey pinning Miami deep, once on a ball with perfect English on it that spun back away from the goal line and was downed and another by sick coverage from Justin Bethel who single-handedly bottled up the return, set up a gang tackle and put the Dolphins at their 5. But then you had another missed field goal, which have gotten so common over the last couple of years they should be sponsored. "This week's blown field goal is brought to you by Vance Refrigeration of Scranton. Has your kicker gone cold? Are coaches calling time outs to ice him? …" and so on. Nick Folk clearly won the competition in camp, but Justin Rohrwasser is on the practice squad and don't be stunned if they make the switch this week. If Bill Parcells was in charge he'd be threatening to send a cab to the Old Kicker's Home and bring in Matt Bahr.

--I was griping about quarantine commercials earlier. And with good reason. They were repetitive, grandiose and insufferable. So we should all be grateful for the fact that now football is back, they've gone back to the playbook of simply selling us their beer and food, not trying to make us better, more concerned citizens of the world. Thank you for talking to me like someone you want to get drunk and fat for profit. That is how we can all come together. This guy gets it:

--I'll end with this. Football games in empty stadia are no big deal for those of us who grew up with the Stooges on Sunday mornings:

It feels great to be back doing KJRs. I probably should keep this to myself, but I'll say it anyway. I frigging love my job.