Things to consider after watching the one thing on TV this month worse than "Hubie Halloween":
--So I guess this means, in spite of what people were saying after Tennessee crushed Buffalo last week, that you do need practice?
--I'm not about to make excuses for the fact that for the first 54 minutes or so, this game was like one of those stress dreams I have where I'm doing stand up and as soon as I hit the stage the crowd is openly hostile to me and I can't remember a word of my material and they start grabbing their coats and walking out in the middle of my set and I'm happy to wake up in my bed still having a career. As a wise football coach once said, "Give a team an excuse to lose and they'll take it every time." Or as I'm saying right now, "Excuses are like buttholes. Every time you hear one you laugh at it."
--But there's a reason why the most preparation-obsessed, detail-oriented, practice junkies in the league have been the most successful franchise in history. The Patriots don't stick to the strictest practice regimen in the league just as an excuse to stay out of the house and avoid their Honey Do lists. The work they do there matters. You can draw a direct through line from what goes into a Thursday morning to the results you see on Sunday afternoon. It's not improv, it's scripted. And without dress rehearsals, it's going to be hard to expect everyone to know their lines and cues and hit their marks.
--And the lack of prep showed. The timing on offense was hot garbage. An offensive line that was already being shuffled like the six-deck shoe at one of Penn National Gaming's fabulous destination resort casinos was forced to sustain blocks waiting for receivers to come open. Cam Newton held onto the ball like he was being profiled on an all-new "Hoarders." He read through his progressions like they were the Terms of Service and then had to log in by selecting all the images with traffic lights. The pass plays took more time to develop than it took me to write a paragraph with way too many comparisons crammed into it. Missing practices has consequences.
--And, while it pains me to say this - literally, since I don't use this muscle very often and I'll be sore for a couple of days - Bill Belichick coached like he was trying not to win in order to drive home the point about how important practice is. I mean, I know he was trying to win, but there were uncharacteristic and unfathomable blunders along the way. The decision to decline a penalty that would've pushed Denver out of field goal range and instead let Brandon McManus try a 54-yarder was only the first. Not only was the defense making stops inside their own 40, McManus was bisecting the rectangle of the goalposts along the x-axis and y-axis all game long and did so there again. Later was the call to go for two after the only touchdown of the game when the extra point there would've made it an eight point game. It ended up not being a factor because a subsequent field goal brought them to within six. But still. You know these are bizarre times when the best game manager in history goes all Dan Quinn on us.
--But the worst was the decision not to throw the challenge flag after that horrendous spot of an obvious James White 1st down. That one just stinks of an internal mistake. My only guess is that whatever in-house staff was in charge of getting that replay in front of the right set of eyeballs was too late or something. Otherwise, there's no way Ernie Adams doesn't call for Belichick to reach into his sock for the easy reversal. If I'm right, there should be heads rolling out of the booth and down the steps of Gillette like at a Mayan temple to appease the angry Sideline God.
--Josh McDaniels is not off the hook either. Though even as I say this I want to give him a bit of a pass for having a line that started out (L to R) Justin Herron, Isaiah Wynn (playing G for the first time since Georgia), Joe Thuney (his second time at C), Michael Onwenu and Jermaine Elumenor, only to have to move bodies around on every other possession. Eluemenor went down when Anthony Chickillo hit him in the ankle with 255 lb of Cam Newton, which meant moving Onwenu to RT and putting Hjalte Froholdt in for the first snaps of his career. Later Wynn moved back to his usual LT spot. You got the bad shotgun snap from Thuney stalling a drive, which was inevitable given he's not a center. And all in all, it's hard enough to design an offense and execute it with a full week of prep and your five starting O-linemen, never mind when you're spending all game playing Five Guard Monte.
--So maybe that's why the McOffense was so ... so conventional. I guess that's the right word. It seemed to be dives by Damien Harris behind a fullback, outside zone runs by Harris behind two tight ends, then play action. There's no shame in that. Newton has run the play action as well as anyone in the league this year. Including yesterday.
--But the offense has completely gotten away from what we thought it would be. Certainly what it was in Week 1 that worked so well. Where they establish Newton as a primary running threat, make teams have to account for him with a defender, and then use the numbers advantage to ... the Patriots ... um, advantage. I'm not saying run him 15 times a game. Just look like you're prepared to in order force defenses to have to be ready for it on every down. I can remember two run options. The one to James White that was ruled short and went unchallenged. And one on the touchdown drive to White that went nowhere. Newton's big runs were mostly scrambles when he found no one open. The one exception being a beautiful play design on the first possession. McDaniels came out running a lot of motions and misdirections. And on 3rd & 2 he sent White out to weak side slot, then motioned him across the formation. At the snap, Eluemenor motioned with him, drawing both the Will LB Alexander Johnson and the Mike Josey Jewell flowing toward the strong side. Only to have Onwenu bounce outside on Malik Reed and Newton tuck and run with it through the vacated space for 12. It was beautifully drawn up and run to perfection and I thought by now we'd be seeing more of it.
--Or if not more of it, some variations off it. And variations off the variations. In that way Baltimore did last year. They were able to give defenses looks like they were going zone read so they had to be ready for it, only to have them turn out to be basic dives or straight handoffs. Then they'd run similiar plays but with different blockers pulling, including tight ends. So as the season went on, they'd have opposing defenses' brains tied into balloon animals. And it made everything they did that much more effective. We're not seeing that kind of progress, we're seeing regress.
--Again to be fair to everyone involved, this isn't easy. It's not like when the remote doesn't work so you roll the batteries and it magically lets you flip back to your Halloween cupcake show again. Newton missed a game with a dangerous virus and they've spent two weeks remote learning like my kid's Spanish class so they deserve some consideration. But three weeks ago none of us was picturing them putting up 12 points at home against Denver, with four sacks, six tackles for loss, two interceptions and a fumble.
--Not that it was all bad. Even with a ragtag bunch of O-line conscripts playing out of position, there were some well executed plays. The second drive had a screen to White (set up by motion from Isaiah Zuber, who's fast become the new Cordarelle Patterson) behind a Joe Thuney block on Johnson and Wynn 10 yards upfield for 13. That kind of screen has so many moving parts it invariably draws an "ineligible man upfield" call. But they had the timing down perfectly. In a day where Newton had a hard time with passes behind the line of scrimmage getting Dikembe Motombo'ed, which is becoming a common problem, they're going to need more of that.
--Which brings me to a place I fear to tread. With the exception of a few nice routes by Zuber (a 16-yard pickup on a deep cross from the Z-receiver spot, that Newton put just out of the reach of De'Vante Bausby, or it would've gone the other way) and Damiere Byrd (a couple of nice jobs of running off the corner and then breaking on the comebacker), the wide receivers didn't show up. Julian Edelman was in 43 snaps and I defy you to describe three things he did. N'Keal Harry was in more. And a complete N'on Factor.
--I've been carrying a lot of water - five gallon Poland Springs bottles - for Harry. But that burden is getting awfully heavy when so many of his peers are establishing themselves as the next great generation of wideouts and he's producing zeros across the boxscore like yesterday. Harry did exactly two memorable things. One, was get earholed by Bryce Callahan once this ball was tipped:
And on the final play, Harry broke in, directly into coverage that was shaded to the inside. Granted, Newton may have rushed the throw, but that looked like a total misread by the receiver.
Here it is from God's eye view, in little circles.
I'm never in a rush to declare "Bust Status" on a player. Any player. Because by the standards of people who have already decided he's N'Keal Harried and Hopeless, White and Edelman would've been cut in their second seasons. I'm willing to keep being patient with the guy. I just wish being patient with him didn't take so much fricking work. But it's bad when your only hope late in a game is to pull out old gadget plays like the Philly Special. And this was your third best receiver on your team.
--The tight end situation is a different cat altogether. I had a guy reach out to me saying how much he hates Ryan Izzo. I answered back that I can't work up that particular emotion for a seventh round pick who has no business being put in the position of a TE1. If I'm being held at gun point inside a bank and the FBI hostage negotiator that shows up turns out to be the lady from the picture frame counter at Hobby Lobby, I'm not mad at poor Marge. I'm sure she's trying her best. My beef is with the people who didn't send somebody qualified to get me out of there, safe and largely bullet-free. We are five games and six weeks into the careers of the two tight ends the Pats drafted in the third round. Dalton Keene hasn't dressed once. And despite the fact Devin Asiasi was considered a hybrid TE/big wideout at UCLA, his next target will be his first. Dalton was more of an H-back at Virginia Tech and maybe he needs the extra development. But it's time to either start making Asiasi a part of the passing game or stop wasting a roster spot on him altogether.
--I'm sorry it's taken so long to get to the defensive side of the ball because they deserve better than listening to me yell at the whole class while they're sitting there holding the B+'s and A-'s I just passed back to them. It's not their fault not everyone was ready for the test.
--In particular, Jonathan Jones was the star pupil. Playing mainly in the slot - first with Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty and then eventually with Gilmore and JC Jackson, Jones drew the most challenges. He took on a true hybrid big receiver in Tim Patrick as well as traditional tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Particularly on shots to the end zone. And Jones more than held up his end of the defense's bargain. Despite the fact at 5-10 he was giving away more than half a foot to each of them, look at this coverage:
Plus his interception might have been the most athletic single play anyone on this team has made so far this year.
--Credit Jones because, while I thought the 41-yard completion to Patrick on the opening drive should've been called for his push off of Jason McCourty, it tipped off that the officials were going to keep their whistles in their pockets and allow some hand fighting. So Jones stayed physical and made all the contact they were allowing in order to stay with his much bigger assignments. He also drew Jerry Jeudy and broke up a pass, so he's showing you can iso him on a variety of body types and skill sets and count on him to deliver. He also raced over to close the gap on Drew Lock when he was scrambling for the pylon, and he and Devin McCourty kept him out of the end zone. So he kept a ton of points off the board.
--Aside from his INT, my favorite play by Jones was after the Pats first turnover, the Broncos were facing a 3rd & 2 at the New England 25. They went to a three man bunch formation as Jones slid over giving a kind of One Potato/Two Potato signal with his fists. Those combo routes can wreak havoc with coverage, but for the most part the Patriots try to keep it simple and defend them like you do 3-on-3 basketball, where everyone either sticks with a man and calls out picks, or stay in a zone and take the guy on your side. Whatever Jones signaled gave him Okwuegbunam and he stayed with his man to the end zone and broke up the pass. So the Pats defense held up against great field position without giving up a 1st down and held Denver to a field goal. He made about a half a dozen of similar plays and was a major reason the unit gave up no TDs on the day.
--Another top performer was Ju'Whan Bentley, who might have had the best game of his (admittedly small sample size) career. From the very first play from scrimmage when he tripped up Phillip Lindsay who had about a five-acre estate of free space in front of him to his half a sack and two TFLs, Bentley was aggressively running downhill and crashing the interior gaps most of the day. It's in Denver's DNA to run out of zone blocking schemes, and Lindsay was well suited to it, with quick reads and jump cuts and changes of direction. But Bentley read the scheme well and took a lot of those cutbacks away. No play was bigger than set of downs after that terrible hold call on Gilmore (so bad that even Gene Skeletor said it was bad, so remember this day well), Bentley shot the B-gap and John Simon broke through on a well timed run blitz to keep Lindsay from scoring. I feel like after a great start to his rookie season that was cut short by injury, Bentley's really entering that phase of his career that Dont'a Hightower did about now. Where he understands how all the wheels, cogs and gears mesh together and he can anticipate where the ball is going and be heading there as soon as its snapped. In fact, he drilled Lock right in the 10-ring with a well timed blitz on Jones' interception. Which, while it didn't directly cause it - that was all Jones - it certainly didn't do Lock any favors as he threw into bracket coverage.
--While they stuck to almost exclusively nickel (or sometimes dime but with a seven man box), I thought the Pats defense was at its best when it went big in the Front-6, with Simon and Anfernee Jennings, who saw pretty much the most action of his career. And when Kyle Dugger was playing Robber, once stopping Patrick dead in his tracks a yard shy of the 1st down, and on another bringing down Royce Freeman for no YAC. The more you see of him, the better he looks.
--They were less effective with their pass rush package, particularly Chase Winovich, who I thought struggled against the Broncos blocking schemes. On a couple of plays he got caught diving inside, including one of those dreaded off tackle runs where a pulling kickout block on Jennings left a massive hole in the line that Lindsay exploited for 20. That's a little thing known as Chandler Jonesing It. Winovich has been playing great, but he'll need to clean that up.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "I heard that you were feeling ill. Headache, fever, and a chill. I came to help restore your pluck, cause I'm the nurse who likes to…" - Singing Nurse, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"
--I meant to mention this earlier, but if you're in the market for some nice IKEA outdoor furniture, we love our Hjalte Froholdt.
--I had it at just about two minutes to play in the 3rd quarter. The Patriots were down 18-3. They'd just punted. The CBS cameras did their obligatory shot at the Patriots owners booth. And for the first time all season, Mr. Kraft was seen with his mask down. He took it down, in order to yawn. In that moment, as in so many moments before, the former Schaefer Stadium season ticket holder was all of us.
--Why are we not all sporting the Vic Fangio space helmet face shield? If he can wear it, it's effective and we all can, correct? Why are the stores, restaurants and gyms absolutely packed with these?
I mean, I know I prefer a mask because I look better in one. But if I was a handsome man, I'd own nothing but this windshield thing.
--In the big picture, Google Earth view of all this, the important thing will be that both Newton and Stephon Gilmore looked healthy, spry, athletic and in fine form. And if somehow this team can make it until the rest of the season, or a couple of months, or a few weeks or even 48 bloody hours without more positive tests and more canceled workouts and rescheduled games, then maybe we'll all just realize this bad performance was the expected outcome of all the chaos and uncertainty.
--Let's hope. Because the alternative is that this is what they truly are. Which is not very good.
--I thought Jimmy Garoppolo's return would be something to be excited about. The regular season game of the decade. Now I just want a W.