Things to consider while watching my worst nightmare Incepted into my other worst nightmare:
--For decades the "Is it Brady or Belichick?" debate raged on. Our finest thinkers, philosophers and theologians grappled with it and wondered what would happen to them both if they ever parted ways. And for now, at least, the debate is over. The science is settled. And if you've been on Team Belichick, things could not be worse for your side than they are right now. The Patriots are out of the playoffs since the last time Tom Brady didn't play for them, in 2008. They've lost eight of their 14 games, which is as many as they lost in any two consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2018. And twice as many as they lost in 2003-04, including the postseason. They have eight passing touchdowns on the season, five by the starting quarterback. In 2009 Brady once had five in a game before halftime. They haven't scored a touchdown of any kind in two games. There's also this:
Brady meanwhile has gone to a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 13 years and turned them into an instant winner, merely through the victorious power of his triumphant essence. He's leading comebacks from being three scores down to the Atlanta Falcons like it's something he's done before. And there's simply no way to look at this Patriots season without putting it in the context of Brady's season. He's down there living in a Jimmy Buffett song, sipping tropical kale shakes under the palm trees in a place where the restaurants and bars are open and there are happy fans in the stands. We're living in The Gulag Archipelago.
--I guess it's sort of fitting that the last hope of a postseason run would die at the hands of the Dolphins. Those of us who were at Gillette in the last game of last season realize now that what we witnessed when Ryan Fitzpatrick led a last minute drive that cost the Patriots a playoff bye was just the teaser trailer for 2020. The difference being that in the past, these semi-annual losses to the Dolphins were shocks to the system. That time they were 2-11 and beat the Pats in Miami. The time Tony Sparano sprung the Wildcat on them. That Week 1 game in the heat back in 2014. But a loss like this is just our New Normal now that we're living in this, the darkest of all timelines.
--As these losses pile up, I'm running low on metaphors to apply to them. A year ago, even as the Pats were looking like the No. 2 seed in the AFC, I recall saying that there was something slightly off about them. And I referenced a "Star Trek" episode where Scotty went to Spock saying that the Enterprise "didn't feel right." And even though that was illogical and emotional, Spock took his observation seriously. (Because he understood, as I do, that Scotty is the balls.) So he looked into it and discovered that the ship had been taken apart and put back together by some race of super aliens who just sort of halfassed it, for reasons. I wish I could make the same analogy for the 2020 team, but there's nothing "slightly" off about them. They were not put together right in the design stage. The most apt comparison I have is that my Check Engine light came on a few months ago. My regular mechanic said I needed to take it to a transmission specialist. The transmission specialist said he won't work on this model because the car company - and I don't want to name them so I'll just substitute the word "Fjord" - put a standard transmission in an automatic, which was an idea so bad it's become legend in his industry and no one will touch it. So I had to take it to a Fjord dealership and they had to replace it for the reasonable price of zero dollars and this sucks cents. And that is what this Patriots team is to me. My car. They're not the worst things on the road. They have enough whistles and bells that can make driving them a pleasure at times. There's nothing owed on them. But when you get down into the real nuts and bolts, there are major design flaws that should've been taken care of on the drawing board, before it got to the production stage.
--There's just so much blame to go around, you almost can't go wrong no matter who you choose to pin it on. The Roman army used to punish desertion by picking every 10th Legionnaire at random, and putting him to the sword. Which is where the we get the word "decimation" from. I'm not suggesting that in this case. There's probably something in the CBA saying only the Commissioner can do that. And I think there'd be some kind of dead money carried over on your salary cap if you did so before the end of the league year. What I am saying is that if you chose every 10th guy on that AirKraft One flight back to Providence to blame for this, odds are you picked someone who deserves the criticism.
--The coaches failed in every aspect, from preparation to scheme to in-game adjustments to decision making. The red zone offense is non-existent. The run defense last week against the Rams was abysmal. This week's made that week's look like the '86 Giants. The only true standouts were the guys who have probably been the most consistent and dependable players on the roster all season: Jake Bailey, Big Kick Nick Folk, and the kick coverage of Justin Bethel and Matthew Slater. Those players have been the rocks upon which your church has been built this season. Chew on that for a while.
--I'll start with the coaching. You know that thing where some offensive coordinators script the first 15 plays of the game? (A little practice I've adopted in the bedroom, scripting my first 15 maneuvers. While allowing for down-and-distance, sight reads, audibles, "Check with mes" and a gadget play or two. After that it's all situational, based on what's working. Take it from the voice of experience, lads.) Well here's what the Patriots came up with on their first possession after having a week and a half to prepare: Pass to fullback Jakob Johnson, who is not a good receiver, in the flat that fell incomplete. Run by Sony Michel out of the shotgun, -1 yard. Wide receiver screen to Damiere Byrd, -2 yards. Punt. As we get reminded of every week, Josh McDaniels has the lowest scoring 1st quarter offense in the league. And it's for a reason. His offense simply lacks the capacity to exploit whatever weaknesses might show up on an opponent's game film. There's not a thing they do well enough for them to say "Here's something they won't be able to stop" and then go out and do that thing. They'll put the occasional drive together. But the execution has to be near perfect. They have no margin for error. And can't sustain it because even at their best, defenses can adjust and take away what was had been working.
--Here's an example. The first possession of the 2nd quarter began with a nice run by Michel behind a Jakobi Meyers down block on All-Funny Name Teamer Andrew Van Ginkel and a nice pull block from Joe Thuney on Xavien Howard. An Miami neutral zone infraction (I seem to recall that "Star Trek" I referenced earlier involved an infraction of the Romulan Neutral Zone, but I might be confusing it with another episode), set up Cam Newton for a first down pick up. He then hit Meyers twice, once on a cross and then again scraping behind the defensive line for a 1st down. Then Michel caught one on a Texas route, sitting down in the middle in front of the Dolphins' zone. But at this point, it's like Brian Flores decided there was no reason to concern himself with deep balls and just crash his deep coverage down into underneath stuff and drop his linebackers into the flats. So Kyle Van Noy nearly (and probably should have) picked Newton off. He hit N'Keal Harry short, but held the ball so long the coverage closed on the receiver before the pass was in the air and there was no YAC. When Harry did have a half step on his coverage, the ball sailed high and he tried to one hand it. Unsuccessfully. And another promising drive stalled and had to settle for 3. Once defense's identify how the McOffense is trying to attack them and adjust, there's never an adjustment to the adjustment.
--Like everyone else, I've been struggling to decide exactly how much of the blame falls on Newton. And after given this a lot of thought, doing all the research and crunching the numbers, I think I've come up with a mathematically accurate method for quantifying The Cam Newton Fault Index. And the measurement reading is somewhere between "None of It" and "All of It." A range I like to call, "Some of It." Perhaps even "Quite a Bit of It," but that'll take more precise data.
--What can't be denied is his accuracy is a problem. On a rare Go route, Meyers had Nik Needham beaten by a step but the pass sailed out of the back of the end zone. On of the nicer throws he's made all season, he hit Byrd with a tight spiral for 25 yards on a 3rd & 15. But even there the throw was behind the target and Byrd had to reach back for it. The moments where he leads a receiver slightly and hits him in stride while lofting the ball gently into his man's waiting arms are few and far between. The plays where an open man running a short hitch has to make a Web Gem just to get a hand on the ball are far too common.
--What also should be obvious to all is that Newton struggles with timing to this day. You never see a three-step drop, planted foot, ball comes out, quick strike on target. He's holding the ball, going through progressions and waiting for guys to come open on second reaction plays, instead of throwing them open. I watched Baker Mayfield do exactly that a dozen times in the night game and the difference was startling. It felt like hearing a song you used to jam to all the time but forgot all about until you heard it just now. I'm starting to think Harry is particularly getting victimized by Newton holding the ball because he's getting off the line and into space for passes that aren't coming his direction.
--And I say this while admitting that in this game of Receivers Poker, Newton's not exactly holding the same hand as Brady or Patrick Mahomes. Both is rookie tight ends got their hands on passes they couldn't handle. And maybe they're professionals and they should have. But then again, the one through Devin Asiasi's hands was a 105 mph rising fastball from about five yards away and Dalton Keene only got one hand on his because that's how high he had to reach for it. I have more problems with Rambo's fumble, him slapping at the ball like one of my mother-in-law's Siamese trying to get his paws around a plastic ball with a bell in it. But after Asiasi failed to haul that pass in, he was out of the game for the next few series so my guess is the coaching staff put that on him. Regardless, I'd love to see what a traditional pocket passer with some accuracy could do with either of these tight ends. Maybe next year.
--While we're wallowing in misery, let's talk about that run defense, shall we? I mean, what's the point of having a painful canker if you're not going to stick your tongue into it? The Rams gained a paltry 186 yards on 36 carries, a mere 5.16 YPA. The Dolphins had a more respectable 250 yards on 42 carries, good for a 5.95 per. Mostly thanks to the unstoppable, legendary duo of Salvon Ahmed and Matt Breida, the Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis of the 21st century. It's become a cliche to laugh at the cliche "You've gotta be able to stop the run." But these last two games have been your proof that just because it's a cliche doesn't make it a lie. I'll try to pinpoint the precise source of the problem. But when the breakdown is this total, analyzing it is like trying to find the exact cause of death for Quint in "Jaws."
--Take that second Miami possession, that interminable drive that ended with JC Jackson's interception. For most of that one, the Pats were in their base 4-2-5, with just two down linemen. Which didn't prevent Adam Shaheen from catching one off a Tua Tagovailoa rollout, high stepping over Kyle Dugger up the sidelines and through Terez Hall, Stephon Gilmore and Devin McCourty for 15 or Breida from busting outside on Gilmore for seven. But when the Pats needed a stop on 3rd & 1, Miami doubled both tackles. Solomon Kindley and Austin Jackson took out Lawrence Guy who was in 3-technique while Ted Karras and Jesse Davis swallowed up Adam Butler in 2-shade. Ju'Whaun Bentley was too late getting over as Ahmed picked up 10. The results were a little better when the Patriots went to more of a traditional 3-4 with Byron Cowart or Akeem Spence, but not enough to put a tourniquet on the gushing, bloody wound.
--No one tackled well. There was more shirt pulling than you'll find in a Harlequin Romance. No one seemed able to defeat solo blocks from the Dolphins' zone blocking schemes and tight ends motioning across the formation. Dugger is as good as anyone on the roster at that and he was being taken out by iso blocks most of the game. The closest thing this Front 7 has to an edge setter would be John Simon and I guess Shilique Calhoun, though Tayshawn Bower got a lot of reps there too. But none of them were effective at keeping the Dolphins' backs from breaking containment. It didn't help any when Bentley came out with an injury and Anfernee Jennings and Terez Hall subbed in for him. But none of them are the sideline-to-sideline guy who can cover all 53 1/3 the way, say, Van Noy was when he was here. And so they defended like Miami's ballcarriers were swinging the Dark Saber and covered in Beskar armor. Dank farrik.
--Also no one was deployed well. It looked to me like the defense went with primarily a zone or matchup zone coverage, when man is their biggest strength. I assume that was to keep the linebacker and defensive backs in a position to stop the run, but it so, fat lot of good it did. The deep middle and areas outside the hashes were wide open all game, which is how Tua was 20 for 26 for just 145. But he didn't need to do any more.
--And while we're talking about the coaching, I don't know what to be more hacked off about: The decision to go for it on 4th & 3 in field goal range down by two scores or the fact they drew a 12 men on the field penalty after a time out. But there's no need to declare one to be worse than the other. I just want both bad decisions to have a good time.
--Is anyone up for some positives? Me neither. But here goes anyway. It's the season of giving, after all. Winovich made a great play forcing that Jackson interception. He pushed Robert Hunt deep into the pocket but still stayed on his upfield shoulder instead of getting behind him and letting the bigger man extend his arms and shove him out of the play. So when Tagovailoa stepped up into the pocket, Winovich was right there to wrap him up and force the bad throw. Also Josh Uche has a change of direction that is superhuman. He got credited for a sack on that play where he had dropped to cover the flat/curl zone, spotted Tagovailoa escaping the pocket, came downhill covering a good 10 yards before Tua had the chance to react, got a hand on him and got him to the ground. At this point he's just a passing down specialist. But a guy with his skill set should be able to translate those to more of an every down player with experience and coaching.
--Plus in this special time of celebrating family, there's this. Cleveland Bill Belichick giving his young sons a lesson in the importance of ball security:
--Also, did I mention the special teams? I guess I did. Bethel and Slater covering Bailey's kicks is this team's best weapon right now. And that should sadden us, not gladden us.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
(The one I was hoping to do:) "Harry! You're the guy I want to see.The coach has heard all about you! He's followed every game and his mouth's watering. … We need great ends like you, not broken-down old guys like this one!" - Sam Wainwright, "It's a Wonderful Life"
(The one I kind of have to do:) "Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world." - Mr. Potter, "It's a Wonderful Life"
--I can't hear about Deatrich Wise Jr.'s Size 18 shoes without thinking about this gem. The most "OMG" moment in the history of kids shows, starring a pre-"Matrix" Laurence Fishburne:
Who could've ever guessed Pee Wee would go right to the edge of Saturday morning TV like that?
--Spare me from the lectures about how Hard Robbie Joe Rock Pro Sun Player Life I Can't Believe It's Not a Stadium invented canned water to save the environment. Frank Reynolds invented Wine in a Can a generation ago. He did it so you can gesture without spilling, and no one talked about him like he's Captain Planet.
--Remember when Isaiah Ford was traded to the Patriots and everyone was saying glowing things about what a brilliant guy he is and what an asset he would be to the passing game and Ryan Fitzpatrick was sporting booty shorts in tribute?
So why is he still with the Dolphins and we've only got three wide receivers? I mean, if we're going to trade for a guy and let him stay with his own team, let's make it DeAndre Hopkins or someone.
--Nobody loves to dust off some obscure, arcane trick play against the Pats like someone who used to play or coach for Belichick. Flores running a mini Hook & Ladder on a 2-point conversion was as diabolical as Mike Vrabel taking intentional penalties to run the clock down. These guys must spend half the offseason waiting for the chance to prove to their Sensei they are his equal.
--I couldn't have been more disappointed to find out that CBS show "Clarice" is not about my first crush.
Her story has yet to be told and "Silence of the Lambs" has been done to death. Someday she'll get the feature she deserves. Speaking as someone who's sometimes afflicted by a red nose, "That's why it's so grand" gets me every time.
--Not to pile on the suffering, but it appears likely that we've seen the last of Stephon Gilmore in a Pats uniform. If so, the best free agent signing of the Belichick Epoch came to an end yesterday. Re24pect.