Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 1: Patriots vs. Dolphins
Things to consider while appreciating Belichick honoring Queen Elizabeth with a moment of silence:
--There have been some bad debuts throughout history. The Browns once had a quarterback named Don Gault who spent two years trying to crack the roster. He finally got a start, Week 3 of the 1970 season against another rookie by the name of Terry Bradshaw. He went 1 for 16 with two interceptions and a passer rating of 0.0 before getting pulled at halftime. The Canadiens had a goon named Bill Baker who got into three fights in his first game, lost them all, had to get stitched up after every one, and had his nose broken. Ten years ago there was a kids movie starring Toni Braxton, Chazz Palmintieri and Christopher Lloyd called - and I'm not kidding - The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure that cost $20 million to make, opened on 2,160 screens, and took in $500,000 in its opening weekend. And yet every one of them can take some comfort today in knowing that at least they didn't fail as badly as Matt Patricia in his first day as offensive coordinator. Hell, William Henry Harrison didn't get off to as terrible a start, and he dropped dead of pneumonia a month after he was inaugurated.
--I exaggerate. A bit. Just a little hyperbole to kick off like my 20th season of KJRs. And not nearly as bad as what's coming for Belichick and Patricia. This is one of those moments in life where your timeline and your text threads are virtually unreadable if you want to preserve any modicum hope in your soul. They have no idea what they're doing. This is what the whole season will be like. They're destroying Mac Jones' career. Tom Brady is still winning. Kraft should've fired Belichick and kept Brady. It's fighting the same fight that began some time around 2017 or so, and the Patriots are losing. Bad. Belichick is forced to walk around with a Scarlet "P" for "Pliability" stitched into his hoodie. Patricia is standing before the rest of gym class with his pants down around his ankles while all the cool kids point and laugh. This situation is the wettest dream of every anti-Patriots extremist. And if it keeps up, we're going to need an emergency shipment of rubber sheets around here.
--Not that I'm here to polish this turd. You can't look around the NFL scores, see your team put up the fewest points (even fewer than - and here I pause for effect - the Jets), shrug with your palms facing the ceiling and go, "Ah, whatareyagonna do. These things happen." Because they don't. One touchdown is unacceptable and therefore cannot be accepted. But I'm not going into a panic attack after one game because I've been saying all along I expected a slow start. That when you're installing a new system, it's reasonable to expect a shake-out period. With this team, in these days of limited practices, September has been an extension of training camp. And some of their best seasons have started off 2-2. Last year, they were 1-3, then 2-4, before ripping off seven straight. I'm prepared to weather this because I anticipated it. And let history record that in this moment, I did not waver. I stood my ground against a tsunami of panic and negativity with my faith in Belichick unshaken. As Thomas Paine wrote in The American Crisis (the most influential leaflet before Famous Jewish Sports Legends), "THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Let the record reflect I'm no sunshine patriot and stood by these Patriots. And when my trust in Belichick is rewarded, you'll be reading these words again.
--I mean, it's hard enough for this franchise to win in Miami when the head coach stands to make $100,000 for every loss. So there's not a ton of shame in losing this one.
--It goes without saying there's a lot to criticize Patricia for. We're now six weeks removed from the start of camp and I still don't have a handle on what his offense is trying to be. We were sold on it being a Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay system, with all that entails. But I'm not seeing it here, Lloyd. Mike McDaniel runs that scheme and the difference was obvious. The Pats used quite a bit of presnap motion to identify coverages and adjust the blocking assignments as they always have. But there was none of the Ghost- or Jet-motions after the snap to give Jones a Run Pass Option and make the edge defenders hesitate like you saw Miami doing with Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Chase Edmonds. There was even precious little play action. Though when we did see it, it produced that touchdown drive in the first possession of the second half. Patricia also needs to explain bonkers decisions like handing it off on a 2nd & 17 or trying to get Ty Montgomery to covert a 3rd & 3 with an inside power, while insider power runners Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson were standing off to the side where they could be of no use. That Montgomery run was the equivalent of Josh McDaniels' old penchant for the short yardage Caucasian Fullback Dive play, which had the element of surprise because no one ever expected you to be stupid enough to keep the ball out of your best runner's hands. And it was just as effective.
--And there was very little in terms of mixing things up. I don't have the stats on how many times they went with 21-personnel, but given the fact that Hunter Henry played 88% of the snaps and Jonnu Smith had 68%, the math would seem to put the number at somewhere between "a lot" and "a wicked lot." Again, a staple of the Shanahan system is to establish your identity, get the defense to start to commit to stopping what you're doing, then pivot away from those tendencies.
--But the most egregious decision was keeping Kendrick Bourne on the sidelines. I get that you consider yourself to be a base two-tight end attack. But DeVante Parker played every, single down like he's your left tackle. Jakobi Meyers missed all of seven plays (88%). Bourne saw a total of two. TWO. The second of which was that perfectly placed 41-yard lob wedge from Jones up the sidelines. The Pats ran two verticals on either side of field. Jones held the safety just long enough for Bourne to beat single coverage and Bourne did what he did all last season. Which is get an opportunity and make the most of it. Last year he caught 82.7% of his targets and had a passer rating when targeted of 140.9. That he's fighting a losing battle for playing time now is inexplicable. Though I need someone to explic it to me.
--Hunter S. Thompson once said, "Bob Dylan has a lot to answer for." I used that line about Patricia after Super Bowl LIII when Brian Flores' defense held the Rams to three points a year after Patricia couldn't get the Eagles off the field. I'm pulling that old chestnut off right now and until further notice.
--Let's just not let our frustration over Bourne's playing time bleed into appreciating Meyers. Once again, he was a solid, dependable slot receiver miscast as a WR1. But who finds ways to get open and outfights defenders for the ball when he isn't. Like this highlight reel grab over Nik Needham:
So not to Slot Shame Meyers, but until you can start consistently finding a receiver that opposing DC's have to game plan for, as well as develop some ability to go the length of the field in five or six plays instead of it always taking a dozen or more, you're never going to be a legitimate postseason threat. The Pats coaches have yet to make a case that Bourne is not the guy who can do that. And I don't know why they'd want to.
--As for their default WR1, for all those reps, Parker was targeted twice. One was a nice little nine-yard crosser. The other was an omen of the impending doom that followed:
And while I agree that this was blatant DPI
… that gets called 99% of the time - and 99.99% to open the season in order to put the league on notice they're not putting up with any shenanigans - we need to see more out of Parker than this. We've been told by Ryan Fitzpatrick and Parker himself that with him, 50/50 balls are 80/20s. Advantage: Parker. And yet here he attacked the ball with all the tenacity of the Registry worker who renewed by driver's license. At the very least, this called for selling the obvious penalty. Not this passivity. One of the things that stood out in preseason was the way Tyqun Thornton was winning these kinds of battles, even while he was drawing flags, and he's half Parker's size. Yes, the Pats got screwed. But if you're trying to gain your QB's confidence? This is doing it all wrong.
--In the ground game, there were bright spots. Particularly early on when they got Damien Harris and (to a lesser extent) Rhamondre Stevenson running room with outside stretch runs and opened holes on gap runs. I thought in particular they got contributions out of the interior of Cole Strange-David Andrews-Michael Onwenu. Strange found himself lining up primarily against Zach Seiler and never looked overwhelmed like a guy whose last competitive game was against Citadel.
--The problems were, for the most part, on the outside. Particularly with Trent Brown, who doesn't want to put this game on his Sizzle Reel. I can credit Brandon Jones for the way he timed and disguised this blitz, using Seiler and Melvin Ingram as screens:
But last year the Dolphins blitzed defensive backs more than any team in the league. And sent more DBs after Jones than anyone the Patriots faced. So Patricia, who is also the offensive line coach, should've had them prepared for this one. Second, Brown is big enough to stand on the 15 yard line at Hard Robbie Land Pro Life Joe Rock Player Stadium and see the Gulf of Mexico. There's no excuse for missing a 6-foot-1, 190 pound safety coming at your quarterback at terminal velocity. Later Brown committed a hold on 4th & 3 while protecting against a three man rush. I think we all felt a lot better about this unit when it was announced Brown was coming back. But we're gonna need to see more of 2018 Brown and way less of Week 1 at Miami Brown for that to continue.
--As for Jones, when he's given a reasonable amount of space in the pocket and time to breathe, we get to watch him read through progressions and deliver sniper rounds on target, like that one to Meyers. But he missed a shallow cross to Nelson Agholor that would've gone for serious YAC. And the intermediate middle part of the field, 10- to 20-yards between the numbers, seems to be his Upside-Down, where the normal rules of physics don't apply and his passes can't be completed. Like this one, that hit Duke Riley right in the ol' Prison Wallet:
… and ranks among the short list of worst throws we've ever seen him make. Let's just all light a votive though and say a rosary for his back X-ray being negative. As in positive. Meaning good news. (Note: When I am Jerry I, benevolent Philospher King of Thorntopia, I'm going to force medical science to stop confusing us with that.)
--Defensively, I don't have a lot of problems with how they played. When Mike McDaniels isn't looking like he's planning the Employee Bubble Hockey Tournament at the Google campus in Mountain View, he's playing with a full hand of poker. And there are a lot of positives in the way the Pats handled them. Particularly the running game. To get back to the Shanahan system, the zone blocking is designed to stretch the front-7, create seams, and let the running back read: Bend (cut back), Bang (hit the hole in front of him), or Bounce (take it to the edge). And I think the Patriots front did an especially admirable job of clogging all of them. Starting with the tackles, Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy, who might very well be the strength of this entire team. But extending to the second level, where I thought in particular Mack Wilson stood out. He was constantly coming downhill to finish tackles the linemen started. And showed the kind of quickness this linebacking corps desperately needed. And I'll credit Ju'Whaun Bentley for fitting into that Dont'a Hightower role of being able to play off the ball in the middle, then slide up to Sam LB on the line and attack into the backfield. And Matthew Judon is still one of the best pure pass rushers they've had since Willie McGinest. In addition to the one sack and one TFL Bentley and Judon each got credit for, they got robbed of an intentional grounding when they ran a stunt, Judon had Tua Tagovailoa wrapped as he spiked it at the Achilles of one of his guards, and there was no call as Belichick carpet F-bombed the official to no avail.
--But the best individual defender on this day was Kyle Dugger. And that's a sentence you might as well get used to hearing. His instincts and feel for the game are beginning to catch up to his athleticism. There are times you can see him sniff out a play as its developing and put the ball carrier on Missile Lock, like when he blew up Hill on a wide receiver screen for about a four-yard loss. Another time, it was a crack-toss to Edmonds he blew up. He got credit for those two TFLs, but it felt like twice that. His ability to effectively play that Big Nickle hybrid LB/S allowed Steve Belichick to stay in base subpackages and play a lot of Cover-3 to prevent deep balls to Hill and Waddle.
--The Dolphins hit on a few of the Yankee Concept throws, which is a staple of their attack where the outside receivers run Go routes to get the safeties deep and then run a deep cross behind the linebackers. But for the most part the secondary limited the YAC those plays tend to produce. So all in all, the defense stepped up.
--With one notable exception. And it was the killer:
Waddle got inside Jalen Mills on a skinny post. Bentley throws the block of the game on Dugger. A breakdown you can't afford to have when your offense is turning the ball over and not finishing drives.
--But these games are like a DirectTV ad. The Patriots just need to be more Football, less Housewives.
--To use the hot new word among politicians, the inflection point of this one came earlier on that drive. Miami was facing a 3rd & 7 just before the 2:00 mark. Hill ran off Myles Bryant who was giving him a cushion, then ran a comebacker at the sticks for the 1st down. Now instead of getting the ball back with time for a score going into the half, the Pats were looking at Miami with three timeouts and ample opportunity for the dreaded bookend scores before and after the half. They got the first. And it turned out to be enough.
--There are firefighters. There are SWAT teams. There are Special Forces units. And then there is the courage it takes to approach Bill Belichick for his thoughts as he heads into the locker room down 17-0 at the half. Your bravery will not go unnoticed, AJ Ross of CBS.
--It's got to be weird for Iron Mike to be sitting with two other guys knowing he's not the baddest MOFO in the booth:
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote:
Cyclone: Your reputation precedes you.
Maverick: Thank you, sir.
Cyclone: That wasn't a compliment.
Maverick : I have to admit I wasn't expecting an invitation back.
Cyclone: They're called "orders," Maverick.
-Top Gun, Maverick
--And in case that reference is lot on anyone, I'm referring to this hairy, quarter-zipped, melting snowman:
--It's going to be a long week. Kickoff in Pittsburgh can't happen soon enough.