Things to consider while suppressing the urge to say "Polo" next time you hear Antonio Brown yell "Marco":
--Once again I find myself reminding, well … myself, that there's column in the NFL standings for Moral Victories, and it says "L" at the top. That playoff tiebreakers include Common Opponents, Conference Record and Coin Flip, but don't make mention of losses you feel good about. That pro football remains a Pass/Fail exam (at least until those social-engineering Libs who're ruining 'Murica have their way, amirite?). In the cold, hard calculus of the regular season, the Patriots just fell to 1-3 and no one cares about the Home Goods "Positive Vibes Only" sign any of us want to hang on this game. Nevertheless, there is a lot of good to take out of this. One doesn't simply walk into Lambeau:
… getting 10.5 points, lose their backup quarterback, have to go to their third string rookie, and take the Packers to overtime. True this counts the same as a blowout loss. But it's something to build on.
--As a matter of fact, it's hard not to see the parallels between today and this exact same moment last season. Through four games, the Pats were 1-3 then. And coming off a loss that came down to the final seconds against an all time great quarterback. But where their rookie QB proved that the moment was not too big for him and damn near pulled out the win. That game was GOATerdammerung, Tom Brady's return to Gillette and my personal emotional Chernobyl. But Mac Jones was the better quarterback on the field that night. And while I can't go as far as saying Bailey Zappe was better than Aaron Rodgers, his stat line of 10 for 15, 99 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, 107.4 passer rating was. If nothing else, he proved he belongs in the NFL, understands the Patriots system and is capable of leading this offense until Mac Jones gets back. And when he's signing a $300 million deal with Cleveland in 2025, we'll all remember this as the day he earned it.
--What we saw looked like the Zappe of July and August got a software patch that improved his accuracy, his timing, his speed at processing data. He seemed in command, adjusting his protection as needed and changing plays at the line as necessary. He showed the ability to escape a dirty pocket as well as deliver the ball on a designed rollout. He held the ball too long at times, which resulted in two of his sacks. But also took care of it with the exception of the fumble, which we can give him a mulligan on, since he got hit center mass with the Ukrainian tank shell that was Rashan Gary on this day. And, like Mac Jones this time last year, demonstrated he could be bigger than the moment. Given the fact his last competitive game was against the Appalachian State Mountaineers in The Granddaddy of Them All, the Boca Raton Bowl, if you didn't come away impressed with Zappe and taking positives out of this game, I think you need to seriously question your life choices and consider getting help. I'm praying for you.
--To be clear, Zappe was not the focal point of the offense or anything else. Matt Patricia who [Pause for dramatic effect. Sip of coffee. Long drag off a cigarette. Deep breath to compose thoughts] did his best coaching job to date, made the adjustment to go with six lineman and hammer Green Bay's defense into submission with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson power runs for most of the game. As it got into the 4th quarter and the Packers wore down, he mixed in some more of the zone scheme, and they were also effective. But for much of the game, it was gap runs. Mostly to Marcus Cannon and Hunter Henry on the right side, behind lead pulls from Cole Strange. For instance, a 14-yard run by Harris in the 3rd. Which Patricia immediately followed up with two off tackle runs to the behind seal blocks by Trent Brown that picked up a 1st down. Those runs set up this play action, which Zappe executed to perfection:
That was a post-crosser route combo, with Kendrick Bourne clearing out the seam-curl-flat defender and drawing the single high safety, while DeVante Parker runs the deep cross into the vacated area. Zappe even had Nelson Agholor coming free into the flat on the backside of the play, but read correctly that Parker was the better option. That's a veteran play.
--He was so good on that one in fact, that he managed to bend spacetime to his will, and Doctor Who the officials into thinking the play clock hadn't expired on him for the second straight down. Remember that come Rookie of the Year voting time.
--Best of all, for all you Arm Strength aficionados and Zip on the Ball fetishists (you know who you are; the ones who fell in love with Demarcus Russell because he supposedly could throw a ball 60 yards from his knees, which serves no practical purpose), he threw with authority. But call me old fashioned, I still admire a guy who can put touch on a ball. And none he delivered were as good as this one to Agholor, again off play action:
--I respect Patricia (now there's something you haven't heard every day) for giving Zappe a chance to convert on 3rd & 5 in overtime. He just got flushed from the pocket and had to settle for a short incompletion and a punt. And you're not going to win anything producing a 3 & out from midfield in OT. But for the most part, the coaches treated Zappe like they expected him to win them the game. I mean, the fact Belichick told Tracy Wolfson he "expects more out of Bailey Zappe in the 2nd half" after we listened to 45 minutes of Tony Romo describing how stark-raving terrifying it is to come off the bench in your first game says it all. Absolutely diabolical.
--Overall it was a tough day for the officials. Maybe they were just as caught up in the hype and drama of Zappe's first game just like the rest of us, but it got to be downright embarrassing. Not just because their first penalty on Green Bay came with more than five minutes gone in the 2nd half. Not because Bill Belichick hit the Overs at 3.5 screaming fits and 1.5 headsets slammed on the ground:
Or because of the non-call on a blatant Hands to the Face against Deatrich Wise on a critical 1st down pickup on the Packers final scoring drive of regulation. It was because the referee correctly identified "offense" and "defense" with the same frequency of the youth sports mom who's never watched football and just comes to see her son play. Seriously NFL, this is the crew you assign to the national broadcast game? It got to be like when you ask a toddler to put on their shoes, and even though that's a 50/50 prop bet, they get it wrong more than half the time. Clean that up.
--For all the negative talk about Patricia and Joe Judge this past year, you had to love seeing Zappe run to the sidelines after that touchdown throw and give him a manly bro hug. And this is going in the opening credits of this team's 90s sitcom, theme music by Alan Thicke:
Working title: Pats of Life? Let's keep it as a placeholder for now until we come up with something better.
--I might be late to this party (and that's by design because this party sucks), but the Patriots have a serious Isaiah Wynn problem. At least when it comes to pass protection. That aforementioned hit on Zappe and the kill shot that sent Brian Hoyer to the Tomb of the Unaffiliated Neurotrauma Consultant never to return, both came on speed rushes from Gary out of a Wide-9 alignment. And Wynn just simply could not slide out fast enough to get hands on him. That lack of lateral quickness is not something you can just compensate for with scheme, like a Great British Baking Show baker slapping frosting on something to hide their mistake from Paul Hollywood. I mean, what do you do? Slide him out further? Have him cheat out that way with his first step? If you do, that will show up on tape and now you've created an inside rush problem. They're going to have to dedicate resources to Wynn's side, like chipping the rusher as the running back releases or something. Though it seems more likely the solution was on the field next to him. And our new right tackle will be our old one, Marcus Cannon.
--But rather than dwell on the tackle they drafted 23rd overall in 2018, I'd prefer to focus on the 2022 draft class, who had a spectacular afternoon. I mentioned Strange already. But watch him again on Harris' touchdown. He got position and leverage on all 314 pounds of Kenny Clark and put him into a backpedal. He got a slight assist from David Andrews, but had Clark in such control that he allowed Andrews to bounce up to the second level and take out De'Vondre Campbell:
--Then obviously there was the two turnovers by Jack Jones, the second of which was the game-changer:
--Steve Belichick switched up the coverages to a lot more man than they've been playing lately. But rather than press man, we've seen Jack Jones playing off the ball, where he can keep an eye in the backfield and jump routes, like on this one. By the time the ball was in the air, he knew more about what Rodgers was trying to do on the play than Allen Lazard did. He ended up playing the entire game. And while yes, at times a bigger ballcarrier will slip his tackle (Aaron Jones stiff-armed him to set up Green Bay's first touchdown, Lazard ran through him to pick up a 1st down), that's the price you pay to have corners who can stay with elusive trackletes all over the field in a league where pass coverage is against the rules. This kid is really establishing himself.
--And the final rookie who stepped up was Marcus Jones. Under the circumstances, special teams were mission critical if the Pats had any hopes of staying in the game, much less winning it. And what we were getting was punts from midfield sailing into the end zone, another that bounced back 15 yards in the wrong direction like a lob wedge on a US Open green, and penalties. (Though I want to give my UDFA rookie crush Brenden Schooler a break because he got flagged for a Horsecollar on a tackle where he grabbed the back of Amari Rodgers jersey up near the neck. That's not how you collar a horse; that's how a mother cat carries her kittens.) Marcus Jones in the return game was the bright spot. He repeatedly gave them the ball in decent field position, averaging 27.8 on kickoffs, including a 37-yarder, and 24.5 on punts, including a 29-yarder. This is what he was drafted for but they brought him along slowishly. Hopefully we're done experimenting with Myles Bryant or anyone else back there and the jobs are his. And I wouldn't hate seeing him get his shot at taking over the slot corner spot, either. Bryant was getting targeted yesterday and it was ugly there for a while. Right now I'll take an All Jones cornerbacking trio and see how it goes.
--Circling back to the off coverage, it was working gangbusters early on. By my math, Rodgers took four deep shots on Go routes. Two going after Bryant (one each to Lazard and Randall Cobb), one at Jonathan Jones (Lazard) and another at Jack Jones who was actually ahead of Christian Watson and had a better shot at the overthrow than the intended target. So those cushions the corners were allowing themselves made all the sense in the world when Rodgers was taking shot after shot deep upfield. In overtime? When he was playing for a field goal and looking at manageable down & distances? Needing like three yards and seeing the corner playing eight yards off? Not so much. At that point, it's not "Bend, don't break." It's just 100% break.
--Though the biggest issue the Pats had on defense was getting gashed by the Packers inside zone game. Playing mostly four-man fronts (in their base 4-2-5) and missing Lawrence Guy, Belichick the Younger went with a rotation of Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis and Daniel Ekuale on the line, with a lot of Wise at 5-technique with his hand on the ground inside of Matthew Judon and Anfernee Jennings at the ends. Ju'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai were almost exclusively your off-the-ball linebackers. And on the whole, this front held up well against gap runs. But when the Packers went to that split backfield look that Romo called "Pony" so let's go with it, they repeatedly left cutback lanes. Which the running backs exploited like they were drunk Spring Breakers. That, along with that midfield 3 & out, was the ballgame.
--[Late night talk show monologue voice:] "Congratulations are in order to former Cowboy's great Tony Romo for getting his high school field named after him. Did you see that? Very nice. Very moving tribute and well deserved. Apparently the field is a new design that stays in great condition during the regular season and then folds up for the playoffs." Rimshot!
--Obviously after what happened with Tua Tagovailoa Thursday, no one wanted to see Brian Hoyer back in this game. I just can't shake the feeling when he's out there, your local Youth Pastor signed up for Fantasy Camp to inspire the teens. "You know kids, a long time ago there was a guy in his 30s who people were coming after in front of a hostile crowd. And as he huddled up with his bros …" But sincerely, we're all pulling for Hoyer and hope he bounces back right away.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote (tie)
1. "We zip in, we pick 'em up, we zip right out again. We're not going to Moscow. It's Czechoslovakia. It's like we're going to Wisconsin." - John Winger, Stripes.
2. "Bailey?! Which Bailey?" - Mr. Welch, It's a Wonderful Life
--Remember too that not only did the 2021 Pats start out 1-3, they fell to 2-4 after losing at home to Dallas. Then ripped off seven straight wins. A similar streak is coming. I can feel it in mah plums. Don't ever dismiss the power of plums.
--To wrap this up on a personal note that will resonate with the total population of people who are me, and no one else, I've been writing up Patriots games in more or less this way since the early 2000s. And took them with me when I first came to Barstool some time in 2004 or so. In all that time, I've missed exactly one game. But I went to the game, it was a Thursday Nighter and I had to drive my brother home and didn't get in until about 3:00 a.m., slept half the day and by the time I got up it was pretty much too late. Dave was cool about me skipping it that one time. Yet it still bothers me. I'm thinking about it this week for a couple of reasons. One, because that game also involved an obscure backup quarterback facing a Green Bay legend and losing in overtime. The Pats QB in question was Matt Cassel. The opponent was Brett Favre, then with the Jets. Meaning this was 2008. And two, because Dave and Erika renewed my contract this week. So at some point soon I'll reach the point where I've been working here in some capacity and Knee Jerk Reacting to things for over 20 years. And I know I owe a lot of that to the popularity of this blog in particular. So thanks for the support. Keep reading, and I'll keep working to earn it. And again, sorry about sleeping on the job back in '08. It won't happen again.