Ah, the simple joys of preseason fauxball are back. The I Can't Believe It's Not Butter of sports. The decaf, low calorie, polyunsaturated, non-dairy, gluten-free, non-GMO, no-sugar-added substitute for actual football. And for us simple New England folk, it can't have come at a better time. Because even the backups to the backups of the Patriots backups looked more like real football than the Red Sox have looked like Major Leaguers the last two weeks.
Anyway, here's my annual reminder that when it comes to these dress rehearsal games, these are only observations, not conclusions:
--It was never easy to take anything definitive away from these preseason games, and it's only getting harder. The limited contact in training camp and line of scrimmage players practicing with Stay Puft Marshmallow helmets seems to me to naturally put the offensive line behind every other unit on the field at this stage of the game. That added to the fact that Adrian Klemm's line has been shuffled and reshuffled like a magician's deck, and has lacked the one thing an O-line needs more than anything - cohesion - had led to a situation where no push on run plays, no pocket to speak of, and every dropback has the quarterback going through bodies like John Wick fighting of henchmen at a Paris nightclub. So take all this with that in mind. Presumably, this is not how it's going to look five Sundays from now, once they've sorted their shite out. (Note: It better not. Or else we're all just wasting our time here.) You've got to look at this like a Bob Ross painting early on in the episode. And trust that what looks like black triangles now will be majestic, snow-capped mountains shimmering in the sun by the time we kick things off against the Eagles.
--A few takeaways we can feel genuinely good about are the rookies. Christian Gonzalez got a fair amount of reps, both on defense and special teams. He got trucked on his first play from scrimmage by Nico Collins in his "Welcome to the Majors, Mr. Hobbs" moment. But recovered from that to look not only like he can run with/mirror receivers, but like a strong, physical corner. The Pats played a ton of zone, which had Gonzalez playing 8 yards off the line most of the time, so it'll be interesting to see him in man and press. But so far, so good. And I already respect his eyeblack game. Going with the Bert from Sesame Street eyebrows across his face is a bold move:
--But the defensive star of the game was without a doubt Keion White. A 290 pound DE in the modern image at the position, he played mostly on the right side early, then flipped to the left side. He lined up inside and out, in 3-point stances and standing up, 4-technique, heads up on the tackle and the tight end, then off the edge. On the fumble, he came out of a two-point stance and reacted with the ball came loose:
But what impressed me most about White was his IQ. Repeatedly you saw him not bite on misdirections. Not get suckered in by dive action on plays that were actually designed rollouts. He kept his edge when called upon and chased QBs out of the pocket on a couple of occasions. And he's already got a full tool box, with swim moves, rips, quick-twitch inside moves and elite change of direction for a large gentleman.
--If they're smart, the 99 Restaurant will have his agent on the phone by this morning. Because as sure as Jerod Mayo's got moon boots, White is going to have a major impact in his first year.
--As far as the veterans, it's looking now that next to Matthew Judon and Hunter Henry, the prize of Bill Belichick's retail therapy 2021 free agent shopping extravaganza is Jalen Mills. And after a couple of seasons playing primarily corner, he's about to settle into the role as Devin McCourty's replacement. If he is, so far, so good. His interception came out of Buzz coverage, a Cover-2 look with him cheating down into the seam passing lane.
GM Bill signed Mills for his position versatility, which he hasn't been able to utilize as much as he'd planned. In Philly, he'd move around the secondary from one snap to the next. Now he's doing the same in Foxboro, just from one season to the next. Last night he played Cover-2, deep post safety, moved down into the box, even came off the edge in a safety blitz for a TFL. Replacing Devin McCourty was never going to be easy; but I think the back of the secondary is in good hands with Mills. I would've thought he'd switch to blue hair by now. But it's obvious the green was never and Eagles thing, just an aesthetic choice. And it works for him.
--I've already gone on way too long to not address the story of the night. But that's probably owing to the fact I don't think Malik Cunningham is going to be the story a month from now. Make no mistake, he looked impressive as hell. When no one else could move the ball, he moved the feckin' ball:
And Cunningham's most impressive display was the ball he put between Tre Nixon's palms from a full out sprint that Nixon couldn't hold onto:
But I confess I sort of dread the overhype that's about to descend on this guy. We love mobile quarterbacks. We always default to believing being able to roll the pocket and outrun rushers is the only way to survive in this league. And that's been true my entire football-viewing life. So we get way out over our skis on a guy with Cunningham's skillset. Let me illustrate with an example. In 2001 I went to training camp in Smithfield, RI. And there I spotted no less than a couple of dozen Michael Bishop jerseys. Bishop used to make plays like Cunningham did all the time. To this day I call him the best August player I ever saw. But those two dozen people who'd shelled out - what? 85 bucks in late 90s prices - for those jerseys were no doubt disappointed to see him not survive the first camp cut. A few weeks later, he was in Canada. And got released by that team. So let's slow our roll on Cunningham. I love the thoughts of what Bill O'Brien might be able to do with him. Get him the ball in space, like Josh McDaniels did with Cordarelle Patterson. Make use of his ability to make guys miss like he did on that touchdown and so on. Perhaps a Taysom Hill type role. But while dropping back, planting your foot, and slipping through the vacated middle of a line of 4th stringers is fun to watch after being subjected to a stagnant offense for three quarters? An NFL system it is NOT. Let's proceed cautiously on this guy.
--Not to mention that as a general rule, the more your quarterback remains in his safe space in a well protected pocket, the better off your whole franchise is:
--As far as Bailey Zappe, this was a classic case of taken what you're given. He had limited time to throw - and by "limited" I mean fractions of a second. So he wisely took the checkdowns, outs and sit routes that were available to him. And got the ball out quickly while taking care of it and not forcing anything. And when he did go for the second level, he managed to do something not many QBs can say they have so far. He found Tyquan Thornton:
Throughout camp Thornton has been, if not invisible, at least kind of translucent. He's definitely been passed by Demario Douglas in Mac Jones Circle of Trust from Day 1. And more recently been losing reps and targets to Keyshon Boutte. Shaking bracket coverage like this, getting up in traffic and highpointing a catch this way, can only help lay down a few bricks he can build upon. I'm convinced O'Brien's scheme is going to rely way more on stressing defenses horizontally than vertically, then exploit them in the middle. So I don't know that we'll ever see Thornton's top end speed be a major part of the recipe. But if he can prove he's reliable on these types of throws, that'll do just super.
--We also got our first look at the rookie we've heard the most about:
I have a theory that every guy who invests in a home entertainment system has a go-to video they like to show it off with. My cousin Phil put in speakers that had approximately the same decibel levels as a Mettalica concert, and his choice was one of the sea battles from Master & Commander. (At least for as long as it would take for his wife to come in and tell him to stop scaring the dogs.) When I wired my den for surround sound, I went with the "Bridge at Khazad-Dum" sequence from the first Lord of the Rings. I can't imagine what I'd do with this thing. You'd need something in super widescreen to do it justice. Dunkirk, maybe? Lawrence of Arabia perhaps? Some Stanley Kubrick thing? All I know is I wouldn't take up both ends of it with ads for Big Pharma. Which is why I don't own a two acre screen, I suppose. Someone's got to pay for it.
--While admitting it's way too early to call the election, the 2023 special teams are already outpolling the 2022 special teams by a wide margin. Rookie Isaiah Bolden - who looked fairly solid at corner - had an outstanding kickoff return of about 37 yards. Punter Bryce Baringer dropped one at the 10, had another of 62 yards, and even the one kick that looked like he shanked it, changed direction, stayed in bounds, rolled about 15 yards and managed to flipp the field. If Megan Rapinoe had bent a kick like that, the USNWT would still be playing.
--Overall, it's obvious that the main priority at this point is establishing a healthy, consistent, cohesive offensive line. Everything else is secondary to that. But there were enough positives to give us something to look forward to as we go on. What more can we ask of a game none of us will remember watching a month from now?