Things to consider while we ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee:
--Once again I find myself in the uncomfortable position of declaring a moral victory, continuing what has become a disturbing trend around here in this era of Patriots Underdogism. As I've said before, we've always preferred victories of the immoral kind. They're much more useful when it comes to playoff tiebreakers. But this is where we find ourselves.
--There was way too many unacceptable moments in this one, which we are about to get into. But I don't think I'm alone in saying I was preparing myself for a lot worse. Even if the Pats had been able to assemble their starting offensive line, they would've been practicing together for about 10 minutes, and facing an Eagles' front that not only led the league with 70 sacks last year, they had 15 more than the No. 2 team. So I was expecting a bumpy flight. When Cole Strange and Michael Onwenu were declared out and Antonio Mafi and Sidy Sow were named the starting guards, I assumed the crash position. Then when they went down 16-0, we found ourselves stuck on the diarrhea flight, only the captain announced he was taking us all the way to Barcelona without turning back. But our Foxboro-based flight crew cleaned it up. Actually made it an enjoyable flight. And damned near landed the plane on time. So there are plenty of positive takeaways from this one.
--That said, there were way too many mistakes, unforced errors, examples of careless boneheadery, and just straight up inexplicable decisions from the head coach, all of which did favors for an Eagles team that neither needed nor deserved them. Including, though not limited to:
- Deatrich Wise Jr. lining up in the neutral zone, negating a fumbled snap that would've short-circuited Philly's first drive.
- Mac Jones sailing a throw over Kendrick Bourne for the Pick-6.
- Ezekiel Elliot's whoopsie with the ball on a routine screen pass.
- Kyle Dugger's holding call on Dallas Goedert to negate a sack and set up a 1st & goal.
- Juju Smith-Schuster letting a sure 1st down go right between his knees (which the official scorer correctly ruled a Passed Ball, not a Wild Pitch).
- Kayshon Boutte, not once but twice, failing to get his feet down in bounds on perfectly thrown sideline routes, resulting in a stat line of 0 catches on 4 targets).
- Calvin Anderson's hold that took Jones' 2-point conversion scramble off the board, when it would've made it a 3-point game with 3:43 to play. The one Jones was heard hilariously telling Ed Hochuli's kid that was "a terrible call."
- And finally:
Belichick's decision to go for it on 4th & 3 instead of kicking a 34-yard field goal that would've made it a 22-17 game with over 9 1/2 minutes left. Rather than make it a one-score deficit with most of a quarter still to play, he opted to go for the throat there. Which is not only illogical, but distressingly unBelichickian. It forced them to scramble for the dreaded 8-point possession the whole rest of the game. Which only forced yet another milk-on-a-hot-day-style bad choice to go for a 4th & 17 at midfield instead of pinning the Eagles deep. Granted, Nick Sirianni returned the kind gesture later on, with his own weirdo decision to go for a 4th & 2, which gave the Patriots a shot at the end. To be sure, this is the trend in the NFL. Coaches across the league are trying to Out-Ballsy each other with crazy, risky moves to prove they "believe in our guys" or whatever. They're kids seeing how high they can build the ramp and how many of dad's things they can jump their bikes over, instead of making sound, rational decisions. I can't imagine Belichick would ever get caught up in that Dan Campbellesque hardo dong-measuring nonsense. He doesn't chase trends, he sets them. But I have no other explanation for these calls he made.
--Though credit where it's due. Belichick made perfect use of the challenge when he got that AJ Brown 48-yarder on the sideline reversed. And I especially loved the gamesmanship of waiting until the last possible unit of Planck Time to throw the flag in order to get into Jalen Hurts head. Though he did risk losing the challenge for a Pitch Clock violation. (OK, that's two baseball analogies. I've reached my limit for this KJR.)
--Getting back to those negative plays that cost them, it's fair to ask whether or not this is a trend on this team, going back to last season, if not longer. Practically every tackle football game is decided by a dozen or so 50/50 plays. If you win more of them than you lose, that's the ballgame. And for a couple of decades the Pats could count on the opponent doing something stupid and reckless that served them another win on a nice serviette with a doily. It was just a matter of playing smart, situational football while patiently waiting for the dumb false start or the clumsy botched snap to happen. Way too often lately, it's been them that's been stepping on the rakes. But then again, when the gold standard for screwing yourself out of a win is Jakobi Meyers throwing a Pick-6 backwards 30 yards, you can only improve in this area.
--And while I'm complaining about ... well, pretty much everything ... the Patriots website carried the Tom Brady speech live. But it lacked the bandwidth for the traffic it predictably drew, and kept freezing up. Which is something I discovered only when a friend texted me a screenshot of his livestream crashing. When it was happening just to me, I just assumed I was stroking out from the emotion of it all. So I'll take that as a win.
--Alright, enough of that. Let's hit the positives and explain why I'm still writing this instead walking out into the ocean to put an end to my suffering. There is plenty of good to be found in this one. Beginning with the offensive line. Specifically, with Adrian Klemm, who was dealt a fold hand in a game where you can't bluff. Facing the NFL's Front-7 version of a Straight Flush. (A "Straight Front"? No, that doesn't work. People will take it the wrong way.) And he more or less took the pot. I'll venture a guess that Trent Brown, Mafi, David Andrews, Sow and Anderson hadn't worked together as a unit once all offseason. Yet at a position that is completely dependent on continuity, teammwork, familiarity, knowing each other's assignments, and being able to make decisions on the fly, they were practically flawless against the Eagles pass rush. Hell, I was ready to throw Bailey Zappe out there as a starting quarterback/ritual sacrifice. But Mac Jones wasn't sacked in the first 57 minutes of the game. And I think Philly recorded one QB Hit, despite Jones registering a career-high 54 pass attempts. When you look back at the chaos of last year, with rushers unaccounted for, D-linemen getting lost in the shuffle of games and stunts, breakdowns and confusion leading to guys flying into the pocket from all directions like assassins coming after John Wick, you realize the value of a professional offensive line coach. I'm glad we have one again.
--And speaking of professional coaches, welcome back, Bill O'Brien. And thanks for bringing the Erhardt-Perkins system with you. Please come in. I can't tell you how much we've missed you all. I hope you can stay awhile. [Said slightly menacingly while I slowly lock the dead bolt.]
--It took a while to get going. But there were long stretches of this game that looked exactly how I've dreamed it would all summer, while I was laying on the rug, twitching my legs and barking. Beginning with that first touchdown drive, where we saw the sorts of 3-man route concepts that driven generations of defensive coordinators to seek professional help. Mike Gesicki coming inside Smith-Schuster on a Post-Wheel-Flat combination for 9 yards and a 1st down. Smith-Schuster on 3rd & 10, short-motioning to a stack (as a man/zone indicator) and running a shallow cross in an Omaha combo for 15. Followed by Ty Montgomery in the Wes Welker/Julian Edelman role in a Hoss Z-Juke, running a return route (breaking back outside away from the inside defender) to set up a 1st & goal at Philly's 9. All of which set up this one to Hunter Henry:
A double move on a seam read from the Y-tight end position inside Smith-Schuster's vertical route. Which, dare I say it without opening a portal into the demon realm, was right out of Rob Gronkowski highlights. And Henry added a few more to his own reel. None better than this one, which robbed someone of extra bases (Sorry, but it couldn't be helped.):
--Then there was the first touchdown to Bourne, lined up at the No. 1 (read outside to in) strong receiver in a 3-man bunch, with Henry taking the flat and Smith Schuster running a deep cross to draw the post safety, which opened up the middle of the field for Bourne to beat his defender:
A great Cover-1 beater that allowed Jones a quick check of the safety to know where the ball should go. And the kind of thing that was only a memory last year. Which is now our present and, more importantly, our immediate future.
--Bourne's second score was all a product of precise route-running:
Along with Gesicki, he throttled down to sell Darius Slay on the curl, got him to commit and then crossed his face before hauling in a precision drone strike from Jones. While I'm probably bringing up last year more than I should, we all owe Bourne our gratitude for tunneling out of Matt Patricia's Shawshank the way he did.
--One last receiver highlight. Because this is how you flip a cornerback's hips to gain separation:
Demario Douglas is a 6th rounder who had four catches for 40 yards in his first NFL game. In his Patriots career, N'Keal Harry had three games of four catches or more, and four games with 40+ yards. If nothing else went right, we could feel good about this fact alone.
--On the topic of draft picks, in addition to Douglas and the two guards, the defensive rookies and special teamers stood out. I don't have the coverage stats on Christian Gonzalez other than he was reportedly targeted 10 times, but he had moments both "good" and "needs improvement." He came off the edge on a corner blitz for a sack. He tackled well. He stayed with AJ Brown (with Marte Mapu at deep safety in bracket coverage) on a 30 yard incompletion. But then right after got turned around by DeVonta Smith for a 1st down right after. More significantly, he made a great play breaking up a pass for Brown to get the Pats the ball back for one last shot:
These are top-tier wideouts who weren't able to run wild on the Pats secondary. And Gonzalez never looked like he couldn't keep up with them as he played every snap. So far. so very good on him.
--But the rookie standout defensively was Keion White. He took about a third of the reps as part of the Patriots defensive front rotation, primarily on passing downs. He played on the edge and some 5-technique. And showed a variety of ninja moves to disrupt Hurts. One one 2nd & 20 he used an inside swim from the outside to get his hand on Hurts' arm and cause the pass to sail out of bounds. Then he straight up overpowered Jordan Mailata, who outweighs him by 80 pounds:
--For his part, Mapu came as advertised, playing all over the second and third levels of Steve Belichick's defense, from in the box linebacker to Robber to single high safety, though in a limited, part time role in a secondary filled with versatile, almost positionless defenders. It will be interesting to see how his playing time increases week to week.
--Overall, Belichick the Younger kept Philly out of sync with a Rubik's Cube of looks, both up front and in the backfield. Constantly shifting right at the snap. From dropping corners back to turn a man coverage look into Cover-4 to Buzz, in which a Cover-2 turns into Cover-1 with one of the safeties coming up. And while White, Wise, Matt Judon and Josh Uche managed to create a decent amount of pressure with 4-man rushes, he mixed in some 0-blitzes as well.
--And on special teams, there was nothing not to like about Bryce Baringer's punting, save for that one net-23 yarder that he put in the end zone. But don't get this OK Boomer started on why no one goes for the Coffin Corner anymore. Baringer flipped the field a number of times and put several inside the 20. That's all I ask.
--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Come on, man. I had a rough night and I hate the fuckin' Eagles, man!" - The Dude, The Big Lebowski
--I love Gillette. It has been my happy place for 21 years and will continue to be. But I'm glad after all these years they finally decided to make the lighthouse look like a lighthouse. I never understood why it looked like the propane space heater at an outdoor dining place.
--I can accept early season losses, so long as they're competitive, the way this one was. As I've said before, the schemes the Patriots run are precision-engineered driving machines. They need extensive maintenance. You can't simply bring them to Jiffy Lube to change the fluids and replace the wipers every 3,000 miles. It requires Germans in lab coats running smoke over the hood in a wind tunnel. But I'm convinced that this thing will be road ready by the end of the month at the very latest. As a reminder, some of the very best seasons in franchise history started out 2-2. With panic in the streets and "We're onto Cincinnati"s. So let's all proceed accordingly.
Damn, it feels good to have real football back. How do we live all those months without it?