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Knee Jerk Reactions to Week 4: Patriots vs. Cowboys

Things to consider while resisting the urge to jump in a water hazard and never resurface:

--If you're a Patriots fan (and my Spidey Sense tells me our numbers are dwindling), bad moments have become familiar over the last four years. Even routine. But this one is different. It's on another plane of existence altogether. Far worse than the Cam Newton season, where the whole year was so nightmarish that the football part of it felt just just another wrinkle in time. What missteps there were in 2021 felt like just the growing pains of a team making its way back to respectability. Then last year's sort of Dead Cat Bounce of a season could be easily blamed on an offensive coaching braintrust that had brains, but nobody's trust. All that is behind us now. This was supposed to be the great leap forward. Instead, we've gotten two close games against quality opponents where the Pats managed to make the plays they had to in order to lose. A close game against a bad team they couldn't quite manage to lose. Followed by yesterday's cratering. An absolute low point in  The Belichick Era. The late, great Roger Ebert once said of  a movie, "It soars above ordinary badness as the eagle outreaches the fly." And if this loss at Dallas was a movie, it would make Tommy Wiseau's The Room look like Casablanca

--And I'm not going to shy away from this. I'm not about to embarrass myself by White House Spokesmanning this thing away as not as bad as it seems. It is as bad as it seems. Perhaps more so. And until the situation improves, I'm going to embrace the awful reality. I'm going lay down in the mud and cover myself with it, like Schwarzenegger trying to evade the Predator, until the people in charge figure out how to extricate us from this hole they've dug. 

--If you're one of the many people who've been telling me all year there's something terribly wrong with this team and I was dead wrong for being optimistic, congratulations. This is your chance to dance. You tried to warn us Belichick Loyalists this was coming, but we ... just ... wouldn't ... listen. Now's your time to gloat. You told us not to drink too much, and now get to stand there at the bathroom with your arms folded while we're on our knees emptying last night's glass into the toilet. You're the friend who warned us we were dating a crazy person, slowly shaking your head after our pickup got the "Before He Cheats" treatment. You said we shouldn't take the job and have every right to laugh as we're working all weekend and you're playing 36 holes. This is your "Told You So" opportunity; make the most of it. If the tables were turned, I know I would.

--And here's the part of all this that is truly unnerving. Even before we get to the disastrous plays and catastrophic loss of the two best players on the roster - the insults added to the injuries, as it were - during that brief, momentary period of time when this was still a competitive game, the Patriots were way ahead of schedule finding ways to lose. Mike Gesicki can't elevate on an off-target throw:

... and the touchdown pass bounces off his fingertips. Then on 4th & 1, they try the Tush Push that the Eagles have perfected, but they somehow can't execute. There's two more examples of the sorts of 50/50 plays that decide every football game. And the 2023 Pats have demonstrated, not just a knack, but a sheer genius for not making those plays. As we sift through the wreckage of this building collapse, let's not lose that fact amid the rubble.  

--As for Jones, he got shook like we've never seen him shook before. Say what you will about him, but even his most savage critics have to concede he hasn't faced a moment that was too big for him. From his national title season in Alabama to winning the starting job over Newton as a rookie to outplaying Tom Brady in his fourth professional game, he's never shown he can be rattled like this. Even facing this same team as a rookie, he got Pick-6'ed by Trevon Diggs and came back with a 75-yard TD to Kendrick Bourne on the very next snap. But once Dan Quinn's defense rattled him in this game, he stayed rattled. After getting away with a dangerous cross-court pass to Bourne earlier, he tried an inexcusable one. This throw wasn't just telegraphed; it sent G-Suite Meeting invite with Zoom link and pass code, and mailed out a Save the Date card:

--There's a term in comedy commonly referred to as Flop Sweat. It's when a comic tells a joke that bombs and, rather than just roll with it or even turn the fact it didn't land into a joke, you can feel him start to tense up. That makes the audience uncomfortable. Making him more uncomfortable. And the two feed off each other until it becomes unbearable for all involved and the comic wants to crawl under the stage and disappear. (At least that's what I'm told; I of course have never done anything but positively cruuush.) Right or wrong, that's what Jones' performance felt like. He had a decent enough start. Got on a bit of a roll. Quite literally as he had to roll the pocket a few times and make plays out of structure, like Demario Douglas' catch and run:

But even then, something felt off. Douglas and DeVante Parker were running a mesh concept (with Douglas as the No. 3 strong in a 3X1), and slammed into each other as they were getting redirected by Dallas' middle defenders. I think Quinn was flooding the zones between the numbers to force Jones to play hero ball deep and on the edges, and got the results he was looking for. That and the lack of protection had Jones flop-sweating through the pits of his Tommy Hilfiger button down, and turned his five-minute Open Mic set into hours. In a way we've never seen before. Not even through the dark days of Matt Patricia. 

--To elaborate on the point about the protection, the Cowboys scored points with a straight forward four-man rush. No blitzes or games up front of any kind. Just Dante Fowler getting the initial punch on Vederian Lowe and then blowing past him before he could recover his balance:

--Which isn't some stunning revelation. There has never been a single waking moment in all of 2023 when we had any reason to feel comfortable about the make up of this offensive line. Now we find ourselves solidly in the middle of Pumpkin Spice Season, and it's still no better than it's been. The good news is that they were able to keep five linemen in the whole game for the first time in forever. The bad news is everything else. Cole Strange has seen just 118 offensive snaps so far. Michael Onwenu, either due to injury or just ineffectiveness, is playing the worst ball of his career and drawing enough flags for the right side of the line to look like the floor of our guest bedroom when my kid visits. Jones only occasionally gets to throw from a relatively clean pocket. And a Cowboys front that had Arizona rushers swarming across its border last week (sorry for the reference but I'm in a bad place emotionally) held Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliot to 2.3 yards per attempt. I've been saying all along that if Adrian Klemm can't settle his O-line's hash, you might as well tell your significant other to start planning that weekend in the country of apple picking, wineries, and corn mazes, because the rest of this is a waste of time. And we're just about there.

--Hunter Henry was the only Patriots player who caught more Mac Jones passes than DaRon Bland. Let that sink in. Then repress the memory deep down in your psyche next to the place where you store the Helmet Catch and that time you heard your parents doing it. 

--The damnedest thing of it is, even though the Patriots most definitely do not have their shit together (if anything, it's exploded all over the tiles, the floor and parts of the mirror), they still remain the team that other teams save their best for. You may think the Dynasty Era ended with Brady's Irish Goodbye on St. Paddy's Day, 2020. And it looks like you're right. But after 20 years, opposing coaches are still circling the New England games on the schedule in red Sharpie. Take, for example, the Cowboys special teams unit using Brendan Schooler's blocked kick from the Miami game:

… and his general aggressiveness against him. They used Jiu-Jitsu principles to let him blast off the edge on an extra point an simply completed the 2-point conversion around him. Combine that with Quinn packing the middle to take away Jones' checkdowns, underneath Juke and Option routes and Seams, and take Bill O'Brien's whole scheme out of sync, plus the way Dallas kept it's foot on the gas while up 28-3 (turns in Quinn's direction and nods slowly), and it's clear the Patriots won't enjoy the luxury of being treated like just another 1-3 by anybody. No one's going to be looking past this team. But that's not necessarily a sign of respect. 

--But to me, the Cowboys staff's finest moment was getting Cee Dee Lamb into single coverage against Myles Bryant the very first play after Christian Gonzalez came out of the game and taking full advantage of the mismatch. Nothing cute. They just ran Sean McKeon on a post route to draw the single high safety and ran Lamb on a Cover-1 beater fade route that wouldn't have been available if Gonzalez was on him:

The fact Dallas was able to adjust to the harsh reality that the Patriots best player was in the blue MAS*H unit on the sideline but two generations of Belichicks left Bryant singled up on a two-time Pro Bowler is a though too disturbing to contemplate. 

--As is the fact that with all three defensive Joneses already out, and the prospect of Gonzo coming back any time soon looking grim, that means Bryant is, by default, our CB1. With Shaun Wade the CB2. I don't mean to dump on either of them, because they're both meant to be nothing more than depth/subpackage guys (with Bryant doing some special teams work). Now you've got them playing every down. Getting mismatched no matter who they're lining up against. And being run at on the edge as well. Prior to Lamb's touchdown, Bryant got blown up by Michael Gallup on a Jet sweep that went for a 1st down. And while I loved his hustle staying in pursuit on KaVonte Turpin's 54 yard run to punch the ball out, the run began as an outside zone between him and Jahlani Tavai where again he was taken out by McKeon. Steve Belichick can scheme up all sorts of ways to protect Bryant and Wade with zones and safety help or whatever, but he can't save them from being run at. No one can. 

--Then there was losing their second best player in Matthew Judon. Whose importance to this defense is so obvious, even someone who lovingly sits next to me even though she's on her phone the entire game recognizes it. 

--Sometimes after a game like this, a team will not even bother to show the team the game film. And Belichick has been known to take his players and coaches out back to the practice field and quite literally bury the game ball in the ground. I'd suggest doing that with this one, except the way things are going the shovel blade will break off and embed itself in Kyle Dugger's shoulder and we'll lose him too.

--You know things are bad when you stop believing you have the power to affect the outcome from your couch:

--This Week's Applicable Movie Quote: "Right now, I feel like I could take on the whole Empire myself!" - Dak, Star Wars Episode IV: The Empire Strikes Back

--Last week, Joe Judge gives out sweatshirts that say "No one is coming":

A day or two later, Hulu releases a dark, terrifying psychological horror thriller called "No One Will Save You":

Coincidence? An inspirational message? Life imitating art? A dire warning not to put any hope in the trading deadline? All of the above? I can't say. I just know that being wordlessly pursued by terrifying aliens through my small town seems like a nice alternative to falling behind by 25 points in the 1st half again.

--And no, Bailey Zappe is not the answer. If that's where your pinning your hopes, you obviously didn't watch any of training camp or the preseason. It's either they fix Mac Jones, or look to the 2024 draft.

--Just to end on an upbeat note, here are some Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders from yesterday. Since they have for some reason gone from iconic symbol of the best of American culture around the globe to getting exactly zero screen time from CBS in the span of one generation. 

Ian Halperin. Shutterstock Images.
Ian Halperin. Shutterstock Images.
Ian Halperin. Shutterstock Images.
Ian Halperin. Shutterstock Images.

We used to be a proper country. Whichever one of you bozos running to be the head of this clown world promises to bring gratuitous T&A back to our mindless, violent entertainment will get my vote. My name is Old Balls, and I approved this message. Paid for by Barstool Sports photo subscription services, who are not responsible for the content of this advertisement.