Saturday, September 12, 2009

Patriots 2009 Season Preview

It doesn't just seem like a long off-season, it *was* one. The 2008 Patriots failed to make the playoffs for the first time in five years, cutting two - five weeks out of what we are used to. So it was all over before the important games started in January. After posting a decent 11-5 record, they missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker -- which, interestingly enough, is how they missed the playoffs the last time, too (lost out to the Dolphins last year and the Jets in 2002).

So how do they avoid tie-breakers entirely and make it to the playoffs this year? The watchword is the same as always: change. All teams lose players and coaches and still have to innovate and adapt their strategies, schemes, and expectations from year to year. Change is inevitable, so the best teams anticipate it and do their best to take full advantage of it.

The Patriots have had their ups and downs with change. They changed the quarterback in 2001 and won a championship. They changed five players on defense in 2003 and won the next two Super Bowls. However, they replaced their offensive and defensive coordinators in 2005 and haven't won one since.

But remember this most of all: they made significant changes every single year they won a Super Bowl. And they basically tried to stand pat in 2002 and 2008 and missed the playoffs both times. So let's embrace change, relish it, revel in it, even look forward to it. Because if history is any guide, the changes the Patriots made this off-season should lead to the post-season in 2009.

Anyone important arrive since last year?

1. After a brutal year defending the pass, they brought in about a hundred defensive backs and drafted a safety and another corner. Two of the veteran corners made it through training camp, but I wasn't impressed by Leigh Bodden or Shawn Springs. I was similarly lukewarm about the play of drafted safety Pat Chung; though he may improve as he learns the system.

However, second-year corner Jonathan Wilhite does give hope, with his youth and his improvement from last year to this preseason. Not to put too much pressure on him, but he reminds me of Asante Samuel, who improved dramatically his second year. And rookie Darius Butler played better than Bodden or Springs, so that... well it isn't saying much, but at least he has a decent upside.

2. After a brutal year defending the pass, they got younger in the front seven. Gone are veterans Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, and Richard Seymour. They re-signed linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and have two second year players starting at inside linebacker, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton. Mayo has a chance to be a special player and Guyton was good last year before being injured. And Banta-Cain knows the system and was blossoming here before getting big bucks to sign with San Fran.

On the line, the team kept two rookie backups, Myron Pryor and Ron Brace. I didn't see much out of Pryor the last four games, but I thought Brace was terrific when he was on the field.

So youth is served on defense; though it remains to be seen how it works out. But Seymour hadn't been the best D-lineman on the team for some time now, and a first round draft pick from Oakland was just too much to turn down. Bruschi just flat out couldn't run any more, and Vrabel couldn't hold the edge on running plays. I don't like to see veterans go, but it looks like it was time for these three, unfortunately.

3. It looks like their offensive changes will work out pretty well. Backup QB Brian Hoyer looked pretty good, and Chris Baker gives them a tight end who can create separation and get open in the end zone, so finally someone can take the pressure off of Wes Welker. And Joey Galloway is a definite upgrade from Jabar Gaffney -- no offense intended to Mr. "dropped a pass to lose the Indy game in a season where we missed the playoffs by one game, so I'm off to Denver to hide behind Josh McDaniels for a while."

Fred Taylor can spell Kevin Faulk and replace oft-injured Laurence Maroney if he falters again. And my fave -- BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- plowed his way to the team lead for rushing yards in the preseason. He also scored *all* of their preseason rushing touchdowns, too. All of 'em.

4. Special teams didn't stand still, either, replacing the coach, the long snapper, and adding rookie Julian Edelman for kick returns. All three worked out pretty well in the preseason; but time will tell once the regular players are in on special teams starting tonight!

5. Oh, and some supermodel-dating king-of-the-world-wannabe named Brady is the starting QB. You probably heard, right?

Anyone important leave since last year?

1. In addition to Seymour, Bruschi, and Vrabel, there were five significant player losses since last year. Rodney Harrison retired, Matt Cassel was traded to Kansas City, and Ellis Hobbs joined his running mate Asante Samuel in Philadelphia. On special teams, captain Larry Izzo went 200 miles southwest to join the Jets, and long snapper Lonie Paxton went 1,900 miles west (and 1 mile high) to Denver after being here for years.

Harrison wasn't the player he'd been, but he knew the defense so well that his leaving will hurt. In a pre-salary cap world, the Pats could have kept Cassel and Brady, but not any more, so Matt had to go. Ellis Hobbs played hurt and played sort of mediocre; but he was never a legit starter even though injuries and poor personnel decisions forced him into that role.

And Izzo and Paxton... what can I say. They were both great while they were here and neither showed any signs of slowing down. So I wish them well in their new roles -- except when they play the Patriots :)

2. There were also some significant changes to the coaching staff. Josh McDaniels went to Denver and looks over matched, leaving QB coach Bill O'Brien as the de facto OC here (he'll call the plays, though he has not been promoted). Special teams coach Brad Seeley joined the Cleveland Browns staff. I always wondered how good he was, now I get the chance to find out.

And interestingly, they added an assistant to the Strength and Conditioning coach. I've always thought they had way too many injuries and should consider replacing Mike Woicik. This might be a move in that direction.

Any other changes I should be aware of?

1. After a brutal year defending the pass (notice a pattern here?), they might be switching to the 4-3 defense. They played more 4-3 in the preseason, and new linebacker Derrick Burgess isn't really a linebacker but a pass rushing specialist -- so even when there are four linebackers, it might still be a 4-3.

2. After three years of playing all veterans early in the year and working in younger players as injuries sidelined the starters, they appear ready to give young players a chance right out of the gate.

I personally applaud that, because the Pats used to care more about how they finished the season than how they started it. And giving the youngsters more playing time gives them a better chance to contribute this year, rather than the more recent system that basically made them non-factors until their second year. Also, fewer snaps for veterans should mean fewer injuries, too -- which can only be a good thing.

3. They just might succeed in their mission to keep Brady healthy this year, for two basic reasons. First off, the running game has a chance to be decent. With two third-down type backs (Faulk and Taylor) they can do more running out of the shotgun formation, at which they've been extremely good. And north-south runner Green-Ellis will push for playing time and force Maroney to play better, and that could be a deadly combination.

Secondly, it looks like Brady has recommitted himself to the play-action pass. In the preseason his fake hand-offs and pump fakes were much crisper and more deceptive than they'd been lately. I know it's a little thing, but I've been bemoaning his lackadaisical fakes for a few years. And I'm glad to see him get back to basics, because defenses are going to come after him and nothing slows them down like decent running game and a play-action fake.

So how will the season work out?

With all that in mind, including that they might give young players more snaps, that they might not pass as often so the games could be closer, and also that the special teams are a real wildcard this year, there is more uncertainty early in the season than there has been since 2003. But given all that, here is how I see the season playing out:

First Quarter

Week 1: The Patriots should open with a win against the Bills tonight. I know Buffalo added T.O. to match Lee Evans as another outside threat. But it's still Trent Edwards at QB, and the Patriots beat them twice last year with Matt Cassel behind center. So shootout or defensive struggle, the Patriots should handle the Bills.

Week 2: They then have a short week and travel for a game against the Jets. This one is a tough call for a lot of reasons. There isn't much tape on rookie QB Mark Sanchez, but Belichick defenses have traditionally feasted on young quarterbacks. New York has some talent on offense and a new defensive attitude/scheme under rookie head man Rex Ryan. And of course, they beat the Patriots in the biggest game of last year *in* Foxboro. So it'll be close, but I'll say the Patriots will lose this one -- just not enough info available about the QB or defense yet.

Week 3: The following Sunday the Atlanta Falcons (and I) travel to Foxboro for what I expect will be a loss for the visitors (not me, the Falcons). Matt Ryan played great as a rookie, but he's guaranteed to see some confusing new defenses the first time he plays the Patriots. It'll be a shootout, but I don't think the Falcons defense has enough to stop the Pats from out-scoring them. (Note: put this down as a guaranteed win if the Patriots lose to the Jets in Week #2).

Week 4: The Ravens matchup is an intriguing one, with the same QB situation as the Falcons (second year man who hasn't played the Patriots yet). The defense is a year older and will probably slip some with Rex Ryan gone, but the Ravens should have revenge on their mind since the last time they played Ryan called time-out that allowed the Patriots to remain undefeated in 2007. All that aside, Baltimore has two division games sandwiching their match with the Patriots, so I give the edge to the home team in this one.

That would make the Patriots 3-1 at this point in the season.

Second Quarter

Week 5: At Denver, at Denver, at Denver... what can I say about playing the Broncos. Oh, I know... I *hate* playing the Broncos! Luckily, the new head man there appears to be drowning and they are rebuilding, so I expect the Patriots superior talent gives them the edge to win this one. But it'll be closer than you think -- the Broncos always give us a hard time.

Week 6: The Tennessee Titans will give the Patriots a stern test. Sure, they have two division games just before this one, but their bye is right after this game and Jeff Fisher will have his charges ready to rumble (and will probably promise them extra time off if they win). Their defense is one of the NFL's best, and is physical enough to give the Pats a lot of trouble. The question is whether or not the Titans can out-score the Pats... and I think they can. Mark down the second loss.

Week 7: The game in London against the Buccaneers is a sure win for the Pats. They always do a great job of handling the strange venue and unusual games, and the Bucs have a rookie QB and fired their offensive coordinator 10 days before the season started. Too much disarray for Tampa, put it in the Win column for the local 11.

Week 8: No loss this week... it's the bye. Rest up everyone :)

Week 9: The Dolphins game in Foxboro will be a win for the Patriots. The Pats come off a bye week and will want revenge for last year's embarrassing loss at home. The Dolphins will be playing their second consecutive road-division game, and they don't have the talent to keep up with the score-all-the-time offense of the Patriots.

That would put the team at 6-2 halfway through the year.

Third Quarter

Week 10: The Colts would seem to have everything in their favor for the November 15 tilt in Indy. Playing their third straight game at home (with two chump teams before the Patriots), under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football, the Patriots playing division foes in the weeks before and after the game. But remember that the Pats outplayed Indy in Indy last year with Matt Cassel at the helm, and there's a new coaching system in place there. So even though all signs point to a loss, something in my gut tells me the Patriots won't overlook this one and will pull out the win.

Week 11: At this point, the Patriots will have eight weeks of film on young Jets QB Mark Sanchez. Trust me, it'll make all the difference. Pats beat the daylights out of 'em!

Week 12: At New Orleans for a Monday night game against the Saints is one that the press is pounding as a sure-fire loss for the Patriots and perhaps a passing of the torch to a younger generation of quarterbacks. Don't buy it -- the Patriots defense should be gelling and playing better by then, and with a pseudo-bye week against the Jets, the Pats should be rested and ready to go. A shoot-out, no doubt. But the Pats should stop the Saints more often than the Saints stop the Pats.

Week 13: With a short week after the Monday game and a road tilt against the rival Dolphins, sadly I see this as a loss. It's always been tough for the Pats to play in south Florida, and this one just feels like another loss.

That would make the team 9-3 at the three-quarter pole of the season.

Fourth Quarter

Week 14: Traditionally the Carolina Panthers have given the Patriots a difficult time. But Jake Delhomme continues to regress as a quarterback, and they don't have the weapons they possessed when the teams met in the Super Bowl -- over five years ago now. Besides, the Patriots have won 15 straight regular season games against the NFC. And given that the Panthers play a division game the week before and then travel to Foxboro for this one, I think the Patriots pull this one out. But it could be closer than you might think.

Week 15: The Pats then play the Bills. In Buffalo. In December. With the wind howling and perhaps snow on the ground. Sounds like the perfect conditions for T.O. to curl up in the fetal position and whine about how it was warmer in Dallas. The new-and-improved passing attack? Should be a non-factor for much of December in Buffalo, whereas the controlled passing game of the Patriots will work well in those conditions. Game to the Patriots.

Week 16: I love the Patriots chances when a warm weather team like the Jacksonville Jaguars come to town in late December. The other team always talks about how it doesn't matter, but QB David Garrard completed only 50% of his passes yesterday in a *dome* -- so how poorly will he play in Foxboro two days after Christmas... probably with nothing to play for, too. Patriots win!

Week 17: The Patriots travel to Houston to take on the Texans, in a game that could be a lot tougher than people think. The head coach in Houston ran the offense in Denver for years... the same offense that killed the Patriots with the stretch running play time and again. The Texans also have a monster at wide receiver (Andre Johnson) and an efficient, if not spectacular, quarterback -- who, btw, came off the Atlanta bench to nearly beat a very good Patriots team in 2005. I'll say this... if the game means anything to the Patriots, they will win. If not, they still win unless the game means something to the Texans (i.e. a playoff berth or positioning).

I think that last game will mean something to the Patriots, which puts them at 13-3, or more likely 12-4 with one stumble along the way. Either record will get them in the playoffs and might snag a first-round bye if they are fortunate.

Anyhow, that's how I see it. Hope the team stays healthy and the young players come along so we can watch important games next January... unlike last year!

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

1 comment:

  1. Well I think this prediction of the Patriots potential win/loss record doesn't look like it was created while looking through rose colored glasses. I'll be happy with an 11-5 repeat of last year, as long as it comes with a better division record. Missing out on the playoffs last year at 11-5 because of tie breakers was pure bologna considering the chaff that got in from the NFC.