Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Patriots 2005 Season Preview (9/7/2005)

It all seems so old hat. Patriots win another Super Bowl, and they endure significant changes in the off-season – I think I read this same thing last year. The Pats had more coaching changes this year than ever, but they somehow maintained their core players for another possible playoff run. Here are my thoughts on how the old and new faces (coaches and players) will gel in 2005.

(As always, if you want to be dropped from this list, please email me.)

The Draft

The Patriots replaced Joe Andruzzi (gone to Cleveland) with Logan Mankins in the first round, and Mankins appears to be up to the challenge. In the pre-season, he looked good more often than lost. They added James Sanders and Ellis Hobbs to the oft-injured secondary (Hobbs can also return kickoffs). Hobbs has looked alternatively brilliant and bewildered, but his attitude could make him a real contributor.

Matt Cassel won the third QB job over Rohan Davey, based largely on his first pre-season game, when he ran and threw well. And finally, the team traded a second-round pick to Arizona for well-regarded cornerback Duane Starks. We didn’t see much of Starks in the pre-season, but I heard good things about his time in Arizona. I’ll be watching closely when #23 hits the field.

The Offense

By far the biggest change is the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. The team didn’t elevate anyone to the job, preferring to do it by committee (reportedly tight ends coach Pete Mangurian will call the plays). I saw no ill effects of this change during pre-season, and I expect the Pats offense could improve production after bye weeks. The only knock on Weis was that the offense struggled the week after a bye, so new ideas in the practice schedule might improve performance.

Postcards sent to Joe Andruzzi, Adrian Klemm, Rohan Davey, or David Patten should not be addressed to Foxboro. All are gone, and all have been pretty well replaced. Rohan and Klemm weren’t great contributors, rookie Logan Mankins replaced Andruzzi, and David Patten was one of a group of receivers who were interchangeable to start with. Andre’ Davis (acquired via trade from Cleveland this summer) will take over for Patten without too much trouble. And a healthy Ben Watson at tight end will take pressure off the wideouts.

The team added Tim Dwight to take over returning punts, which should allow Troy Brown to be more like he was three years ago – though the secondary might miss him a bit ;) And the Pats added veteran depth at QB by signing local favorite Doug Flutie. He is better than any Patriot backup QB since Drew Bledsoe.

The Defense

Change, change, and more change. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel left for Cleveland, the Pats promoted defensive backs coach Eric Mangini to take his place. Lest you doubt what Mangini can do, remember he coached Troy Brown in the secondary and Brown had 3 INTs. I think Crennel will be missed more than Weis, because I think he called a better game than Weis (for reasons too lengthy to go into here – email me if you want a detailed explanation).

Tedy Bruschi is out for the year after suffering a mild stroke in February. His loss is without precedent in New England, because they’ve never had a player so important to a defense this good. Remember in 2002 the Patriots gave up 114 more yards rushing per game when Bruschi was injured during a four-game losing streak, and hat streak probably cost them a playoff spot.

Linebackers Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer retired, leaving the Patriots with a completely revamped inside linebacker corps. Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were brought in to help replace Bruschi and Johnson, and Mike Vrabel might see more time inside for the same reason. Brown is more of a pass-rusher, and Beisel might be the run stuffer that Ted Johnson was. It just won’t be easy to replace Bruschi.

However, the rest of the defense is better and deeper than last year. Ty Law left, but who cares – he missed half the year and all of the playoffs. And the Patriots added significant depth and talent to their secondary, so they shouldn’t have much trouble making up for the Law-lessness. Duane Starks and Chad Scott bring veteran stability, while second-year player Gus Scott and rookies Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders are the young guns of the secondary. The return of Randall Gay, Asante, Tyrone Poole, Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson could make this the best secondary the Pats have had under Bill Belichick.

On the defensive line, the only real news is that Marquis Hill and rookie Mike Wright showed flashes of skill and Vince Wilfork is another year more comfortable with the 3-4. With experienced backups, these guys should be fine.

The Special Teams

This one’s easy. Veteran Tim Dwight will return punts instead of Troy Brown, and rookie Ellis Hobbs or veteran Andre’ Davis will return kickoffs instead of Bethel Johnson and/or Kevin Faulk. The loss of Je’rod Cherry is mitigated by the return of Larry Izzo, and the kicking of Adam Vinatieri and Josh Miller and the coverage of said kicking have all been fine. File this under “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Coaches

It’s tough to know what the loss of Crennel and Weis will mean to the team. In the last 20 years, four teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls: two that kept both coordinators (1998 Broncos and 2003 Patriots); one that changed its defensive coordinator (1988 49ers); and one that changed both coordinators (1992 Cowboys). So obviously, you can do it any way you like, but the two constants on those teams were the head coach or the system. The Patriots kept both, and I think those are the most crucial elements to repeating. The flip side was the 1999 Rams, who changed their head coach and their defensive system – and gave up 471 points the next season.

When teams lose their coordinators, they often promote from within and weaken themselves at two positions. The Patriots may have avoided that by promoting Eric Mangini to DC but spreading around the OC chores among the existing staff. Only time will tell if the extra burden will drag the entire staff down, but know one thing: if it isn’t working, Bill Belichick will change it – even at mid-season if he has to. No one in the NFL is more willing to make changes whenever they have to be made to win. No one.

The Schedule

With all that in mind, here's my take on how the Patriots schedule will work out (as usual, broken down into quarters of the season):

I expect the Pats to start their first quarter of the year with a win over the Raiders in Foxboro. Oakland did nothing to improve their defense from last year, and they can’t score often enough against the Patriots to win. The Pats then have 10 days to prepare for a tilt at Carolina. When healthy, Carolina is a fast starter, but they've got an emotional division game with New Orleans the previous week. It looks like a close game, but I'll call it for the Panthers, with the motivation from the Super Bowl loss as the tie-breaker. The Pats then travel to Steeler country, but with Ben Roethlisberger showing signs of a sophomore slump and the running back situation uncertain, I see another Patriot victory. Next up is a home date with the Chargers. San Diego has short week (they play Sunday night) and travel across the country for the game, so it looks like another “W.”

The Pats begin the season's second quarter in Atlanta, which has a tough early schedule (a Monday nighter followed by road games on opposite coasts and then a very good Minnesota team at home). The Falcons also have a road division game after the Pats game, so I think this one will go the Patriots way. The trip to Denver could be tricky, as the Patriots eked out a win two years ago even though the Broncos had Danny Kannell at QB. If Jake Plummer is healthy, this could be a difficult one, especially with Denver's mild schedule surrounding the game. Something tells me this could be a Denver win, depending on Jake Plummer’s health. But one of my office mates is a Broncos fan, so I can’t predict a Patriots loss (sorry Kevin). That leads us directly to the Bills at home, where the Pats should prevail over a Buffalo team in transition. Indy at home the next week? No problem. Indy's offense won't be what it was last year and their defense will be about the same. So the result should be the same.

The game at Miami begins the third quarter of the season, and it could be hard-fought, with a short week to prepare for a division road game. Hard-fought, but the Dolphins don't have enough offense to beat the Patriots. Next up is New Orleans at home, and that should be a cake walk compared to their earlier schedule. The Pats then travel to Kansas City, to face a team that *still* doesn't have a defense. It's a difficult place to play, but a very, very depleted Patriots squad thrashed the Chiefs in KC last year -- no reason to expect anything different this year. Then we come to the New York Jets, or as I like to call them, "Patriots Lite." Everything the Jets do well, the Patriots do better, so I can’t envision a letdown for this divisional home game.

The final quarter of the season begins at Buffalo. By then, Mike Mularkey's team might be playing better, but they're still out-classed by New England, and I don't think Willis McGahee is all he's been built up to be. Tampa comes to town next, having played two division games before, and having to play one division game after. Add to that the fact that they are terrible in the cold, and this might be the easiest call of the year -- Patriots win big. They follow that up with a Monday night road game against the Jets (who have division games before and after). The Monday night aspect equalizes the road aspect pretty well, and again, the Patriots do everything better than the Jets. Besides, firing the offensive coordinator wasn't the answer to New York's problems -- and I expect the Patriots to have something special cooked up for Mike Heimerdinger's squad -- they always did when he was the OC in Tennessee. This is a game the Patriots could lose, but I expect another win. As for the last game of the year, the Dolphins usually play tougher than you'd expect in New England late in the year. But their overall record is pretty bad in those games. New head coach Nick Saban should have his team playing well by then, but I think the Patriots have too much firepower for them. Unless the game means little to the Patriots, look for a "Happy New Year's Day" for New England fans.

The Summary

So if you count the second Jets game as a win, the Patriots go 15-1 (14-2 if they lose). Either record virtually guarantees them a division title and a first-round playoff bye. The unknown factors are how the Patriots will react to the loss of Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, and Tedy Bruschi. In 2003, the Pats averaged a 10.2 point margin of victory in their wins; last year it was 13.7 points, so the gap between them and the rest of the league might have been growing, not shrinking. Losing Crennel, Weis, and Bruschi will bring them closer to the pack, but I don’t think it’s a two touchdown difference.

The Patriots coaching might have dropped a bit, but the overall talent on the field is better. The schedule is tougher this year (especially early), but the rest of the league hasn’t made up the two-touchdown differential to take away many of the Patriots 14 wins from last season. I’ll be watching closely to see how the coaching changes have affected things, and I’ll keep you posted if anything becomes apparent.

Other than that, enjoy the season.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

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