Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Patriots Post-Super Bowl Wrap-up (2/20/2008)

So there are a few lingering issues with the Patriots, and I just wanted to wrap them up before moving on to a breakdown of what they need this off-season. A lot of this is rant-worthy post-Super Bowl crapola being spit out by national pundits, who seem to think that their belief is stronger than reality.

PUNDIT BS #1: Eli Manning came of age during his final touchdown drive in the Super Bowl

The truth is that Eli Manning was closer to imploding than he was leading his team to victory at the end of the Super Bowl. He threw at least three passes that should have been intercepted. In fact, if Asante Samuel, Rodney Harrison, or Brandon Meriweather makes a catch he should have made, Eli would be labeled a goat who crumbled under pressure and blew his team's stellar defensive effort with ill-timed interceptions.

And if you think this is sour grapes, think again. I give Eli's brother, Peyton, all the credit in the world for leading his team to a winning score in the 2006 AFC Championship game against the Patriots. On that drive, Peyton took care of the ball, never putting it in the hands of defenders as Eli did. It was just Peyton making one good play after another, and all of that good added up to a great drive.

Oh, and for those who want to compare Eli to Tom Brady in his first Super Bowl, Brady did the same thing that year that Peyton did in 2006 -- took care of the ball and got his team in position to win. If he'd "pulled an Eli" in that game, the Patriots would likely have lost to the Rams and who knows where we'd be now.

PUNDIT BS #2: Super Bowl XLII was one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports

It wasn't even one of the greatest Super Bowl upsets. Upsets are largely about perception, because they happen when our expectations are violated by a big favorite who loses -- and of course, the favorite is only in that position because we think that favorite should win big. My measuring stick for a huge upset is how many people believed the underdog could win the game, and what percentage chance they give the underdog to pull off the upset. By those two measures, most everyone thought the Giants could win the game, and most gave them a 20- to 30-percent chance to do it. So while it was an upset, it wasn't an historic upset. After all, the Patriots won the regular-season meeting by a mere three points, so how much of an upset could it have been?

To further my point, contrast the expectations of this year’s Super Bowl with those of the Jets victory in Super Bowl III and the Patriots win in Super Bowl XXXVI. In both of those other cases, virtually no one outside of teams' fans gave them any chance of winning. The Jets were from the AFC, which in 1969 was considered an inferior league to the NFL. And remember that the Rams entered Super Bowl XXXVI with the league's #1 offense and #1 defense, and they were supposed to bury the Patriots to cement their dynasty.

I think the Giants win was about on par with the Raiders 38-9 win over Washington in Super Bowl XVIII. Washington had rolled over their playoff competition, but in the regular season, they barely beat the Raiders (by just two points) -- and the Raiders were missing both of their starting cornerbacks in that game. So even though most people thought Washington would win, they gave the Raiders a fighting chance because the earlier contest was so close. Sound familiar?

PUNDIT BS #3: Super Bowl XLII was the greatest Super Bowl ever played

Not even close. In the immediate rush (and New York press’ saturation-coverage), it's fashionable to crown this the greatest Super Bowl ever. But in a few years, we'll all think that was silly. Two scores in the first 15:05, and then lots of offensive ineptitude for more than 30 minutes, followed by three scores in the final 11 minutes. These games aren't all about offense, but no big special teams plays and a bunch of bad play-calling and bad adjustments by both teams doom this one to also-ran status.

Sure, the New York press will keep it alive as one of their greatest memories, and Giants fans will treasure it forever. But it'll never match the back-and-forth nature of the Broncos win over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII or the Giants nail-biter over Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV ("Norwood's kick is... WIDE RIGHT!").

PUNDIT BS #4: Patriots dynasty was over after February 2005

You may or may not have heard this, but some in the corps of press experts are claiming that the Patriots dynasty ended with their three-point win over the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX. Problem is, there's no way of knowing that for a while. Dynasties can't be judged while they are in progress; it always takes a few years to put a great team in perspective. The Dallas Cowboys dynasty ended with their 1995 Super Bowl victory, but no one said it was over until they finished 5-11 in 2000 and Troy Aikman retired. And the San Francisco 49ers dynasty lasted from 1981 - 1994, but it wasn't declared over until Steve Young retired and the team went 4-12 in 1999. (BTW, notice a pattern here? Dynasties seem to end when the quarterback retires and the team starts losing.)

The Patriots won three championships in four years. And since then, they've won the division crown and at least one playoff game every year, once losing by four points in the AFC Championship game and once losing by three points in the Super Bowl. Sure, if the Pats never win another Super Bowl under Belichick and/or Brady, history will say their dynasty ended with their Super Bowl victory over the Eagles. But let's not jump to conclusions. After all, the Las Vegas wiseguys have installed them as the odds-on favorites to win next year's Super Bowl.

PUNDIT BS #5: The Patriots loss in Super Bowl XLII is a worse choke than the Yankees loss to the 2004 Red Sox

This idiotic idea has been proposed by New Yorkers who are anxious to remove the “Greatest Chokers of All Time” from their beloved Yankees. But it’s easy enough to dispel.

The Patriots lost an NFL Championship to a Giants team that they'd barely beaten in the regular season, something done by over a dozen teams in NFL history. The 2004 Yankees lost a 3-0 lead in a 7-game series, something that hadn't been done in 133 years -- that's right, 133 YEARS!!! -- of professional baseball. The Yankees collapse will always be in a category by itself; because it will probably be another 133 years before we see it again. We might see the same Super Bowl scenario next frickin' year.

Sorry, New Yorkers, but your 2004 Yankees remain in a category all by themselves.

SEMI-FINAL word on the Son of Spygate controversy

Son of Spygate is the allegation, by former Patriots employee Matt Walsh, that the Patriots videotaped the Rams walk-through the Friday before playing them in Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick and Scott Pioli (Vice President - Player Personnel) both vehemently denied the allegation, with BB going so far as to say that all his years of coaching, he'd never been on a staff that did anything like that.

Here's my semi-final words on that: Belichick and Pioli are telling the truth, take it to the bank. How can I be so sure? Think about it; if there was any chance such a videotape existed, would these guys have come out with such unequivocal statements? I don’t think so. In fact, if they thought there might be a videotape, they would almost certainly leave themselves some wiggle room. The two of them must be sure that either the videotape doesn't exist or that if it does exist, it was the work of a rogue employee and that BB never saw or used the tape. Otherwise, they will end up suspended and perhaps fired for lying.

Unlike what some of the pundits have said, this isn't at all like Roger Clemens' steadfast denials about HGH or steriods. The reason is, there is almost no chance at all that there will be videotape evidence proving Clemens did drugs, so he is just about guaranteed to end up in a "he said, he said" situation with his accusers. Given the possibility of videotape evidence, there just isn't any way the Patriots would make absolute statements.

That’s about all for now, folks. I’ll be back next week with an update on what the Patriots need to do this off-season to get back in position for a Super Bowl run.

Keep the faith,

- Scott

PS. 0-0!

Friday, February 15, 2008

"See! Told ya we didn't cheat!"

Hi All,

Well, the contest was about as close as you could get, with two of the entries tied at the top and another entry just one vote behind. As promised, I flipped a coin to decide the winner. Or more accurately, I had someone from the firm of Waters, Pricehouse flip the coin (note: I called Price, Waterhouse, but they actually charge you money to flip a coin). "And the award goes to..."

"See! Told ya we didn't cheat!" -- congratulations to Christine Kittle

Second place was "Patriots almost perfect, Manning wins again" -- Sean Lento

Third place was "Go Pats Go! Going, going... gone." -- Karen Correnti

The booby prize goes to all the five-word and seven-word entries I got. Your reward is another year of English composition :)

Thanks to all who entered. This was a lot of fun, and if I can get another prize, I'll run another contest in the future.

I expect to write a wrap-up email for next week, and then an off-season needs assessment for the week after. Until then, take care.

Keep the faith,

- Scott



Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"2007 Patriots in Six Words" Contest Update (2/6/2008)

Hey guys,

So it isn't all wine and roses after all, but that hasn't stopped you from coming up with some of the best stuff so far. A reminder, the contest for the best six-word description (link) has only a few days to go. So not much time to vent your anger or express your sorrow.

Here are three of the best ones that came in since the Super Bowl disappointment:

"Cassandra Buress foretold: Patriots will fold." T.B.

"Best season and worst ending -- Ever!" C.G.

"18-1, On the Road to Imperfection" K.C.

Send 'em in as you see fit; might even help the healing process.

- Scott

Monday, February 4, 2008

Patriots 14, Giants 17 (2/3/2008)

I said all along that I'd rather the Patriots go 10-6 and win the Super Bowl than 16-0 and lose it. Well, maybe next year... sigh. The Giants rode heavy defensive pressure to a 17-14 victory for their first Super Bowl championship in 17 years. The loss was New England's first of the season and dropped them from possible immortality to a second straight year losing on a last-minute touchdown drive by some guy named Manning. I know that uncertainty is central to what we like about sports (otherwise we'd all watch wrestling instead), but it doesn't make it any easier when your team is on the downside of it.

In a game of opportunities, the Patriots didn't take anything close to full advantage of theirs. After an Ellis Hobbs interception, the offense lost a yard on two running plays into eight- and nine-man fronts and then punted. A second-quarter hold by Ben Watson cost them a first down and they ended up fumbling the ball away. On a third-quarter drive, a Giants penalty gave them new life, but the Pats ended up going for it on fourth-and-13 instead of kicking a 49-yard field goal (in a game they lost by 3 points). And they continually tried to throw deep when Brady didn't have enough time. And so the team that won eighteen straight games by adjusting to what the other team would give them failed to adjust and lost the most important game of the year.

The offensive line played their worst game since the Baltimore tilt in December. Stephen Neal only played about a half, and his replacement, Russ Hochstein couldn't handle the inside rush. Meanwhile, tackles Matt Light and Nick Kazcur couldn't stop the outside rush, and that left Tom Brady nowhere to hide. Six weeks ago, I chided the Dolphins "inept offense" for allowing 20 quarterback hits. Well, our offense just gave up 14 "official" hits (5 sacks, 9 QB hits), though the Fox coverage said it was at least 3 more than that. In addition to all the pressure on Brady, the team ran for an anemic 2.8 yards per rush, and committed two false start penalties that really hurt. Oh, and that rushing average and number of QB hits tells you what kind of day the running backs had, too. Not good.

As for Brady and the receivers, the numbers look decent. Tom was 29-48, 266 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. But I think he didn't do enough checking off of plays. The Giants could have been had with short passes, but far too often, Brady ran the ball into stacked defenses or tried long passes against blitzes. Not a good game by him or offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. They looked as hubristic as Rams coach Mike Martz did against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI, and they suffered the same fate: a three-point loss. Wes Welker (11-103) and Kevin Faulk (7-52) were as reliable as ever. And Randy Moss finished strong, with 4 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown in the second half. But as a group, they didn't do enough to get open on short routes to take the pressure off Brady, and frankly they had a bad day blocking (especially on WR screens).

But don't think that the offense was all to blame for the loss. The defense had three chances to close out the game on the Giants final drive, and missed all three. Both Adalius Thomas and Jarvis Green let (Giants QB) Eli Manning slip through their fingers and Manning completed a pass to the Patriots 25 yard-line. Earlier in the drive, Asante Samuel dropped a sure interception, and Brandon "hands of stone" Meriweather let another potential pick go through his hands (that was the sixth or seventh one he's missed this year). And in the first half, Pierre Woods should have recovered a fumble, but the Giants Brandon Jacobs wanted it more and simply took it away from Woods.

Overall, the defense played a decent game. They held the Giants to 17 points, and that performance would have won all eighteen other games this year. The front seven got more pressure in this game (3 sacks, 5 QB hits) than they did in the last game (1 sack, 2 QB hits). Adalius Thomas was the man up front, and you could see why they signed him in the off-season. He had two sacks, a forced fumble, and five solo tackles. And Tedy Bruschi acquitted himself nicely, but his partners in crime, Junior Seau and Mike Vrabel were controlled by the Giants all day long. On the D-line, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork played quite well, plugging up gaps in the middle and slowing down the run. But Richard Seymour, Jarvis Green, and Le Kevin Smith were basically absent for the day. I hope Seymour returns to his old form next year, because his knee injury obviously hurt him a lot more than he let on.

With the exception of Ellis Hobbs, the secondary played a very good game, especially when compared to their prior game against the Giants. They got an interception, knocked down seven other passes and hit hard enough to jar the ball loose at least three times. Rodney Harrison had 12 tackles, and James Sanders (4) and Brandon Meriweather (3) pitched in with some big hits and a few passes knocked down. The coverage was very tight on a lot of plays and then non-existent on others. But for the most part they didn't allow big plays (a 45-yard catch-and-run by Kevin Boss was one exception), and their performance should have been good enough to win. And if Asante or Brandon could just have caught a football, it would have been.

The biggest special teams play of the game was the one that Bill Belichick didn't call. Leading 7-3, he eschewed a 49-yard field goal attempt to go for it on 4th-and-13. Now, if it had been 4th-and-1 or 4th-and-2, I could see it. But I think it revealed Belichick's lack of faith in kicker Stephen Gostkowski. And in a three-point loss, it's tough not to look back on that play. Other than that, the coverage teams were good, and they got one big kickoff return from Laurence Maroney. Gostkowski did send one kickoff out of bounds, and punter Chris Hanson sent one off the side of his foot. But the Giants didn't score on either of the ensuing drives, so no harm, no foul.

And now to the coaching. Belichick should have tried the field goal. Josh McDaniels should have kept true to his adjusting-self -- not become the reincarnation of Mike Martz and go for long passes when short ones would do. The offense's poor performance and his unwillingness or inability to adjust his play-calling probably cost the Patriots the game. And since he gets so much praise, I think offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia deserves some blame. If he couldn't protect Brady, he should have employed more protectors or used "chipping" running backs or tight ends.

So where does that leave us? Awaiting the return of Rosevelt Colvin and (rookie) Oscar Lua to shore up an aging linebacker corps. Perhaps looking for another cornerback and safety to spell Rodney Harrison. Fine-tuning an offense that scored over 20 points in every game except the Super Bowl. Pining for sought-after free agents who want one shot at a ring. And with one more year of Tom Brady's career gone by the books with no ring. 18-1 wouldn't be bad for most teams, but you never want the "1" to come in the playoffs.

Statistical Oddity of the Week: In a year of firsts, the Patriots had yet another one -- first team in NFL history to win 18 games in a season and not be crowned champions.

Weekly Water-cooler Wisdom: "You know, I heard all year about how the Patriots adjust better than any team in the NFL. So where were the offensive adjustments in the frickin' Super Bowl?! I mean, I could see the eight- and nine-man fronts on television -- couldn't they audible to a play-action pass?"

Keep your faith warm for the Winter. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, so we probably have at least six more weeks.

- Scott



Friday, February 1, 2008

"2007 Patriots in Six Words" Update!

Well, the response has been huge so far. I got 15 entries in the first 10 minutes after asking for your best six-word description of the Patriots historic season (link). And they haven't even played the last game yet -- so it should be massive once the Super Bowl is over!

Here are three of my favorites so far:

"Belichick's humble pie, a champion's feast." -- A.W.

"New century, new set of heroes." -- P.C.

"Victories, despite videos, that made history." -- C.C.

I'm impressed and amazed by your passion and creativity.

Keep 'em coming, and go Patriots!

- Scott