Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moss at a crossroads

On a snowy Wednesday morning, Patriots fans awoke to find an unfortunate news flash. Four team members had been sent home for the day (i.e. banned from practice) by Bill Belichick for showing up late to an 8 a.m. meeting. The players were linebackers Gary Guyton, Adalius Thomas and Derrick Burgess, and...

Randy Moss.

The inclusion of #81 was the most surprising. Moss is a team captain, and has produced more highlights than anyone not named Tom Brady. And it's important to give Randy a break, considering that the weather was absolutely deplorable, and traffic was likely a mess regardless of where people were coming from.

A report even said that one player called to let a team official know he was delayed. Considering how serious Moss has been about the well-being of the team, it's quite possible he was that player.

But we can ponder the effect a statement like this will have on Moss. Fact: He's been taken out of games recently. Fact: His past reactions to team slumps has been to disappear.

Fact: With a chance to erase those worries off the minds of New England fans, he didn't get off to a good start.

Moss should know that a disciplinary stand by Belichick, this one included, is hardly ever personal. Bill has his rules, and they are etched in stone. If you abide by them, you get to practice and play. If you don't, go home. Nobody gets preferential treatment, and that's true whether you're Isaiah Stanback or Tom Brady, Rob Ninkovich or Randy Moss.

Moss has two roads he can go down. One is to take this in stride, to learn that Belichick won't cut him any corners. He can use it as a learning experience, leave the house 20 minutes earlier and set an example for a team that will be looking for him to provide leadership during the most important four-game stretch of the season.

The Patriots will need Randy Moss to give it his all the rest of the way. He could start at 8 a.m. Thursday.

The other road? Do what he would have done if Dennis Green or Mike Tice in Minnesota, or Norv Turner in Oakland tried to do this. He could pout, get angry and decide that he just doesn't feel like making that much of a commitment. He could finally appease the naysayers who have just been waiting for him to implode since he came to Foxboro in April of 2007.

It's unfair for us to assume Moss will take the second road. He has been a great fit since leaving Oakland, has gained Brady's trust, and has transitioned effortlessly from enigmatic talent to role model and clubhouse leader. We should be shocked if Moss makes this a far bigger problem than it is.

But there are still people out there waiting for the old Randy Moss to resurface. Here is a chance for the new Randy Moss to prove them wrong again.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

How good are the Saints?

No need to go into Monday night's debacle. The Patriots lost to a clearly superior (at this point, at least) Saints team, featuring an extraordinarily explosive offense.

The question is, how explosive?

New Orleans ripped the Patriots defense for 38 points, giving them 407 points through 11 games, an average of 37 points per contest exactly.

The record? That would be 589 points and 36.8 per game, set by - you guessed it - the 2007 Patriots. So it begs the question: how does this Saints squad stack up against the record-setting attack New England employed en route to a 16-0 season two years ago?

Contrary to the opinion of various experts, this Saints squad appears to hold the edge. New Orleans has four top-notch receivers (Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem and Jeremy Shockey), all of whom had their moments Monday night, an intimidating trio at running back (Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush), and a quarterback in Drew Brees who has the perfect mix of brains and physical gifts to conduct this elite orchestra of talent.

Not to slight that Patriots team, which saw Tom Brady (50 touchdown passes) and Randy Moss (23 touchdown receptions) set records no one on this Saints team will break this year. But New England was unbalanced over the season. Many of those points came early on. In a stretch from weeks 6-11, the Patriots put up 48 points (on Dallas), 49 points (on Miami), 52 points (on Washington), 24 points (on Indianapolis) and 56 points (on Buffalo).

That Buffalo victory was the turning point, as the Patriots went from awe-inspiring to merely efficient. The rest of the season went: 31 points (against Philadelphia), 27 points (against Baltimore), 34 points (Pittsburgh), 20 points (N.Y. Jets), 28 points (Miami) and a final 38-point outburst against the New York Giants. Four of those victories were by 10 or fewer points, three were by a field goal.

Furthermore, that Patriots team was one-dimensional compared to this Saints team, or to other offensive juggernauts in recent memory such as the 2004 Indianapolis Colts, 2001 St. Louis Rams or 1998 Minnesota Vikings (whose record the Patriots broke).

New England had no running game to speak of. It was Laurence Maroney and Sammy Morris, and when Morris went on injured reserve during the season, there was hardly any cause for concern. It was Brady to Moss, Welker, Donte' Stallworth or Jabar Gaffney. All the time.

Those other teams had more weapons to stop. In 2004, Manning was throwing to Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley, en route to 49 touchdown passes, but he was also handing off to Pro-Bowler Edgerrin James. In 2001, Kurt Warner threw for 36 touchdowns and 4,830 yards to Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, Ricky Proehl or Az-Zahir Hakim. He also had future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in the backfield, the previous year's MVP.

Here's how I would rank the top offenses of the past 11 years:

1. 1998 Vikings
2. 2009 Saints
3. 2007 Patriots
4. 2004 Colts
5. 2001 Rams

Why the Vikings? Pure depth. A reborn Randall Cunningham had two of the greatest receivers in history to throw to. Cris Carter caught everything, and paired excellently with an explosive rookie named Randy Moss. Robert Smith made the Pro Bowl as a dangerous option at running back. The Vikings went 15-1, won every game at home, and came within a fluke miss by kicker Gary Anderson of going to the Super Bowl.

The ill fate of the '98 Vikings highlights an interesting trend. Each of the high-octane offenses mentioned above got tripped up short of the ultimate goal, with the '01 Rams and '07 Patriots falling one victory short of Super Bowl triumph.

Will the Saints show that offense can win in February? Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A little more focus

Even on a Sunday in which the Patriots didn't take the field, they still got good news regarding the AFC East race.

Buffalo shocked Miami at Orchard Park, 31-14, sending the Dolphins to 5-6. At this point, the Patriots lead the division with a 7-3 record, while Miami and New York are two-and-a-half games back at 5-6, while the Bills bring up the rear at 4-7.

The surprising result takes some of the importance off of the Saints matchup tomorrow night. Had Miami done what was expected and won, New England would have had to give New Orleans its first defeat in order to avoid having the Dec. 6 rematch in South Florida be for first place in the division.

Now, even if New England loses at New Orleans, they'll still have a comfortable lead (two games) with five games left. The Patriots could clinch the division with an 11-5 mark, which would allow for two losses to a group of opponents including the Saints (10-0), Dolphins (5-6), Bills (4-7), Jaguars (6-5) and Texans (6-5).

Of course, that doesn't make a victory in the Superdome any less attractive.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tale of two halves

The New England Patriots are 7-3. As always, there are many ways to look at that.

One is the popular take endorsed by Tom Brady. New England has lost three games, all as a result of playing essentially three halves (out of 20) of bad football.

Three halves? That's 1.5 losses, right? So the Patriots are really 8.5-1.5, and only a game-and-a-half behind Indianapolis, correct? That's not so bad!

Well, the problem is, those three halves are all the second half. The end game. It's a disturbing pattern, a worrisome trend.

Against the Jets in the Meadowlands, the Patriots had the lead at halftime, and allowed Mark Sanchez to bring New York back. At Denver, against a then-undefeated Broncos team, New England had a 17-7 lead before watching Kyle Orton save the day in overtime.

And of course, 10 days ago, the Patriots led the Colts by 10 at halftime, and 17 in the fourth quarter, before...

...I won't finish that sentence. The point is, Tom, you're mathematically right and logically incorrect. The Patriots, two years after being the ultimate go-for-the-jugular team, simply aren't going for the kill when they've achieved the stun.

If you're ready to dismiss that, maybe a history lesson will convince you otherwise. The 2002-2008 Patriots were 66-1 when leading at halftime. Sixty-six. And one.

This year? Six-and-3. And of those wins, games against Baltimore, Miami and the rematch with the Jets came oh-so-close to going in the loss column.

Cue the Vince Lombardi tape: "What the hell's going on out here?"

Of course, you can't expect teams losing at halftime to throw in the towel. They're NFL teams. They find out why they've been getting stomped on for 30 minutes and they correct it. They adjust. And they play harder and better in the next half.

But that's not always what happens with the Patriots. Take last Sunday's game. The Jets were emotionally and physically finished. They didn't show up. And yet, they were a few Sanchez implosions away from pulling off a comeback that would have - this is not exaggeration - crippled the Patriots' season.

Bright spots? The Patriots are 7-3, and notice the 6-3 record mentioned above. The Patriots often come out of the gates hard, and it's easier for a coach to teach his team to keep the foot on the gas than teach his team to climb out of a hole.

And with a matchup with the Saints coming up, the Patriots have a golden opportunity to enforce themselves as a power, even despite these shortcomings.

As Bill Belichick has said, the season starts after Thanksgiving. And the Patriots will have to improve their own second halves to make noise in the second half of the season.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Trade rumors abound

The Patriots just played their best game of the season, but they could be about to undergo some changes.

The trade deadline (Tuesday) is approaching fast, and - don't let yesterday's 59-0 romp over the winless Tennessee Titans fool you - this is a team that can use some personnel adjustments.

For starters, the weak pass rush, lack of a versatile third receiver and the unclear running back scenario have been targets for criticism during the up-and-down start to the Patriots' season.

New England may have heard some of the questioning. Linebacker Tully Banta-Cain was released, linebacker Adalius Thomas was inactive against the Titans, and wide receiver Joey Galloway - surprise, surprise - was also inactive.

What does this mean? Galloway's days have been numbered for the past few weeks, and he could be on his way to Baltimore. Thomas's benching has led way to rumors as well, and Banta-Cain's release opens a roster spot - perhaps for an upgrade to the pass rush.

Remember the Julius Peppers talk? Nothing that drastic may be up Nick Caserio's sleeve, but if the Patriots make a move, it'll be soon.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

No go on Welker

Disregard the last post - Wes Welker will miss another game.

Welker was declared inactive for the game against the Atlanta Falcons, putting him on the bench for the second straight game.

Fortunately, Randy Moss (also declared questionable due to a back ailment) was activated, and will suit up.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wild Wild Wes

After struggling to find a rhythm last Sunday in a loss to the Jets, the New England Patriots offense appears to be catching a break.

According to various sources, Wes Welker is on track to start Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Gillette Stadium, one week after missing the first game of his career.

The news isn't too surprising, considering that Welker was testing his banged-up knee on the field before the Jets game, and the decision to declare him inactive was unexpected.

Nonetheless, the decision is reassuring. Welker is Tom Brady's favorite target, and he is instrumental in the short-pass and screen game that converts first downs and keeps the offense on the field. With Welker out of the mix last Sunday, the offense visibly suffered.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Well, cancel the order for another "16-0" banner.

The New York Jets backed up their talk on Sunday, defeating the New England Patriots, 16-9, at the Meadowlands. It was the first loss for New England (1-1), while New York improved to 2-0.

It was a tough game all-around for the Patriots - just like the Jets said they were aiming for. The offense reverted back to its form from the first half of the Monday Night game against Buffalo, showing little chemistry and often appearing lost at the hands of Rex Ryan's aggressive, pressuring scheme.

On the other side of the ball, it wasn't too much better. It's not often that you can complain about a defense that allows 16 points, but in this case, it's warranted. The Patriots were stout in the first half, holding rookie Mark Sanchez to three completions in five attempts for 15 yards, and the Jets as a whole to only a field goal.

It was a whole new ballgame in the second half. Sanchez threw for 148 yards and a touchdown, and a steady running attack led by Leon Washington and Thomas Jones kept the Patriots on the field. Tom Brady had limited opportunities to figure out the difficulties with his receivers because the Jets dominated the time of possession.

The result was a game that, despite the one-score decision, was frustrating due to the large amount of things that went wrong. Brady looked out-of-synch, the defense faltered late (before finding enough resolve to stymie the Jets on their last two possessions, giving the offense a chance), and with 11 penalties, New England could not get out of its own way when it appeared to be nearing a breakthrough.

The game was the opposite of a standard Bill Belichick operation. He's a stickler for preparation and mental awareness, and instead, the Patriots came out without an answer to the Ryan defense, and made penalties that came often and at bad times.

In the first quarter, the Patriots were looking for the game's first score and had a first down at the Jets 17. Brady completed a pass to Julian Edelman for 10 yards and a first down, but a holding penalty on Stephen Neal brought the ball back to the 27. Another holding call, this time on tight end Chris Baker, put the ball back on the 37 and forced New England to settle for a field goal.

In the third quarter, down 13-9 but driving to the Jets 36, the Patriots' chances at a field goal or better were lost when Brady was called for consecutive delay of game penalties. Two scoring situations resulted in a meager three points for New England, a potential 11-point swing that, given the final score, could have changed the game drastically.

In the end, there just wasn't enough from New England. Brady completed only 23 of 47 passes for 216 yards and no touchdowns, Randy Moss caught only four passes for 24 yards, and Joey Galloway hauled in five catches for 53 yards while dropping several passes.

Rookie Julian Edelman caught eight passes for 98 yards in place of the irreplaceable Wes Welker, but given the overall inconsistency, it wasn't enough. It was the merely the highlight of a game that was, to put it nicely, ugly.

Just the way the Jets wanted it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Let's get it on

All right, enough talk. The Jets and Pats are ready to settle things on the field.

New York has made it clear what they expect to do to New England. The Patriots, as is always the case, have said nothing.

But whether they've stated their cases to the media or not, it's clear that both are expecting another physical game to add to the rivalry. Tom Brady said it'll be a "heavyweight fight". Kris Jenkins labeled it the Jets' "Super Bowl".

The matchup does have all the makings of being a close game. The Jets showed last week that their offense, led by rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, isn't lacking in firepower, and their defense, led by defensive tackle Jenkins and linebacker David Harris, is always stout.

The Patriots come into the Meadowlands fueled by a dramatic victory against Buffalo, but showing some bruises from it. Jerod Mayo, nursing a sprained MCL, was ruled out for a few games in the middle of the week, while slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker was a last-minute scratch.

The two injuries will have a big impact on both units. Mayo was the playcaller and leader on the defense, and Welker was Brady's go-to guy for short receptions and first downs. To pick up the slack, the Patriots might look to preseason fan favorite Julian Edelman, the former college quarterback who surprised with his offensive and special teams work in a victory over the Eagles. Joey Galloway and Sam Aiken will also be in the mix.

Despite the injuries, this should still be a game the Patriots can control. Bill Belichick has earned a reputation as a nightmare for rookie quarterbacks to go up against (they're 1-5 against him since 2000, throwing five touchdowns against 12 interceptions), and he has undoubtedly been hard at work at a scheme to stop the talented Sanchez, who started only one season in his USC career.

This is also a familiar situation for Tom Brady. Before 2007, Brady consistently had to make the most out of a receiving corps that dealt with injuries and didn't feature superstar talent. Brady was successful, and with Randy Moss at his side for this game, he should still be able to keep the offense moving today.

It'll be a close game, but if New England plays its game, it should still be able to pull out a victory. But this will be another tough AFC East matchup to start the season.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Week 2 picks

It's still early on in the season, but Week 2 can be an important week in the NFL schedule. Some teams are looking to prove their Week 1 performance wasn't a mirage, while others are trying to prove just the opposite.

Here goes:

Houston Texans at Tennessee Titans: I was high on the Texans coming into the season, however, though it's only been one game, I think Houston looks overhyped. They played with no passion against a Jets team that was young, learning on the go and could have been taken advantage of. Add in the fact that Houston was at home, and it looks even harder to imagine the Texans regaining that swagger against a good Titans team. Go with Tennessee.

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons:
Jake Delhomme bounces back from an awful opener against the Eagles, but the Falcons are a dangerous football team. At home, go with Atlanta.

New Orleans Saints at Philadelphia Eagles:
This is an intriguing matchup. Everyone knows the Saints can light up the scoreboard, and the Eagles were picked by many to be among the final teams standing in the NFC playoffs. The loss of McNabb to a rib injury puts a damper on it, and it'll be up to Kevin Kolb to keep things close. He won't, and the Saints will go to 2-0.

Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions: Everyone wants to get it right when the Lions finally win a game, but they'll have to wait at least one week. Easy win for Minnesota as Adrian Peterson (pictured) rolls again.

Oakland Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs:
Matt Cassel or no Matt Cassel, it won't be enough against an apparently improved Raiders team.

New England Patriots at New York Jets: In-depth pick coming

Cincinnati Bengals at Green Bay Packers: Tough loss for the Bungles in Denver. A tough loss turns into the makings of a tough season as the Packers go to 2-0, and the Bengals stay winless.

St. Louis Rams at Washington Redskins: If there's any team that faces a must-win every week, it's the Redskins. The NFC East is football's toughest division, and it is not unusual to see an 11-5 team win the division and a 10-6 or 9-7 team miss the playoffs. Look for that urgency to settle in for the Skins.

Arizona Cardinals at Jacksonville Jaguars:
The Cards are not a fluke. And after a tough loss to San Francisco (at home, no less), it's time for Arizona to prove it. They will. Take the Cardinals.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Buffalo Bills:
Boy, the Bills had better win this game. Awaiting them afterward are the Saints and Dolphins, so Buffalo could be 0-4 and essentially done when the season's a quarter finished. Buffalo clearly has the talent (they're 1-0 nine times out of 10), but whether they can move on from a crushing loss in Foxboro is another. I say they do. Take the Bills, but this could easily go the other way.

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers: Both teams are struggling for the division title that eluded them last year. On one hand, the Seahawks are trying to regain what was annually theirs for most of this decade, and on the other, the Niners are trying to fulfill their promise as a team waiting to break out. Unfortunately for Seattle, 49ers head coach Mike Singletary has this talented bunch under his thumb. San Fran becomes the league's most surprising 2-0 team.

Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears: Take the Steelers. No Troy Polamalu, no problem - for now.

Baltimore Ravens at San Diego Chargers: It's been a bad week for Philip Rivers. He struggled in the opening victory over Oakland, and then got fined for - surprise, surprise - running his mouth. He had better get the Chargers up and running this week against the always-tough Ravens, or things will go bad very quickly.

Cleveland Browns at Denver Broncos: The Broncos are bad, the Browns are bad. The difference is, the Broncos got lucky in Week 1 while the Browns were busy getting stomped on by Minnesota. Look for the Browns to even the score. Both teams move to 1-1.

New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys: The $1.2 billion Cowboys palace opens its doors as two NFC East rivals square off. The G-men have a strong squad, but Dallas appears focused and on top of their game. And this has been a safe selection slate so far. Time to take a chance. Dallas gets the victory and becomes the division's only 2-0 team.

Indianapolis Colts at Miami Dolphins: Many people jumped off the Colt bandwagon once Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison departed. I don't buy it, and you shouldn't either. The Colts are still tough, still dangerous, and it's because they still have Mr. Manning throwing to Mr. Wayne. Indy wins, and will be busy - once again - clinching playoff berths when November and December roll around.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

By the skin of their teeth

Bet you didn't expect this, Pats fans.

Whether it was the late fourth-quarter, 11-point deficit, the fumble by Leodis McKelvin with around two minutes left, or the last-minute comeback, there was plenty of room for the unforeseen and surprising in Monday night's season opener between the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills.

The return of Tom Brady against a perennial punching bag was supposed to be the return of 35-point games, three Brady-to-Moss touchdowns and everything else we associate with 2007.

It wasn't.

Instead, the Gillette Stadium crowd had to wonder what was going on as the Brady-led offense suffered bouts of sloppiness that derailed promising drives, and the Jerod Mayo-less defense (Mayo was sidelined with a knee injury) allowed the Bills to stay ahead, and eventually, strike again for a 24-13 lead with 5:32 left.

And then, the Patriots came alive - though the Bills were happy to oblige.

Brady finally found the endzone on a pass to Ben Watson with 2:06 left, and after a failed two-point conversion kept the score at 24-19, the Patriots were kicking off. The only question was whether to onside kick or kick it deep, not whether New England needed help to have a chance at the dramatic victory.

Stephen Gostkowski kicked it deep, into the endzone, and into the hands of Leodis McKelvin. Last year's top kick returner in the NFL took it out. He was hit first by Brandon Meriweather, then by Pierre Woods. The ball came out. Gostkowski, a kicker whose athleticism, toughness and heads-up mentality provides many memories of Adam Vinatieri, recovered at the Buffalo 31.

Patriots ball. Somehow, someway.

From there, it was just a review of what has made the Patriots the NFL's top franchise since 2001. Brady took the field and took command, finding Randy Moss (12 receptions, 141 yards) for six yards, Wes Welker (12 receptions, 93 yards) for nine, and then, on an identical play that resulted in the first score, Watson in the back of the endzone.

New England 25, Buffalo 24. After a last-ditch effort by the Bills to get into field goal range, that's how it ended.

It was a remarkable win for the Patriots, and a crushing loss for the Bills (who lost in similar mind-blowing fashion to Dallas in 2007). Despite the excitement, there are several questions that have to be addressed:

1) Can the Patriots figure out how to stop the screen? Last year, the Patriots were consistently burned by deep passes. On Monday night, it was the screen pass that was a thorn in the Patriots' side. The linebacking corps of Adalius Thomas, Pierre Woods and Gary Guyton had a difficult time containing Fred Jackson, who caught five passes for 83 yards. One was for 18 yards on a 3rd-and-15 on Buffalo's final scoring drive, and another was for 10 yards and the touchdown. Screen passes are deadly to a defense; they negate good schemes to shut down the rest of the scoring attack, and they can completely reverse the momentum the defense is building.

2) What is the situation with Jerod Mayo? The new defensive co-captain, expected to be the top linebacker in only his second season, was injured when Gary Guyton stepped on his leg early in the game. He didn't return, and the Patriots had a tough time finding an adequate replacement for him, as Woods and Guyton had the above problems. News broke today that the injury shouldn't be serious, but there is no exact timetable out yet. If he misses any action, the Patriots will have to figure out a solution. Fortunately, they have Bill Belichick, who has made a legacy out of finding the best way to plug big holes on defense.

3) How much more offensive sloppiness will we see? Compared to the top two questions, this is less of an issue. Brady and Co. struggled to find a rhythm in the first half, but they found a way to get it done when they had to - twice. Simple rustiness seemed to explain the first half. With a full game under the belt, the offense should look more like the potent unit we were expecting

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thoughts from around the league

The Patriots may not play until tomorrow night, but that didn't keep yours truly from taking a look around the league at the rest of the NFL action on a busy Sunday.

A few thoughts:

-It is no longer a question if Adrian Peterson is the most destructive offensive force in the game today. He already had two touchdowns before scoring a third on a brutal 64-yard run. He showed everything; quickness to get to the outside, a slippery move to get through the line, and strength to break a tackle and stiff arm a defender at the same time. Favre will get the publicity for the victory, but it was Peterson that the entire Browns roster had no answer for.

-Brandon Stokley scored on an incredible, flukey, once-in-a-lifetime 87-yard reception with 11 seconds left in the game, in which he caught a deflected pass and raced untouched to the endzone. But despite the crazy, hectic nature of the moment, Stokley, an 11-year veteran, never lost track of the game. Knowing he had no defenders near and time to burn, he ran parallel to the endzone for three or four seconds, running down the clock to make a Cincinnati comeback even more improbable. Kudos to Stokley and coach Josh McDaniels, who won his first game at the Denver helm.

-The league's best offense going against a team coming off a winless season seemed to be a mismatch, and it was. Drew Brees, who became the second quarterback in NFL history to eclipse 5,000 yards passing last season, wasted no time finding his regular-season form, burning the poor Detroit Lions for six touchdowns. Five New Orleans receivers caught touchdowns, with Jeremy Shockey scoring twice. Brees appears on track for another incredible season, and if he is, the Saints could find their way back into the playoffs.

-The public's prognosis for the New York Jets was not good entering the season. Losing Brett Favre and replacing him with USC rookie Mark Sanchez was considered a step down offensively, but the Jets proved the doubters wrong in their opener. Sanchez was not spectacular against a good Houston team, but he was poised and collected (18-of-33, 166 yards), and he made a good read on a 30-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Chansi Stuckey. There was an ill-advised interception that Houston returned for a score, but if Sanchez can limit those mistakes, there's little reason to think he won't be a standout starter in the NFL.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Disaster (apparently) averted

It appears we won't have a 2008 redux.

The latest Tom Brady news to shock the Patriots fanbase is reportedly not severe. He has a sore shoulder, but according to an unnamed source with the team, there is no damage to it beyond that.

Brady was hurt in the midst of a 27-24 victory over Washington on Friday, when he was hit and driven to the ground by mammoth Redskin tackle Albert Haynesworth after releasing a third-down throw to Greg Lewis.

Three-hundred and fifty pounds brought Brady down with his arm still extended, causing an awkward landing more on his underarm than on his forearm. Brady got up, went to the sideline, stretched his arm, and went to the locker room for halftime. When the second half started, Brady came back, threw a few passes, and left with a team doctor.

The injury overshadowed what was a truly impressive showing for Brady, who was in command and dominant, shredding the Redskins defense for two touchdown passes to Randy Moss. He was poised, composed, accurate and even looked willing to move in the pocket again, and for the first time since last September, minds were finally eased about his knee.

But then the Haynewsworth hit happened, and any concerns turned into panic when Belichick refused to give any information on how severe the injury was, or if Brady had received X-rays. All Bill said was that it was "bumps and bruises just like everybody else has," and left it at that. He said removing Tom was due to a desire to see backups Kevin O'Connell and Andrew Walter, not due to injury concerns, but many fans weren't buying it.

Brady will be held out of the final preseason game against the Giants, but it looks like he'll be ready for the season. After the news from last year, that should be music to any New England fan's ears.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Selflessness embodied

You want another reason to like Tom Brady?

After Eli Manning received a lucrative extension (six years, $97 million, $37 million guaranteed), and Philip Rivers (six years, $93 million, $38 million guaranteed) got one too, Tom Brady's relatively modest six-year, $60 million deal (of which two years remain) is starting to appear cheap.

But here's the thing: Tom's not complaining.

Brady recently said he's focused on winning, not money, and that contracts work out in the end. He obviously feels comfortable in negotiating with the Krafts, and doesn't feel a need to resort to complaining to ESPN reporters about how he feels disrespected.

True, it can be argued that Brady shouldn't have much to complain about when he's throwing to the league's best receiving corps, while under the supervision of the league's best coach, but this is still a stand-up move on his part.

There isn't much difference between the comfort of a life on $50 million and a life on $100 million, but athletes don't know that. They view money has an evaluation of talent, and less money than an inferior player is regarded as a slap in the face.

It's nice to know that someone can take the high road - even if he can expect to cash in again in an offseason or two.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The return

Tom Brady is back. And everything is just the way it was before.

Well, not everything. There was one difference.

The difference wasn't in Brady. Tom looked every bit the quarterback Patriots fans remembered, going 10-for-15 for 100 yards and two touchdowns. With the exception of one floated pass to Randy Moss that was picked off, Tom was Terrific. He stepped up to pressure, looked poised, and looked confident. And the stat sheet showed it.

The difference was in where most of those 15 passes were going. With Randy Moss catching only three passes (albeit for 54 yards) and Wes Welker sidelined, Brady found undrafted receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman five times for 37 yards, and new tight end Chris Baker for two touchdowns.

It appears Brady's confidence is not an issue, whether it be with himself or his new targets. Even considering the small sample size, that means good things for the Patriots' offense in 2009.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Pass rush gets a boost

Earlier in the offseason, the Patriots' pass rush weaknesses were brought to the national stage with their pursuit of Panthers star Julius Peppers.

On Thursday, the Pats plugged some of those holes. And they didn't need to spend $16.7 million to do it.

New England made a trade with the Oakland Raiders for defensive end Derrick Burgess, adding a player who, as evidenced by his 16 sacks in 2005 and 11 sacks in 2006, provides an instant improvement to a beleaguered pass rush that saw its leader (Mike Vrabel, four sacks) leave for Kansas City.

Here's a breakdown of the acquisition:

Burgess is a legitimate player, and at 30, he should have stuff left in the tank. The defensive line, with Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, was already stout, but Burgess provides it with an extra dimension. It also allows the linebackers to help more in pass coverage, an area where the Patriots were burned last year, because they won't have to contribute a man to the rush as often. If Burgess is helping to disrupt the passer, the linebackers' pass coverage won't be compromised.


This could be Deltha O'Neal all over again. Burgess is a two-time Pro Bowler, one who also had eight sacks in a season in which he didn't make the Pro Bowl, but he missed games last year, and saw his numbers decline sharply. Also, the fact that he was essentially given away by the Raiders raises questions. O'Neal was the same way last year; a former Pro Bowl cornerback who was picked up off the Bengals' scrapheap to rediscover his form and shore up the secondary. It never worked, and O'Neal turned in one of the more miserable seasons by a Patriot defensive back in the Belichick era. Will Burgess have similar problems?

This appears to be a good move for the Patriots. While the O'Neal signing was a desperation move to fix an urgent need, Burgess appears to be a player that the Patriots like. They didn't sign him, but traded for him, meaning they were willing to make an effort to get him, and therefore must see something in him that was worth the cost. The Patriots have earned praise for consistently getting players that fit Belichick's scheme, and this appears to be another instance.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Thoughts on Vick, Part II

In an earlier post, I commented that the hypothetical signing of Michael Vick would ultimately be a bad idea for the Patriots.

Now, after a press conference given by Bill Belichick on Friday, I maintain my stance. Because it might not matter.

In typical Belichick fashion, when asked several questions about Vick, Bill didn't give a yes, no, maybe, or anything of the sort. What he did do, however, was give a revealing amount of nothing:

Q: Have you and the organization ruled out signing Michael Vick?

BB: Have we ruled it out? I don’t know that it’s ruled in or ruled out.

Q: Some teams have said, ‘We are not going to sign him.’

BB: Well I’m just answering your question and I’m saying I don’t think it’s ever been put that way, so I can’t really answer it.

Q: Are you interested in signing Michael Vick?

BB: We are coaching the players that we have on the field right now, so that’s who’s here. So anybody who isn’t here, is there a potential that they could be here? Yea, there probably is, but right now they’re not. We’re coaching the 80 players that are here, so until we get somebody else we are coaching them. If we get somebody else in here, which I am sure at some point we will, then we’ll coach them [with] the players that are here. Who that’s all going to be, right now it’s the 80 players that are here. That’s all I can tell you.

Q: It sounds like you’re not ruling that out?

BB: Karen [Guregian], I am coaching the players that are here, that are on this team. I am not coaching anybody else. I’m sure at some point somebody else will be here, I don’t know who that’s going to be. If I knew they would already be here.

Q: Is that something you need a couple weeks to assess?

BB: I don’t think there is any time frame or any set criteria, no. We signed players a couple days ago. We signed players last week. Last year we signed a player or two at the beginning of camp. I don’t know. If we need somebody and we feel like that player can help our team and puts us in a better situation than what we had, then we’ll do it. If we don’t than we won’t.

Belichick is not one to affirm or deny anything. Had either of those reporters asked if Tom Brady was going to start at quarterback, he'd answer "Every position is up for grabs." Had they asked if he was hoping for a Super Bowl victory, he'd answer "We're not thinking that far ahead."

So with something like a potential Vick signing, whatever he says has to be read between the lines. And that seems to show a coach intrigued with the possibility of adding a fallen NFL superstar to an already potent mix.

If Belichick were absolutely not thinking of signing Vick, he would have used the opportunity to protect another aspect of his strategy: dispelling rumors. But considering that he was told that other coaches have flat rejected the idea of signing the former Falcon, and he still remained vague, implies that he's not denying anything because, simply, there's nothing to deny.

There's nothing to affirm, nothing to deny. Welcome to Bill's world.

The only reason that this looks like more evidence towards a Vick signing is that this is the routine Belichick and the media go through with every Patriot target. Whether it be something like the Randy Moss trade (which the Boston Herald reported was a possibility months before it was done) or the Rosevelt Colvin-Junior Seau signings in the second half of last season, the shtick is the same.

Belichick doesn't tip his hand, and when the deal is done, it's always a surprise.

It's too early, way too early, to say that Vick is busy getting on the next flight to Logan Airport. But there's a lot in Bill's seemingly nothing response that implies the New England brain trust is thinking of him. Sometimes, a compelling indication can be nothing at all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on Vick

As the storm of speculation over where Michael Vick is headed has been growing by the minute, seemingly every organized football team has been included as a landing spot.

With Brett Favre now retired (again), the Vikings have been mentioned consistently, as have teams like the Jaguars, the Dolphins, the 49ers, every team in the fledgling UFL...

And the New England Patriots.

Don't believe me? Check it out. And don't worry, I didn't believe it at first either. Because, simply put, it doesn't make sense.

Don't get me wrong, the thought of getting Vick is an exciting one, and even two years removed from the game, there are few in the NFL that can match his pure, blinding speed and athletic gifts.

The thought of Vick running a Wildcat scheme with Sammy Morris and Tom Brady is tantalizing, and the idea of No. 7 simply standing on the same field, in the same uniform, as Randy Moss is frightening for defensive coordinators.

Despite all of these highs, there is one reason for Patriots fans to be very, very low on Vick. And it has nothing to do with dogs.

It has to do with our cleft-chinned, knee brace-wearing Wonderboy.

Any team that signs Michael Vick will be signing a quarterback. Pure and simple. They won't be signing a running back, or a wide receiver, or some freak combination in the Kordell Stewart mold from the mid-90s.

Vick can't play those positions. He has the talent, but not the body. Fans in Atlanta would hold their breath every time he took off past the line of scrimmage, in fear he would suffer an injury like 2003's fractured ankle.

You think that sounds like a guy who should be catching 40 passes a season?

Instead, Vick still has the rocket arm. He still has the leadership qualities. He still has the sense in the pocket from playing quarterback all his life. He IS a quarterback.

If the Patriots signed Vick, his most significant role on the team would be as the backup quarterback, and over time, questions would rise as to the point of having a marquee QB like Vick on the depth chart if the starter is entrenched in his spot.

Nobody in the NFL has more job security than Tom Brady. The idea of signing Vick is doomed to failure.

So Patriots fans can still dream of a Brady-Vick tandem tearing up the league the way the Dolphins did last year. They can still hope to see Vick sprinting down the field, catching an arcing pass from Brady, and burning everyone else into the end zone.

But that won't happen for long. Vick will realize his roots. You can't teach an old quarterback new tricks.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Buzzkill...for now

On Monday, the NFL Network provided the spark to the Julius Peppers-to-New England rumors. On Tuesday, it provided the water.

A day after Vic Carucci reported a deal for Peppers was developing and almost imminent, his colleague, Adam Schefter, pulled the plug on the topic of major conversation in New England.

"This trade is not gonna happen," Schefter said on the WEEI radio station. "Julius Peppers will not be a New England Patriot next season."

Schefter is renowned around the league and in the media for being a reliable source with often breaking news about injuries and transactions, and his definitive words seem to be a severe blow to any hopes of landing the four-time Pro Bowler.

At the same time, Carucci, a senior columnist, has access to the best sources around, and it's unlikely his reporting would be based on anything but an insider's true word.

With two opposite statements, it's clear someone is telling the truth. The other is admirably misled.

Carucci's reasons for the deal made sense. Carolina doesn't want to pay first-round pick money, especially when they can get a player only two picks away from the opening round (No. 34 overall) for a bargain price. Not to mention, Peppers wants a defense like New England's, and New England wants a rusher like Peppers.

Schefter's doubt in the deal's possibility makes sense. Carolina doesn't want to give up a franchise player for a single second-round pick. Not to mention, New England wants Logan Mankins and Vince Wilfork back, and Jason Taylor as a free agent, more than Peppers.

This is nothing new to the way the Patriots operate. New England rarely broadcasts its retooling plans, and its business can be difficult to follow and interpret.

In February of 2007, the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots had serious interest in acquiring Randy Moss from the Raiders. Over the next two months, other media outlets contradicted the rumor, and killed off any speculation of the move occurring. The Herald even came full circle, reporting Moss was headed elsewhere.

On draft day, Moss became a Patriot.

Even last summer, the Patriots made John Lynch a late preseason cut, sparking belief in the media that the move was a salary tactic, and that Belichick intended on having Lynch back.

Lynch remained on the free agent wire, and retired. Months later, hampered by injury, the Patriots were again expected to make an emergency offer to the former All-Pro safety. Didn't happen.

Now, with the Patriots seeking ways to prepare their team for 2009, the media again is as mixed as a Brandy Sour. This time, the subject is Julius Peppers. Once again, the outcome may be a surprise.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pats seeking Peppers

A busy offseason for the Patriots could get kicked up another notch.

According to numerous sources, first reported by's Vic Carucci, the Patriots are in the midst of negotiating a deal with the Carolina Panthers that would send a second-round pick to Charlotte for star defensive end Julius Peppers.

The career sacks leader for Carolina, Peppers has expressed a desire to both become an outside linebacker, and do so with another team besides the Panthers. Both truths are apparently music to the ears of Bill Belichick and Co., as the Patriots are short at the linebacker position, and adding the four-time Pro Bowler would be an instant upgrade.

The news is also the latest in a startling turnaround for the Patriots financially. New England began the offseason almost at the $123 million salary cap figure, but shed Matt Cassel's $14 million franchise tag number and Mike Vrabel's $3.15 million salary in a trade with Kansas City (more on that later) at the start of free agency, while also releasing Rodney Harrison ($3.05 million), Jabar Gaffney ($2 million) and Rosevelt Colvin.

With the breathing room, the Patriots went to work. They signed Jaguars castoff Fred Taylor and former Jet Chris Baker at the start of the free agency period, while also acquiring wideout Greg Lewis from Philadelphia. New England upgraded the secondary by signing former Pro Bowler Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden to fill the weak cornerback positions, and also added a deep threat in four-time Pro Bowl alternate Joey Galloway. New England capped off the shopping spree by luring back defensive end Mike Wright.

But with the Julius Peppers talk swirling around, the Patriots might be ready to make the biggest offseason move since acquiring Randy Moss in April of 2007. The trade would happen a few days or weeks into the future, but it also brings us back to the past - the trade of Cassel and Vrabel, specifically.

For months, it was out in the open that Cassel would be traded. The question focused on what the Patriots would get in return. Some pundits felt a first-round pick was a fair asking price, others said a second-round pick was more appropriate.

But when the Pats gave up Cassel AND Vrabel for that second-round pick, the reaction was mostly negative. A second-round pick was nowhere near enough to get for a potential franchise quarterback and a high-quality linebacker.

Well now, we see New England's logic.

A second-round pick is easier, financially, to sign than a first-rounder. The Panthers have said they'd be "happy" with a second-round pick for Peppers, for that reason.

Where did that second-round pick, the one that could be dealt to Carolina for Peppers, come from? Kansas City.

In typical, clandestine Patriots fashion, a deal deemed unsatisfactory by many could result in the greatest catch yet.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Pats reach behind enemy lines

Ty Law, Curtis Martin, Vinny Testaverde, Tom Tupa, Hank Poteat, Victor Hobson.

All players went from the Patriots to the Jets, or vice versa. Now we can add Chris Baker to the list.

The tight end agreed to terms with the New England Patriots on Friday, keeping his home in the AFC East but moving it from the Meadowlands to Gillette Stadium.

Just as the Fred Taylor signing was a boost to a thin running back corps, this signing does the same for the tight end position. Baker is a versatile player with decent pass-catching (he caught 41 passes in 2007) and blocking skills. While Ben Watson will likely still be the top receiving option at tight end, Baker provides some able blocking that New England has missed since seeing Daniel Graham and Kyle Brady leave as free agents in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Double whammy

Friday saw the Patriots gain an icon and lose another.

The start of free agency didn't take long to prove fruitful for New England, which added star running back Fred Taylor, but then turned around and dealt fan favorite and eight-year Patriot Mike Vrabel to Kansas City (get used to hearing the Chiefs in negotiations).

Though a dip into the free agent pool was peculiar for a team facing the salary cap problems that New England is, Taylor is a smart addition. The 16th all-time leading rusher, Taylor has defined the word 'consistent' throughout his career with Jacksonville, and will be in the running for a bust in Canton when his career finishes up.

Taylor will also provide depth to a running back corps that was riddled with injuries in 2008. Laurence Maroney lasted only four games before landing on IR, while LaMont Jordan and Sammy Morris both missed substantial time with injuries, forcing Kevin Faulk and BenJarvus Green-Ellis to take on starting roles. Taylor will certainly help create a deep backfield that preserves the health of its members.

But while the offense gained another weapon, the defense lost one. In 24 hours, the Patriots went from potentially gaining an impact defender (DeAngelo Hall, who re-signed with Washington) to actually losing one in Vrabel.

From a depth chart point of view, Vrabel's trade (for an undisclosed draft pick) is understandable, as the team is looking to cut salary, and linebacker is the deepest defensive position.

It makes financial sense as well, as Vrabel's contract was set to expire in 2009, and the trade takes another deal off the books that the Patriots would have had to spend valuable dollars and cap space to renew.

Furthermore, the $3 million-plus that is now off the roster frees the Patriots to make another run at another impact player, via free agency and trade. With Julius Peppers mentioned in various rumors, an essential Vrabel-for-Peppers swap would benefit New England greatly.

Emotionally, however, this deal makes little sense at all. Vrabel was still an effective defensive player, was the team's best pass rusher, and was a leader in the huddle and in the locker room. While Tedy Bruschi was the symbol of New England's grit, determination and heart, Vrabel was easily 1A, a guy who went from being a cut Pittsburgh Steeler to being Mr. Versatility with three Super Bowl winners.

So day 1 of free agency gives the Patriots a former Pro Bowl running back, and deprives them of a former Pro Bowl linebacker. With plenty of players remaining in the market, these seismic moves could very well be joined in the next few days.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Cassel's tag sets up interesting offseason

It was hinted at for months, but on Thursday, the Patriots made it official: Matt Cassel is the 2009 franchise player.

News broke that the Patriots were going to do this several weeks ago, but now that it's happened, it's still a jolt to the New England offseason to-do list.

Though the franchise tag would keep Cassel in New England for next season, and provide a hell of an insurance policy should Tom Brady have an iffy return from knee surgery, it is hardly cost-effective. The tag amounts to $14.65 million against the cap, and along with Brady's $14.62 million hit, helps amount to almost a quarter of the Patriots' salary cap space.

Though both Cassel and Brady are slated to be on board for next year, the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of one of them (most likely Cassel) being traded before the start of next year.

The Patriots aren't built to shell out nearly $30 million a year to two healthy quarterbacks. They are the ultimate team, and being this top-heavy in one position violates the balanced structure they've been gunning for and accomplishing since Bill Belichick took over in 2000.

Furthermore, the Patriots have financial work to do elsewhere on the depth chart. Richard Seymour, Logan Mankins, Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Vince Wilfork all have contracts set to expire in 2010. All five will likely want to stick around New England (Wilfork has been adamant about it), but it will take money to keep them.

The Patriots will do all possible to extend most, if not all five, players, but to do that, they'll need cap space. Giant contracts given to Cassel and Brady will make contract extensions a tough commodity.

However, the Patriots are also about preparation, and what this move does do is address the gap between February, i.e. the start of free agency, and late July. The Patriots could not afford to let Cassel walk away, wait four or five months and find out that Brady could not be back in time for the season opener.

They love Kevin O'Connell in Foxboro, but not that much. Not yet.

So the Patriots have bought themselves flexibility. If Brady can start, Cassel gets a thank you and the boot. If not, Matt returns to the helm of an offense he figured out in remarkable speed last year. They can bite the bullet of a healthy quarterback and unhealthy quarterback chewing up cap space. What they won't tolerate is keeping an expensive trade chip.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Tom Brady's knee the only problem?


It was just a few minutes ago that I saw the photos of Tom Brady in Mexico. With Gisele Bundchen. If you've seen them, you know the one's I'm talking about.

The ones where he's being fed by his girl, and where the two of them are snuggling in the ocean. There may be more, but thankfully, I haven't seen them.

A lot of emotions hit me when seeing those photos (none of them synonymous with "happy" or "excited"), but with a deep breath, I stifled them down, and...

*sigh* Okay.

The problem is obvious: While Patriots fans hope, plead, beg for Brady to be healthy by the beginning of next season, the only glimpses of Tom that we see have nothing to do with football. He barely even talks about football.

At points this offseason, there's been a better chance of seeing a ring on his finger than a football in his hand. And these pictures did nothing to ease the anxiety.

Sure, Brady's love life is none of our business. If he wants to spend every waking moment of the next few months all over the world, in any town but Foxboro, Massachusetts, that's his deal. After all, who can blame him?

Well, as fans, we make it our business to blame him. It's our responsibility to hope he hangs out less with a supermodel and more with guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Matt Light.
But here's the truth, that Patriots fans both hate and fall back on: Tom Brady has earned the right to keep it his business.

This isn't Tony Romo. Tom Brady didn't throw a few touchdown passes, win a few games, and decide he was the biggest star in the league. He doesn't have people wondering if he can handle the big game.

And he has shown that whatever the distraction, he can deal with it.

He had an open relationship with Bridget Moynahan while leading New England to Super Bowl XXXIX. When his son was born during training camp for the 2007 season, he responded by throwing for 50 touchdowns. The fact that the Patriots didn't win a fourth Super Bowl is by no means Tom Brady's fault.

And even as we Patriots fans shield our eyes from Tom Terrific looking like a soft lover-boy in Mexico, we can't forget that only one day earlier, a story broke about how Brady is dropping back, throwing, running and preparing for 2009.

Does that sound like a player whose interests are elsewhere?

The point is, Tom Brady is focused on football. He's focused on leading the New England Patriots. And after missing 2008 and hearing his days numbered by the media, he's likely more focused.

It's just that, when he goes to Mexico, he doesn't show it. He doesn't have to.

So I see the photos, I feel my frustration rise, and I get on with my life knowing that Tom Brady will be one of the NFL's best players next year as quarterback of the New England Patriots.

Just like he always has.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Brady breaks silence on Toronto radio

Tom Brady lives!

Don't believe me? Just ask Toronto's Fan 590 - the station that, on Wednesday, held the first interview with Tom Brady since news of his knee infection got out to the public seemingly years and years ago.

As wild a ride as the 2008 season was for the Patriots, Brady's offseason and recovery from his season-ending injury was just as volatile. First he was out, then he was fine, then he was infected, then he was fine again, then he was behind schedule, and then he was gone. News about Brady disappeared, and with the exception of a Thanksgiving appearance serving pumpkin pie and engagement rumors with Gisele Bundchen, No. 12 did too.

Until now.

Brady didn't say much (injuries happen, you recover for them, I'm looking forward to more rehab, etc.), but the fact that he was in the studio should come as a relief to Patriots fans. Injuries are always a mystery with Belichick and Co., but it's another thing when the injured player (let alone one of Brady's importance) is neither seen nor heard from.

By appearing on the radio, and shedding some, any light on his injury, Brady at least reminds New Englanders that his mind is on football, and returning as the leader of the offense.

Matt Cassel did an admirable, Pro Bowl-worthy job stepping into Tom's NFL MVP shoes, but unless he physically can't make it onto the field, this is still Brady's team.

It's nice to have him back - even for a few fleeting moments on the airwaves.