LONGSHOTS: Itís Super Bowl or a bust for the Pats in 2007
by Dave Long
The Patriots open the NFL season on Sunday in the Meadowlands against the J-E-T-S, jets, jets, jets amid local euphoria and Super Bowl expectations. The expectations ratcheted up after Bill Belichick opened the purse strings to pay J. D. Drew-like money for free agent linebacker Adalias Thomas and made other big-name moves to fortify Tom Bradyís receiving corps, most notably with the controversial Randy Moss, following an unexpected loss to former binky Indianapolis to end the 2006 season. Those were universally hailed as brilliant and made them the odds-on Super Bowl favorites throughout much of the NFL world.
While Iím a card-carrying member of the In Bill We Trust club, I donít see it as quite the slam dunk many do. Still, while there should be optimism, there are uncertainties that those wearing rose-colored glasses canít seem to see. So hereís my look at the factors that will make this a tougher run than many think as the Patriots begin their quest to win Super Bowl number four in the Belichick era.
The First Month: In their first four games they face the Jets and Bengals on the road and San Diego and Buffalo in Foxboro with Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison on the sidelines, Assante Samuel working his way back to form, and Thomas learning the system. So itís not inconceivable they could enter October at, yikes, 1-3. Thatís not to say they will, but it is possible.
The Schedule: Their 2007 opponents were cumulatively 137-119 in 2006, making it the third-hardest in schedule in the league if last year means anything. And, if they do start out 1-3, itís likely the Jets could be 3-1. That would put them two games behind their main rival for the division title, which wouldnít be good since the two have the exact same schedule, with two exceptions: New York faces Tennessee and Kansas City in the final two weeks, while the Pats draw the Colts and Chargers. All of which makes the season-opening game much more important than usual.
Third and Short: I know many are delirious about Bradyís new weapons, but a facet just as critical as who heís thrown to in the Super Bowl era has been their consistency getting first down on the ground when itís third and short. Antowain Smith was great at it and Corey Dillion was even better. Itís crucial because it kept drives going and the defense off the field. And while I like Laurence Maroney, I donít see him as a guy to push the pile. Heís more like Curtis Martin ó a terrific runner in the Parcells years, where Ben Coates was the go-to guy because Martin wasnít great on third and short. At the moment Heath Evans looks to be that guy and, while I liked what he did in his brief tenure at tailback during injury-wracked 2005, how well he does here bears watching.
The Randy Moss Gamble: I said when they made it they get an A+ for the gamble, but it only had a 33 percent chance of working. Since we havenít seen him since August 1, that number might be dropping. Especially in light of the cut down day rumor that he would be one of the wideouts cut. That didnít happen, but Iíll bet my copy of Who The Hell Is William Loeb? Michael Felger wonít be the only one keeping a tally of how many plays he takes off. Heíll be under scrutiny and if something goes wrong, the media will be there to ask why. And given how he blamed the media for his past troubles upon arriving, thatís where this will get undone. I could be wrong, but it doesnít look like heíll be like Bryan Cox and Irving Fryar, who matured into leaders after being out of control early in their careers.
The Injury Factor: In case you didnít get the memo, Seymour is not only really good, heís the most important player on the defense. So missing at least six games is BIG. And while there is depth on the defensive line with Jarvis Green, as those in the Nation once clambering for Alex Cora to start at second base and then shortstop can tell you, being a productive bench player is different than being a productive everyday player.
Football is a game of attrition and everyone gets hit by it sooner or later. But the Pats have been hammered three of the last four years. Is it bad luck? Do they hit too hard? Or are they aging in certain areas? I really donít know. What I do know is during that time season-ending injuries have hit Harrison, Ty Law, Roosevelt Colvin, Junior Seau, Eugene (heeeey Mr.) Wilson, Randall Gay and Matt Light. Somehow they survived and won, which is partly why this team is so admirable, but with Seymour on the PUP list and Harrison suspended theyíre already starting out with two important defenders gone. Then throw in my concerns about Laurence Maroneyís durability and there are issues.
The Defensive Backfield: Here are four questions. What ever happened to the real Eugene Wilson? How long will it take Samuel to get back in shape? Will Ellis Hobbs play with the consistency he had as a rookie and not last year? And after three major injuries in two years will Rodney be Rodney when he returns? What this shows is there are questions. My guess is Samuel will be back quickly and Hobbs will become consistent. Wilson on the other hand is more of a mystery, as the productive hard-hitting safety on two Super Bowls teams has been MIA much of the time since then, which oh by the way coincided with the loss of Harrison to his injuries. So hopefully Rodney will be Rodney again.
The Rodney Harrison Issue: It isnít the Michael Vick fiasco, but this stuff has been in the news a lot lately. Still, Harrison turning up in a police investigation into the distribution of illegal substances wonít be a distraction, but it does lead me to yank this from the local hypocrisy file. If Barry Bonds is a sports crook to those who believe he used performance-enhancing banned substances, why isnít Harrison the same thing to them after admitting he illegally bought and used an undetectable human growth hormone?
Well, there you have it. Itís not seeing the glass as half full. Itís just me trying to point out the team has its share of questions to go along with the real and justified optimism. And itís why I see them going ďjustĒ 11-5, maybe 12-4, instead of the 14-2 and 15-1 Iíve heard bandied about this summer.
Dave Long hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billyís Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, broadcast live on WGAM Ė The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM-Nashua.