September 4, 2008

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LONGSHOTS: Pats kick off with high expectation and some concerns
by Dave Long

Once again there is great anticipation in these parts among Patriots fans that it could be another Super Bowl year. And, as the annual quest kicks again off this week, this year is no different. But, after a lackluster pre-season at best, Iím not quite as optimistic. I wonder if they may a hangover after the record-breaking season that ended in such a disappointing way. So here are four issues that have me wondering about just how good they will be in 2008:

Issue #1: Karma. I define karma as an unquenched intensity to win. Iíll go below the Tarrier line to provide an example of how a lack of it derailed a dominant team who steamrolled their league the previous year.

Itís the Big Red Machine of 1977. Top to bottom, arguably, only the í61 Yankees had an everyday line-up to match that Cincinnati Reds team during the 1960s, í70s and í80s. They were great, with prime-of-life Hall of Famers in Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez. They beat the Red Sox in a great World Series in 1975 and dominated baseball the next year by winning 102 games and clobbering the Yankees in a series sweep.

The next season was a different story. Helped along by trading Perez, in favor of Dan Driessen, who they mistakenly thought would be a star, they won just 88 times. Looking back manager Sparky Anderson said he wanted to puke during spring training after seeing how relaxed his Reds were. And, while they did make it back to the playoffs two years later, that group was never the same because the edge was gone, especially after Rose left in free agency.

While always maintaining that ďedgeĒ has been their most admirable quality, itís my concern about the 0-4 pre-season. Itís true Tom Brady didnít play, but the tackling was shoddy, the run defense porous, they didnít stop the pass and the run blocking was nearly non-existent. The passing game gets, well, a pass since Brady didnít play and because the o-line was so wracked with injuries. Many say theyíre a veteran team getting ready for the season, which could be true. But that is exactly what the pundits said when Sparky wanted to puke and before the Reds laid their egg in 1977. Are they going to tank like that? I donít know, as Brady is such a large factor, but if they win five or six less than last year it will be because of it and I wonít be all that surprised.

Issue # 2: Inexperience at key spots. Junior Seau and Asante Samuel are gone from a defense that gave new meaning to the phrase ďbend but donít break.Ē They didnít give all that many points, but they certainly got pushed around the field at times. Now their spots are filled by rookies. Number-one pick Jerod Mayo looks good and the last time Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli picked this high they got Richard Seymour. So I have faith Mayo will be productive.

The loss of Samuel is another story. Itís like the Reds losing Perez, who was traded because the promising Driessen was cheaper. Sound familiar? When a rookie linebacker makes a big mistake itís a 25-yard gain. When a corner does it, itís a touchdown. The last time they let a big-time corner go, it was Ty Law. We heard it was a system defense and his replacement came from the vaunted Ravens Super Bowl defense. Well, Duane Starks was a disaster, while Law led the league in interceptions. As good as Samuel became, remember he was a nickel back behind Law and Tyrone Poole his first couple of years. So he got to watch and learn. That wonít be the case for number-two pick Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite, who will right away. Again, given the drafting record, theyíll probably be good players, but there will be growing pains that could be costly.

Issue #3: Richard Seymour. I know, youíre saying ďWhat???Ē They started winning titles the year he arrived, as he arguably became the teamís top defensive star. Thatís true, but, thanks to injuries, he wasnít that guy last year when he missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2001. Teams game-planned to run away from that guy, or committed two or three people to deal with at the point of attack. While itís true that he has more help now along the excellent defensive front, they will not be the lockdown defense of 2003 and 2004 unless he gets closer to his 2004 form. And making a return to form is even more important now, because with glaring questions in the secondary, pressure on the quarterback will be more important than in years past. So I say heís the biggest key to the defense, unless the very good Ty Warren turns into Reggie White ó then, never mind.

Issue # 4: Play-calling. I know itís hard to get on the coordinator after his team set an all-time league record for points, but indulge me. Even while they were racking up all the points under young buck Josh McDaniels, I was saying they needed more offensive balance. That might seem stupid when youíre scoring at will through the air, but my argument was you need to run in cold weather and in the playoffs, which they did until the Super Bowl.

But, by becoming bomb-happy, they opened the door to an attacking strategy first employed by the Eagles and copied the next week by the Ravens in narrow wins over sub-.500 teams using back-up quarterbacks. That was to bring it to Tom Brady to limit this time to get it down field. The soon-to-be-4-12 Jets did it a few weeks later and the Giants did it in Week 16 and in the Super Bowl when the Pats won by four and lost by the same margin in the big game.

And there was how effectively Randy Moss was taken away in the playoffs until surfacing to score in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl after finally using him in short routes right before the fateful Giants drive. All that says to me McDaniel needs to become less predictable and better in making adjustments on the fly. Heís talented and just 30, so I expect heíll do it, but it bears watching.

Thereís the pessimistic counter to all the sunny forecasts of 14- or 15-win seasons. And while that might happen with an easier schedule, Iím on the fence that it will. Because, from where I sit, aside from key injuries, the difference between that 15-win season and one that ends with 10 for these guys, is having the stuff I did not see in the pre-season.

Hope Iím wrong.

Dave Long can be reached at dlong@hippopress.com. He hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billyís Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon that is broadcast live on WGAM Ė The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.


8/28/2008 A race to the finish to take all month long

8/21/2008 National news items of interest for local folks
8/14/2008 A little of this and that from the good side of sports pile
8/7/2008 Manny happy returns from the Evil Empire
7/31/2008 Manny being Manny - the sequel Part XXXII
7/24/2008 Open the mail bag for some Red Sox questions
7/17/2008 Hall-worthy or not the latest question on Schilling
7/10/2008 Baseball season has actually started
7/03/2008 UL editorial in denial ó stop the presses
6/26/2008 Boston turnaround makes NBA green with envy
6/19/2008 Letters from the NBA finals
6/12/2008 A Father's Day letter to dad
6/5/2008 Twenty-one and six are the lucky numbers for the Cs
5/29/2008 Sometimes a bat is just a bat
5/22/2008 Some questions for folks right up there in the front row
5/15/2008 Numbers don't add up to supposed Fenway
5/8/2008 Cavalier attitude nearly derails first meeting with LeBron
5/1/2008 I'm so old,I remember ...
4/24/2008 Sox Line-ups, Celtics and ESPN investigations are in the mail bag
4/17/2008 Show me the way to that All-Star Game
4/10/2008 For C'ing a great time ahead as playoffs arrive this spring
4/3/2008 Bill James and the stats for 2008 ó Take Two
3/27/2008 Drowning in the NCAA office pool
3/20/2008 Whether forecast is right or not is the question
3/13/2008 Comment sparks wonder over just what I did
3/6/2008 New hires, new trades in pro sports
2/28/2008 Celtics issues far from black and white in the early days
2/21/2008 Congressional ineptitude muscles in on steroid hearings
2/14/2008 Basketball rounds into form under the cover of Pats football
2/7/2008 A giant win leaves Patriots fans feeling blue
1/31/2008 Foxboro lads earn pats on the back, and old Celtics mystique makes sense
1/24/2008 Mail bag asks about Rice, the hall and wild-eyed liberals
1/17/2008 Peyton manning the fort back home as Pats take on Chargers
1/10/2008 Grumpy old Dolphins are lost at sea on this one
1/3/2008 The primary concern is getting a clear picture
12/27/2007 The annual sports awards close out 2007
12/20/2007 Holiday gifts for the deserving and not so deserving
12/13/2007 Jets land in Foxboro as pat go number 14
12/06/2007 To include or not to include Ellsbury ó that is the questione
11/29/2007 Yanked from the sports pages in the Big Apple
11/22/2007 Here's what I'm thankful for at Thanksgiving
11/15/2007 Waiting game leads to a series of random thoughts
11/8/2007 OK ó it's week nine and I'm ready to talk
11/1/2007 Finally a little shut-eye for a sleep deprived nation
10/25/2007 A rocky mountain high for Red Sox Nation
10/18/2007 Time to go to the mailbag
10/112007 Who'd more popular, Patriots or Red Sox
10/4/2007 IA weekend chock full of nuts, chokes and great moments
9/27/2007 I hate to say I told you so...
9/20/2007 Media and fan bias shades the severity of sports crime
9/13/2007 All round baseball week starts with a look at leaders
9/6/2007 It's Superbowl or bust for Pats in 2007
8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September
8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 Mís for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did

02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Heroís death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The†Demonization of Johnny Damon

Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat