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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.