LONGSHOTS: Pats open season amid big question marks
By†Dave Long email@example.com
The Patriots start the season just in time on Sunday, as it appears we need real games to watch as the Sox play out the string. But if youíre going to do that, it would be wise to ratchet down expectations, because this bunch, as Lloyd Bentsen kind of said in the 1988 vice presidential debate, Iíve seen championship timber and they are not that.
I didnít do it with the Celtics and spent last year either frustrated or flat-out annoyed with how they played the last 50 games. Their problem, as I came to understand, was that really good players have a tough time stringing together the kind of excellent games youíve come to expect as they age. At least until the playoffs ó though they still had a few stinkers in Game 3ís in the Cleveland, Orlando and L.A. series amid the enjoyable playoff run.
Itís the opposite for the Patriots. All the great defensive players from the Super Bowl teams are gone and theyíre in total rebuild. Now itís possible they could become a miracle defense like the 2001 title team sorta was, but I donít see that either. So to avoid the frustration, take my advice and look at them as a group that will mistakes early and take your enjoyment from watching a young group improve as they go ó which they hopefully will.
That doesnít mean there arenít pluses or that they canít exceed expectations. So if you think 8-8 and they go 10-6 youíll be happy. But if you think 10-6, just because thatís what weíve expected through the 2000s, and they go 8-8 youíll say they underachieved ó which would be wrong. Hereís why Iím expecting 8-8 or maybe 9-7.
The Pass Rush: They donít have one. Yes, Tully Banta-Cain had 10 sacks in 2009, but five came against Buffalo, who were awful. This has been a problem since 2008 and the coach/GM hasnít done a thing about it. Jermaine Cunningham, a number two pick, was taken to address this but he won the Sean Crable Award for not playing in the exhibition season as a rookie. So unless someone comes from nowhere this will be a problem and create issues for the young secondary.
The Young Secondary: This is the area Coach B didnít fix long before he started not fixing the pass rush. First Ty Law walked, then Assante Samuel without getting ANYONE to replace either. And even though Gary (the sky is falling) Tanguay was all aflutter on Comcast the other night when Leigh Boden went down, calling him a number one like Tanguay (and many others) saying the Sox had three number-one starters when Theo overspent to get John Lackey ó me? Iím anxious to see how the young secondary does after Bill Belichick FINALLY started investing high draft picks in this area. Theyíll make mistakes and have growing pains, but when you go the complete rebuild route you have to expect that. So the real question is how much talent do they have and if they have enough, will it evolve to where it can be counted on in a big game.
The Schedule: Cincy, Indy, Green Bay, Baltimore, Minnesota, the Jets and Dolphins at home. All but Miami made the playoffs last year. On the road itís the Jets and Fish, where they lost last year, plus (gulp) Pittsburgh after Big Ben gets back, and San Diego. The bottom line: almost all the home games are tough along with four real toughies on the road. Yikes!
The Division: While I think theyíre planning to give the J-e-t-s Jets, Jets, Jets the Super Bowl trophy on opening day at the new Meadowlands (when the Pats will be there), Iím thinking itís a little early for that. I do like their aggressiveness, but they have to answer the question as to whether they were a team coming into its own in the playoffs last year or one that got hot at the right time. And, second, their payroll allocates a lot to its stars, which doesnít leave much for getting quality back-ups. So if injuries hit they could be in bigger trouble than most teams. As for the Dolphins, part of me likes them better than the Jets. Theyíve got a better running game, with Brandon Marshall theyíve improved the receiving core and I like their defense as well. What it means is the AFC East will not be a cakewalk.
Play Calling: The play-calling has been awful since the 2007 playoffs. Too weighted toward the pass and to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. It makes them predictable, easier to defend and, according to some, soft. And when people point to Tom Bradyís yardage and his second best of his career 28 TD to think he had a good year, donít believe it. He did good things, admirably played hurt, but he also made major mistakes in FIVE losses and then there was the playoff loss to the Ravens. Only was the worst game of his career. The Patriots were at their best when they ALWAYS ran for it on third and short and Brady is at his best when throwing to eight or nine guys because his strength is decision-making and not chucking it all over. With new tight ends and a deeper core on the outside it seems he may be able to do it again, but the question is will the man behind the curtain call it that way.
That doesnít even address the durability of the running game, the no-name defensive line and holes at linebacker. Even with that Iím not trying to be the voice of doom. What Iím saying is the way to enjoy this team is to do what the team did in training camp ó take down all the photos of the glory years from the walls of your mind and judge this group on how it improves. And if they are better at the end than in the beginning of the year and fighting for the playoffs, then the year will have been a success and youíll have enjoyed it more than I did the Celticsí season.
Dave Long can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.