LONGSHOTS: Pat them on the back for better-than-expected first half
By†Dave Long firstname.lastname@example.org
One of the great things about sports, maybe the greatest, is its surprises. Even with the horrible performance on Sunday in Cleveland that leaves a bad taste this week, the Patriotsí being tied with the best record at the midway point of the NFL season has to rank as a pretty big surprise, at least to me.
You might have thought they were going to be 6-2 at this point and in position to win 12 games, but I sure didnít. I had them 9-7 at best for the year and thought if they were going to miss that prediction I was thinking 8-8, not 10-6. Of course after seeing them being completely unready to play in getting run over for 230 rushing yards by the then 2-5 Cleveland Browns on Sunday, my prediction still seems possible. The game brought to mind a team that Pete Carroll had at 6-2 at mid-season in 1999 and that got him fired when they wound up 8-8. Time will tell if that was just a bad game or not, but 6-2 at this point in what I thought/think is a bridge year to let a young defense with four rookie starters learn how play in the pro game ó they still are a pleasant surprise.
So letís take a look at how itís happened.
The schedule: When you saw Cincinnati, Minnesota and San Diego to go along with the Jets, Miami and the Ravens in the first eight games it looked to be pretty formidable. But it hasnít turned out that way as who knew that the first three would be a combined seven and 15 after Week 8. So that helped, as it didnít turn out to be nearly as tough as once feared. San Diego in particular was big, as they handed the Pats the win out there in a game they did not play well in at all. It actually was like Sunday in Cleveland except the Browns didnít shoot themselves in the head with four first-half turnovers.
Unexpected contributions: They lost Ty Warren and Leigh Boden in summer camp, Kevin Faulk in Week Two and Randy Moss after Week Four and didnít have Logan Mankins until last Sunday and the beat went on somehow. And has the search party found Fred Taylor yet? How? With contributions from unexpected sources. Raise your hand if you ever heard of Danny Woodhead before he arrived as a free agent after being cut from New York. He has been solid as a runner and receiver. Ditto for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Kyle Arrington, Rob Ninkovich and the young tight ends. Then throw in what happened on special teams in the 41-14 win in Miami and unexpected contribution have been huge.
The defense: The pass defense looked like Swiss cheese in the first three and half games and again Sunday. But Devin McCourty looks to be a keeper and it has improved enough to make it just heart palpations for me instead of a full-fledged event in thinking that theyíll face Ben Roethlisberger and Peyton Manning the next two weeks. But while theyíve given up a lot of yards, theyíve been good at stiffening in the red zone to give up just field goals. The run defense has also steadily improved, until Sunday, when it was a disaster in getting run over by Earl Campbell, er, I mean Peyton Hillis. So while the 6-2 mark can be traced to improvement here, after Sunday itís back to wait and see what happens ó especially in the next two weeks.
The Randy Moss deal: Donít want to tell you I told you so, but I told you so. But then again, maybe I canít, because they looked offensively challenged last Sunday. Especially with all the drops. But the success in the first three weeks without him had little to do with the contractual soap opera. Itís because it changed the play calling to rely much more on the run and less on going down field. While not being quite as dangerous, it reduced the number of third-and-long situations. That in turn led to a rise in their third-down conversion rate, which was not good a year ago as the play because theyíre less predictable. It forced them to run more, which good teams need to do and got them away from being a 21st-century version of Air Coryell. It paid dividends in wins over Miami, where they ran it seven of the nine plays on the gameís most important drive, and again vs. Minnesota when Green-Ellis ran it down their throat on the game-winning drive.
Tom Brady: I know he once threw the most TDs in a season, but Brady is not what I call a flinging QB. Thatís for prolific chuckers like Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Dan Fouts and yes, Peyton Manning. Iíve heard people say his greatest strength is his accuracy, but I think itís his decision-making. And therefore trying to take advantage of Mossí unique skills puts him in a predictable box, which, in my opinion, led to major mistakes a year ago in losses to Miami, Denver, the Jets and Houston. Not to mention the Ravensí playoff debacle. This year with a more diversified attack defenses donít know where heís going, and given his ability to think quicker than defenses thatís an advantage. It has him in a position where many are saying heís the first-half MVP.
The coach/GM: Going into 2010 I believe this was looked at as a bridge year where the coach was looking for the youngsters to grow into prime-time guys for 2011. But theyíve come faster than expected and he deserves credit. He also exorcised the Moss mess and picked the young guys now contributing like McCourty, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes, Pat Chung and others. Now if he can get two edge rushers and a new down field threat for 2011 they may be on their way.
The second half: Sundayís gruesome performance shows theyíre either an immature team that believed the press clippings or saw the 2-5 record of the Browns and put it in the win column before the game. Inexcusable when you consider the Steelers and then the Colts are up next. And that means in two weeks they could be 6-4 ó which is what I think will happen, as Iím not sold on them being an elite team just yet. After that, weíll see what they are made of.
But in the end, Sunday aside, I like the improvements Iíve seen in the defense so far and in the play-calling. The next two weeks should tell us more, where if they win both weíll have an even greater surprise to enjoy.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts Saturday Morning Sports with Dave Long from 11 a.m. to noon Saturdays on WGAM The Game, 1250-AM in Manchester and 900-AM in Nashua.