By the time a team has played four games, they give us a pretty good idea of how they compare to others in the league. And, ladies and gentlemen, your New England Patriots do not compare well.
With an up-and-down offense and a defense that provided stops about as frequently as the Autobahn, the Patriots fell to the Panthers, 33-30, on a Graham Gano field goal as time expired. “Expired” feels like the right term here, as, despite a fourth-quarter surge of two straight touchdowns to tie the game, the home team checked out and sputtered, allowing Carolina to get into range in the last two minutes for the win. Now, New England hovers at 2-2, and while this team will win its share of games, that share has appeared to get smaller over the past month.
This season compares in some ways to 2002, a post-championship year that also spoke early whispers of going undefeated. They opened the season with a 30-14 beating of the Steelers where they had control of the game from the start. They hammered the Jets, 44-7, and looked unbeatable. Then, they played the mediocre Chiefs and – though they managed a 41-38 win in overtime – Priest Holmes’ 180 yards rushing on 30 carries exposed the defending Super Bowl winners’ defensive weakness. That 2002 squad went from 3-0 to 3-3 and spent the rest of the year playing catch-up, eventually missing the playoffs at 9-7, the only time a healthy Tom Brady has missed the post-season since he rode the bench as a rookie in 2000.
This year’s team should make the playoffs. They should win the AFC East, although (and I may pay for this assumption later) doesn’t it seem like Buffalo QB Tyrod Taylor could come into Foxboro and total 375 yards from scrimmage? Or that Miami QB Jay Cutler could actually care for one afternoon and throw four touchdown passes? The way New England’s playing right now, I’m not sure what would stop opponents. Makes one a little preoccupied about tonight’s tilt at Tampa vs. quarterback Jameis Winston.
One stat that demonstrates how poorly this defense has played, courtesy of NFL Research: last season, the Patriots allowed three opposing quarterbacks to throw for 300-plus yards. In 2017, all four QBs they’ve faced have accomplished that mark.
One more stat: in three games, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had thrown for a high of 178 yards. Last week on FS1, Colin Cowherd aired a segment called, “Time to admit Cam Newton is not an NFL-caliber QB?” Over on the NFL Network, it was “Time to worry about Cam Newton?” Against the Patriots, at Foxboro, Newton had 189 yards – by halftime. As Tom E. Curran noted early in the fourth quarter via Twitter, the Panthers had 16 plays of 10-plus yards by that point. The I’m-Not-Dead-Yet passer completed 22 of 29 throws (76 percent) for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Beyond ugly. A hairless-cat-with-a-bad-facelift ugly.
We have reached the point in the post-apocalyptic movie where the guy who has taken charge of a scrappy group of survivors (a white-collar older man, typically) continues to tell people to calm down, that they need to stay put because help is on the way. That’s when our heretofore reluctant hero says, “Come on, man. Don’t you get it? No one’s coming to save us! We have to save ourselves!“
Brady has retained the role of that take-charge guy, driving his offense to a huge first quarter (Saints), a winning drive (Texans) and a near-winning drive (Panthers), doing everything he can to ensure survival. The defense, meanwhile, has treated opposing anemic offenses by turning Gillette Stadium into Lourdes.
So, who’s going to come and save the Patriots? No one. But maybe they can find help within.
A different format today. Instead of starting with Team/Player Observations, we’re taking a close look at what the Patriots have to work with. Three categories, as you’ll see…
You Are My Brady: He’s everything they need, and more. Almost. Brady had the makings of another awesome comeback going until New England’s defense essentially gave the ball back on a penalty. Against the top-ranked D in the league, Brady completed 32 of 45 passes (71 percent) for 307 yards and two touchdowns, the second of which came on fourth and goal at the one-yard line and involved a pump-fake to allow Danny Amendola time to get clear of pass-rushing traffic. That dart hit Amendola along the end line and brought a rush of optimism to the crowd.
On the previous touchdown drive that closed the gap to 30-23 with 8:41 left, Brady hit on six of his seven passes, including a 13-yard effort to tight end Rob Gronkowski on fourth down. Two plays later, Dion Lewis scooted to the left corner of the goal line for the score.
Brady, man. No matter what happens this season, they’ll always seem to have a chance with him.
Dan The Torpedo: Full speed ahead for Amendola, who caught six passes for 42 yards. This looks like a merely decent stat line, a great example of how numbers can fail to tell the full story. (A 9.712? Hey, that Kerri Strug had a pretty good vault!) Last week, Amendola delivered on third and 15 during the Patriots’ game-winning drive. On Sunday’s game-tying foray with 6:07 left, Amendola caught a five-yarder on third and three where he managed to hold on to the ball despite getting folded like a Hallmark card. He followed that with a 10-yarder on second and six, and then gathered in the tying TD on fourth down.
This past summer, with Brandin Cooks coming to Foxboro, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan returning, and Malcolm Mitchell coming off a productive rookie season, Amendola seemed like an odd man out. Cooks is doing fine (13 receptions for 294 yards, two TDs on the season) as is Hogan (15 for 214, four TDs), but Edelman and Mitchell sit on IR (Mitchell may return in several weeks). Keeping Amendola around (15 for 190, one TD) has made – and will continue to make – a huge difference this year.
Highway Rob-bery: When horse trainers watch their steeds get up a full head of steam and race around the track, I’ll bet that’s what Rob Gronkowski’s coaches feel like. Just a mustang in the meadow who needs room to roam. Gronk had four catches for 80 yards and converted enough third downs to keep this one close. Once he and the officials come to an agreement on what constitutes offensive pass interference and/or defensive holding, look out. Gronk gets held and knocked more than a farmer’s market melon, but he still manages to box out, wall off, and muscle through defenders. And once he catches the football, it’s a more than 50-50 shot he’s giving the aspirant tackler a ride.
All White All White All White: On their penultimate TD drive, Brady threw three completions to running back James White for six, eight, and six yards. White had 10 receptions for 47 yards and one carry for seven. Now, I’ve got to ask: should he run the ball more? Should the coaches make White a bigger part of the starting offense? With his versatility, his presence may open up a defense more than having Mike Gillislee in the backfield. Nothing against Gillislee (more on him below), but his lack of a receiving threat helps defenses (he has caught zero passes this season).
So maybe, just maybe, a little more White in there on early downs. But honestly, what do I know? It’s easy to get discombobulated after a loss and suggest trying different things. See if this Taylor Heinicke kid can run the Wildcat! Brady can’t run the ball!
(Fun fact: Heinicke is decidedly not a Wildcat QB. While playing for Old Dominion in 2012, he compiled 730 yards passing in one game vs. New Hampshire, an FCS record. ODU came back from a 40-24 halftime deficit to win, 64-61. For comparison, Newton rang up fewer than half of those yards in Foxboro. You can see highlights of that game here, and check out how ODU receivers pick up more YAC than a Mongolian cattle rustler.)
Boss Hogs: Former Arkansas Razorbacks Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise continue to do good things (as long as they’re not asked to cover tight ends downfield). Flowers (six tackles) ended a Carolina drive in New England’s red zone by whac-a-moling the ball out of Jonathan Stewart’s arms for a forced fumble. Late in the contest, Wise sacked Newton on third down, a play that could have made the Panthers punt if not for Stephon Gilmore’s hands-to-the-face penalty. Not a perfect game from either pass rusher, but their ability and sense of making timely plays continued.
Hold Your Head Hightower: The Patriots seemed to ease linebacker Dont’a Hightower back from a knee injury, but he still made a big play, a sack of Newton on third and five that got New England the ball back with 7:34 remaining. More importantly, Hightower took on a captain’s role in the locker room, answering questions about the defense’s poor play and setting goals of “a higher standard” for all to hear. For the Patriots defense to get better, Hightower has to remain at the center of it.
POTENTIAL CLUTCH AT SOME POINT
If, And, Butler: In the face of overall rough defensive back play, Malcolm Butler deserves mention here as something of an exception. Though his size allowed him to get overwhelmed by bigger receivers, Butler tended to be in the right place. He ended up with eight tackles and that interception on the day. Not a great sign when your cornerback ties for the team lead in tackles, but right now, Butler looks like the best corner on the team. Kind of a “King of the Dipsh!ts” compliment, but there you go.
Forward, Marsh: I continue to expect good things from pass rusher Cassius Marsh, but he’s a couple of games away from getting nicknamed “Chernobyl” for his disastrous loss of containment. He seems to get impatient and do his own thing instead of staying in his rush lane, allowing Newton room to run. Marsh can be a solid contributor; he’s still a relatively new addition. Cut down on the mistakes, add one timely sack and/or pass break-up, we’ll be singing his praises.
Summer Of My Squirmin’ Solder: Offensive tackle Nate Solder remained inactive through most of August due to injury, but it looks as though he has gotten more comfortable as the season has progressed. Not quite himself to this point, maybe, but in the next week or two he can be expected to play more and more like 2016 Solder.
(And, yes: file the above under the “I Have No Idea But There Seems To Be Cause To Remain Hopeful” Category.)
Drop The Mike: When Mike Gillislee gets low, he can accomplish good things. He had 12 runs for 49 yards (4.1 per carry) and, when he kept his shoulders down, picked up a couple of first downs in short yardage situations. Gillislee hasn’t reached his full potential yet. As I pointed out after the Kansas City game, he has to get to know his fullback’s and offensive line’s tendencies and how to fit into the cracks they create in defenses. He has gotten better and should continue to do so, just in time for the worse weather that requires mudders over sprinters.
From Coast To Ghost: He seemed to be slacking a bit, but kicker Stephen Gostkowski could very well be back. He hit all three extra-point kicks (nice) and all three field goal attempts, including a career-high 58-yard beaut that pinballed off the upright to close the halftime gap to 17-16. If this fuels his confidence the way it should, we could see more of the dependable veteran that has seemed to be missing recently.
D-Lite: Just D-lovely and D-licious. Though he’s only 5-8, 195 pounds, Dion Lewis can run the ball anywhere along the line. Better still, his housefly quickness makes it possible for him to dart to the outside, as he did on his eight-yard touchdown run. Lewis gained 18 yards on four carries, and, like White, provides a multi-talented player with whom defenses must contend. He appears to have started a campaign to become a clutch player, and could very well play that role against certain future opponents.
Gilmore Grrrrrrs: In this piece on the new NBCSports.com site (ooh, fancy!), Mike Giardi questions if angst-inducing cornerback Stephon Gilmore feels he’s being used to the best of his talents. In terms of public perceptions, Gilmore didn’t do himself any favors on Sunday. When he was asked about his second hands-to-the-face penalty that gave Carolina a first down on their game-winning drive, he said, “I was playing aggressive. I don’t know what else I can do.” This, I hate to tell you, is the type of thing that losers say.
Whether it’s Steelers coach Mike Tomlin saying, “We do what we do,” or Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan saying, “We play the way we play,” this language shows a stubbornness that does not bode well for the future. As Patriots Football Weekly’s Paul Perillo tweeted in response to Gilmore’s words, “Does this mean he won’t learn from mistakes and instead continue doing the same thing?” If Gilmore doesn’t know what else he can do after he’s already gotten called for a hands-to-the-face penalty, then what can coaches tell him? That first penalty was a warning, like a pitch two inches outside the plate that’s called a strike. That’s the strike zone. That’s what’s getting called; act accordingly.
I’m not even going to go into detail about Gilmore looking more bewildered than an elderly Swedish tourist at a rap battle. Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal does a great job here of detailing myriad coverage snafus involving the corner. If Gilmore proves unable to adapt and learn, then the Patriots will continue to give up huge plays on defense. We’re four games in now, people. This is officially a thing. It should be most interesting to see how much patience the coaching staff has for Gilmore. Back in 2012, rookie safety Tavon Wilson got toasted only slightly less often than a campfire marshmallow; he ended up sticking to special teams.
Not saying it can’t improve, not saying it’s all on Gilmore. Still, right now I’d trade the corner and a third-rounder to Tennessee for Logan Ryan. Ryan’s not even doing all that well (his Titans defense gave up an eye-popping 50 offensive points to Houston), but he would fit in with the defense at Gillette. I hope Gilmore makes me eat these words. Just not seeing it from a highly-touted player who’s been in Foxboro since March.
Rowe, Rowe, Rowe, You’re Beat: Cornerback Eric Rowe missed more takedowns than a WWE referee getting “distracted” by the heels’ manager. His failure to stop Christian McCaffery and his miss on Kelvin Benjamin led to first downs on both plays. Rowe re-injured his troublesome groin to the point where he won’t play tonight, so maybe that remained an issue before he left the game. Just an uncharacteristically rough go from a typically decent player.
(I’ll bet at one point there was a blues song called “Troublesome Groin,” but no one dared record it.)
Funchess In Bunches: Not all of this falls on the players, of course. As ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss pointed out in this piece, Coach Bill Belichick and company need to get all of their players on the same page. Reiss also points out how receiver bunch formations pestered the Pats all day, including when Devin Funchess got wide open on a 10-yard scoring catch near the end of the first half.
Somehow, playing at home, the defense produced more disturbing, incomprehensible plays than Harold Pinter. (I saw “The Birthday Party” 30 years ago, and I still haven’t figured it out.)
Blame It On Dwayne? Tight end Dwayne Allen has zero catches on the season. Yes, at one point Brady threw so far short in his direction that he seemed to be using the football to protect Allen from an invisible groundhog, but, four games in, the big TE just hasn’t looked like a viable receiving option.
The tight end reception ticker continues: rookie Jacob Hollister two catches, Allen zero.
Out-FOXed: As usual, solid job by Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. I enjoy the FOX broadcasts, from the commentators, to what gets put on the screen. Consistently stronger than CBS’ productions. Some booth notes:
• Aikman credited rookie running back Christian McCaffery’s blocking, a nice detail about a player who has a lot of flash but also does many of the oft-unheralded tasks.
• Aikman had a prescient comment right before the snap on Newton’s 25-yard completion to tight end Ed Dickson down the middle, saying, “They have given up some big plays when they’ve gotten those kinds of looks.” To which I replied, “Now, Troy, I don’t think that’s that’s righ – what the EFF?“
• A solid analysis of Hogan’s touchdown, where Aikman pointed out that Brady threw the ball before Hogan got clear. “That’s just trusting your guy is going to beat the defender along the back line.”
One misstep: with two minutes left in the first half, Buck credited Kyle Van Noy with the tackle on McCaffery, when it was actually Elandon Roberts. Eh, 52 or 53, who’s counting?
R-E-I-S-S-P-E-C-T: I feel compelled to comment on ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss, because, in a sportswriter classroom full of jokesters and eye-rollers, Reiss remains the earnest student giving diligent reports. After Newton threw an interception that seemed to target Butler more than anyone on his own team, most tweeted reactions like “terrible,” “horrible,” and “ridiculous.” Not Mike Reiss, though. In a tweet noting that Newton had thrown into double coverage, Reiss wrote, “Strange decision by Cam.”
Strange. What Reiss said there – and what he consistently says – is that he didn’t see what Cam saw, so the professional quarterback gets the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes Reiss gets labeled as a homer because he refuses to fly off the handle when the Patriots play poorly. That’s just how he reports, and always has: fact-finding before fury-flinging. And he does it for both sidelines, so that homer idea is pretty silly.
Frig Newton: I try to like Newton, but his reaction to The Charlotte Observer’s Jourdan Rodrigue asking a straightforward football question baffles me. Players have to deal with a lot of strange, even inappropriate comments, but Rodrigue’s queries about pass routes deserved a respectful response, and probably would have gotten one if she were a different gender. To Rodrigue’s credit, she tried to follow up with Newton. According to a later Observer report, she got some answers that were not positive.
I feel like Newton would’ve fit right in with the 1974-era KVWN San Diego news team.
What’s that you say? Oh, some commercials? Sure.
The Dr. Is In: Fun Dr. Pepper commercial with Steve Smith Sr. proving that he hasn’t lost a step. He and the guy who plays Larry (James M. Connor, for you fellow character-actor nerds out there) play well off each other. I also love how Smith insists on the “Sr.,” especially when Steve Smith Jr.’s nickname is “Deuce.”
Hated it when the Patriots played against Smith. Going to have a lot of fun following the post-playing stage of his career.
Not Too Cheesy: You know what commercial deserves credit for its simplicity? The pizza with a Pepsi ad. Show a close up of a fizzy Pepsi, zoom in on a slice of pepperoni, cue the Lady Antebellum song. “Good Time To Be Alive,” indeed.
Sometimes, that’s all advertisers need: a reminder to the viewers that, yeah, a pizza would really fit the bill right now, and a Pepsi would taste great with it. Why try too hard?
Speaking of which…
Papa Don’t Preach: How about that Papa John’s ad where we meet Sean Muldoon. He’s the Chief Ingredient Officer who apparently spends 60 percent of his day staring at slices of produce like they were Michelangelo’s Pietá. I think it’s hilarious when corporations that mass-produce food products want us to believe that they care about every single vegetable that goes into them. Papa John’s sells 350 million pizzas a year.
Whoa, wait: what? Hold on a second (double-checks)… Yup, that comes out to 2.8 billion slices of pizza. Excuse me one moment…
Hey Muldoon, stop staring at that goddam banana pepper and get back to work!
He Who Fights Slogans Becomes A Slogan Himself: I would have enjoyed attending the ad agency meeting for Castrol oil when someone came up with the idea to have Vince Wilfork quote Nietzsche as part of the “Vince Wilfork’s Words Of Strength” campaign. That’s just good stuff.
Did I mention Nietzche? Well, while he’s on our minds…
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger: Based on the life of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, I will definitely see the movie “Stronger” at some point, but I’ve got to get mentally prepared. Considering that I get teary-eyed at one-minute clips of David Ortiz emphatically reassuring the Fenway crowd whose city this is, when I see this movie I fully expect to become a mess.
Upcoming Opponent Mascot Etymology: “Buccaneer” comes from the 1600s, based on the French term boucanier, from boucan, “a frame with which to cook meat.” This originated from the Tupian (native Caribbean) language, as they described French explorers who hunted wild oxen. Weird origin, and not nearly as cool as expected.
Seriously: food prep. No swords. No plank-walking. It’s like if mercenaries were nicknamed cookstoves.
Upcoming Opponent Site Etymology: In the Caloosa (native Floridian) language, Tanpa meant “sticks of fire,” and may have referred to frequent lightning strikes in the area. The Spanish heard the name as “Tampa” and started calling the area by that name, which may seem inconsiderate but is actually the nicest thing that Europeans did in the Tampa Bay region.
So, down to Florida the New Englanders go, and it’s only October. Tonight’s game should be a tough one. The Patriots had three days to figure out how to communicate and play as a team. Is this their “on to Tampa Bay” moment, or the beginning of an uphill battle?
When he was a child, Chris Warner would have wanted to be Gronk (and, truth be told, he still wants to). You can reach him at email@example.com or @cwarn89.