Back To the Future?

13 10 2010

So what exactly is Bill Belichick trying to pull here?

On the one hand fans are witnessing a team change before their eyes. The Patriots are going younger on offense and defense and with it comes the growing pains of a…you guessed it, a transition year.

Not that anyone in the Patriots front office will ever admit but with the decision to shoulder so much responsibility on the likes of Devon McCourty, Aaron Hernandez, and Darius Butler shows that the Patriots are clearly moving on to a new cast of characters.

The trading of the 33 year old Moss was to be the ultimate statement of this new philosophy, the moment that officially turns the page on an old era.

So why is Deion Branch suddenly making a cameo?

At 31, Branch isn’t much younger than Moss and is an order of magnitude short of talent compared to him. Nothing against Branch, he had his best years in New England including Super Bowl MVP honors in 2005 but he does not bring the home run threat that Moss did on a weekly basis.

Branch’s name doesn’t draw the kind of attention on the field that makes teams nervous, or the kind of attention that can tie up defenses on the field.

He has already made it clear that he has not returned to New England to play the role of Randy Moss, and that he cannot replace Moss and his skill set.

So why is he here?

It is a move that can’t help but look like fan service, a silent acknowledgement that a Patriots team without Randy Moss is not what people want. More importantly though it is a move to distract people away from the fact that this team is still going through some major growing pains.

For the most part fans are buying it, and why wouldn’t they? Those three super bowl rings still do a lot the talking for Belichick. It’s simply the “Patriot Way”, and its ideas set in quick.

You can hear it now.

“it’s another bit of Belichick genius,” people will say.

“They look like the old Patriots now.”

The “old” Patriots of course being the cast of proverbial no name players that simply do their job. The classic fantasy that players play for the logo on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back; but that’s all that it is, a fantasy.

No team gets better after dropping a hall of fame talent like Randy Moss. To believe so would acknowledge that talent does not make a difference in the NFL. Tom Brady has that kind of talent, but with Moss now gone who else does?

That is not to say Branch will not succeed back in New England. For all intents and purposes he will more than likely have himself a wonderful season once again catching passes from Brady. But who is to say it will last beyond his current deal? What if he decides to use this reunion to pad his stats and try and get himself a long term deal that will probably be pretty hard to come by in New England?

It’s just more questions in a Patriots season that is already full of them, and perhaps we may never hear the true answer: this is not the year for Patriots. Not yet at least.

Maybe the minds over at Patriot Place saw the trouble Red Sox ownership got themselves into when they uttered the dreaded term “bridge year” and decided against giving fans any hint of what their long term plans for the team are.

Maybe this trip back to the future actually is another bit of Belichick genius and when Branch hits 88 catches we’ll, like the time travelling Delorian before him, see some serious stuff.

Wherever the ride takes them one thing is clear. Whether we like it or not, we’re just along for the ride.


Missing Out on the Wide Out

8 10 2010

Randy Moss was living on the edge while the Patriots were thinking at the margin.

After weeks of uneasiness the Patriots solved the puzzle of Randy Moss, well more like sent it away for someone else to worry about as he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings for a third round pick in next year’s draft.

It is difficult to call the move surprising (abrupt maybe) but it is hard for anyone to believe that nobody saw the writing on the wall, including Moss himself.

In the end Moss will get what he wants, a guaranteed paycheck after this season. Unfortunately for him what he gains in monetary compensation he may lose in sporting satisfaction.

Disregard the alleged heated arguments with coaches and fights with teammates as reasons for Moss’s departure. They are nothing more than fog to cloud the real reason for shipping Moss back to where he came from, that at 35 the Patriots had gotten all they wanted out of Moss and were not prepared to sign him long-term as he ends into down slope of his career path.

Look to the results on the field, what Bill Belichick values the most, and it was clear that Moss was quickly fading out of the picture.

Moss had nine receptions through the first four games of the season compared to the 29 he had last season by the same time. At that rate he was projected for 39 catches and 556 yards by season’s end, a huge drop off from the 83 receptions and 1264 yards of the year before.

Moss’s greatest fear had come true in New England, he wasn’t wanted anymore. Tom Brady didn’t even look in his direction Monday night except for a throw off a fake spike play that Moss lost through his fingers.

Meanwhile, rookie Aaron Hernandez is busy leading the Patriots in receiving yards with 240 yards on 18 receptions. The Pats had always been a tight end heavy offense but now the rookie will not only have to continue his excellent play but elevate it even further in Moss’s absence.

So Moss will had back to the team that gave him his start and a quarterback in Brett Farve that has coveted him since his days in Green Bay. Vikings head coach Brad Childress had better hope that Moss touches down in Minnesota motivated and with a new deal because if he is not happy it will be hard for Childress to goad performance out of his diva wide out, the evidence being his years as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia where he was that in title alone.

As for the Patriots, they don’t improve their chances either. No team gets better by ejecting a talent like Moss and the maxim of “addition by subtraction” is nothing short of a myth.

Though they have shown that they can have a competent offense without Moss they lose the attention that defenses gave him and on a more ground level that Patriots lose what little bit of a “wow” factor they had left.

There will be no more poster caliber pictures of Randy Moss making cornerbacks look silly and if and when the Patriots go down it will not be in a blaze of glory that would have been fueled by a character like Moss.

New England Special

5 10 2010

It was a tale of two halves for the Patriots again Monday night. Fortunately for them it was the Miami Dolphins who could not pull themselves together as the Patriots forced themselves back into the top of the AFC East conversation.

On a night where Tom Brady became the fastest quarterback to 100 career wins he was essentially a non-factor. Instead, it was the Patriots special teams that came up big as a Brandon Tate kick-off return, and two huge blocks from Pat Chung on a punt and a field goal powered New England to a 41-14 victory over the Dolphins Monday night at Sun Life Stadium.

“It feels great,” Chung said. “You just gotta give thanks to the man upstairs. He blessed me.”

Considering the way Chung managed to be everywhere on the field Monday he could have been mistaken for god himself.

With the Patriots up 13-7 in the third quarter after Tate’s return the Dolphins were set to punt after a failed drive. Next thing Miami punter Brandon Fields knew Chung was in his face and the ball was back in the Patriots hands in the red zone where BenJarvus Green-Ellis punched it in to make it 20-7.

Chung and the Patriots didn’t look back after that.

Chung easily matched his punt block totals during his 2007 season at the University of Oregon Monday night and showcased the skills that made him a two-time special teams player of the year in college.

Along with his special teams play Chung added four tackles and an interception in a game that featured a rejuvenated Patriots defense that kept them in the game despite the offense not finding its groove in the first half.

Tom Brady can go ahead and thank linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who was last seen going on and off waivers for the Dolphins in 2007 and 08, for that.

The former Purdue Boilermaker had two key first half interceptions that set up field goals for the Patriots. The first came late in the first quarter; with the Pats down 7-0 Henne got the Dolphins into New England territory, with Henne looking wide right on his next pass Ninkovich read the play and cut in front Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall and returned it to the New England 40. Brady took that and got that Pats into field goal range to cap their first scoring drive.

Ninkovich struck again in the second quarter, with the Dolphins in the red zone he took advantage of a bad decision by Henne and intercepted a pass that essentially was thrown straight at him. Again the offense capitalized on the play and pulled the Patriots within a point going into halftime.

“I just got back to my drop and read the quarterback. Saw he was looking right at me,” said Ninkovich. On the second one, Marshall was lined up at two. I saw they were running a boot. Hartline ran a snag. Henne was looking right at him so I just drove at him and that was it.”

It was quite the time for Ninkovich to make the first two interceptions of his career especially against his former team who did not exactly give him many chances to shine.

“It feels pretty good. You know, I was here as a practice squad guy. Now that I’m here playing against them, it feels good to play my old team”

The defensive showcase in the first half kick started the offense in the second as the Patriots, who still faced criticism over their play on the road in the second half, exploded for three second half touchdowns two of which came on special teams. That included Tate’s 103 yard kickoff return that made a strong statement that the Patriots were ready to fight in the second half.

It was a performance that put a rare smile on Bill Belichick’s face and even elicited a joke.

“I Thought they were alright,” Belichick said with smile drawing laughs from reporters. “No, it was a great effort. Those guys really work hard. They work hard every week in practice. I was really happy with the success they had tonight. The plays they made tonight helped our team. Those kids worked hard. They deserved it.”

The Patriots now head into the bye week with a hard earned tie for the AFC East lead with the New York Jets. Though it took four games it seems the Patriots are starting to hit their stride and are quickly discovering who they may be depending on for the rest of the season.

New Leases on Life

27 09 2010

Tom Brady wore his emotion on his sleeve Sunday afternoon, dealing with questions on his second half performances he had everything to prove. Facing a crucial third and six on a third quarter drive with the Patriots up 24-23 he saw no options in front of him, so he took it himself.

He bolted forward and slid for the first down jumping up and bumping his chest with a primal yell in the most animated display he has shown all season.

It was the sign of a revitalized Brady and new look offense that took his first down and converted it into their second of three second half touchdowns that put them on their way to a 38-30 victory over the Buffalo Bills Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

It was an unexpected shootout considering the Bills were coming off a 34-7 loss in their Week Two match against Miami.

“At the end of the year when you look at your record, going ‘Oh that was a close game,’” Brady said. “A win’s a win.”

And it was a particularly telling win for the Patriots who, in their first game without top running back Kevin Faulk, saw a their running corps rack up an impressive 200 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries.

“It was a lot better than the two yards a carry we had last week,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “It was productive. We got production from a lot of different types of runs.”

It was fact made evident in the Pats final score. With New England up 31-24 in the closing minute of the third quarter, Brady took New England from their own 25 yard line to the endzone on the backs of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the recently signed Danny Woodhead who was last seen on national television taking orders from Rex Ryan and Co. on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” this summer.

“More than anything, it was good to help the team out,” Woodhead said. “I’m not so concerned with getting my touchdown or whatever. I’m more concerned with getting the victory. We got the victory, that’s the most important thing.”

Woodhead and Green-Ellis were the biggest benefactors of an offense that was the polar opposite of the one rolled out last week against the Jets. Rather than forcing the ball to Randy Moss on long routes the Pats used a more balanced attack that saw their 452 yards of offense split evenly between runs and passes.

“Whenever you run the ball that makes everything else that much easier: your play action game, you’re not in long yardage,” said Belichick. “That’s always a point of emphasis and some weeks we do it better than others, but it was good production today and that obviously really helped us.”

They needed every one of those points as the Bills, under newly installed quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, were still able to burn a young Patriots defense for 242 yards and two touchdowns.

Though shaky throughout the game it was a key interception by Pat Chung that proved to be the difference. With the Patriots up 31-23 in the fourth quarter Fitzpatrick got the Bills to the red zone on a catch by Roscoe Parrish. With Fitzpatrick looking towards the endzone on the next play Chung intercepted a sailing pass at the goal line that set up the Patriots final scoring drive.

Though the Bills scored on their next possession to make it 38-30 it was too little too late as they were forced to go 0-3 on the season and 16-1 against Tom Brady and the Patriots.

The Patriots will now head down to South Beach for a Monday night showdown with the surprisingly strong Miami Dolphins. They take with them a new lease on life and a few more answered questions after a strong answer to their lackluster Week Two game.

Reality Check

19 09 2010

As quickly as the doubts shifted from the Patriots to the Jets after their respective week one debuts, it all shifted back as a second half collapse allowed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to throw a career-high three touchdowns on his way to a comeback victory. The Patriots, who looked dominant in week one, were shutdown in the last 30 minutes in what may quickly become the team’s Achilles heel.

Tom Brady, who threw for 248 yards and two first half touchdowns, threw two interceptions in the second half allowing the Jets to come back and even their record with a 28-14 victory Sunday afternoon at New Meadowlands Stadium.

After the game Brady bluntly laid out New England’s problems.

“We couldn’t do anything in the second half,” he said. “We couldn’t run it, we couldn’t throw it. We just sucked.”

The Jets managed to stifle the Patriots without Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis who left the game after the first half with a hamstring injury suffered on a spectacular one-handed Randy Moss touchdown catch that made it 14-10 going into halftime. Revis or not, the Jets dominated in a second half that saw  two third quarter passes intended for Moss intercepted and their time of possession jump from 12 minutes to 30 keeping a tired Pats defense on the field longer than it should have.

That was made painfully evident in the Jets final scoring drive. Second-year cornerback Darius Butler committed two costly pass interference penalties in a drive that allowed Sanchez to march 63 yards downfield for the touchdown that twisted the knife already stuck in the Patriots hopes for victory.

“It’s frustrating at times,” Butler said. “You’re not making plays, especially when they start calling some penalties you don’t agree with. Obviously, that gets frustrating. That’s gonna happen, but I still got play my game.”

It was a rough day for Butler, who was victimized by Jets receiver Braylon Edwards twice, one for a second quarter touchdown and later for a third quarter two point conversion before he committed the game-changing penalties.

There was a ray of hope in the fourth quarter when Brady finally found a rhythm hitting Sammy Morris, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Tate on a 49 yard drive that got the Pats to the red zone with a chance to make it a one possession game.

Enter Jason Taylor.

On a first and 10 with the ball on the Jets 16 yard line Taylor caught Brady on his blind side forcing a fumble that the Jets recovered and returned 16 yards. The fumble sparked their final scoring drive and quickly snuffed any flame the Patriots had left.

“I think when it comes down to the second halves of these games, our level of toughness, we have to go out and play tougher,” Brady said. “There were times where I think we had opportunities to do a better job out there and we didn’t. That’s all of us, starting with me. I have to do a better job leading this team and certainly executing better when it’s crunch time.”

It was an ugly reminder of the team’s second half struggles on the road dating back to last season. Including tonight, New England has been outscored 116-41 in their last eight road games exposing an old problem that may not be in the Patriots rear view mirror yet.

“You start 0-0 the next game you play, home or away, whatever it is,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “The score will be 0-0 at the start of the next game.”

Even in their win over Cincinnati the Pats allowed Carson Palmer and Co. to run wild in the second half. But the Jets were not the Bengals and did allow to Brady to have the same comfortable cushion he did last week. Where the Jets were able to soar over their opening struggles, the Patriots could not handle the fresh weight of their new expectations.

“They’re a little cocky and annoying at times,’’ Moss said. “But they went out and walked the walk. You’ve got to hand it to them. The Jets handled adversity the right way and we handled it the wrong way. This one hurts. They wanted it more.’’

After blowing their chance to put the Jets in an early 0-2 hole and take shared control of the AFC East, the Patriots head back to Foxboro at an even 1-1. Luckily, they will face an 0-2 Buffalo Bills team while the Jets head down to Miami to face the surprisingly undefeated Dolphins in an AFC East race that has quickly opened up.

Prospects Brewin

17 09 2010

On a stage that seemed tailored for him it was the players not named Tyler Seguin that made the most of their time on the TD Garden ice this week as the Bruins rookies swept the series with their New York Islanders counterparts.

Instead, it was the players that are not guaranteed a job come October that made a statement, both for consideration and the rising state of the Bruins farm system.

That’s not to say Seguin went quietly into the night, his slick passing gave Jordan Caron two-thirds of his Wednesday night hat trick. He also showed some bite the next night when the Islanders defense focused in him, throwing off defenders and using his much-talked about speed to gain some nice breaks. Though, it was clear that this was not his stage to take just yet, his test lies in his first NHL training camp against pro-level competition next week.

No, instead it was players like Caron, who doesn’t want to spend much time in Providence this season, and Ryan Spooner who is looking to avoid a ticket back to juniors that made statements when they had to.

More importantly it displayed the leaps and bounds the Bruins system has made under general manager Peter Chiarelli.

“What I was happy with tonight, and I think the crowd could see it, is the skill,” GM Peter Chiarelli told the Boston Globe after the game. “We had an energy line. But on three of those other lines, there was some tremendous skill. A lot of plays were being made. I was trying to remember last year with the rookie tournament. The year before, we were in Shelton. I don’t think I saw, in total, the number of plays we made tonight over the course of those games the last two years. That was good to see.”

And he was right; the sheer skill on display gave Bruins fans a lot to look forward to beyond young phenom Tyler Seguin.

Weekly Pats Link Dump 9/15

15 09 2010

-We start over at the Boston Globe where the story of the day isn’t how much Tom Brady hates the Jets but how much it bugs him that Pats fans are so quick to duck out of the stadium. Beating out traffic?

-On a more serious note Monique Walker has reaction for the Patriots running back corps on the Tuesday trade of former first-round pick Laurence Maroney.

-Mike Whitmer has coach Belichick’s comments on the trade. For him it was simply “time to move on.”

-Now that Randy Moss has done his song and dance Albert Breer looks into whether it is actually viable for the Pats to re-sign the 34-year-old Moss. He sparks some debate with a chart that ranks the top 20 all-time receivers stats at 34 and needless to say it’s not all pretty.

-Lastly, Breer looks ahead to the Jets and how quickly the framing for the heavily anticipated matchup has changed after the events of week one. It’s interesting to see how the Jets react to their disappointing opener and whether the Patriots can build on their outstanding debut.

-Over at the Herald Ron Borges checks in with an interesting piece on how much money Tom Brady is actually making … or not making. In contract back flips that would make New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello proud the Patriots have made Tom Brady the highest paid quarterback in the NFL, sorta.

-Karen Guregian checks in with Randy Moss and how he plans to stay far off Revis Island and hopefully take the damn deed away.

-Lastly, Ian Rapoport looks at how the Patriots offensive line can take advantage of the absence of Kris Jenkins.

-Tom Curran at CSNNE talks about how it’s impossible for the Pats to ignore the very loud Jets and how they’ve  built some momentum after their last two meetings.

-Perhaps unknown to Tom Brady and Co. Danny Picard reports that Jets coach Rex Ryan actually had some nice things to say about the Pats.

-Over at EEI Chris Price talks about how the Patriots will go on without Laurence Maroney.

-He also checks in on how the Jets will try and rebound after a deflating opening week loss.