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Preseason full of guessing games

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  August 12, 2011 02:59 PM

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The Patriots played a football game last night, well, at least what passes for professional football in the preseason. The uniforms and helmets were of the familiar variety, but the players were not.

Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Deion Branch, Chad Ochocinco, Logan Mankins, Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork, Albert Haynesworth and Devin McCourty, among other starters, all watched comfortably from the sidelines, as the Patriots’ junior varsity pasted the Jaguars JV by a score of 47-12.

Robert Kraft’s grandson Harry could have quarterbacked the Patriots to victory in this one, as the Patriots scored on eight straight possessions after Jacksonville took a 6-0 lead.

Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio summed it up best: “Probably the biggest concern is we aren’t going to play our backend people that much again this preseason. So, that is more of a relief than a concern because that was pretty ugly out there at the end.”

Last night was a night for backup quarterbacks, reserve receivers and rookie running backs. Congratulations to Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Taylor Price (that touchdown grab was Moss-esque) and Curtis Martin, uh, I mean, Stevan Ridley.

It was not an evening to gain keen insight into the potential of the 2011 New England Patriots. This game was like counterfeit currency. It looks a lot like the real thing, but upon closer inspection doesn’t have nearly the same value. Unless you’re talking ticket prices, of course.

Now, you know why toward the end of the lockout, NFL owners were pushing the fast-forward button to preserve the preseason. It’s the best revenue racket in professional sports.

However, those bemoaning last night’s game and the lack of insight it provided have to remember that basing any evaluation of a team on the first preseason game, even when all the starters play, is like offering a movie review based only on whether you liked the trailer.

In a word, it is ill-advised. Unless a major injury is suffered, the first exhibition game is usually unimportant in the grand scheme of the gridiron.

Perhaps some football fans have forgotten what the first faux football game looks like. Last year, Brady played two series in the exhibition opener against the New Orleans Saints, and then he was off the clock.

Coming off a great rookie season, Julian Edelman caught six passes for 90 yards. That was one fewer reception than he had all last regular season. Marques Murrell got the start at outside linebacker opposite Tully Banta-Cain and registered a sack of Drew Brees. He was released the day after the season-opener.

Randy Moss had two catches for 30 yards and didn’t say a peep afterward. Thoughts of his boiling discontent with his contract status were just another "media fabrication" – that one goes in the all-time Belichick bon mot book, along with “It is what it is” and his quips about Charley Casserly and meteorology.

Nothing about last season’s preseason opener told us the Patriots were going to go 14-2 in what was ostensibly a retooling year. Just like even with cameos by Brady, Ochocinco, Haynesworth, et al., we weren’t going to ascertain whether this team can win a playoff game, which is really the measuring stick this season.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some notable occurrences last night. Price, who had five catches for 105 yards and an acrobatic score, is the type of fast, physical presence the Patriots lack in their receiving corps. Reading between the lines, Belichick has taken a shine to him.

It was good to see Stephen Gostkowski, returning from a torn quadriceps in his kicking leg, boot a pair of 40-plus-yard field goals (46 and 43), even if the rest of the Patriots’ special teams were rather wretched (bad snap on an extra point, offsides on a fourth-and-1 Jacksonville punt and a block in the back penalty that negated a 43-yard Price punt return).

Cornerback Leigh Bodden, returning from a torn rotator cuff that cost him all of last season, spent a lot of time kicking inside to the “star” -- or slot corner -- for the Patriots on third down, which with so many talented slot receivers in the NFL makes some sense if it is part of Belichick's regular-season plan.

Rookie left tackle Nate Solder displayed good quickness and nimble feet, and third-round pick Ridley, the second of the two running backs the Patriots selected in the draft, showed some burst and toughness around the goal line.

But it's preseason, the time when Michael Bishop looks like an NFL quarterback and Andy Katzenmoyer looks like Dick Butkus.

Future Hall of Famer Moss is the poster boy for why the preseason as a whole is largely meaningless in gauging a team.

Four years ago, he was Haynesworth – a player looking for an extreme reputation makeover in Foxborough. Moss barely practiced, didn’t play in a single preseason game and there were even rumors he was going to be cut prior to the season.

Then he went out and shredded the Jets defense in Game 1 of the ’07 season for nine catches, 183 yards and a touchdown, during which he parted three New York defenders. After the jaw-dropping score he parted his hands in what became his signature gesture. The rest is NFL history.

While next week’s game in Tampa, against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should more resemble regular-season action for a quarter or two, it’s not the Rosetta Stone for the regular season either. It’s another exhibition game that won’t exhibit much.

It’s not going to tell us definitively whether Ochocinco grasps the offense, whether the Patriots can dirty the uniform of the opposing QB more often this season or whether the shift to more four-man fronts is a stroke of genius by Belichick that will lead to the elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Only real games can tell us that. Until we get to those it’s all a guessing game.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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