THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Christopher L. Gasper

It’s nothing like the real thing

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / August 13, 2011

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The Patriots played a football game Thursday night, 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 sideline, as the Patriots’ junior varsity pasted the Jaguars JV, 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 back-end 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.’’

Thursday 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 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 NFL owners were pushing to preserve the preseason. It’s the best revenue racket in professional sports.

However, those bemoaning the game and its lack of insight have to remember that evaluating a team on the first preseason game, even when the starters play, is like offering a movie review based only on seeing the trailer.

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

Perhaps some 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 good rookie season, Julian Edelman caught six passes for 90 yards. That was one fewer reception than he had in the 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 former NFL general manager turned CBS analyst 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. 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 in the game. 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, a block-in-the-back penalty that negated a 43-yard Price punt return, and the Jaguars had an 84-yard kickoff 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 - on third down, which with so many talented slot receivers in the NFL makes sense if it is part of Belichick’s 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 a 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 history.

While next week’s game at Tampa, against the Buccaneers should 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.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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