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Uncharted waters

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff September 25, 2008 06:01 AM

In the wake of Tom Brady's injury, the consensus was that it would take a team effort for the New England Patriots to achieve their loftier goals this season.

From left: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Koppen, Billy Yates.
JOIN THE CLUB: Patriots center Dan Koppen can't bear to watch the fourth-quarter carnage. From left: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Koppen, Billy Yates. (Jim Davis / Boston Globe)
Sunday afternoon, it was a team-wide lack of effort that sent them crashing back to an uncertain reality.

All those optimistic answers we thought we had with the encouraging Week 2 win over the New York Jets? Forget 'em. After the Patriots' humiliating 38-13 loss to the previously hapless and hopeless Miami Dolphins, we have no answers about this particular football team, just more puzzling questions, questions that only the long season can answer.

For now, it's apparent our expectations and confidence will have to be tempered on a weekly basis. We simply don't know what we have here anymore. The Patriots, so consistent, so dependable, so damn good in the Brady/Belichick Era, are officially an enigma.

Consider what has happened so far this season: On their day of devastation, they somehow squeaked by a Kansas City Chiefs team that has a '76 Bucs vibe, then a week later roughed up an overhyped New York Jets squad led by an All-Pro narcissist who is apparently spending more time filming Wrangler commercials than he is learning the playbook.

And now this, merely the most embarrassing, unexpected loss in the short history of Gillette Stadium. The main question that will linger through the bye week: What in the name of Rod Rust happened out there? The Patriots got their Flying Elvis helmets handed to them by a team that finished 15 games behind them in the standings last season. Their first regular-season loss in 22 games came to a team that had won just once in its last 22 games. Perhaps worst of all, they proved world-class loudmouth Joey Porter prescient. Ugh.

I actually hope that they did take the Dolphins lightly, as was the common postgame refrain among the talking heads, because the alternative is terrifying: Maybe this team's talent level -- and its determination -- isn't close to what we believed it to be.

Fault lines
The culprits in this particular loss were countless, and you bet we're naming names.
Each week, the announcers tout the greatness of the Patriots' defensive line. Really? Seems like a myth to me. Richard Seymour has been coasting on his reputation for two seasons now, and while Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren are usually steady against the run, neither is much of a playmaker.

Randy Moss is supposed to be easing the burden on the fledgling quarterback. Instead, he's got a case of ‘‘alligator arms'' over the middle and is flashing worrisome indications that he could go into Oakland Shutdown Mode if Matt Cassel doesn't start getting him the ball down the field.

Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison still make their share of tackles, but these days, they too often come several yards down the field, usually with a desperate swipe at an accelerating tailback's ankles.

When it comes to taking poor angles on a tackle, Brendan Meriweather looks increasingly like a graduate of the Tebucky Jones School of Geometry.

Deltha O'Neal tackles (or semi-attempts to tackle) like he's Willie Clay in disguise.
Jerod Mayo shouldn't send his jacket measurements to Canton just yet.

Nick Kaczur couldn't block a pharmacist.

And the beatdown goes on.

This is not to suggest the coaches are blameless. Bill Belichick, who has made his reputation in part based on an uncanny ability to make in-game adjustments, never found anything resembling a solution for the Dolphins' clever Big 12-style offense. And you know he never thought he'd be so thoroughly outwitted by Miami's coaching staff. David Halberstam never wrote a book about Dan Henning.

Dom Capers of the New England Patriots coached suspiciously like Dom Capers of the Houston Texans.

Dean Pees coached like a guy named Dean Pees.

Josh McDaniels is several dozen trips to the end zone away from proving he wasn't clinging to Brady's coattails during the record-setting '07 season.

(In)experience shows
As for the kid QB, the old adage comes to mind to his performance Sunday: In victory, a quarterback gets too much credit, and in defeat he gets too much blame. Yes, his 19-of-31, 131-yard, 1-TD 1-INT performance was actually uglier than the numbers suggest. Too many passes were tipped. He was too eager to scramble. He telegraphed his screen passes. One minute he looked poised, and the next minute he was tap-dancing in the pocket like Tony Eason. In other words, he played exactly like the inexperienced, overwhelmed quarterback that he is. He does make you miss the little things about Brady. And the big things.

Cassel should forget about trying to fill Brady's shoes; instead, he should aim to play like his Miami opposite. Chad Pennington, who seems to be grasping his new team's offense far faster than his successor is in New York, was nearly perfect against the Patriots, with just three incompletions in 20 attempts. It was a vintage killing-'em-softly performance by Pennington, albeit one that left Patriots fans with an alarming question: If a guy who can't throw the ball 20 yards without a tropical storm at his back is doing this -- namely, eating them alive over the middle at will -- what's going to happen when they face Peyton Manning or Jay Cutler?

Again, lots of questions, and so few answers. We'll just have to take it Sunday to Sunday until all truths about this team are revealed.

It's funny, we've been told that the unsettled state of this team makes things more ‘‘interesting,'' that desperately optimistic buzzword you heard after Brady was felled 7 minutes and 37 seconds into the new season.

Mark me down as skeptical of that theory.

My Sundays were much more interesting when the superstar quarterback covered for everyone else's flaws, and the Patriots finished a sunny afternoon on the right side of the blowout.

So far, there's not much satisfaction in rooting for an enigma.

OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at finn@globe.com.

12 comments so far...
  1. Hey Chad

    feel pretty much the same as you do ;but I'm going to predict a seven and nine season[I think I'm being generous.]
    Also San Diegeo won't overlook the Pats so that might cheer up Pat haters everywhere if Miami didn't.

    Posted by Lryl September 25, 08 12:38 PM
  1. Great column. I echo your point about the Patriots' DL. If they're so great, where are their game-changing plays?

    Posted by Joshua September 25, 08 12:41 PM
  1. Wow Chad, Don't call the Big Show and say that. They will belittle and yell at you. You make many good points however. Miami does have an upgraded roster and the team is no longer coached or run by nitwits. That one was for running up the score twice on us last year.

    Posted by Bob Griese September 25, 08 02:14 PM
  1. ((((((((((((((crickets))))))))))))))) (((crickets)))))))

    Posted by 72' Dolphins September 25, 08 03:08 PM
  1. It's funny how a team has one bad game, (and trust me it was bad) that we all so quickly jump to oh we are awful, and oh were gonna go 7-9...Just try to relax, and lets see how we do. No one, and i mean no one knows the outcome of any game. If you have not learned that by now then god help you. Upsets happen all the time. Yes even to the Pats...

    Posted by Rob September 25, 08 03:14 PM
  1. Chad, I think that you give Brady too much credit. Just like you said, when a team wins, the QB gets too much credit and PATs only lost one game last year! Tom Brady or matt cassell didn't fumble twice the first 7 minutes of the KC game. TB or matt cassell did not allow almost 300 yards of running last week either! Also, Tom Brady did not play like last year in 2001. People seem to have selective memory and we have been all spoiled. You can win a championship with good defense like the Titans or the Giants or the old bears. The Patriots have never had a dominating defense, ever! So, short of that, they will have to try to get this offense going but we will not win any shoot-outs this year! If the PATs can keep the opponents under 21 points this year, we can win 90% of the games. The rest, we likely lose ....

    Posted by reza September 25, 08 05:42 PM
  1. "roughed up an overhyped New York Jets squad led by an All-Pro narcissist who is apparently spending more time filming Wrangler commercials than he is learning the playbook."

    Thanks for saying what I have been thinking all summer long. Brett Favre has shown his true colors as an unbelievably selfish guy. Yet the national media still bows at his feet despite the fact it's obvious his career is OVER. I thought for a while maybe he was kicking himself for not staying retired. Maybe he thinks the Pats would have called him once Brady went down. I am sure glad he's stuck on the J-E-T-S - he's the most overrated player in NFL history.

    Posted by Martin September 25, 08 07:21 PM
  1. This was a well-written piece, but effectively confirms what most of us at the corner bar came away with . . . that is, what really happened out there on Sunday?

    When the dust finally settles on this season, I doubt people are going to be calling this year's O-line and D-line the worst the Patriots ever fielded. I don't think the lines in mid-season form last year were the best. The group that "showed up" to play on Sunday will probably end up somewhere in the upper third in Patriots' history. Parity in the NFL is a cold, hard truth. The difference between the teams that win three or four games in a row and those that can't seem to get it done just isn't all that much in terms of overall player talent. The difference seems to lie somewhere in the nebulous and ill-defined areas of team chemistry, momentum, and collective will. Who would have predicted by game 3 of the 2007 season that the Giants would be such a force in the playoffs? The NY media was ready to run Eli out of town at that point!

    We saw a tough bunch of Miami pros come to Foxboro on Sunday--pros who looked tired of losing and seemingly permanently assigned to the wrong end of 18-point spreads. What better place to make a personal statement than on the home turf of a hated Division rival? In sharp contrast, every face on the Patriots bench in the closeups looked like they'd been caught looking forward to a three week "rest" of Miami-bye week-San Francisco. The fact that there were no obvious adjustments at half-time--either in terms of energy level and desire or defensive schemes--may speak to BB's concerned that he pushed a little too hard to win every game last year. He's had a few months to figure out why it didn't get done in the Superbowl, and maybe he decided that keeping his foot on the gas from September through January left the O-line too 'gassed' to keep the Giants D off Brady. It's a long season, and maybe he's decided this year to hold off with the whip until December?

    Posted by Will September 25, 08 09:57 PM
  1. How soon before they trade for Jeff Garcia ?

    Posted by Mike September 25, 08 10:04 PM
  1. "Unchartered Waters"?

    That headline is laughable - unless of course, you, like many so-called Pats fans, jumped on the Patriots bandwagon after Super Bowl XXXVI.

    Anyone who's been a fan of the franchise prior to 2001 knows having a 2-1 record is nothing. Try a 1-15 season, or having Rod Rust as your head coach.

    Gimme a break...wonder what other signs of the apocalypse will appear after the team loses than season-breaking second loss.

    Posted by Brian September 26, 08 01:03 AM
  1. Yet another articles that tries to be cute and smug without insight. How does a defense that lacks talent hand out two 10-point games and go undefeated last year? They lose their first game after 21 straight victories and now they suck? It's all Brady? After an intense game against the Jets, they were flat against Miami, that's all.

    If you're just another columnist on the rag, I won't be bookmarking this site.

    Posted by Dave September 26, 08 08:26 AM
  1. This is a great article. The truth always seems to hurt. I have always
    known (and the national media has said that as well numerous times) that this defense
    corp is at best unsettling. Starting with the secondary and all the way to
    the rest of the unit, they're shaky and predictably sucky. I have been a Pats' fan for years, and I have suffered through countless hart-breaking seasons, so don't accuse me of "fair-weather fan" syndrome.
    The vaunted O-Line has been so mostly because of Brady's skills in getting rid of the ball quickly, and enjoyed a success that I'm not sure it
    truly deserves. If someone at the Globe has the balls to finally expose these truths, we should embrace them, rather than jump at his throat.
    Sunday's game exposed us for what we really are, so unless we come down to earth immediately, that was just the beginning, and that is really what's so scary.

    Posted by Bregulio September 27, 08 12:43 PM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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Bob Lobel was a WBZ-TV sportscaster for 29 years, anchoring more than 10,000 sports reports.
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