Welcome to Season 7, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Hard to believe it’s been six years since the Houston Texans showed up in Foxborough wearing letterman jackets that only a high school freshman could love.
Kids, they grow up so fast these days. When the Texans come to Foxborough Sunday (1 p.m., CBS, Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call), they’ll no longer be the jayvee outfit — or be wearing the jayvee outfit, for that matter — that showed up here a half dozen years ago only to get stuffed in their proverbial lockers by Tom Brady and his varsity friends.
The Texans arrive in Foxborough this time with a no-nonsense and competent coach in Bill O’Brien, a roster stacked with high-end talent (Jadeveon Clowney, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt), and the fairly fresh memory of a three-point loss to the Patriots here in Week 3 last year in which the then-rookie Watson bedeviled the Patriots like few young quarterbacks ever have.
It’s going to be a challenge for the Patriots as some new pieces (Adrian Clayborn, most encouragingly) slide into place on defense and Brady tries to find pass catchers he can trust. Early questions aide, they should be considered the favorite in the AFC even if their season begins with a hiccup or two.
The quest for a third straight Super Bowl berth and an utterly ridiculous ninth of this era begins Sunday. Here’s to the entertainment of the journey and potential of a sixth Lombardi Trophy at the end. The two-decade long golden era ain’t lasting forever, but it’s not about to end now.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this season started . . .
Three players I’ll be watching not named Tom Brady
Rob Gronkowski: I understand why Patriots fans attempt to think about football like Bill Belichick does. He’s the greatest coach of all time. But it gets a little old when that extends to his effective but wholly unsentimental approach to roster building. I know there will come a time when the Patriots will consider the cost-benefit analysis and determine it’s wiser to trade Gronkowski than retain a player who is nearing 30 and already has more than his share of battle scars. But from a fan standpoint, I’d never understand why anyone would want the Patriots to trade him. He’s not just arguably the greatest tight end ever, and one who still has a hell of a lot to give; he’s one of the most authentic and likable athletes we’ve had on the scene in my 40 years of following Boston sports. I’m glad Gronk’s contract situation is settled for now, and the trade rumors have faded, and he’s still here to eat Tide pods and kick butt — and he’s just about out of Tide pods. I’ll never take Brady — the best there ever was, the best there has ever been — for granted. But watching Gronk is still the most enjoyable damn thing about following this team.
Tyrann Mathieu: Honey Badger reportedly turned down more money from Cardinals, for whom he played the first five seasons of his excellent career, to sign a one-year, $7.5 million deal with the Texans in the offseason. Wish the Patriots had found a way to get in on that bargain action, even with the relative stability they have in their defensive backfield. Mathieu might not be the player he was in 2015, when he had 17 passes defensed, 89 tackles, and 5 interceptions, but he’s still just 26, and he has a knack for those Ed Reed-style big plays in big moments. Surprisingly, this will be the first time he has ever played against Brady.
Trent Brown: I’m convinced the Patriots’ 6-foot-8-inch, 359-pound left tackle was a thank-you gift from the Niners for the Jimmy Garoppolo trade, is perfectly capable of replacing Nate Solder at left tackle, and will do just fine Sunday handling the assorted pass-rushing menaces on the Texans’ defense. And I’ll continue to believe this right up until the first time his man slips by him and makes a beeline for Brady’s ribcage. Then, and only then, will I confront any doubts.
Seven games makes a legend
DeShaun Watson, the Texans’ second-year quarterback, has played a total of seven NFL games, his extraordinary rookie season cut short by a knee injury before it was even halfway to complete. In those seven games, he threw for 1,699 yards with 19 touchdown passes against 8 interceptions, ran for another 269 yards and two touchdowns, and tormented the Patriots with his talent, poise in elusiveness in New England’s last-minute 36-33 win in Week 3 last season. Again, it’s just seven games, and he doesn’t even turn 23 until next week, but the question is worth asking: How long before he is acknowledged as the best quarterback in Texans’ history? The best quarterback in the Texans’ 17-year history is Matt Schaub, which is just . . . well, it’s sad is what it is. He’s their all-time leader in passing yardage (23,221) and touchdowns (124), and yet he’s probably best known for throwing ill-timed pick-sixes. David Carr, a No. 1 overall pick who was battered into incompetence, is second on both lists. Sage Rosenfels is third. Watson? He’s 10th, about 500 yards ahead of No. 11 — the iconic Ryan Mallett. Heck, Watson is probably the best quarterback they’ve had already, and there will be no probably to it if he performs as well against the Patriots this Sunday as he did last season (22 of 33, 301 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs, 41 yards rushing).
Grievance of the week
Hmmm. Well, I generally don’t like to begin a new season with a complaint — this is a time for optimism and joy, after all, at least as much as New England sports fans allow themselves to feel those emotions. I still believe the duck boats would have been called into action had Malcolm Butler not been a DNP-coach’s-decision on defense in Super Bowl LI (they needed one play), but he got paid anyway, and it’s probably past time to put that one away.
It’s certainly a bummer that two of the Patriots’ top three draft picks — first-round offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and second-round cornerback Duke Dawson — are already on injured reserve, while first-round running back Sony Michel has been hampered by a knee problem. The progress of promising rookies is often one of the satisfactions of a long season, but the Patriots’ most promising rookies are walking with a limp. Michel might get a chance to contribute Sunday, though, and the last time I saw him, he was running for 181 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries for Georgia in the national semifinal against Oklahoma. (I missed the national championship game, when Alabama “held’’ him to 98 yards). I still think he’s going to help. So this isn’t a full grievances yet.
So I’m going with an evergreen grievance instead: Roger Goodell’s continued existence as NFL commissioner. Forget the Peter Principle. That’s nothing compared to the Roger Principle. (Do not confuse this with a suggestion that Roger has principals — we know better.) The Roger Principle doesn’t merely observe that people who work for corporations tend to rise through promotion until they hit a level of incompetence. This is the next level. Roger Principle confirms that once people — or at least this certain person — hits that level of incompetence, they will be paid a salary so absurd that it leads to the egomaniacal, deluded belief their own incompetence is actually respect-commanding brilliance. All we can hope for is that he reads the comments.
Take your pick
The departure of dependable Danny Amendola has been lamented and re-lamented by Patriots fans this offseason, even if practically there’s no way they should have matched the two-year, $12 million deal the Dolphins threw his way, with a $6 million guarantee. To put it another way: He came up huge in so many important situations, and the Patriots could use him now while Julian Edelman serves his PED penance . . . but Jalen Ramsey wasn’t wrong.
The player whose departure has gone practically unremarked upon, probably because he played out of his mind in all the wrong ways in the Super Bowl before he was knocked out, is Brandin Cooks. It wouldn’t be erroneous to call him erratic, but he did have four more catches (65) for 423 more yards (1,082) than Amendola, finishing just 2 receiving yards behind Rob Gronkowski for the team lead. He could be exasperating, but he also could be outstanding (see: last year’s Houston game) and he will be missed.
The point of this is not to lament Cooks’s absence, or question whether Phillip Dorsett (or Cordarrelle Patterson and his career 10-yard-per-catch average) can be a reasonable facsimile. No, it’s to ask a tangentially related question, which is this:
If you could add any receiver in Patriots history from a given season to the current Patriots roster, who would you choose? Here’s my top three:
1. Randy Moss, 2007: Choices do not get more obvious. I do not doubt for a second that if Belichick called Moss with a get-here-now request, the now 41-year-old could strap on his helmet, put on the old No. 81 jersey beneath his new gold jacket, and give the Patriots four catches for 64 yards come Sunday.
2. Stanley Morgan, 1981: You want a deep threat? Morgan averaged 19.4 yards per catch over his entire 13 seasons with the Patriots. He averaged more than 20 yards per catch in each of the first six seasons of his career (1977-82), including in 1981, when he had 44 catches for 1,029 yards and 6 touchdowns. I won’t make you look it up — that’s an average of 23.4 yards per catch. Imagine what he’d have done playing with a quarterback that was even a shadow of Brady.
3. Terry Glenn, 1996: Still the most graceful receiver I’ve ever seen this side of Lynn Swann, Glenn put up a 90-1,132-6 line as a rookie while making Bill Parcells gulp down his words. If only it — all of it — had a happier ending.
Troy Brown circa January 2002 is also an acceptable answer.
Prediction, or it’s still strange to see a Texans roster with Andre Johnson’s name
Let’s keep it simple: J.J. Watt has just 1½ sacks in eight regular-season games over the last two seasons. If he surpasses that total Sunday, that means the Texans found leaks in the Patriots’ line and Brady was under siege too often. If the Patriots keep Watt under that number, I’ll take it as a healthy indicator that the Patriots did what they wanted more often than not. I’ll give him a sack, and one for Clowney too, but in the end, the Patriots will beat the Texans for the 10th time in their 11 all-time meetings. The ultimate TB12 Method remains winning football games. Man, can imagine if Matt Schaub was the best quarterback your favorite franchise ever had?
Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 24