Patriots

Quarterback envy? Patriots may be jealous of Justin Herbert, but should handle the 3-8 Chargers

Bill Belichick has a long history of befuddling young quarterbacks. Will he be able to do the same to the impressive No. 6 overall pick?

Provided that he stays healthy, the Chargers' Justin Herbert should set NFL rookie records for passing yards, touchdown passes, and completions. AP Photo/Brett Carlsen

Welcome to Season 9, Episode 12 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

It’s been many years since the Patriots and their fans have been afflicted with a case of Quarterback Envy. Decades, even. We’d probably have to go back to the middle of the 1993 season — when rookie No. 1 overall pick Drew Bledsoe was injured and unproven and someone named Scott Secules was starting at quarterback — to find a time when we might have coveted another franchise’s situation at the most important position in sports. Maybe it goes even further back than that.

But after more than a quarter-century of being blessed to watch Bledsoe and then the unparalleled Tom Brady lead the Patriots, the 2020 edition now enters most weeks with a disadvantage at the position. Cam Newton has been admirable in attitude as the bridge until Bill Belichick can find his quarterback of the future, but performance is another matter. It’s staggering how many fundamental flaws Newton has for such an accomplished player.

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Again this week, the Patriots find themselves playing an opponent with a QB situation to envy. Justin Herbert was spectacular in defeat in his debut, a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, and he’s been spectacular, usually in defeat, ever since. The Chargers are just 3-8, with their wins coming over the lowly Bengals, Jets, and Jaguars. But these are optimistic times for the Chargers, because they have their franchise quarterback.

Herbert is the complete package. He’s 6 feet 6 inches, can execute every throw, moves well (he’s run for 16 first downs), and has preternatural poise. In his 10 starts, Herbert has completed 269 of 402 passes — 66.9 percent — for 23 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Provided that he stays healthy, he should set NFL rookie records for passing yards, touchdown passes, and completions.

Belichick isn’t the envious sort — coaches working on a second hand’s worth of championship rings tend not to be — but he made his appreciation of Herbert clear this past week, noting to reporters that the Patriots evaluated him before the draft and thought he had all the tools to thrive in the NFL. He noted how much Herbert likes football, which is about the highest compliment Belichick can pay.

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The Patriots coach has a long history of befuddling young quarterbacks. His defense did it to Arizona’s Kyler Murray just last Sunday. But so far, Herbert has been befuddle-proof. The Patriots’ chances of getting back to .500 and keeping their slim playoff hopes alive depend on Herbert playing like a rookie, at least for stretches. He hasn’t yet.

Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …

Three players I’ll watching

N’Keal Harry: I’ve tried to give him a chance. Still trying to, actually. He’s big (6-4, 225 pounds). He’s young (he turns 23 on Dec. 17). He’s played just a season’s worth of NFL games (16, 12 starts, in which he’s totaled 36 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns). But it’s getting harder to see anything in the 2019 first-round pick that suggests his Patriots future is bright, or that he should have one here at all.

Harry was downright dismal against the Cardinals. He didn’t have a catch, ran once for minus-2 yards, and committed a holding penalty. His performance has been so poor — something magnified by the success of several receivers drafted after him, including Seattle’s dynamic D.K. Metcalf and Washington’s Terry McLaurin — that I found myself this past week wondering what the Patriots saw in him in the first place.

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After researching it a little, well, I’m still not sure. It’s not the Patriots’ style to be effusive after drafting a player, but the comments after taking Harry in April 2019 were vague, even by their standards. Nick Caserio said that Harry “made the most sense for us,” describing him as smart and a big, strong receiver who ran well after the catch.

There was even a report that the Patriots had him graded much higher than where they got him, at No. 32 overall. There were comparisons to Demaryius Thomas, who was on the Patriots’ roster then, and Anquan Boldin, a physical force of a receiver who always seemed to be on Belichick’s wish list. But there really weren’t any answers as to the specific reasons they chose him over that group of receivers who have since fared so much better.

Keenan Allen: As someone who has his “Space Age Receiver” Sports Illustrated cover hanging in the home office, I’d love to make the argument that John Jefferson is the greatest wide receiver in Chargers history. If you saw him in his fleeting late ’70s and early ’80s glory, you might even nod in agreement. But the truth is that his stardom was fleeting — he was a Charger for just three seasons — and he’s just ninth in franchise history in receiving yards. The Chargers have had more unheralded excellent receivers, starting with the perennially underrated Allen, who — bet you didn’t know this — has more receptions (609) than any wide receiver in franchise history. This season, Allen has a league-best 85 catches for 875 yards and seven touchdowns. He should be well-acquainted with Stephon Gilmore on Sunday.

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Hunter Henry: Belichick was effusive in talking about the Chargers’ productive fifth-year tight end this past week, noting that he first became familiar with him as a high school player at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas. I’m not sure this quite puts Henry — who has 48 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns this season — in the category of all-time Belichick favorites, such as Mark Bavaro. But given the Patriots’ talent void at tight end, it does raise the possibility that Henry could be a free agent target of the Patriots in the offseason.

Grievance of the week

In a bizarre week even by pandemic standards, one in which the Broncos played without a quarterback, the Ravens and Steelers met on a Wednesday afternoon, and just about every NFL play-by-play guy curiously seemed to applaud that there are 256 games on the schedule and every one has been played so far, Roger Goodell had the gall to say this during a Wednesday conference call vowing that the league will finish the regular season:

“Let me be crystal clear, as we have been with our clubs since last March. Health and medical take precedence. We follow the facts, the science, and recommendations of our medical experts are first and foremost the bedrock of our decisions.”

Having an NFL team (the Ravens) that has recently had more than 20 COVID-19 cases play in a Wednesday time slot when the “Kelly Clarkson Show” usually airs is definitely something that is in the best medical interests of everyone. I swear Rob Manfred only exists to make Goodell look decent by comparison, and Goodell still can’t keep up the ruse.

Key matchup

Chargers DE Joey Bosa vs. Patriots T Michael Onwenu

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Two things are certain regarding Bosa, the Chargers’ two-time Pro Bowl defensive end: He’ll be in Cam Newton’s face all day Sunday, and he’ll be talking, before, during, and after he gets there.

Bosa, who’s dad, John, was a Boston College star and brief Miami Dolphin in the ’80s, would have been a Steve Sabol favorite, one of the most entertaining current players to mike up. He sounds like Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” most of the time, but when he makes a play the chill melts and he turns into a screaming maniac seemingly channeling John Matuszak’s character in “North Dallas Forty.”

It was a riot listening to Bosa’s audio from last week’s Bills-Chargers game, and Patriots fans might remember a scene from 2017 when he told Brady to stop getting rid of the ball so fast, then spent time on the bench telling his teammates how great Brady was.

All the talk certainly doesn’t interfere with his performance. Described by Belichick this past week as “a one-man wrecking crew” who “makes a lot of disruptive plays,’’ Bosa is coming off the best game of his five-year career in the Chargers’ 27-17 loss to the Bills. He finished with nine tackles (eight solo), five QB hits (including one that temporarily knocked Josh Allen out of the game, for which he apologized while Allen was still on the ground), three sacks, and a forced fumble.

The Patriots have done a fine job against Bosa in the past — they held him to an assisted tackle and no sacks on 69 snaps in their 2018 divisional-round meeting. Bosa, who lines up at both end spots but tends to be situated more often on the left side of the defense, will likely most often be matched up with rookie right tackle Michael Onwenu, who has allowed just two sacks this season.

Prediction

Or, has a team ever had better first- and second-round picks than the 2001 Chargers (LaDainian Tomlinson, Drew Brees)?

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It’s probably not quantifiable as a genuine East Coast/West Coast rivalry, but the Chargers and Patriots do have some noteworthy history. The Chargers clobbered the Patriots in the 1963 AFL championship game, 51-10. The Patriots have been exacting their postseason revenge since, beating them three times during the Belichick/Brady era: In the 2006 divisional round (Troy Brown strips the ball from Marlon McCree, Patriots win), the 2007 AFC Championship game (injured LaDainian Tomlinson hibernates under a massive coat on the bench, Patriots win), and the 2018 divisional round (Sony Michel rushes for three touchdowns, Patriots win).

The stakes aren’t quite the same this time around, though the Patriots’ slim hopes of reaching the postseason for the 12th straight season require a victory in this one. To do so, they must follow a simple plan: run the ball, control the clock, and keep the ball out of Herbert’s possession.

The Bills picked up 172 yards on the ground last Sunday against a Chargers defense ranked 18th against the run (120.5 yards per game). Last Sunday, the Cardinals limited the Patriots to 110 rushing yards, their fourth-lowest team rushing total of the season. Ideally, Damien Harris (who, with 561 rushing yards, has a shot at 1,000) will get 20-plus carries. After relying on Harris’s legs, this one comes down to the right foot of Nick Folk.

Patriots 23, Chargers 20.

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