Patriots

Five Things We’ve Learned About the Patriots So Far (Including Gronk’s Powers Are Fully Intact)

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Man, can the Colts game hurry up and get here already?

I recognize that the bye week is necessary for the players, who put their bodies on the line every Sunday (or Monday, or Thursday). But for those of us who put our bodies on the couch every Sunday (and Monday, and the occasional Thursday), the two weeks off between games is a drag. Especially when the Patriots are playing as well as they were before the hiatus.

While we wait for the season to resume with the seven-game sprint to the postseason (and, I’m convinced barring catastrophe, Arizona), let’s look back on what we learned from the first nine games.

Here are my five chief takeaways from the Patriots season so far:

1. NEITHER THE SCALPEL NOR T.J. WARD HAVE REDUCED GRONK’S POWERS
At the beginning of the season, when Gronk was plodding around like 1999 Ben Coates and had played just 42 percent of the snaps through the first three games while shaking off the rust, I’ll admit to wondering whether he’d ever be the one-man demolisher of defenses that he’d been before his knee needed to be reconstructed.

I wouldn’t say I worried so much as I was impatiently anticipating what he would be when fully healthy.

Well, here’s Gronk over the last five games: 36 receptions, 516 yards, 5 touchdowns, one utter humiliation of the Chicago Bears defense, and a catch against the Broncos that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. Yeah, I’d say he’s back, and if he’s not as good as he ever was, he’s still better than virtually anyone ever to play the position. At 25 years old, he may already be the greatest all-around tight end ever.

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Gronk won’t win the Most Valuable Player award, but his name merits mention, and if he can remain upright through the postseason, I love this team’s chances of claiming that elusive fourth Lombardi.

2. DAVE DeGUGLIELMO IS ACTUALLY COMPETENT
Now, I’m not suggesting the skepticism — to put it mildly — regarding the Patriots’ first-year offensive line coach was misguided.

After all, he had been fired by the Jets and Dolphins –not exactly dual bastions of superb coaching hires — and was out of the league entirely last season.

So when Jordan Devey and the rest of the post-Mankins line spent the first weeks of the season helpfully peeling Tom Brady off the turf, the only logical response as a fan was to wonder if someone could get Dante Scarnecchia to Gillette Stadium, pronto, before Brady ended up in a full-body cast.

It didn’t help his cause that some of the players sounded frustrated with his approach. But here were are, nine games into the season, and the line has stabilized. Brady is standing tall and even moving around adeptly in the pocket, confident that he’s not going to get mauled a split-second after the football is snapped into his hands.

Bryan Stork looks like a potential cornerstone, and the group kept Denver’s accomplished pass-rushers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, fairly quiet.

Turns out DeGuglielmo didn’t need Scarnecchia to come to the rescue after all, and we probably should have known all along that Belichick wouldn’t hire someone incapable of doing the job. It was an adjustment period, and we should have expected it.

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3. BILL BELICHICK THE GM HAS HELPED BILL BELICHICK THE COACH
Man, I can’t stand that narrative. It’s so short-sighted and takes absolutely no variables beyond WE COULDA HAD THIS GUY BUT HE PICKED THIS GUY!!! into consideration.

I agree that not much about the Logan Mankins trade made sense when it went down just before the start of the season. He was — past-tense — a great player here, and besides, who the heck is Tim Wright, anyway?

Thus we were stuck with this consensus conclusion, shrieked at the highest possible decibel level: THE PATRIOTS’ ONLY LOYALTY IS TO THE BOTTOM LINE!!! KRAFT IS CHEAP!! HE PAID THAT SOCCER GUY RATHER THAN MANKINS!!!

And here’s how it has turned out: Wright has become a valuable secondary weapon in the passing game, having caught 17 of 18 targets this season. Mankins is miserable and declining for the lowly Bucs. The line has finally coagulated in his absence. Just in terms of roster construction, it looks like a winning trade for the Patriots.

And they picked up a draft pick and saved a few bucks, which will be used to pay bonuses and hopefully lock up Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty at some point.

The Brandon LaFell signing wasn’t bad either, huh?

One last point: Can we stop griping about the draft until a couple of years down the road, when we actually have a fair amount of information on the picks?

At times during his first two seasons, Dont’a Hightower looked like a tweener, a decent athlete but one with out a true position. This year, he’s become a difference-maker, a leader who makes plays all over the field.

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And suddenly, if we revisit that first round in ’12 — which also included Chandler Jones — it looks like Belichick took significant steps toward rebuilding his defense that day.

Mel Kiper Jr. gets paid to write those silly grades the day after the draft. We don’t need to be so instantly, foolishly reactive.

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4. DARRELLE REVIS AND BRANDON BROWNER ARE THE PATRIOTS’ MOST COMPELLING CORNERBACK TANDEM SINCE …

… well, it’s tempting to say Ty Law and Tebucky Jones/Ty Poole/Otis Smith/Steve Israel/Terrell Buckley/Troy Brown/Hank Poteat just because excluding the original No. 24 from Aliquippa, Pa., doesn’t feel right. Law is the greatest big-game cornerback I have ever seen and the second-greatest Patriot of this era. If Revis performs this postseason the way Law did in 2001 and ’03 … let’s just say (again) that I like their chances.

The truth, however, is that the Patriots never really had an excellent No. 2 cornerback during Law’s heyday. So this Revis/Browner tandem has a chance to be the Patriots’ best duo since Mike Haynes and Raymond Clayborn were running stride-for-stride with the likes of Wesley Walker and Nat Moore in the late ’70s.

I should clarify that I’m not suggesting Browner is an elite corner, and certainly not in Revis’s class. Revis might be the most casually excellent corner I’ve seen — he makes it look so easy that sometimes you forget how damn hard it is to stay with a great receiver for more than a split second.

Browner is erratic, but it’s the good kind of erratic. You can live with the penalties because the aggressiveness — the mean streak, really — is something the Patriots have lacked in the secondary since Rodney Harrison was taken off on his shield.

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I’ll admit, I thought he was the Ringo of the Seahawks’ secondary, a beneficiary of playing with Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor. Now? I think Seattle misses him more than they imagined they would.

5. RACING TO BE THE FIRST TO DECLARE THAT TOM BRADY IS IN DECLINE IS A FINE WAY TO LOOK LIKE AN #*$*@*#*#

Learned my lesson with this one. You too?

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