Monday, September 24, 2007

New England's 38 Special May be the Start of a Record Setting Season

Bill Belichick led New England to three Super Bowl wins in a four period but already it is reasonable to at least wonder if this year's Patriots may be even better than those championship teams. The Patriots have won their first three games 38-14, 38-14 and 38-7. Keep in mind that Tom Brady led New England to three titles without having a bona fide number one receiver; now he has Randy Moss, who has shed the disinterested look that he had in Oakland and is once again running past defenders and gliding into the end zone with amazing regularity. One of Brady's trademarks is his accuracy--he has never had a completion percentage below 60.2 in a season--but this year Brady may make a run at Ken Anderson's 1982 record for completion percentage in a season (70.55); Brady is 70-88 (79.5%) so far and he has thrown for 887 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. His passer rating of 141.8 is an amazing 20.7 points higher than the record that Peyton Manning set in 2004. Brady's average of 10.1 yards per attempt is more than two yards per attempt better than his career-high and would be one of the top performances ever in that category if he maintains that pace for the whole season.

Moss is also putting up eye-popping numbers: 22 receptions for 403 yards (18.3 avg.) and five touchdowns. Projected over a full 16 game season those numbers work out to 117 receptions, 2143 yards and 27 touchdowns, which would be career-highs for Moss in all three categories; the latter two numbers would also shatter NFL single-season records. Whether or not Brady and Moss can maintain their record setting paces all season long, based on their track records there is every reason to believe that they will continue to be very productive. ESPN's Sunday Countdown crew debated whether or not Moss is a good leader but that is as easy to answer as it is irrelevant. Moss is not a leader and his own statements prove that: he is on record saying that he plays hard when he feels like it and that since no one else on one of his previous squads was concerned that the team was losing that he was not concerned either. Leaders don't think that way and don't say such things. However, what Moss has demonstrated from day one in New England is that he is a very good follower. Belichick, Brady and New England's Super Bowl veterans set a tone for professionalism and work ethic and Moss has by all accounts completely bought into it. You don't want Moss to be the strongest voice or most dominant personality in your locker room but put him on a team that already has leaders in place and then all Moss has to do is play--and no one questions that he is a very, very gifted athlete. Add in Brady's accuracy and Belichick's peerless ability to design game plans that maximize his players' strengths and attack opponents' weaknesses and you have the recipe for a special season. Keep in mind that last year New England was one defensive stop away from advancing to the Super Bowl, where they almost certainly would have befuddled Chicago and Rex Grossman even more than the Indianapolis Colts did. In the offseason, the Patriots bolstered their already talented squad by adding not only Moss but also Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas. Also, defensive standout Rodney Harrison has not even played yet this season because of his suspension for HGH use; he will return to action after missing the next game. In 2004, the Patriots set an NFL record by completing an 18 game regular season winning streak over the course of two seasons. The Patriots have some tough games remaining on this season's schedule but they also have an intense game to game focus that probably has not been seen since the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10. New England has the right mindset to put together a long winning streak precisely because the Patriots will not allow themselves to be distracted by the media circus that would surround it.

My prediction of a New England-Dallas Super Bowl looks good so far; on Sunday night, Dallas improved to 3-0 with a 34-10 dismantling of the Bears. Dallas' Tony Romo went 22-35 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and one interception and his favorite target, Terrell Owens, caught eight passes for 145 yards. The main change in Dallas has been addition by subtraction: the Cowboys subtracted Bill Parcells, a coach who generally referred to Owens as "the player" and made it clear that having Owens on the squad was owner Jerry Jones' idea, not his. Owens was very productive last season--85 receptions, 1180 yards, a league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns--despite playing most of the year with a broken finger but there were many situations when it seemed that Parcells' game plans did not take advantage of what Owens does best: catch the ball while on the move across the middle and accumulate yardage after the catch; Owens' yards per reception average (13.9) was nearly one yard below his career norm. In three games this year, Owens has 16 receptions for 329 yards (20.6 avg.) and three touchdowns, which projects to 85 receptions, 1748 yards and 16 touchdowns. While his reception and touchdown totals mirror last year's outstanding production, check out the dramatic increase in his yards per catch average, a direct reflection of how he is being utilized differently. Unlike Moss, there has never been a question about how hard Owens plays.

Some people insist that any coach can win big if he has talented players; how is that theory working out so far in San Diego? What championship-winning coaches understand is that you can't treat all of your players exactly the same but that you have to treat them all fairly; in other words, some guys need a pat on the back and some guys need a kick in the rear and it it the coach's job to figure out the right approach to take with each player. Moss has demonstrated that he needs structure and he needs to be surrounded by good leaders; prior to 2007, his most productive seasons were in Minnesota when his mentor Cris Carter and his coach Denny Green were in his ear. Owens, on the other hand, is very self-motivated and very disciplined--but he is also sensitive to criticism and he desperately wants to feel appreciated. Calling him "the player" and acting like he has no value is the worst possible approach to take. The Cowboys have been on NBC's Sunday Night Football several times in the past two seasons and one thing that analyst John Madden has consistently said is that Owens is most productive when he is involved in the offense early in the game. Owens is a very potent weapon, so it makes no sense to not at least attempt to get him the ball right from the start; of course, if he is double-teamed then you don't force feed him the ball and you take advantage of other matchups. This season, Dallas Coach Wade Philips and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett are doing what Madden has suggested all along and it is working brilliantly.

If you are wondering how New England and Dallas match up against each other we will soon know the answer: the teams play in Dallas on October 14 in what looks like one of the must-see games of the 2007 season.

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