Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Monday Night Football Quick Hits: Patriots Not Dead Yet Edition

Everyone who is gleefully hoping to shovel dirt on the figurative graves of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots will have to wait at least one more week. The Patriots bounced back from last Sunday's 30-10 loss in San Diego to rout the Denver Broncos 41-7. After the game it is easy to note all of the Broncos' flaws to try to diminish the significance of this win but Denver was--and still is--in first place in the AFC West while many people were questioning whether the Patriots will even make the playoffs this year in the wake of Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury. Matt Cassel had his most efficient performance of the season, completing 18 of 24 passes for 185 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a gaudy 136.3 passer rating. The Patriots totally gashed Denver on the ground, chewing up 257 yards on 38 attempts for a 6.8 yards per carry average. Sammy Morris had a career-high 138 yards rushing--and he only played in the first half! Randy Moss caught five passes for 69 yards and a season-high two touchdowns, adding to his impressive Monday Night Football resume and moving into a tie for second place on the NFL career-list for multiple touchdown games by a wide receiver (30; Jerry Rice holds the record with 44). The Broncos committed eight penalties and turned the ball over five times as they looked sloppy in all phases of the game (in addition to their offensive and defensive woes, their special teams gave up a 44 yard punt return that set up a New England touchdown).

Everyone--including Matt Cassel--understands that Cassel is not Tom Brady but it is important to remember that at a similar stage of his career Tom Brady was not "Tom Brady"--NFL MVP and multiple Super Bowl champion--either. If Brady could be called a Jedi Master at quickly reading defenses and then delivering the ball to the right place on time and on target, then Cassel is merely a Padawan learner right now. As Ron Jaworski astutely and repeatedly noted during the MNF telecast, Cassel holds on to the ball too long and yet despite taking that extra time he still misses open receivers. If reading coverages is like mastering a foreign language, Brady is a speed reader while Cassel is sounding out each word syllable by syllable--but Cassel has a good arm, is accurate (.663 completion percentage) and he avoids the big mistake (four interceptions in six games, solid 86.8 passer rating). He has obviously been well coached and he is just as obviously a good student, so it is reasonable to expect that by the end of the season he will be better at reading coverages; the game "slows down" as a player gains experience, particularly if that player is hard working and intelligent.

Tony Kornheiser noted that many people--and he candidly included himself--wrongly thought that Belichick should have signed a veteran quarterback instead of turning the team over to Cassel, who Cris Carter is fond of calling a "high school quarterback" (I don't understand why Carter keeps taking shots at Cassel but if Carter really thinks that there are any high school quarterbacks who could run a pro team the way that Cassel is leading the Patriots right now then maybe Carter is having a relapse of his drug problems). Jaworski explained to Kornheiser that Belichick understood that bringing in a journeyman veteran who does not know New England's offense would have been a setback for the team, so Belichick wisely chose to install Cassel as the starter, stand firmly behind him and not cut back the playbook at all. While the "experts" deride New England's prospects, Belichick is preparing his team for another long playoff run. Obviously, the Patriots will not be as dominant as they were last season, nor will they be prohibitive favorites when the postseason begins--but they will be a very tough out for someone.

While the Patriots' quarterback situation is OK right now, injuries are piling up at other positions; prior to the Denver game, New England placed running back Laurence Maroney on injured reserve and near the end of the game safety Rodney Harrison was carted off the field after sustaining a knee injury. Harrison is not quite the player that he was a few years ago but if he is out for an extended period--which certainly seems likely--the Patriots will miss his toughness, intelligence and leadership.

Here are some notes/comments about Sunday's action:

*I just don't understand what the deal is with Derek Anderson. He is not a stiff; stiffs don't lead teams to a 10-5 record and make the Pro Bowl while tossing 29 TD passes, as Anderson did last year after becoming the starter in the second week of the season. Anderson has a very strong arm, he can make tough throws into small windows and he has the toughness to stand in the pocket and take a hit in order to deliver the deep ball--but sometimes his accuracy and touch completely desert him and he overthrows a receiver by 10 yards or fires the ball into the ground instead of between the receiver's numbers. During Cleveland's 14-11 loss to Washington, Anderson looked terrible for most of the game before coming alive in the fourth quarter and almost leading the Browns to an improbable come from behind win.

Granted, Anderson has not been helped by Cleveland's shaky offensive line play or by the numerous catchable passes his receivers have dropped this season but that does not explain the wide fluctuation in his performance level. He is almost like a streak shooter in basketball, a guy who could light someone up for 40 points on one night and then go 0-10 from the field the next night. The problem is that in basketball such a player usually comes off of the bench and when he is not shooting well the coach can put him back on the bench in favor of someone else who may not be a shooter but who can contribute in other ways. Anderson is the starting quarterback and it would not work to platoon him with Brady Quinn; that would just result in having two QBs who are out of sync. Nor does it make sense to simply cast aside a Pro Bowl player in favor of an untested second year pro. This is where coaching comes into play; someone on the Browns' coaching staff has to sit down with Anderson and go over film from when Anderson played well and find a way to get him to use the fundamental techniques (footwork, reads, throwing motion, etc.) that he employed on those occasions on a more consistent basis. The talent is there and the Browns are right to not give up on him too quickly but not giving up is not enough; they also have to provide Anderson with the proper coaching and instruction.

*Before the season began, all the "experts" kept telling us how Brett Favre was going to singlehandedly turn the Jets around while Aaron Rodgers would falter under high expectations in Green Bay and ex-Jet Chad Pennington would prove incapable of throwing the deep ball in Miami. The NFL season is nearly 40% over, so let's take a "midterm" look at how those three players have performed so far:

Rodgers currently is tied for fourth in the league in passer rating (98.8); his rating is not only better than Favre's rating from last year (95.7) but it is better than the ratings Favre posted in every season of his career except 1995. Rodgers may not maintain that level for the whole year but it is fair to say that he has hardly crumbled under the weight of high expectations.

Pennington ranks eighth in passer rating (97.4). The deep ball will never be Pennington's strong suit but he has 17 completions of 20+ yards this season, two more than Favre does. The Dolphins, 1-15 doormats last season, are a very competitive 2-4; they have scored 120 points while giving up 130, defeating both teams that played in last year's AFC Championship Game, New England and San Diego.

Favre ranks 13th in passer rating (92.3). Favre electrified Jets' fans by tossing a career-high six touchdowns against Arizona but in the two games since then--a 26-14 victory against winless Cincinnati and Sunday's overtime loss to Oakland--he has one touchdown and four interceptions. He threw for fewer than 200 yards in each of those games, compiling a 73.9 passer rating versus Cincinnati and a 47.8 passer rating against Oakland. In addition to the two interceptions Favre had on Sunday he easily could have had another one in overtime when he wildly put the ball up for grabs.

On a purely statistical basis, Rodgers and Pennington are performing at least as well--if not better--than Favre, who has hardly turned the Jets into anything other than the mediocre team that I predicted that they would be. The Jets are not going to make the playoffs and the Favre farewell tour will end up just being a wasted year for them. Next offseason will sure be interesting for the Jets as Favre retires, unretires and retires while the front office tries to formulate a game plan for the team's future. Good luck with that, guys--I'm sure that Green Bay's management is not only happy that they got rid of that problem but also that they have found someone who can be their starter for the foreseeable future.

*Jeff Garcia completed 27 of 36 passes for 310 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 109.7 passer rating in Tampa Bay's 20-10 win over Seattle. He is just so much fun to watch, in part because he does not fit the template for a prototypical NFL quarterback--Garcia is too short, too skinny and he often looks frenetic in the pocket but the bottom line is that he can play. The great Bill Walsh believed in Garcia when nobody else in the NFL did and Garcia made the Pro Bowl three straight times as Steve Young's successor in San Francisco. Last year, at 37, Garcia made the Pro Bowl again, this time as a Buccaneer. Garcia and Tampa Coach Jon Gruden got into some kind of beef in the offseason and Gruden benched Garcia but now Garcia is the starter again and it will be difficult to justify replacing him if he keeps putting up passer ratings well over 100.

*ESPN's pundits are positively salivating over Dallas' midseason swoon. Tom Jackson seems giddy that the 4-3 Cowboys have lost two straight games and are dealing with a host of problems. Naturally, he places a significant amount of blame on Terrell Owens, who he now refers to as "two," which I guess is supposed to be a cute way of saying Owens' initials--but it wasn't cute when Jim Rome did it and it is not any more cute when Jackson does it. When I look at Dallas I see a team that lost its Pro Bowl quarterback, has a defense that is leaking like a sieve and has a meddlesome owner who signed two thugs (Adam Jones, Tank Johnson) in the offseason--and non-productive thugs at that. For the life of me I cannot understand how anyone can possibly justify mentioning Owens' name in the same breath with those two individuals. What do they have in common? Whatever you may think of Owens' comments over the years, no one can deny that he works hard in practice and he plays hard in games. He keeps himself in shape, plays hurt and the only "trouble" that he has ever been in consists of media-fueled soap operas of no significance. By the way, how are the teams that got rid of him doing? Are San Francisco and Philadelphia really better off without Owens? I realize that those organizations have multiple problems, but getting rid of a Pro Bowl player sure did not help. In contrast, Tennessee has moved on very nicely without Jones, while the Bears do not seem to miss Johnson at all.

Last I checked, Owens does not play on defense, nor can he throw the ball to himself, so it makes no sense to blame him for Dallas' recent slide. How can someone like Jackson who is not in Dallas' locker room speak about who is or who is not a leader on that team? I remember a few years ago when Jackson asserted that New England players don't like Bill Belichick and were on the verge of mutiny due to Lawyer Milloy being cut. That was a bunch of misinformed crap and Jackson's "analysis" of Owens and the Cowboys is equally misinformed. The only thing that Jackson has said about the Cowboys that makes sense is that their problems start with their owner. Jerry Jones should have never signed Adam Jones or Tank Johnson and Jerry Jones should be a much less visible and much less vocal presence on the sidelines and in the locker room. That said, once Romo gets back--or even after backup Brad Johnson has one more week of practice--the Cowboys will most likely get back on track toward a double-digit win season, assuming that Coach Wade Phillips finds a way to fix some of his team's defensive problems.

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