FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots began playing games Thursday night and not a moment too soon. Even faux football games as U-G-L-Y as the Patriots’ 7-6 exhibition-opening victory over the New Orleans Saints are a welcome alternative to watching the Red Sox continue to subject us to a season of discontent, dissolution, and delusional proclamations of playoff worthiness.
As former coach Jim Mora said in a now infamous diatribe — “Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs?” Guess they haven’t heard that one in the Fens. Not even MLB’s version of grade inflation, the second wild card, appears to be able to save the wayward sons of Yawkey Way.
The Patriots and Red Sox have spent much of the millennium jockeying for top billing on the Boston sports marquee, but right now football is king. It’s the Patriot Way vs. “That’s not the way we do things here.” It’s BB vs. Bobby V. It’s the California Golden Boy (Tom Brady) vs. the Texas whipping boy (Josh Beckett). It’s overflow training camp crowds vs. a specious sell-out streak. Like an NFL preseason game, it’s no contest.
The playoffs might elude the Sox, but it’s Super Bowl-or-bust for Bill Belichick’s bunch. Coming off a Super Bowl appearance last season, expectations for the Patriots are sky-high.
The quality of play was not Thursday night in the Patriots’ exhibition opener. To borrow a phrase from Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino, there was not a lot of the “varsity” from either the Patriots or the Saints, who were playing their second exhibition game in five days.
Brady played two possessions and 19 snaps, finishing 4 of 7 for 30 yards. Drew Brees (1 of 4 for 4 yards) barely had time to break a sweat before he was lifted after two series. They’re exhibition games, and honestly not much of value is exhibited in a team’s first one. But for those intent on dissecting glorified scrimmages there were some developments of note.
It’s an article of football faith that Brady and the offense are going to be able to score points on demand. The real question about this team is whether the defense can go from dependents to dependable?
Unlike the Red Sox, who don’t want to change their players, their organizational culture or their manager, Belichick came to the realization this offseason that he had to change with the times. The NFL has become a wide-open, passing league and one of the greatest defensive coaches in the history of the game had to alter his philosophy and his personnel to account for the contemporary realities of the NFL.
Enter first-round picks Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower.
The retooled New England defense didn’t allow a first down while Saints quarterback Drew Brees was in the game, and Jones proved it wasn’t just the Patriots’ pardon-our-appearance offensive line that was making him look good in training camp, bewildering Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod.
Ah, the Patriots’ offensive line. The first half, which saw the Patriots trail, 3-0, was reminder that no offense, no matter how chock-full of tight ends and receivers, can get off the ground if the big boys in the trenches don’t do their jobs.
Redoubtable Patriots offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia is going to earn his pay coaching up the team’s youthful tackles this summer, especially with guards Logan Mankins (recovery from torn anterior cruciate ligament) and Brian Waters (veteran vacation) not in camp.
Second-year tackles Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon played more like dead ends than bookends, combining for three penalties while TB12 was in the game. The sooner Brady was lifted from this one the better.
Brady was crushed by New Orleans defensive end Will Smith for a strip-sack on the Patriots’ first possession, setting up the Saints’ field goal. The initial pressure came when Cannon, filling in for the starter Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle, lost his man.
Three plays earlier, left tackle Solder was whistled for a holding call by the replacement referees, the ones whose performance is not open for discussion as decreed by the gag order handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Now, we know why.
That was the first of two holding calls for Solder, who is replacing the retired Matt Light, one of the truly underappreciated players of this Patriots era who dutifully protected Brady’s blind side and backside since 2001. The second Solder holding call negated a 17-yard completion between Brady and wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who already looks more comfortable than the previous No. 85. Cannon had a false start three plays before Solder’s second miscue.
“I got to do better than that,” said the soft-spoken Solder. “It’s just learn and move on.”
“Still young, but he has high upside . . . I think he’ll be a good player,” said Smith of Solder.
When Brady was done for the night, he slammed his helmet down, crown-first, then did it again for good measure. Either he was displeased with the offensive execution or he was using Morse code to summon Light to come out of retirement.
Preseason football is a little bit like a movie trailer. There are bits and pieces of the real thing in there, but it’s not coherent and it’s out of context. Draw conclusions from a few snippets of action at your own peril.
“There is a long way to go,” said Belichick. “We got a lot of work to do, so I don’t want to get too up or too down on anything.”
Good advice, coach. You don’t want to panic about the offensive line or reserve a spot in Canton, Ohio, for Jones.
I think there was a certain Boston sports team playing in Ohio last night while the Patriots were teeing it up in Foxborough.
If you remember their name, let me know.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cgasper