With the NFL season kicking off Wednesday night, it seemed like a fitting time to dish out some no-huddle thoughts on the Patriots as they prepare for their season opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, birthplace of Bill Belichick (wonder if he ever mixes some Jason Aldean in with Bon Jovi?)
Here are 10 observations, prognostications, and reservations about the 2012 Patriots while wondering what happens first
1. I think we’re at the point where we have to stop explaining away every head-scratching Patriots personnel move with a variation of the “Belichick Knows Best” trope.
Belichick is a brilliant football mind, and he gets more right than wrong on the personnel side. But after getting virtually nothing out of trades for Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco/Johnson last year and the recent miscalculations of varying degrees with Adalius Thomas, Joey Galloway, Shawn Springs, Fred Taylor, and Shaun Ellis to name a few, it’s not heresy to question a roster decision made by His Hoodiness. A lesser genius than Belichick, Albert Einstein, said it best: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
2. I think this is the year that Aaron Hernandez steps out of Rob Gronkowski’s sizable shadow at tight end. Hernandez’s versatility is what makes the Patriots’ offense so difficult to defend. They can go hurry-up and switch formations without having to switch personnel because Hernandez can play any of the wide receiver spots, tight end, H-back, and even line up in the backfield. His 43-yard rush in the playoffs against Denver was the team’s longest run of the year. Plus, if Gronk thinks he got a lot of attention for his offseason antics, wait until he sees how defenses treat him this fall.
3. Speaking of the offense, it’s going to be interesting to see if the Patriots go to as many five-wide empty sets as they have the past couple of years. It’s been a staple of the offense and allows Brady to dissect defenses. The disadvantage is that it leaves just five to pass-protect. With the uncertainty and instability along the offensive line, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels might be forced to dial back the empty sets — a favorite of his — because if Brady gets hurt, the backfield truly is empty for the Patriots. So is the season.
4. The heir apparent — or more appropriately “air apparent” — to Brady is not currently on the roster. Brady has made it clear he plans to play until he’s eligible for Medicare (or his government voucher). Count me among those not completely sold on second-year backup Ryan Mallett. He has the arm, but the jury is out on the intangibles.
5. Belichick’s decision to cut Brian Hoyer and keep two quarterbacks is like the Red Sox converting Daniel Bard to a starter. It’s either going to be a brilliant gamble or an abject disaster. Belichick made this move in 2009, when he kept Hoyer, then a rookie, as the lone QB behind Brady. It worked. The flip side was on display last year in Indianapolis with no Plan B behind Peyton Manning. It could be Indy-esque if Brady goes down this season. Of course, then the rationale would be that the team was brilliantly positioning itself to get Southern Cal QB Matt Barkley.
6. I’m not big on strength-of-schedule metrics because they’re based on the previous year’s results. It’s like using a 2011 calendar to plan this year’s vacation days. But, according to the NFL, the Patriots have the easiest schedule in the league on paper. New England’s opponents had a 116-140 record last year; four opponents made the playoffs. Only Buffalo can claim it’s facing as few 2011 playoff teams.
7. I think part of the thinking on the releases of wideouts Deion Branch and Jabar Gaffney was that neither plays on special teams. That is a valuable trait when you’re talking about a No. 3 wide receiver who is probably going to be the No. 5 passing option behind Wes Welker, the tight ends, and Brandon Lloyd. Belichick lent some credence to this Tuesday, when asked about the special teams ability of newly acquired wideout Greg Salas.
“[His experience has] been limited, but he’s got good size,” said Belichick. “Physically, he’s got a good makeup to be able to compete in the kicking game from a size, speed, athletic standpoint. He has had some experience in the return game. We’ll see how it goes there.”
8. The most important defender for the Patriots this season isn’t Jerod Mayo or Vince Wilfork or even rookie defensive end Chandler Jones. It’s third-year cornerback Devin McCourty. He either returns to the Pro Bowl form of his rookie year or goes in the dustbin of cornerbacks who have failed to replace Asante Samuel. Both the Patriots and Samuel might be starting to realize they were better off with each other.
9. I would be nervous if I were the Patriots about relying on Brandon Spikes to play all 16 games at linebacker. He is a terrific talent with an instinctual feel for the game, but he has a propensity for unusual behavior and interminable injury rehabilitation. His Twitter feed is equal parts witty, harmlessly sophomoric, and horrifying. The Patriots don’t have great linebacker depth after Dane Fletcher blew out his knee in the preseason and Bobby Carpenter was cut. Spikes needs to show up and grow up this season.
10. Brady needs 261 passing yards to eclipse Johnny Unitas (40,239 yards) and move into 13th place on the all-time list. No telling how many yards Johnny U would have thrown for in today’s game, where he could have a postprandial beverage in the pocket, and if a defender spilled it, a flag would be thrown.