The Patriots are 4-3 and seem mired in mediocrity until they get completely healthy, and that has put their fans into two camps.
The pessimists think that since 2007, the team has failed to sustain that level — despite some hefty regular-season records — and may not be as talented or mentally tough.
The optimists feel that once the health turns, and a roster full of young players mature over the final nine games, the Patriots will once again be formidable entering the postseason.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. I’ve moved myself from the “it will happen at some point, it’s just a matter of when,” to “I’m going to need to see more evidence before swinging back over.”
The Jets game was the tipping point. The Patriots had inexcusably blown the game at Seattle, had to hear about it all week, and were playing at home against a team they were more talented than at every position but center, cornerback, and safety. And the Patriots were outplayed.
One team came with the mind-set that it was a divisional showdown, and it wasn’t the Patriots. Any team as talented as the Patriots, with the number of supposed veteran hard-nosed leaders, shouldn’t allow that to happen. So, that has to be a worry.
Maybe it will be a wake-up call. The Packers received one in a road loss to the Colts. Then Green Bay steamrolled the Texans and Rams, also on the road.
Here’s one opinion on how the Patriots can do it:
Get Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez healthy — Neither is close to their form of the end of the 2011 season, and that’s purely because of health. Hernandez’s ankle will get stronger as the season goes along, but the Patriots better hope that Gronkowski’s back and hip improve. His statistics are close to last year, but he’s not the same player. Gronkowski doesn’t have the same explosion off the line, and his blocking, while way above average, is well below his norm. Gronkowski and Hernandez are the Patriots’ offense, which is why it has looked sluggish at times. All of Josh McDaniels’s plans were predicated on those two bell cows. What the Patriots want to do is put at least three tight ends on the field, and then play off the defense. If they play run, the Patriots will pass, and vice versa. On paper, it’s unstoppable against most defenses. That can’t happen until Gronkowski, Hernandez, Visanthe Shiancoe, and Daniel Fells are all near full health. None is. When they are, maybe then McDaniels will have a clue about how to close a game. Because right now, neither he nor the players do.
Rush the passer better — Where in the world would the Patriots be without Chandler Jones, who has accounted for 35 percent of the team’s quarterback pressures? As the games grow more important, opponents are going to make shutting down Jones a priority. Rob Ninkovich and Jermaine Cunningham are who they are. They’ll pop a play once in a while. Since Jonathan Fanene isn’t available, I guess Myron Pryor is going to have to come off the PUP list like he’s shot out of a cannon. The Patriots have no one who can rush from the inside. They are going to have to get more creative. A couple more well-timed blitzes will help (Dont’a Hightower, please), but I think the real answer is zone exchanges, where the number of rushers don’t change from the usual four, but who is coming does. Bill Belichick used to do a lot of it, but he hasn’t the past few years. Rex Ryan put on a zone exchange clinic last Sunday. There’s no excuse why the Patriots can’t do that. They’re way more talented defensively than the Jets overall. It has to be coaching. Belichick and Pepper Johnson, the only truly experienced defensive coaches on staff, will have to do much more.
Get by in the secondary — Patrick Chung gets a few more chances to actually be a player, or he goes to the bench. I don’t know if he has a lower body injury that we don’t know about that’s causing him to be a step slow and guess more, or whether he’s trying to do too much in a contract year, but it can’t go on much longer. Despite his talent, he’s average at best. The Patriots need to start by being better in the middle of the field, and then they can worry about the corners. Safety play is the where this team has been poorest. Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory should be the starting safeties. Tavon Wilson needs to be back in the money role because he’s better there. Then you coach the daylights out of Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, and Sterling Moore (who can’t be healthy the way he’s moving). The secondary improved last year after Belichick got more involved after the Steelers and Giants debacles. It’s going to have to happen again.
All of these things can happen. Even if there’s only marginal improvement, the Patriots and Texans are on a collision course for the AFC title. Then it’s a one-game situation in the Super Bowl with two weeks to prepare.
They have to make the right tweaks to get there.
Ryan’s work worthy of praise
You could see by the look on the face of Jets coach Rex Ryan after last Sunday’s game, that he, his coaches, and many of his players had nothing left to give. And they shouldn’t have. The Jets coached their butts off in that game, and outplayed the much more talented Patriots, save for a few crucial plays.
A lot of nonsense gets said, mostly from the Jets’ side (Patriots cheating with the no huddle, really?), but I don’t know how any self-respecting Patriots fan could not be impressed with how the Jets played. Ryan talks too much, he has a questionable eye for talent, can’t get his team to play consistent week in and week out, and he doesn’t have the benefit of Bill Belichick’s wealth of experience as a head coach, but, man, that guy can coach in a big spot. And don’t even get me started on Ryan’s defensive game plans against the best mental coach-quarterback combination ever in Tom Brady and Belichick. Schematically and call-wise, Ryan is light years ahead of everyone else in the NFL. Go ahead, try to argue that.
That had me contemplating a few questions. Without cornerback Darrelle Revis and nose tackle Sione Pouha, the Patriots have more talent on defense. Well, then how come Ryan can frustrate Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Stevan Ridley — all superior (if not far superior) to the Jets — like that, yet average Mark Sanchez throwing to Jeremy Kerley, Chaz Schilens, Stephen Hill, Dustin Keller, and Shonn Greene can go up and down the field against Belichick’s more talented defense? The other question: If Brady and Sanchez switched uniforms, what would have been the final score? The bottom line is Belichick is building a team for January, and he feels he needs to do that brick by brick. Ryan will put all his effort into winning a game in October. Two distinctly different ways of doing things. Ryan is more boom or bust. Belichick is more steady. There’s little doubt which one has had more sustained success, but will that continue?
ONE MORE TIME?
Holmgren making noise about return
Mike Holmgren, perhaps for the final time as Browns president, met with reporters last week, and it sure sounded like a coaching comeback could be in the offing for the 64-year-old former Packers and Seahawks coach.
“I know this, I learned a lot of things in the last three years,” Holmgren said. “One of the things that I thought I knew and now I’m sure, I do miss the coaching part of it. I really do, so . . .
“I’m leaving it open. I said this was my last great adventure. I thought it was going to be longer, and so we’ll see what happens. My first goal is, if I can, help this team and these coaches this season. Then I’m going to sit back and catch my breath and look around a little bit and see what happens.”
Holmgren, who was somewhat of a control freak as coach, said he had trouble being detached from the on-field product.
“What happens on the field, you have no control over, really,” he said. “You’re just watching. Whereas when I was coaching, I always thought there was some way I could fix this.”
Holmgren seemed to indicate that he was willing to coach in 2010 after he fired Eric Mangini, but he didn’t sense anyone was interested in him doing so.
“I thought about it,” he said. “At the time we were compiling a list of coaching candidates, I asked [general manager Tom Heckert], the selection people, the guys who were involved in that, I said, ‘You don’t have to say yes, but tell me tomorrow, should I be on the list?’ And, I don’t know if they were afraid to come to me and say, ‘Are you kidding? An old guy like you, you shouldn’t be on that list.’ But they didn’t. It gave me a chance that evening to think about it a little bit more, and I did what I did.”
Tom Coughlin of the Giants is the NFL’s oldest head coach at 66, and Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel is 65. Bill Belichick (Patriots), Mike Shanahan (Redskins), and Chan Gailey (Bills) are all 60.
Bowles in charge of Eagles’ defense
Todd Bowles, who was named defensive coordinator of the Eagles by coach Andy Reid after the firing of Juan Castillo, isn’t a stranger to calling a few shots. Not that long ago, Bowles went from secondary coach to interim head coach of the Dolphins after Tony Sparano was fired with three games left in the 2011 season. The Dolphins went 2-1 under Bowles, the lone loss being a 27-24 decision against the Patriots when Miami led, 17-0, at halftime. Bowles, 48, had been a rising star in the Bill Parcells tree since 2000, when he landed on Al Groh’s staff with the Jets. Bowles went with Parcells to Dallas, and then Miami. But when the Eagles meet the Falcons on Sunday, it will be the first time Bowles has called a defense since 1999, when he was the defensive coordinator at Grambling. ‘‘I certainly didn’t invent the game and I’m not going to reinvent the game,’’ Bowles said last week. ‘‘You’ve just got to try to make sure you use due diligence to get your team ready to play hard and try to, hopefully, make the right calls at the right time.’’
1. After much success the previous three weeks, Wes Welker’s role against the Jets was altered slightly. His snaps were down a little bit, and Tom Brady bypassed Welker a few times for shots to Brandon Lloyd. I get why the Patriots are doing this — defenses will clamp down on the middle of the field if they’re not stretched vertically — but there could be a better way.
2. It appears Josh McDaniels doesn’t want three between-the-hashmarks receivers (Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski) on the field too often. It’s easy for the defense to flood that area. When Hernandez gets fully healthy, why can’t he take some of Lloyd’s snaps on the outside and let Welker and Gronkowski work the middle of the field?
3. Yeah, real big shock that the NFLPA filed a motion to have Paul Tagliabue recuse himself as a neutral arbitrator in the bounty case. The union is obviously using its Vikings StarCaps playbook, where at the least they drag it out so the players can play as long as possible before the courts finally make a decision. I don’t disagree with the notion, but it’s certainly annoying.
4. The NFL instituted a new standardized sideline concussion assessment protocol this season, but after watching Jets running back Shonn Greene inexplicably be let back into the game after getting stung by Brandon Spikes last Sunday, they need to go back over it. Maybe if the NFL finally placed an independent neurologist on sidelines, we wouldn’t have these problems.
5. A lot of people are going to dump on Patriots cornerback Ras-I Dowling for going on injured reserve for the second straight year. That’s unfair. He didn’t pick himself 33d overall after injury-plagued high school and college careers, the Patriots did.
Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington and defensive tackle Kyle Love are taking part in a sports auction fund-raiser for the Ream Team Foundation Nov. 5 at the Scoreboard Sports Bar and Grill in Woburn to benefit Rachael Ream, a 28-year-old Danvers native who is battling a brain tumor. General admission tickets are $25, and VIP tickets with a private meet and greet with the players before the 6:30 p.m. event are $75. Tickets can be purchased by contacting Lauren Fabbrucci at 781-249-0733. For more information, go to www.scoreboardwoburn.com . . . The Patriots weren’t thrilled that linebacker Dont’a Hightower reported to the team well above the 265 pounds he weighed at the combine, but that happens a lot these days as players cut weight to run faster for the scouts. Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw, Hightower’s running mate at the University of Alabama, was fined through Week 5 because he was over his prescribed playing weight of 270 pounds, according to the Baltimore Sun . . . NFL owners voted to create a three-day window before free agency that allows teams to legally tamper with free agents. As if that wasn’t going on already. But thanks for trying . . . Should be an interesting matchup between the “ground and pound” Jets and the Dolphins: Miami hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games, the team’s longest streak since 2002-03 . . . Right tackle David Diehl is finally healthy after spraining his right medial collateral ligament in Week 2, but he might not get back in the Giants’ lineup. The new line of, from left to right, Will Beatty, Kevin Boothe, David Baas, Chris Snee, and Sean Locklear, has allowed only three sacks in the last five games, and the Giants are running the ball extremely well. ‘‘They’re really coming together and you can see the results,’’ running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. ‘‘They’re getting great movement off the ball and creating big holes. They’re all helping each other and will give anything to help each other.’’ . . . In an effort to stop negative thinking after his team’s 1-5 start, Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel has replaced a sign outside the locker room that read ‘‘Eliminate Bad Football,” with one that reads, ‘‘Play Good Football.’’ . . . Rest in peace former NFL defensive lineman Chuck Osborne, who spent the end of the 2000 season with the Patriots. Osborne, 38, died at his home in La Jolla, Calif., earlier this month. A teammate of Tedy Bruschi’s at the University of Arizona, Osborne had lived locally until his wife, Heather, a Lincoln-Sudbury graduate, died in January.
Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.