FOXBOROUGH — Following the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick took to the podium and said this:
“There’s a lot of things that we didn’t do as well as we needed to do as a football team. You name it, it was a problem. Defensively, there were signs we didn’t play well. Offensively, we didn’t play well. The coaching plan, certainly, needed a lot of improvement.”
Those comments might sound present-day appropriate, but they weren’t made Thursday night. They came on Dec. 3, 2007, after the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens, 27-24, and improved to 12-0.
On Friday, following a 13-10 victory over the Jets the night before, Belichick said this:
“There’s a lot of things that we need to work on as a football team, and I think that’s really where we’re at right now. Individually, every coach, every player, [there are] things we need to do better, each unit can improve in what we’re doing, how we’re doing it. We certainly have plenty of things that we need to work on in all three phases of the game, including coaching and playing.”
The difference between Belichick’s similar statements is that people actually believe the Patriots coach this time.
It’s not just coach-speak. The way the Patriots played the first two games, especially on offense, there’s definitely truth in his assessment. The Patriots, at least for a few more hours, are the only 2-0 team in the NFL, both wins against AFC East rivals. But they’re far from perfect. They’re a long way from passing the eye test. Better to struggle and win, though, as opposed to playing well and coming up short.
“I don’t think anybody’s where we want to be or where we need to be,” Belichick said. “But I think we’re all committed to getting there.”
Due to a collection of injuries, it might take a while. The Patriots were without five players Thursday night who are expected to contribute offensively this season: tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Zach Sudfeld, receiver Danny Amendola, and running backs Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
Until some of those players return, the offense will go through some growing pains, as witnessed in Thursday’s game. The Patriots punted a team record-tying 11 times, went just 4 for 18 on third-down conversions, and had no points over the final 35:05.
“We have a long way to go,” Tom Brady said after the game. “No one’s coming to rescue and save the day, so we’ve just got to fight through it and work harder and do better and be more consistent. Hopefully we can score more points.”
Granted, the weather conditions weren’t ideal Thursday, with a steady rain starting at halftime. But the Patriots couldn’t get anything going on the ground either (24 carries, 54 yards, 2.3-yard average), and aside from Julian Edelman, didn’t have any dependable options to catch the ball. Brady threw 39 passes, 18 of which targeted Edelman, who caught a career-high 13.
Rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson hauled in just five of the 17 passes thrown their way by Brady. Without Amendola and Gronkowski, fans might be expecting too much, too soon from the first-year players.
“I don’t really have any expectations for any rookie players,” Belichick said. “We just coach them from the day they get here, we try to get every player to improve, get better, and learn our system. It’s a process. Some guys go at different rates. Some players start quickly and fizzle out, some players start slowly and come on strong, some players are more steady than others. You really don’t know that until their rookie season is over.”
Players have been given the weekend off, returning Monday to resume their season, with Tampa Bay coming in for a 1 p.m. game on Sept. 22. The schedule then gets tougher with games at Atlanta and Cincinnati followed by a visit from New Orleans. The sense is that what’s been good enough to beat the Bills and Jets won’t be good enough going forward.
The Patriots’ job, then, is to make their good enough that much better.
“I think we had plenty of positives from the game. Walking off the field was a big positive. Any time you win a division game, any time you beat the Jets, that’s a big positive,” Belichick said. “Hopefully this little bit of extra time we have as a coaching staff, we can take a good look at how we can do a better job when we get back to practice next week and start our preparations for Tampa. We can transfer that information to the players, give us an opportunity to really work on it on the practice field and continue to improve.”