Welcome to Season 11, Episode 1 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious yet lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Now it begins for real. And now, we’ll finally begin to get some answers to those questions that put a baffling twist on the Patriots’ preseason.
The Patriots launch Season 23 of Bill Belichick’s tenure Sunday afternoon against the longtime AFC East rival Dolphins. It’s the third consecutive season the teams have opened the season against each other, but their first time doing so in Miami since 2014.
Strange stuff often happens to the Patriots when they go to Miami, and I’ll spare you any lengthy rehash here of Kenyan Drake’s 2018 “Miami Miracle,” A.J. Feeley-to-Derrius Thompson in 2004, or any of that other zaniness and just note that despite almost always having an excellent team, the Patriots have won just three of their last 10 games at Miami since Dec. 2012. Like I said, strange stuff.
This year, maybe we’ll get some normalcy since the strange stuff quota was filled in training camp. Belichick chose not to name an offensive coordinator, leaving all of us speculating as to whether Matt Patricia, Joe Judge, or the head coach himself would be calling plays when the games start to count. Belichick also attempted to install an outside zone-blocking scheme that did not suit his offensive line personnel, and it’s unclear whether the revamped and simplified playbook will better maximize the abilities of the Patriots’ offensive players.
Will the Patriots introduce some run-pass options for Mac Jones, the second-year quarterback who fared well with those types of plays at Alabama? Will they spread out their versatile but hardly star-studded group of pass catchers and let Jones, as Russell Wilson likes to call it, “cook”? Would the offensive line, which had little cohesion in the preseason, be able to keep Jones upright long enough to succeed in such a scenario? And don’t forget the defense. Are we sure any of these fast new linebackers are actually good?
On Sunday, at last, we begin to get those answers, against a Dolphins team with a new coach, Mike McDaniel, some new offensive weapons, and plenty of questions of their own.
Kick if off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players to watch who aren’t the quarterbacks
Rhamondre Stevenson: The Patriots’ second-year running back has a chance for opening day redemption of sorts against the Dolphins. A year ago, in his NFL debut, Stevenson played five snaps, carried the ball once, lost a fumble on that one carry, lugged his belongings into a long-term stay at Belichick’s doghouse, and did not see the field again until Week 5 against Houston, when he had 11 carries for a not-so-robust 23 yards.
To Stevenson’s credit and Patriots fans delight, he learned from his mistakes, fumbled just once more the rest of the season, and after Week 8 emerged as arguably the Patriots’ most electrifying offensive player, running for 532 yards and four touchdowns and averaging 4.9 yards per carry over his final eight games as an ideal complement to starter Damien Harris, no slouch himself. Stevenson had just 14 catches as a rookie, but he’s expected to pick up a significant amount of the third-down reps that are there for the taking after the retirement of the great James White. I’m excited to see how the Patriots deploy him.
Tyreek Hill: Admit it, you snickered at the occasional videos during Dolphins training camp of Hill, arguably the fastest player in the league in pads, burning down the field for a deep ball, only to see quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s throw arrive like a lazy fly ball to center field. Hill may quickly learn he’s not in Kansas City anymore as he adjusts to playing with a quarterback who has considerably less arm talent than the quarterback he left behind, Patrick Mahomes. But we also know that the innovative McDaniel will find creative ways to get the ball in Hill’s hands. Hill actually had a career-low yards-per-catch average last season (11.2, compared with a high of 17.0 during the 2018 season), and I do wonder if one of the Chiefs’ reasons for trading the 28-year-old in the offseason had to do with paying heed to the adage that it’s better to get rid of a player a year too early than a year too late. But even if that’s the case, it at least suggests the Dolphins will get at least one typically dynamic year out of him. It begins Sunday.
Jalen Mills: I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of the Patriots entering the season with this guy as their presumed No. 1 cornerback. That’s not to suggest he’s a bad player. He’s versatile and aggressive, and held his own as a competent No. 2 opposite J.C. Jackson last season, his first in New England. He falls somewhere in that Randall Gay/Steve Israel category of competent second or third cornerback, but nothing more than that. He didn’t have an interception. He allowed seven touchdowns. In Belichick’s time here, he’s almost always had a shutdown or ballhawk cornerback: Ty Law, Asante Samuel, Aqib Talib, Darrelle Revis, Stephon Gilmore, and Jackson among them. Maybe rookie Jack Jones or veteran Jonathan Jones will end up thriving. But right now, it looks like the Patriots are short at one of the most important positions in football, against a team with genuine weapons.
Grievance of the Week
Know what would be fun to be anticipating right about now? Tyquan Thornton’s NFL debut. Not that the expectations were that the Patriots’ second-round pick was going to set the league immediately ablaze like 1998 Randy Moss or something, but Thornton is roadrunner-fast, and his relative polish and ability to run different patterns on the route tree was something to be hopeful about early in training camp. The Baylor product looked ready to contribute immediately and perhaps in a way that no other receiver on the roster can. But that debut is on hold for at least eight weeks while he recovers from a broken collarbone. Bummer. The Patriots have something here. Too bad we have to wait at least half the season to begin to see it.
Prediction, or I wonder if 60-year-old Dan Marino throws a better deep ball than Tagovailoa …
It’s tempting to pick the Patriots to win this week, to talk myself into believing that Mac Jones and the offense will look sharp after slogging through the preseason, that Matt Patricia will be drawing Bill Walsh comparisons after his first game calling plays (presumably), that Christian Barmore and Kyle Dugger will play like the future All-Pros fans hope them to be, that Matthew Judon will be the pre-bye version of himself from last year, that Bill Belichick schools Mike McDaniel in his head coaching debut, and proves he had a master plan for everything all along. It’s possible that some of that does happen. But I think about two ugly losses to the Dolphins last year — when a Damien Harris fumble and the defense’s failed chance to make a stop cost the Patriots the opener, and then the regular-season finale when the Dolphins went up, 17-0, early in the second quarter and foreshadowed the playoff debacle against the Bills. The Dolphins have more pure talent, home-field advantage, and a recent history of weirdness in their favor. That’s enough, this time.
Dolphins 21, Patriots 20.