Complexity abounds in pro football. Coaches and players are fond of reminding us of that, as if NFL stands for Nuclear Fission League. Humans are innately complex creatures. Right now the union of a complex game played by complicated people is simple for the Patriots.
Mentality and psychology trump strategy.
The Patriots’ success is tied more to the human elements than intricate X’s and O’s. That’s why winning the first half of their back-to-back clashes against the AFC North — defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday — was monumental.
Just as a great basketball player in a slump needs to see the ball go through the hoop, the Patriots needed to see the coaching cues they’re following result in a win. They needed to cultivate buy-in after a preseason filled with tumult, struggle, and doubt, especially with converted coaches Matt Patricia and Joe Judge as the chief offensive architects.
Belief is currency for a coach. Even one as great as Bill Belichick needs a fresh deposit in his account from time to time. That’s what the gritty 17-14 victory over the Steelers and a 1-1 record represent. The alternative — entering Sunday’s home opener against Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens at 0-2 — wasn’t tenable.
This season is setting up as a grind for the Patriots. They appear earmarked to play a lot of close games. Their margin for error when it comes to making the postseason for a second straight time is razor-blade slim.
So, you got to believe, whether you’re a wide receiver with an uncertain role, a disillusioned offensive tackle, a conflicted quarterback, or a venerated locker room leader with three Super Bowl rings.
“It’s nice to see your hard work, dedication, preparation, sacrifice pay off,” said longest-tenured Patriot Matthew Slater. “I know that’s a very good feeling for the guys in the locker room, especially going into an environment like we were in and playing against a strong opponent like we did in Pittsburgh. So, a lot to be encouraged by from what we saw and, obviously, the outcome.
“But, as is the case win or lose, there are many things we can improve upon. We still left some plays on the field. We still need to improve on our fundamentals, but I think it was a step in the right direction.”
The Patriots can take another step in the right direction against the Ravens, owners of statistically the worst pass defense in the NFL and a banged-up secondary. The Ravens surrendered a 28-7 halftime lead at home last week in a loss to the Miami Dolphins and made Tua Tagovailoa look like the second coming of Dan Marino with 469 yards and six touchdown passes.
Maybe this can be a breakthrough game for Mac Jones and the gear-grinding offense, which needed a great grab by Nelson Agholor and a muffed punt from old friend Gunner Olszewski to score 17 points vs. Pittsburgh.
One would think the Patriots will need more than 17 points against Jackson and the Ravens. Jackson is in a contract drive and off to a scorching start. His 120.1 quarterback rating trails only Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. Last week, he became the first player in NFL history to record a passing touchdown of 75 or more yards and a rushing touchdown of 75 yards or more in the same game.
Yes, the Patriots flummoxed him in 2020 at Gillette, but don’t bank on a repeat.
The Patriots offense showed signs of life in Pittsburgh. Not surprisingly, those coincided with Belichick taking a more active in-game role with the offense.
“They’ve been through some transition this year. That goes without saying,” said Slater. “But I think they’ve all done a good job this year of going to work, and keeping their heads down, and trusting our process. Just staying committed to the task, day in, and day out.
“There were a lot of positive signs that were encouraging in a lot of areas. I think that’s good. That’s going to give you confidence in what you are doing when you see the results translated in the game. It was a big day for all of us, but definitely a lot of encouraging things for the offensive side of the ball.”
Confidence and conviction lead to better execution.
Also encouraging was that the team got back on the Belichick Beam. Tenet No. 1 of Patriots football is “Thou Shall Not Beat Thyself.”
That was an issue in Week 1 with three turnovers, unblocked rushers, and a strip-sack touchdown combining both.
Against Pittsburgh, Jones did throw an interception. He was fortunate to avoid another. There were three holding penalties, two false starts, a delay of game on the first drive, and an intentional grounding. But no mortal wounds.
It’s clear that attitudinally the Patriots are pointed in the right direction when wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who played just two snaps in the opener and has struggled to sign off on the reformatted offense, declares any strife media-generated.
Bourne was spouting the Patriots party line after the team’s first victory, referencing a speech Slater had given.
“Slate talked about it [Sunday], about choosing how we respond to anything,” said Bourne. “I responded well. I’m a team player. That’s truly what it’s about. So it doesn’t matter if I get zero plays, man. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose.
“But just as a whole buying in to be in the place at the end of the year where we want to be.”
Bourne is a Born Again Patriot, freshly baptized in the Belichick Kool-Aid. He’s not alone. Winning is a powerful proselytizer.
I asked Bourne the age-old chicken-or-egg question about buy-in. Does it come from winning? Or does winning beget buy-in?
“You have to buy in, and then you win,” he said. “You can’t just come to the game and it all works out. Everybody just buying in to their role, buying in to working hard, buying in to making the plays at practice, and then you see the result. So, definitely buying in, and then you see the result.”
That’s the Patriots’ plan. That as the buy-in is boosted, so is their win total.