MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Dolphins linebacker Chris McCain, an undrafted rookie out of California-Berkeley, made sure he introduced himself to Tom Brady before Sunday’s game.
“I just wanted to say, it’s an honor to meet you,” said McCain, more than 14 years Brady’s junior. “I’ve been watching you from elementary school to middle school to high school to college.”
“Brady said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been watching you too, on film.’”
Brady is now well-acquainted with McCain and his Dolphins buddies after Sunday’s 33-20 drubbing of the Patriots at Sun Life Stadium. The 2007 Giants proved to the NFL that the best — and perhaps only — way to slow down Brady and the Patriots is to get consistent pressure on him with the front four. The Dolphins carried out that plan to perfection Sunday, generating four sacks without much of a blitz — all in the second half — hitting Brady another six times and forcing two fumbles, both of which the Dolphins recovered. Brady looked miserable in the second half as the Patriots generated just 67 yards of offense, 37 of which came in garbage time on the final drive.
“We could just hear it, the frustration coming out of their mouths,” said linebacker Olivier Vernon, who had one of the four sacks. “We could see it in their eyes. That’s what we wanted, man.”
The Dolphins have a great defensive line, and they always play the Patriots tough in Miami, so it’s not like the Patriots lost to a bunch of slouches.
“It’s definitely not time to panic,” said right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who faced the unfortunate task of trying to slow down Cameron Wake, who had two sacks and two forced fumbles. “Go into work tomorrow, fix it, move on.”
Yes, it’s only one game, and blah, blah, blah. It’s true, but the way the offensive line completely fell apart in the second half has to be disconcerting to Bill Belichick and fans of the team.
Brady had absolutely no time to find his receivers in the second half. Julian Edelman had six catches for 95 yards in the first half, and was shut out after halftime. Nate Solder and Vollmer couldn’t handle the speed of Wake, Vernon, and McCain on the outside, and Dan Connolly, Jordan Devey, and Marcus Cannon were overwhelmed by defensive tackles Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, and Earl Mitchell.
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the Patriots’ offensive line looked terrible Sunday less than two weeks after the team shipped Logan Mankins off to Tampa Bay.
“You can’t just look for excuses,” Vollmer said. “You can look for Logan all you want, he’s not coming back.”
The question, though, is fair to ask — do the Patriots miss Mankins, their longtime leader, in the middle of the line?
“We did pretty good against him last time,” Odrick said of Mankins. “I was hoping he’d come back.”
Fair enough. Mankins, 32, allowed three sacks last December when the Dolphins beat the Patriots, 24-20, so I’m not sure he would have saved the day on Sunday. Mankins, for what it’s worth, left Sunday’s game against the Panthers with a knee injury. Hopefully it’s not serious.
But certainly we can question the timing of the trade, and how well the Patriots thought out the plan. Yes, I get it — Mankins’s level of play didn’t match his $6.25 million salary, and he had value on the trade market, so he had to go. The Patriots got potentially a nice piece in tight end Tim Wright, and a fourth-round pick. But did Belichick and Co. tinker a little too much this time?
It’s one thing to make that trade in March or June or even in early August, when the team has plenty of time to prepare for life after Mankins. But to make it Aug. 26, less than two weeks before the season opener, is pretty risky. Mankins took most of the reps at left guard during the entire offseason program and training camp. Cannon never had played left guard until the trade. They maybe should have used that time instead to prepare the players that actually were going to play this season.
And the offensive line is still very much unsettled. Connolly played center, and Devey at left guard, for 10 of the 13 possessions. But Ryan Wendell came in to play center for three series, pushing Connolly to right guard and Devey to the bench.
The players said that the rotation didn’t affect the line’s play Sunday.
“When they tell me to go in, I go in. When they tell me to come out, I come out,” said Devey, who spent last season on the Patriots’ practice squad and played in his first NFL game Sunday. “I don’t think it affected anything, and we’re football players. That’s what we do.”
Subtracting Mankins didn’t just take a left guard out of the equation. The Patriots shook up their locker room by trading their popular leader, a guy who most players along the veteran line still looked at as the best player among them. Brady was visibly upset about the move, as were several other players.
Mankins’s skill set may not quite be what it once was, but the communication and leadership aspect of the offensive line is incredibly important. Subtracting coach Dante Scarnecchia from the room makes life a lot tougher in that regard, as well.
“Obviously nobody can be a Logan Mankins,” Devey said. “There’s only one of them, so we’re just trying to do the best we can at the positions that they put us at.
“I can’t speak for the other guys. I think we all have a good connection with each other, we all know how each other plays.”
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin