Welcome to Season 8, Episode 2 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The Patriots have a football game Sunday. They play the Dolphins at 1 p.m. at the Stadium That Changes Its Name Every Other Year And Will Never Be As Cool As The Orange Bowl. It airs on CBS, with Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, and Evan Washburn on the call.
The Patriots, who dented the Steelers, 33-3, in their opener last Sunday night, are 19-point favorites over the Dolphins, who lost, 59-10, to the Ravens in Week 1 in a game that wasn’t that close.
I provide this rudimentary information because . . . well, providing rudimentary information is kind of my niche. But also for another reason this time.
This game has been more of an afterthought than any I recall in the Patriots’ dynasty era.
There could be football reasons for this — the Patriots are loaded, while the Dolphins’ best player is probably at the University of Alabama right now. But we know it’s not because of football.
It’s because of Antonio Brown, who has been about everything but football since the end of last season, when he went on hiatus before the Steelers’ final game and has been a walking, blabbing, Instagramming, helmet-hating, foot-freezing, GM-threatening, coach-taping all-caps headline since.
The Patriots signed Brown last Saturday. They clobbered the Steelers Sunday night. Monday we marveled at how great they looked without him, and imagined how unstoppable they’d be with the four-time All-Pro. Tuesday, he was accused of rape and sexual assault in a civil lawsuit. And since Wednesday we’ve been wondering what’s next — and wondering whether it’s worth having him around at all.
It’s understandable that the game is an afterthought. It’s justifiable that eight of the nine main stories on the Patriots page on our website Thursday morning were related to Brown. He’s been the story in myriad ways.
But there’s a football game to be played Sunday, and it might be a better one than the oddsmakers think. The Patriots are stacked and the Dolphins are terrible, sure. But the Dolphins have a bright young coach who knows the Patriots’ personnel. And weird things happen in that stadium, whatever it is called.
Time to think about the game.
Here’s hoping Brown can keep his name out of the headlines until then.
Kick it off, Gostkowski, and let’s get this thing started . . .
THREE PLAYERS I’LL BE WATCHING NOT NAMED TOM BRADY
Ryan Fitzpatrick — Yeah, he’s a journeyman’s journeyman. The Dolphins are his eighth NFL team in 15 seasons, he’s played for every AFC East team except for the good one, and he’s 50-76-1 as a starter. Save for the occasional wild moments of Fitzmagic, he’s been Fitzmediocre, basically an honorary McCown brother with a cool beard. No one is going to claim the former Harvard star has had a spectacular NFL career. But it’s still one that deserves appreciation in a certain way. He’s endured. He was a seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft. How long ago was that? Tom Brady was the NFL’s passing leader that year, and he’s . . . OK, bad example. Better example: Here are some of the quarterbacks Fitzpatrick has outlasted from that draft class: Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, Derek Anderson, Charlie Frye, Dan Orlovsky, and fellow seventh-rounder Matt Cassel, who went 20 picks before Fitzpatrick to the Patriots. (The No. 1 overall pick, Alex Smith, may not play again; he’s trying to come back from a devastating leg injury.) Fitzpatrick’s statistics are — well, mediocre might be too kind, with 191 touchdowns to 149 picks in his career. But his longevity leads to some interesting statistical similarities to superior players. Per pro-football-reference.com, the quarterbacks whose careers were most like his include Archie Manning, Bobby Hebert, Tommy Kramer, and Steve Bartkowski. That’s decent company. Am I the only one who’d like to see him complete the AFC East circuit and end his career as a backup for the Patriots someday?
Dont’a Hightower — As a whole, the Patriots’ defense was sensational in the opening 33-3 win against the Steelers, and naturally there were individual stalwarts all over the field. The McCourty brothers combined for 13 tackles and five passes defensed; Jamie Collins, looking like the electrifying playmaker we thought he would be and occasionally was during his first go-round with the Patriots, was a menace; Deatrich Wise Jr. had the lone sack, but the Patriots’ pass rush was lively, and should collect a few more pelts this week against a porous Dolphins line, which allowed 11 hits on Fitzpatrick in the Ravens debacle. But I want to take a quick moment to salute Hightower, who was typically excellent against the Steelers (six tackles, and a highlight-reel takedown of 6-foot-9 inch tackle Alejandro Villanueva), in doing his job without a lot of fanfare. Though he’s had two seasons with more than 100 tackles, he doesn’t pile up huge numbers (20 career sacks), and he’s made just one Pro Bowl. But he is an essential player in Patriots history — he made enormous, game-turning or –saving plays in the Super Bowl wins over the Seahawks and Falcons, and I suspect the Patriots would already have a seventh Lombardi Trophy had he been healthy in 2017. I’m not sure he’ll ever be as revered as that previous stellar No. 54, Tedy Bruschi. But I’ll happily hear the argument that he should be.
Jonathan Jones — Just a quick salute to Jones, who has lived the undrafted free agent’s dream with the Patriots. Not only has he won two Super Bowls since joining the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn in 2016, but his bank account just got a big boost. His steady progression into superb cornerback was rewarded recently with a four-year contract extension for $24 million, with $12 million guaranteed and a signing bonus of more than $8 million. Jones was outstanding in the postseason last year, especially in shadowing Tyreek Hill in the AFC Championship game, and he continued his fine play Sunday against Pittsburgh. For all of the talk of the Patriots’ failure to hit with the likes of Duke Dawson, Terrence Wheatley, and Ras-I Dowling through the years, they’ve had some remarkable finds at the position in rookie free agency. Someday there may be a debate among Patriots fans about which undrafted cornerback ended up being the best player: Jones, Malcolm Butler or J.C. Jackson.
THE WAY OF THE WORLD
Got a chuckle out of Bill Belichick shrugging off the concept of the Patriot Way during his conference call earlier this week. “Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve ever used that term,’’ he said. “I’m not really sure what that is either. I appreciate you asking about it though, but I don’t know. It’s a good question.”
There are, of course, plenty of ways the Patriot Way can be perceived. To the Krafts, it’s their version of what America’s Team was for the Cowboys in the ’70s, a marketing slogan much haughtier than the more fitting one they should co-opt from the Al Davis Raiders: “Just win, baby.”
To fans of the Jets, Raiders, Bills, Colts, Steelers, Ravens, Falcons, Seahawks, Dolphins, and Colts again because they’re extra whiny, it’s a maddeningly obnoxious slogan for a team that has more than one –gate affixed to controversies and scandals through the years.
To some Patriots fans, it’s a point of heady pride. To the more clear-eyed among them, it’s an accumulation of desirable traits and characteristics, like coming through in the big moment, or subtle team-building moves, like finding undervalued and overlooked players who thrive again and again. But that’s not so much the Patriot Way as it is a tribute to what Belichick has built.
I could do without hearing about the Patriot Way in its grandest form in a week in which Brown, whose only way is his way, joins the team. And I don’t think organizational honchos realize how tone-deaf they sometimes seem in deploying it. But it is fun to see fans of other teams loathe it more than Patriots fans ever could.
GRIEVANCE OF THE WEEK
Call this one a well-founded pre-grievance: I have no idea what Roger Goodell will do about the Brown situation. He might put him on the exempt list. He might let him play through. Heck, he might have Ted Wells retroactively add his name to the Deflategate ruling just so he can try to suspend him for four weeks. But no matter what course the commissioner takes, it’s far more probable than not that it will be the wrong one, and he’ll figure out a ham-handed way to botch it one way or another. It’s like he asks himself, “What would Adam Silver do?” then does the opposite. His folly is as predictable as the Patriots overcoming it.
PREDICTION, OR DO YOU THINK DAN MARINO STILL GIVES HIS RECEIVERS ISOTONER GLOVES FOR CHRISTMAS?
Speaking of the ’80s Dolphins, Mark Duper and Mark Clayton could probably start for these Dolphins. Heck, this team might win as many games as the ’72 Dolphins lost. (That would be zero, for those who miss their annoying celebration every year when the last unbeaten team of the season loses a game.) How much turnover have the Dolphins undergone in their obvious quest to tank the season and ideally land a franchise quarterback in the draft? The Miami Herald revealed last week that of the 12 players featured on the 2019 Dolphins team calendar, only five remain with the team. The holdovers: Kenyan Drake, Charles Harris, Reshad Jones, DeVante Parker, and Cordrea Tankersley. The Porpoise Pin-ups that have moved on? Kiko Alonso, Andre Branch, T.J. McDonald, Jordan Phillips, Kenny Stills, Ryan Tannehill, and Cameron Wake. Neither left tackle Laremy Tunsil, traded to Houston, nor his gas mask remain, either. Twenty-three players who started a game last year have moved on. Some even had a choice.
It’s going to be hotter than usual Sunday in Miami. Brady is 22-11 in his career against the Dolphins, but just 7-10 at their place. Last-gasp laterals sometimes work for the home team there. Fitzmediocre might have a little Fitzmagic in him before the season is done. But none of that matters this time. The Dolphins are built to lose. They’re trying to lose. They will lose. The Patriots will rout them. It will be a fun three-plus hours. And then we’ll all go back to talking about Brown for another six days. Patriots 38, Dolphins 6.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady vs. Dolphins coach Brian Flores
The Dolphins’ best remaining player is probably cornerback Xavien Howard, who has 11 interceptions in his last 17 games. But Brady targeted seven different receivers last week. Five had more than 40 receiving yards. Four had at least four catches. And now Brown could be in the mix. One quality cornerback is not going to be able to deter Brady from doing what he wants to do.
Someone who might, at least until Brady eventually solves his riddle, is rookie coach Flores, who of course was the Patriots’ de facto defensive coordinator last year when they held the high-flying Rams to 3 points in the Super Bowl.
Flores spent 15 years with the Patriots, and the only coaches I’ve heard personally praised by the players more often are Dante Scarnecchia, who should be a first-ballot inductee to the assistant coaches wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame if they ever get around to building that wing, and Ivan Fears.
Flores is already dealing with a chaotic situation in Miami. Once the Fish Tanking is complete, I hope he still has the opportunity to be Miami’s coach when or if they’re good again in a few years, sort of like the NFL’s version of Brett Brown.
The best he can do for now — in cahoots with defensive coordinator and fellow former Patriots assistant Patrick Graham — is to put his obscure players into a position to at least make it temporarily difficult for Brady Sunday.
No, nothing is going to flummox Brady for long; he famously told Peter King after the Super Bowl victory over the Falcons that he has “the answers to the test” now. “You can’t surprise me on defense. I’ve seen it all. I’ve processed 261 games, I’ve played them all,’’ he said then. His library of knowledge has only added more volumes since.
But Flores does know Brady, knows what ticks him off in practice, probably knows what Belichick sees as his flaws, and knows what the Patriots’ offense, as versatile as it is, likes to do.
The Dolphins’ best won’t be good enough over 60 minutes. But it might be for a few of them, and that would reflect well on their hopeful young coach doing his best in a close to hopeless situation.