By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For many years, people of a certain ilk professed a belief that life in New England after Tom Brady could be a very much unenjoyable experience, at least as far as the local football team goes. Yet for three weeks of the 2016 season, these people of this particular ilk appeared to have been foolhardy in their premonitions.
No more. Not after the hapless showing on Sunday afternoon against the Bills at Gillette Stadium.
To be sure, Bill Belichick and his coaching staff as well as all the players on the roster deserved the wave of praise they received while the team built up that 3-0 record. But there’s no need to try to sugarcoat what took place in Week 4. It was ugly.
It was also unique in that you get the sense that it kind of doesn’t matter much. Sure, if the Patriots find themselves traveling to Denver for the AFC Championship Game again this year, you can look back to the Bills game and see a bad game plan and terrible execution and wonder what could’ve been. But that is many, many moons away. Overall, the Patriots are 3-1, which is better than their four-game record in the Super Bowl-winning years of 2001 (1-3), 2003 (2-2) and 2014 (2-2).
And, of course, Mr. Brady is returning to work on this gray Monday.
So yes, things are going to be OK in Foxboro, and if the 2014 loss at Kansas City taught us anything, it’s that having some gruesome tape to play over and over and over again in the film room is not necessarily a bad thing for Bill Belichick. In fact, people of a certain ilk might even suggest that the coach is happy to have that kind of a dud early in a season to whip his troops into shape. He might be going Beast Mode in the film room as we speak.
Whatever the long-term impact may be, I believe that folks may be a little less eager for the post-Tom Brady era following Sunday’s shenanigans. And perhaps Kelly Clarkson might see an uptick in record sales in New England this week.
For now, let’s hit the leftover thoughts from the Bills’ 16-0 shutout over the Patriots at Gillette.
–It’s pretty darn impressive that the Patriots went nearly 23 full years without being shut out at home. The last time it happened was 1993, Bill Parcells’ first season in New England. That Sunday afternoon in November, Boomer Esiason completed just 50 percent of his 30 passes while rookie Drew Bledsoe went 10-for-18 for 134 yards, no touchdowns and a pick. Patriots’ running back Leonard Russell had 147 yards on the ground, while Michael Timpson led Patriots receivers with 58 yards. Scott Sisson missed two field goals, while his counterpart with the Jets — Cary Blanchard — successfully kicked two. The Jets won 6-0.
That sounds like a worse game to witness than Sunday’s. So fans who forked out hundreds of dollars to attend this week can at least take heart in that fact. (To anyone who paid for both games, there’s no silver lining to be found. Sorry.)
–This was an incredibly appropriate way for the day to start for 64-year-old referee Pete Morelli.
Hey, uhh … Pete. Peter. Mr. Morelli. Sir. The camera is on this side. Same side it’s always been. Pete. Pete! Over here!
–We could go through every mistake the Patriots made, but I don’t think anyone has the patience for that. But still, there were some key moments that could have significantly altered the course of the game. It started on the first snap, when Chris Hogan clearly blocked Ronald Darby 10 yards upfield and then grabbed hold of the defensive back’s jersey for the dreaded double penalty on the opening play of the game. This is a play that the Patriots ran right off the bat. They’ve presumably practiced it. Yet Hogan committed a clear and obvious pass interference that ended up negating a 90-yard play (but also enabling it, so it wasn’t really a 90-yard penalty).
The offensive ineptitude shined through early in the second, when Nate Solder tripped through the hole and allowed linebacker Zach Brown a free entry into the backfield to stop LeGarrette Blount behind the line. Then, Joe Thuney had a false start. A second-and-8 quickly turned into a third-and-16. With a rookie QB whom the coaching staff didn’t seem to want to allow to throw the ball down the field, that’s a difficult position. James White ran for three yards on third down. The Patriots punted.
Another example: midway through the third quarter, Brissett hits Edelman for a gain of 16. The Patriots are in business near midfield. They’re only down 13. Plenty of time left. But then Nate Solder drops to the ground while Rob Gronkowski is blocking Lorenzo Alexander, drawing the flag for a chop block. Fifteen yards. On first-and-25, the Patriots decide to give Brissett an easy completion. But nobody blocks Brown:
Now it’s second-and-29, and the drive is dead.
Later, when Brissett actually had an opportunity to convert a third-and-19, he badly airmailed a wide-open Danny Amendola.
That was the offensive story of the day: poor execution, bad penalties, no rhythm, overly conservative plan. That — plus a missed field goal and a red zone fumble — is how you end up with a goose egg on the scoreboard.
–The issues were not limited to the offensive side of the ball. Not even close. Though allowing 16 points might not look like a bad day for the defense, the fact is that the Bills were able to possess the ball as long as they wanted, taking 5-15 yards at will against a Patriots defense that really never adjusted to what the Bills were doing. The Bills went three-and-out just once all day. They entered the game ranked 30th in yards per game.
The plan for the defensive ends seemed to be overly concerned with containing Tyrod Taylor, which resulted in the tackles easily sealing off the ends and giving LeSean McCoy room to operate outside the tackles. And somehow, Robert Woods got a hold of Rob Gronkowksi’s invisibility cloak, as there were several plays where the Patriots flat-out did not cover the man.
See here, on a second-and-20 with the Bills backed up to their own 11-yard line:
He was so open that he was able to make a leaping catch, come down with the ball, then turn up the field and dive for the first down.
And also see here:
This one came just after Stephen Gostkowski missed the field goal. It was a 23-yarder. It wasn’t great defense.
–Still, the defense had chances to make game-changing types of plays. They simply whiffed. The best example came in the fourth quarter, with Buffalo facing a second-and-24. Jabaal Sheard broke into the backfield and had Taylor dead to rights. But he let Taylor slip free from his tackle attempt:
The missed tackle was compounded by the defense leaving Charles Clay uncovered up the left sideline. Taylor connected with him for a gain of 14, thus creating a more manageable third-and-10. Once again, a Patriots defender broke into the backfield all alone with Taylor. This time it was Jamie Collins, who likewise couldn’t tackle the quarterback. Yes, Tyrod Taylor is big and strong, but when Jamie Collins is here, he needs to finish the play:
Receiver Walter Powell was left all alone in the middle of the field. The Bills picked up the first down.
–Will the Patriots let Rob Gronkowski play football soon? This is getting out of hand. I’ve seen a No. 87 out there, mostly blocking, not really doing much. But might the Rob Gronkowski who’s looked like the most dominant offensive player in the league for five years come back soon? That would be fun to watch.
–The offense and defense have been spotlighted, but a quick word on special teams: also bad! There was the missed field goal, Cyrus Jones’ two dreadful kick returns that set the Patriots up with bad field position, and then muffed punts by Jones and Amendola. The Patriots didn’t get to employ their fun, fancy way of pinning opponents deep on kickoffs, because they never scored. Ryan Allen was pretty good though. So there’s that.
–That officiating crew stunk. Out loud. They ruled this ball to be down a foot short of the 37-yard line, a full yard short of where it actually came down:
And they made history by stopping a play after the ball had been snapped because, as Morelli explained to the viewers, “the officials weren’t all in position to officiate.”
After that play, the conspiracy takes were coming in hot on Twitter. Talk of Roger Goodell doing what was necessary to ensure the Patriots wouldn’t go 4-0 inevitably began, and they kind of kept up throughout the game, when Stephon Gilmore clearly contacted Edelman up the left sideline while a pass was in the air, or when incidental helmet-to-helmet contact from Chris Long on Taylor resulted in a roughing the passer penalty.
To be honest with you, I don’t understand why so many people’s first instinct is to jump to the conspiracy route when the much more reasonable and obvious explanation is staring you right in the face: general incompetence. The referees, by and large, aren’t good. The officials are not good. Ask Cleveland about that. They routinely miss deadly obvious penalties or fumbles or spots, yet they manage to show keen eagle eyes when interior linemen hold a pass rusher for a split-second.
It’s a problem across the league, almost every single game. There’s no conspiracy. They just stink.
OH! And Morelli forgot to turn his microphone off during a commercial break. And, as a reminder, he forgot which side of the stadium has the cameras.
–On the point of play-making, it’s worth taking a look at Aaron Williams’ breakup of a deep ball intended for Chris Hogan.
Brissett had his ups and downs, but he did unleash a couple of very nice deep balls. One clanked off Brandon Bolden’s hands, and the other was broken up by Williams at the last moment. It came early in the fourth quarter on a first-and-15, with the Patriots trailing 16-0 and finally feeling like it might be necessary to throw the ball somewhat deep. Hogan had a step on Williams, and the ball appeared to be headed right for his chest in stride. But Williams closed and made a play to break up the pass.
It ended up technically not being significant because an Edelman illegal shift would’ve negated the play. But it stood out because that was the type of individual effort that was just missing entirely from the Patriots side.
–You don’t want to harp on the performance of a rookie QB too much, especially when you know he’s playing through a thumb injury. At the same time, Brissett’s mistake in the red zone is something that’s unacceptable in the Pop Warner level, so the rookie excuse doesn’t really fly in this instance.
Brissett played quarterback at Florida and NC State, so the concept of not coughing up the football in the red zone isn’t a new concept. And when a team spends a third-round pick to draft you, the team does so with the expectation that it can trust you.
Yet Brissett made multiple mistakes. He locked his eyes on the end zone and thus didn’t see Blount all alone in the middle of the field.
Now, Blount probably wasn’t going to pick up the necessary 11 yards to pick up the first down … but neither was Brissett. He should have realized that when he looked up and saw this:
Instead, he fought for more yards, even though he was at least 5 yards shy of the first down marker, and even though the Patriots were already in chip-shot range for Gostkowski.
That’s not what you’re looking for.
It was bad, but he is a rookie, and he’s a smart rookie. That play was simply a crash course in discovering the speed of NFL defenses.
–The NFLPA decided to drop its DeflateGate fight, thus bringing an end to the saga. It checks in at a crisp 625 days. It remains the stupidest event in sports history.
Make no mistake: the league ultimately won. Roger Goodell’s power was bolstered by the court system, and interest in the league didn’t wane at all despite the obviously absurd treatment of what would at worst be a negligible “offense” and despite the league’s deceitful destruction of last year’s measurements, which proved they never had a case all along. Most people had moved on and continued consuming the NFL in some way every single day. Ratings are slow this year, but they’ll recover. They always do. And certainly, profits have never been higher.
Yes, the league emerged victorious, but from a spectator standpoint, we do benefit from this: Tom Brady will be a man on a freaking mission. This is a guy who’s still miffed about his draft position, who still knows every single quarterback selected ahead of him, who works as hard as humanly possible to find a slight — real or imagined — to get under his skin and drive him to keep going. Now, he’s been gifted with an actual adversary in the league itself. I don’t buy for one second that the missing NFL shield was an honest mistake. The politician answers about the whole ordeal only work to show just how tightly to the chest the Hall of Famer is keeping his real feelings.
It was a horrifically ugly mess on all sides, but what’s coming next ought to be a dang spectacle.