By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — I want to talk to you all about something very important today. It’s called “Classic Belichick.”
It can’t be explained in simple terms, but it’s something that has driven opponents mad for close to 20 years now. It’s been replicated but for whatever reason, it can’t be duplicated. And it was on perfect display on Sunday afternoon in Orchard Park.
It showed up in the form of a young man named Eric Lee, the most generically named defensive player the Patriots have had since Mark Anderson. He had an OK collegiate career for South Florida, recording five sacks and an interception in 2015, but he didn’t get drafted. He signed as a free agent with the Texans and spent the entire 2016 on the practice squad, a virtual NFL unknown.
This year, the Texans (who are now 4-8) decided they didn’t need or want him, so they cut him. The Bills signed Lee to their practice squad and even activated him for a game … but he did not play. In early October, the Bills (who are 6-6) decided they didn’t need or want him, so they released him and — after no other team wanted him — put him back on the practice squad.
Yet after being disappointed with Cassius Marsh, Bill Belichick decided to look around the league. He saw Lee on the Bills’ practice squad and went out and signed him to the Patriots (who are 10-2). It was a move that 99.9 percent of the NFL world didn’t even notice.
A week-and-a-half later, Lee was standing on the 1-yard line for the Patriots, intercepting Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor and taking points off the board on the opening drive of a divisional game. On the next drive, Lee was in the backfield sacking Taylor. In the fourth quarter, he was delivering a massive hit on Taylor to force an incompletion. In the final minutes of the game, he was picking up another sack.
This was a player who entered Week 12 with no NFL stats to his name. With two games played for the Patriots, he’s made eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, and an interception.
It was evident in other ways too, like Rex Burkhead scoring his fourth touchdown in two weeks after scoring four touchdowns in four years as a member of the Bengals, or Dion Lewis (171 rushing yards in his first four NFL seasons) topping 90 rushing yards for the second straight week.
Identifying underutilized talent and putting players in perfect position to succeed has been a staple of Belichick’s tenure in New England, and that rare ability is as big a reason as any for the Patriots’ sustained success. Having Tom Brady has helped, of course, but that only gets you so far. In order to win 10 or more games for 15 straight seasons (the second-longest such streak of all time), it takes more than a great quarterback. More often than not, Belichick has worked his magic to ensure that his teams have had great rosters.
Now let’s get to all the leftover thoughts from a very imperfect 23-3 Patriots win in Buffalo.
–Do you know who is NOT Bill Belichick? That would be Sean McDermott. I have to tell you about Sean McDermott, who made arguably the DUMBEST CHALLENGE IN THE HISTORY OF THE NFL. You might say that’s an exaggeration; I would say … perhaps not.
Early second quarter, second-and-5 for the Patriots. Tom Brady tripped over Rex Burkhead’s foot. After falling to the turf, Brady threw an intentional incompletion in the general direction of Jacob Hollister, so as not to take a loss of yardage once the defensive rush closed in on him. Life moved on.
However — however! — McDermott either caught a replay of Brady’s knee hitting the turf or was alerted to it by an excited assistant, and he let his challenge flag fly … even though the quarterback would not have been ruled down if it was his own teammate who contacted him before going down. And as far as I know, Rex Burkhead is not on the Bills. Rex Ryan used to coach the Bills, but Rex Burkhead is not on the Bills. He is on the Patriots.
On top of that, a successful challenge would have only moved the ball back about a half-dozen yards. The risk-reward element was way off-kilter. (To further that point, the Patriots ended up throwing incomplete on the third-and-5 and having to punt anyway.)
Nevetheless, McDermott challenged. And surprise of all surprises, he lost. He lost the worst challenge ever.
In what was a very sad scene, he tried to motion to the officials after the play was upheld that he thought it was intentional grounding.
It was an effort to save face, but oh my dear sweet Sean, it was not intentional grounding. And you can’t challenge for intentional grounding.
–Oh, and then there was McDermott’s timeout! With 2:04 left in the fourth quarter, with the clock running, and with the Patriots leading 23-3 and facing a fourth-and-11, McDermott … called a timeout. Why did he call a timeout? Did he think his team had a shot at a comeback? If so, he would have been better-suited to let the clock run until the two-minute warning, so that he could have used that precious timeout in a moment when he could have saved more than … four seconds.
Really just a special timeout right there. Maybe he just didn’t know what to do, which has happened to a lot of AFC East coaches facing Belichick.
–Anyway, long story short, I’m out on Sean McDermott. My opinion of him is now shaped forever.
–I am here to solve a mystery — a mystery regarding what looked to have been a terrible, terrible spot by the officials on a play that changed the game. Here’s how the scenario played out to those watching at home.
James White came down on a third-and-10 well shy of the yard needed for the first down. The official had a decent view, albeit at an angle.
A better angle:
As you can see, the Patriots needed to gain the 23-yard line, and the first-down marker on the far side of the field was placed directly on the 23-yard line.
That official came in and actually placed the ball more or less where it should have been placed, based on where White came down. It was short of the 23:
A fourth-and-inches was upcoming for the Patriots … or so everyone assumed. Yet somehow, Gene Steratore signaled for a first down. The chains moved. The Patriots — keenly aware of what was going on — hurried to the line and snapped the ball. Burkhead ran for nine yards on the first-and-10. The Bills — quite rightfully — were trying to figure out what was going on. What happened to the fourth-and-inches? The Bills weren’t sure.
Even after Burkhead broke off the nine-yard run, the Bills sideline had no idea what was going on:
Normally I’d get on the coach for being so caught off guard in that position, but how could you even blame him? How could you have expected him to have his challenge flag ready when there should have been absolutely no doubt that a fourth-and-inches was forthcoming?
And of course, because sports are sports, Burkhead followed up his nine-yard run with a 13-yard touchdown run.
If you’re the Bills, you have got to be irate after that. The ball seemed to have been spotted properly, and yet it somehow magically moved forward.
(Stephen A. Smith voice) HOWEVER, a re-examination of the play shows what really happened.
The sticks on the far side of the field were not the official markers. The official markers were on the near side. You can’t see it great, but going back to a play earlier, you can see that the line to gain was actually just a tick shy of the 23-yard line:
The yellow line on TV shows up on the other side of the 23, while the actual marker was on the side closer to line of scrimmage. So, given the placement, it would appear as though White did actually gain enough yardage for the first down.
(Stephen A. Smith voice again) HOWEVER, for as much as I wish I could say mystery solved, I cannot. Because a rewatch of the play shows Steratore marching to the line and confidently signaling for a first down using nothing but his own eyesight — which apparently allows him to see through multiple human bodies:
Steratore never got a clear look at the spot, and he was looking at the unofficial marker through a field of human bodies. At the very least, the Bills deserved a measurement. That was some questionable officiating, for which nobody will be held accountable because the NFL is the NFL.
–All that being said, it’s just not a coincidence that the Patriots handled the situation perfectly, while the Bills all stared into the heavens trying to figure out what had just happened.
–“Classic Belichick” was discussed earlier, but there was something else on display Sunday that helped explain how the Patriots have been so good for so long. More often than not, when the Patriots take a penalty — legitimate, bogus, or somewhere in between — they do a good job of overcoming the call and continuing to do what they want. You watch enough NFL, you see plenty of teams fold up shop once they face a first-and-20. Yet after a completely imaginary offensive pass interference penalty on Rob Gronkowski (the 1,000th of his career — congrats, Rob!), a short four-yard gain on first down and a five-yard screen pass on second down, the Patriots faced a third-and-11 at their own 29-yard line.
You’ll never guess what happened next.
Yes, they converted the first down, thanks to the Bills’ deciding to rush seven defenders. In doing so … they kind of forgot to cover the behemoth tight end wearing No. 87, resulting in the Patriots’ two best players connecting for the easiest 19-yard pickup of their careers.
Now you might see that and say “Well the other team is just a bunch of idiots” and you can wag your finger at Leslie Frazier and so on and so forth. But the point that gets overlooked when you say that is how the Patriots are consistently the ones looking smart in those situations, and again, that’s no coincidence.
–We caught another glimpse of some Brady brilliance in the second quarter. It was a third-and-8 at the Buffalo 28. Brady called for Burkhead to motion into the backfield, so Brady had Burkhead on his left and James White on his right.
After recognizing that the linebackers were dropping into coverage instead of rushing the passer, Burkhead and White both ran out for patterns. Brady sidestepped pressure and stepped up in the pocket, as he does. And when he did, he knew the numbers game would favor him somewhere. Sure enough, Burkhead was wide open for the easy 11-yard gain.
There’s just a lot of smart people on that offense. And being smart is a good quality. Generally speaking.
–Rob Gronkowski’s cheap shot, however? Not smart. The topic’s being discussed ad nauseam everywhere, and suspension debates are never all that fun. (He’ll likely get a suspension, just because people are mad, and the league likes to acquiesce to public opinion rather than have any sort of reliable set of rules or precedent.) But I will just add, in criticizing Gronkowski for the latest and cheapest of late, cheap hits ever delivered, I heard from a lot of people who bemoaned all of the missed holding calls that Gronkowski had to deal with on Sunday and throughout his career. To those folks I would just say, this coming Monday night, let’s imagine that Nate Solder gets away with three holds on Ndamukong Suh. In the fourth quarter of a 20-point game, Suh gets held again, and Brady throws a touchdown, and Suh decides after a lengthy moment of contemplation to dive-bomb the quarterback from behind, leading with a forearm to the head. I just don’t imagine many football fans in New England would rationalize it and say “Well Suh was being held all night long, so you kind of had to expect that.”
Gronkowski made a really bad, uncharacteristic decision. There’s really not much room for any other conclusion. You don’t have to call for him to be banned for life from the NFL or anything outrageous like that, but you can accept that the action itself was low quality.
–As for the officiating on Gronkowski, it was of course quite terrible. The OPI was simply non-existent; Leonard Johnson initiated contact and Gronkowski continued along his route. Later that same drive, Gronkowski fought through this hold by Micah Hyde to haul in a 16-yard pass:
That’s a full bear hug. The sideline mic picked up Gronkowski asking the official, “Where’s the hold, too?” (The official didn’t answer.)
On the infamous play, Tre’Davious White never would have had the chance to intercept the pass if he hadn’t stopped Gronkowski cold with an obvious hold in the middle of the field.
White also pushed Gronkowski away from the pass.
None of this excuses a cheap shot — at all. In fact, to say “he was held, ergo he threw a cheap shot” skips a few rungs on the logical ladder.
It’s just a separate issue that warrants attention, because officials too often can’t be bothered to throw a flag when Gronkowski is illegally contacted all over the field, yet they are trigger-happy to throw a flag for offensive pass interference whenever they feel Gronkowski might have pushed his way through some of it.
–It is kind of perfectly Bills, though, that it was the Bills who ended up losing the sorting out of penalties on that play, and it was the Bills who faced a first-and-25 afterwards. If an alien comes down to Earth and wants to know about the dynamic at play between the Patriots and Bills, just have the alien watch that sequence. Our visitor will have an immediate understanding.
–The Patriots have won 14 straight road games and are the only team in 2017 to be undefeated on the road. In a related story, the Cleveland Browns have won a total of 15 games since 2013. What I’m trying to say is that the Patriots are way better than the Browns. Thank you for your time.
–Did you catch Brandon Bolden going for special teams extra credit? In the first half, on a not-so-great punt by Ryan Allen, it looked like — looked like — Bolden was trying to ever-so-subtly nudge his man into the bounding football. Most guys in coverage on that would separate from their man and down the ball, but Bolden instead seemed to be saying, “It’d be a real shame if you ‘accidentally’ ended up kicking that there football and letting my team have the football. … A reeeealllll shame.”
Maybe that’s my imagination. But I don’t think it is.
–Speaking of special teams, newcomer Nicholas Grigsby absolutely demolished Travaris Cadet in kickoff coverage.
It kind of looked like a lot of fun for both parties, to be honest. Grigsby’s fun was obvious, but for Cadet, maybe that’s like a special brand of smelling salt to get your juices flowing. Or maybe it just really hurt and was terrible. One or the other.
–Dion Lewis is pretty special. Here’s where he was first contacted on a run in the second quarter:
Here he leaves two poor victims in his wake, like John Wick:
He then absolutely smoked Tre’Davious White in a footrace:
And then he had the strength to stiff-arm Jordan Poyer to the damn moon:
He ran for another 17 yards after that stiff-arm, too.
Another run in the third quarter showed off Lewis’ pure power, too. Here’s where two defensive backs collapsed on Lewis at the 12-yard line:
And here’s where he finally went down, at the 1-yard line, after barreling through four adult humans:
Dion Lewis is 5-foot-8. He is a big man. Special player.
–As I understand it, spinning the football on the ground after making a catch is only a penalty if you direct it at the defender against whom you made the play. But I’d like to add to that rule and say that if you spin a ball after making a 12-yard catch when you’re trailing by 20 points in the fourth quarter (looking at you, Deonte Thompson this week and Jarvis Landry last week), then you should be ejected immediately.
–I have a question. Here is my question.
WHY ARE THE BILLS LINING UP IN AN EMPTY, SHOTGUN FORMATION WITH NATHAN PETERMAN AT QUATERBACK ON A FOURTH-AND-GOAL FROM THE 1-YARD LINE?
OK. That was my question.
–Do you know what’s crazy about the New England defense? Like, crazy crazy? They’ve now held opponents to under 20 points for the seventh straight game. A Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team hasn’t done that … ever. Not once. Never in the last 17 years have the Patriots held opponents to under 20 points for seven straight games.
That doesn’t mean this defense is one of Belichick’s greatest units. Not even close. But for a defense that was in absolute disarray to start the season, that’s a really, really impressive turnaround. They’re now ninth in the NFL in points allowed.
(It does help when the opposing receivers on the Bills drop every pass that hits their hands.)
–It was, all in all, a bad statistical day from Brady. But he still did some things that — if you’re not paying attention — you can take for granted. Like, for example, this pocket movement in the fourth quarter:
Compare that movement, awareness and overall play-making ability to that of Tyrod Taylor, who’s credited for being mobile. Taylor managed to take two sacks to the same player on the same play, basically, losing 20 yards in one fell swoop in the third quarter when it was still a game.
–On a punt return in the third quarter, Danny Amendola could have called for a fair catch or just let the punt go out of bounds. Instead he just caught it, thus choosing to take a hit on the sideline.
After that hit, Deathwish Danny laughed in the face of danger. Here’s a snapshot of Deathwish Danny laughing in the face of danger:
Deathwish Danny — who congratulated Micah Hyde for delivering a thunderous hit on him in this game — is nuts, folks. Don’t even bother hitting him; that’s exactly what he wants.
–Amendola’s over-the-shoulder, leaping, toe-tap catch in the first half was absolutely marvelous:
But it wasn’t the Patriots’ most impressive catch of the day. That distinction belongs to Bob Gronkowski, who somehow caught this?
White had also ridden Gronkowski up the field with his hand inside the tight end’s shoulder pad collar, too:
Bob Gronkowski: Big strong man.
–This is probably the worst sign ever made:
–Just about every year for the past five years, right around this time on the calendar, I say the same thing. It goes something like: “You know, some day, many years down the line, we’ll be able to understand and fully appreciate the preposterousness of this run of success for the Patriots. Teams in the NFL, in this NFL, with a salary cap, where the idea of parity is paramount — teams don’t win like this.”
Yet here the Patriots are, winners of 10 or more games in a season for the 15th straight year, the second-longest run of all time behind only the San Francisco 49ers’ run of 16 years. That Niners’ run, though, included six seasons where the team went 10-6; they averaged 12 wins per year. The Patriots have gone 10-6 just two times in the last 15 years, and they’ve averaged 12.5 wins per year (not accounting for the unknown finish to this season).
But as we know, the Patriots are on the path for much more than 10 wins this year. They’ll get a minimum of 12 and a maximum of 14, but even then, it won’t really matter around the region, because the standard has been set by Belichick and Brady that every season should end in a Super Bowl. Not could. Not might. Should.
And that’s not a bad thing. Fans aren’t spoiled or stupid for not being wowed by regular-season wins anymore. But, again, some day far off in the future, maybe in 2033 when Brady finally retires and the Patriots are struggling to go .500, we’ll all look back on this period of time and say, “Good GRAVY, those teams were always just so good.”