What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
I’m in five different NFL “Pick ‘Em” Leagues. There’s more than one regular reader of this blog who can vouch for me on that. Obviously, I didn’t write about my gut feeling about Kansas City taking down the supposedly invincible Patriots on Thursday night. That’s because I save my real prognosticating for my true love, gambling on college football. That’s what the J-Dub Gambling Challenge is all about.
When it comes to my membership in all these “Pick ‘Em” leagues, they are all a result of my being invited by various friends, acquaintances, co-workers and the like. I almost never want to join them; I almost always feel obligated because in most of them, there’s less than ten members and I know I was invited because all those people need all the sports fans they can get to keep their little groups alive. The ones I belong to range in membership from three to three score, and in ALL of them, I was the ONLY person who straight up took the Chiefs over the Patriots. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure I’m not the only person out there who did; after all, if you do the “Pick ‘Em” thing on Yahoo, you know they give you stats as to who’s picked who. When I made my decision, the tide was running 98% to 2% against the Chiefs.
More than one of those people asked me “Why?”
Surprisingly enough, there’s more than one answer. By the time you read this, you will have heard much spewing of low-effort, “Easy-Bake Oven”-type arguments; it was the Patriots’ hubris. they are reading their own “16-0” press clippings, it’s the loss of Julian Edelman, or my favorite…it’s age finally catching up to Brady. Those can all be sorted by their varying content percentage of bullshit. The real answers aren’t hard to spot…if you want to see them.
That being said, here they are.
1) This might have been the greatest “field” play ever
Go back to that 98% to 2% thing. That didn’t make any sense to me. Number that wildly skewed are usually reserved for complete mismatches. Sure, the Patriots are the defending champions, but the Chiefs aren’t exactly the Cleveland Browns. That much of a skew made it almost mandatory to pick the Chiefs if I thought they could win. Then the question became did I really think they could win?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the question wasn’t “Can the Chiefs beat the Patriots?” The question really was “Why won’t they?” It wasn’t long ago there used to be a hell of lot more answers to that question than “Tom Brady.”
Think about it. You can call the Patriots the “dynasty” franchise of the last 15 years if you like to use hackneyed terms like that, but compare them to other teams on which people have hung that tag. In terms of team construct, the Patriots don’t have much in common with the 70’s Steelers, the 80’s 49ers, or even the Cowboys of the early 90’s. Those teams, and several others like the Dolphins and the Raiders of the 70’s, the Packers of the 60’s, even some great teams that didn’t win championships, like the Bud Grant Vikings or the Marv Levy Bills all did what they did through the concept of completeness.
Think even more about it. In nothing but football terms, every team I just mentioned really had it all. A star quarterback, multiple Hall-of-Famers, and most importantly they all could control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
That was before the salary cap. In the post-salary cap era, even the best teams are flawed. More on that in a bit.
As far as this bullet point is concerned, the success of the Patriots in the last four or so years comes down to two things. They’ve got a top-five all-time quarterback who at times seems like he makes things happen through sheer will and a head coach who has an uncanny sense for scheming his way around just about any problem.
That makes the Patriots like a guy at a craps table on a roll. You can watch that guy keep throwing passes, and even with the occasional crap-out, he just seems to keep the hot hand all night long. The trick is picking when he’s going to come up snake-eyes. Like I said, this might have been the greatest field play ever, because just like the recent solar eclipse, this might be the the one time everything lined up just right to make bucking the conventional wisdom the right thing to do, because…
2) The Patriots Aren’t That Good
Get ready for the mother of all non-sequiturs. I just said the Patriots aren’t that good, and yet they might be the best bet to win yet another fucking Super Bowl. At first, that doesn’t make any sense at all…until you give it some thought.
Go back to those pre-salary cap “dynasties” I mentioned earlier. Match-up any of those teams in their hey-days against this Patriot team, and the “Brady bunch” gets killed. Again, there’s a simple reason why. Look at the criteria I laid fort them; having the the star quarterback, big time talent throughout the roster, and the ability to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Against that measurement, the Patriots only have one piece of the pie. There’s really no denying everything New England has accomplished in the last few years is the result of a two-part formula; having the most dynamic this league has seen in the last quarter-century and the ability to get the most out of what else they have. At the very least, they Patriots last two Super Bowl victories are monuments not to having a roster full of strengths, but rather a lack of weaknesses.
That’s a major difference. That was the genius of Bill Belichick; that was the engine behind the “next man up” philosophy. But there comes a time you run out of “nexts.”
Time for a big, fat dose of reality, Patriot fans. Like I’ve said, a big part of New England’s success over the last few years have been all about “next man up.” But to do that, a team needs a roster which is deeper, more versatile, and more prepared than everybody else. They were none of those things Thursday night.
The indicators that was coming were present during the pre-season. I could give you a long line of quasi-crap about stuff I saw during the NFL’s August salute to pointlessness. But the real reason was the Patriots defense has almost no real talent.
I know a shit load of Patriots fans (I know TWO who have children named “Brady,” which is an issue all to itself) who are going to bristle at that, but this isn’t a new development. A lot of the Belichick mystique has been dedicated over the last few years to getting the most out of what was really mostly a mediocre cast of characters. The damning statement which proves that is it’a brutally obvious the Pats miss guys like Jamie Collins and Rob Ninkovich. Those aren’t future Hall-of-Famers, but without them, the Patriots pass rush might as well be on a milk carton.
Look at it this way. The very same people who name their children after a quarterback are the same who are on the record as calling Kansas City’s Alex Smith a “game manager” or a “checkdown artist.” I’ve already explained why saying stuff like that only tells people your cognitive abilities are not fully developed, and I’m certainly not surprised to hear garbage like that coming from a Patriot fan base currently bloated with front-runners.
Alex Smith might not be the first name that comes to mind if you were going to pick your “ideal” quarterback. He might not even be the tenth. But try this exercise. Take all 32 starting quarterbacks in this league, start at the bottom and keep going up until you get to a guy you’d rather have than Alex Smith. Sure, he doesn’t rack up the big “fantasy” numbers which is why the average football fan derides him, but “real” football guy understand Smith doesn’t kill you with mistakes. “That’s the beauty of a “checkdown artist;” they don’t force throws, they find open receivers, which means good ones don’t throw a lot of picks. Alex Smith hasn’t had a season with double-digit interceptions since 2010.
Say what you will about Smith, the fact remains he led the Chiefs offense on a looting of the Patriot defense on a scale not seen since since the Visigoths had their way with Rome. But a major reason why he could do that was the Patriots barely touched him. While the Pats pass rush notched three sacks, they only even touched him four times on the night. Of those three sacks, one was because Smith slipped and fell, and the other two netted a total of three lost yards.
While its true the Patriots never compile stupid-big sack numbers, in the past they have consistently pressured quarterbacks and forced them into uncomfortable throws. Over the last few years, the Belichick approach to defense has been very “vanilla,” it’s not exciting, but it works. It’s not dominating; it’s more “bend but don’t break.” The pass rush of late rarely features stunts, blitzes, or other gimmicks to increase pocket pressure; as a matter of fact, the Patriots led the league in three-man rushes last season.
What it all comes down to is this. Until now, the Patriots never had obvious holes, but now they have two. The pass defense is so weak that a B-minus quarterback with a decent amount of team speed could easily outflank the Patriots when they needed to; a guy people call a “checkdown artist” routinely had so much time to survey the Patirots’ secondary that he could have ordered Jimmy John’s and his sandwiches would have arrived long before anybody in a New England uniform got there. The Patriots did not harass Smith, did not shrink his pocket or force him to make plays on the move.
What fed that was the Patriots’ inability to control the line of scrimmage; even cheating the safeties up didn’t stop a rookie running back from the University of Toledo to slice through them like a chain saw through a cotton ball.
What tipped me to this beforehand was the Patriots personnel moves in the wake of dealing away linebackers Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins before and during last season. Granted, I know they just won a Super Bowl without them; and those moves were inevitable given the fact they would have had difficulty finding salary cap room to pay them. But they signaled the beginning of the problem; they were losing two hyper-athletic defenders who while they weren’t perfect fits for Belichick’s scheme, their loss curtailed the already-bland Patriots’ pass-rush options, and they have not come close to replacing their skills.
This hit critical mass when Rob Ninkovich retired at the start of training camp. Even before that, the Patriots used their top pick in the draft on defensive end Derek Rivers, which meant they knew they had a personnel issue to address. That’s why they acquired defensive end Kony Ealy from the Carolina Panthers in the offseason, only to cut him at the end of camp. But when Rivers went down in camp with a season-ending knee injury, the Patriots did something I haven’t seen them do since the Dick MacPherson era. They made a desperation move that was the dead give-away of the scope of the problem; how else do you describe a deal five days before kickoff dealing a late-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for outside linebacker Cassius Marsh?
To make a long story short, Bill Belichick has always been able to scheme his way out of any problem. But even the most clever of solutions requires at least a critical mass of guys who can play this game. That might not remain the case for the Patriots; I’m not in a big hurry to bet against this team for the course of a whole season.
But for one night in September, it was a sure thing.