Clint's Corner Archive

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The source for back issues of Clint's Corner. Forget a trade? Were Clint's predictions correct? Here's every edition, verbatim.

For 10/16/2002


Just like that, the 3-0 defending Super Bowl Champions have us looking ahead in the schedule and asking ourselves when the Patriots will win another game. Wasn't it only a few weeks ago that the Patriots were the consensus best team in the NFL? Isn't this essentially the identical roster and coaching staff that won 10 straight games at the end of last season? The same team that punished the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the Rams in the Super Dome?

After an off season which saw the Patriots receive little to no respect after winning it all, the Patriots returned 10 of 11 starters on each side of the ball to Bryant College seeking to prove to the world that they were no fluke in 2001. Over/under 8.5 wins in Vegas? We'll show 'em! Underdogs in our home opener to the Steelers? How dare they?

Every motivational gimmick you could imagine was put in place by the coaching staff to ensure the Patriots remained hungry. From "targeting September" and "0-0" t-shirts to a moving presentation from former Celtic Bill Russell on repeating as Champions to all of the players publicly stating that their Super Bowl rings had been stored away and "forgotten" in safe deposit boxes across the country.

Three weeks into the regular season, all of that seemed to have worked like a charm. The Patriots pounded the favored Steelers and Jets in succession, and then rang up 41 points in an overtime shootout victory over the Chiefs. Sure the defense looked poor in the 4th quarter, but that was just a fluke, right? Bledsoe was lighting it up in Buffalo, yet Brady was playing even better. At 3-0, the Patriots had proven to everyone once and for all that they were for real, and Brady was proving the Patriots to be geniuses for trading away Bledsoe, tearing up Brady's paltry contract and awarding him a new, 4-year $28 million deal.

Patriot Nation was bursting with pride, optimism, and quite a few "I told you so's." A personal highlight for me was a Jets fan seated behind me in the Meadowlands asking me in earnest, "so when will this Patriots team lose a game? I knew they were good, but not this good." This from the same group of fans who had ushered me out of the Meadowlands with boos and jeers so many times in the past.

After week 3, the Patriots had supposedly received their "wake up call" from Priest Holmes. Had the Patriots been exposed? Was the defense overconfident? Not to worry - Belichick would go back to the drawing board and get it right. The following week the Patriots lost their first game in 10 months, and for the 2nd consecutive game surrendered more than 17 points on defense, a mendoza line that had previous to the Chiefs game not been crossed in 13 consecutive games dating back to November of 2001. The offense moved the ball up and down the field, but was done in by costly turnovers from Tom Brady and the pass happy offense.

Not to worry again. The Pats were 3-1, and if the Chiefs game had not sufficed as a wake up call, perhaps getting reacquainted with defeat would get the Patriots hungry again. Heading to Miami, Patriot Nation was not assuming victory, but was fully in the rights to expect a classic clash of AFC titans. I was in Miami that day to witness the carnage, but rather than dwell on it in my last column, I chose instead to chalk up the loss as a "tough one on the road" and instead wrote about looking forward to the 3-2 Pats getting back on track at home.

Now we know that playing away from home had nothing to do with the Patriots pitiful performance in Miami. Take some solace in the fact that the Patriots lost to the 4-1 (now 5-1) out-of-conference Packers, for it's unlikely the Patriots could have beaten anybody last Sunday, including the Bengals or Texans of Jets. I'm being dead serious. In the NFL, a team cannot focus on defeating their opponent when they're too busy beating themselves. As I said in one of my previous columns prior to the Pats 1st loss of the season, the difference between the best and worst teams in this league can easily be closed by poor execution on the part of the former. The Patriots have proved that point loud and clear.


Have the Patriots forgotten how they won last year? I know that Belichick has focused on putting 2001 behind the team and emphasizing that 2002 is a new year, but did they have to burn the playbook and film footage in the process? You can't blame a free agency raid or turnover in the coaching staff here. As I said before, this is essentially the same exact team, arguably even more talented, as last year.

Coming off a 5-11 campaign in 2000 and starting out 2001 0-2, Bledsoe bashers were out in full force. Bledsoe supporters, including myself, cited that Bledsoe was being asked to win or lose games all on his own, and that wasn't fair. What did Bledsoe have to do with the fact that Corey Dillon ran wild in week 1 while Jon Kitna was made to look like Joe Montana? Was it Bledsoe's fault that the offensive line could neither run block nor protect the passer?

Everything changed when Bledsoe went to the sideline in week 2 with an injury that effectively ended his career in a Patriot uniform, and I do mean everything. In came an unknown and untested Tom Brady behind center, and suddenly the other 21 players on the field didn't have #11 to go out there and win the game for them. In Brady's first start, the Patriots pounded the high scoring and undefeated Colts 44-13. The Pats rushed the ball 38 times in that contest, with Antowain Smith breaking out with 94 yards on 22 carries and two rushing touchdowns.

The defense was smothering, intercepting Manning 3 times, forced 2 fumbles from James, and scored two touchdowns. Brady? He was only asked to put the ball in the air 23 times, rarely throwing down the field. He completed 13 of those passes for a modest 168 yards. That's how you win. Even Brett Favre, perhaps the best to ever play the position, had similar stats in the win last Sunday, going 17 for 27 for just 147 yards. The Packers are 5-1, and Favre, as great as he is, is just one reason, not THE reason. Are the Dolphins 5-1 thanks to Jay Fiedler? Are the Chargers 5-1 on the arm of Drew Breese? Are the Saints and 49ers in first place due solely to the efforts of Brooks and Garcia? Are you reading this Charlie Weis? (We know that readers come over to from a server, but what we don't know is if it's the players, the coaches, or the Gillette Stadium field maintenance crew.)

Sure you need your quarterback to bail you out now and then, and the Patriots needed Brady to do that just three times in his 17 starts last season. Brady had to win the game with his arm against the Chargers in week 5 (364 yards), in the 4th quarter and OT in the snow against the Raiders, and in the final drive of the Super Bowl, before which Brady had thrown for less than 100 yards.

The Patriots enjoyed a stellar 14-3 record under Tom Brady, and it truly was a total team effort - offense, defense and special teams. Every player on every unit had their role, and did their jobs well. The Patriots rushing offense didn't scare many defenses, but was rarely abandoned, begetting consistent respect. Brady was rarely asked to take chances, and he consequently made very few mistakes (the game at Denver being a harsh exception).

The defense was solid in the redzone, and because the offense didn't turn the ball over, the D was rarely asked to defend a short field. The Patriots were frequently in the lead over those 17 weeks, and when trailing, didn't trail by much. Opposing ball carries averaging less than 3 yards per rush will not get the ball 36 times when that's the case.

Did the Patriots win their first game last season because Brady was a better quarterback than Bledsoe, or because the rest of the team stepped to the plate and didn't rely on a 50-pass offense to win the game? In their first two losses, the Patriots threw the ball 76 times and rushed just 41 times. Was this Bledsoe's doing?

I give Brady all the credit in the world for his performance last season, and even for his execution of the game plans in the first three weeks of this season. What we've seen the past few weeks, however, is Tommy Hodson-esque. Is Brady a terrible quarterback? We all know better. The same thing is happening to him that happened to Drew in his last few years here - Brady is being asked to do it all, and he simply can't.

There are numerous examples of this throughout NFL history, none more prominent and overused than John Elway and Dan Marino. Both rewrote the record books, but neither enjoyed much team success until they got a running game and a defense to take the pressure off of them. There are those who say Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls because of Terrell Davis. I say Davis won the Super Bowl because of John Elway, but that Elway could not have done it without him. Like Brady in Super Bowl XXXVI, Elway won his first championship with less than 200 yards passing.

The Patriots didn't just change quarterbacks after Drew's injury last season, they changed their entire philosophy. Why that philosophy has been completely abandoned is a very fair question to ask of Bill Belichick, but the Patriots resident genius doesn't seem to be in the mood to be 2nd guessed these days.

Case in point…

In the first half on Sunday, the Patriots ran 38 plays from scrimmage, not including penalties, one punt, and a made field goal. Only 8 of those 38 plays were handoffs to either Smith, Faulk, or Marc Edwards, with the 8th and final carry of the half coming on a draw play on 2nd and 10 from their own 20 with 0:22 left. Had the Packers banged-up 25th ranked rush defense shut down the New England ground attack?

On the Patriots first possession, Smith carried the ball just once; on a 2nd and 5 for 8 yards right up the gut following 4 consecutive passes to start the game. Two plays later Brady was intercepted by a player who was not in the NFL earlier in the week. On the Patriots next possession, which ended in the Patriots only punt of the half, Smith again got the ball just once, again going right up the gut on a 2nd and 5, this time for 10 yards. Two plays later Faulk churned out 9 yards on 2nd and 10 following an incomplete long pass down the right sideline on 1st down.

When the Patriots got the ball on their 3rd possession of a then scoreless game, Smith had carried two times for 18 yards, and Faulk twice for 11 yards. The Patriots then handed off to Smith just twice on this possession, each time on first down for no gain. Apparently Weis had seen enough, for the next time Smith received a handoff, the 2nd half was 5 minutes old and the Patriots were trailing 14-3. On six first half possessions, only once did the Patriots punt. Three drives ended in turnovers, all attributable to the passing game. The defense deserves some blame pie as well here, but your offense cannot put Brett Favre on a short field three times in one half, especially not on your own 8-yard line.

When it was all said and done, Tom Brady had thrown 44 passes, been sacked twice, and picked off three times. Again, this was against one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL. Smith did finish the game with 75 yards on 13 carries, but many of those came in the 4th quarter when the Packers were more than content to allow the Patriots to keep the ball on the ground in an all-but-decided affair.

Having Brady air it out worked great against the Steelers, but as it turns out, almost anything that any team has thrown at the Steelers defense is working. Ditto for the Jets and Chiefs, who like the Steelers have trouble stopping anyone's anything. Can you therefore use the success the Patriots enjoyed throwing the ball against those defenses as any sort of barometer? Not such a difficult quandary to determine why the same formula didn't fare so well against the better defenses in San Diego and Miami.

The Packers' defense? This is what really scares me. Even one of the Packers defensive positional coaches, who shall remain nameless, literally said "bet it all on New England" in jest during a private conversation with someone I know back here in Massachusetts. This coach did not know how his defense could be expected to slow the New England attack while missing 3 starters in the secondary and both defensive ends. How is it the Patriots were able to score only 3 points of consequence on this team in their own stadium? That is truly pathetic - an effort not unlike the dark ages of the Rod Rust and Dick McPherson eras where the Patriots were outclassed week in and week out.

Talk is cheap...

I for one am tired of hearing the standard quotes that come out of every locker room in the NFL during times like these. "We need to get back to basics." "We need to emphasize fundamentals and eliminate the mental errors." "Our backs are against the wall, and it's time for this team to respond." My favorite is the ol' "each of needs to look at themselves in the mirror and improve their own game." These are the quotes that filled the pages of the NY Post and NY Times after the Patriots took apart the Jets in week 2. The Jets have gone 0-3 since.

The Patriots have been saying the same things since the KC game, and that talk has proven to be just that - talk. If the teams response to the pathetic showing in Miami was what we saw on the field last Sunday, why should we expect things to be any different against Denver? Do they "really mean it" this time?

Belichick was one individual saying just that. He's a "show me" kind of guy, and he made the same point in his Monday press conference. "We can thrown down a lot of buzz words and catch phrases and talk about some philosophy or some great revolution, but until it happens on Sunday afternoon it won't have much value or meaning." Amen to that!

The bye week could not possibly have come at a better time. I'm trying to think of any time in the past where I was glad that the Patriots were not going to be playing the following week. The team desperately needs this time to regroup. They are now 2 games behind Miami, and although the season is not even half over, it's damn close to desperation time if the Pats want to be contenders for the post season.

The Patriots will next face a Denver team with one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Broncos did drop a heartbreaker to Miami at home last week, but the defense only surrendered 17 of the 24 points, holding Ricky Williams to just 49 yards on 20 carries. Denver next heads out on the road to face division rival Kansas City. What if Denver loses that game to drop to 4-3? The game in New England on the 27th then becomes a must win for both sides, not a good position for the plummeting Patriots to be in as they seek to get back on track.

Although Miami will be without Jay Fiedler for at least 4 weeks, the Dolphins, as any winning organization knows, do not rely on their quarterback to win games. I fully expect Ray Lucas to pick right up where Fielder left off against the Bills next week. As I touched on in my last column, the Dolphins will have to prove their mettle on the road in November and December, but that win in Denver for them was huge.

To win the division, the Patriots will need to duplicate Miami's feat by winning a tough road game (Oakland?), and in addition hope that Miami drops a winnable game at home (Chicago?). That's just to get back to even. To get ahead, the Pats need Miami to hiccup on the road in either New York or Buffalo while the Patriots sweep those two contests.

Get real...

How can I talk such nonsense after the past two games and a murderous road trip right behind the Denver home game? As Jim Mora said so poignantly last season of his sliding Colts, "Playoffs? Playoffs? We're just trying to win a damn game!" We all know what this team is capable of, and that's what's really frustrating. If you didn't see for yourself what this team accomplished last season, you'd swear you were watching a team on a collision course with a 6-10 season. Perhaps they are, but I'm not ready to concede that just yet.

Already those who maintained that the 2001 Patriots were a "fluke" are back up on their soapboxes, and based on the first 6 weeks of this season, the Patriots don't have much of an argument. Not only has the 3 game skid taken it's toll on perceptions, but even the Patriots victories over the Steelers and Jets don't appear today to be what they were thought to be after week 2. The Steelers are now 2-3 and have yet to beat a winning team while the Jets are in the midst of a Kotitian tailspin. Should the Patriots finish this season as just the 7th Super Bowl Champion to fail to finish above .500 the next season, the "fluke" talk will never, ever go away.

We're right back to where we started from when training camp began. Everyone doubts the defending champions. No one is picking them to win the division, and many have them pegged for 3rd place behind the resurgent Bills, missing the playoffs all together. Depending on how the Broncos fair in KC next Sunday, it's not at all out of the question that the Patriots will once again be underdogs on their home field.

If this doesn't motivate the Patriots, then nothing will. I am disgusted by what I saw in Miami and in the past weeks. Perhaps I'm delusional, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel on this team. They did it last year, and they can do it again, but not without some drastic, and I do mean drastic, rethinking during the bye week. It wasn't as good as it looked when they were 3-0, and I do believe it's not as bad as it's looked in going 0-3 since.

The champs have not suddenly become chumps. The genius has not suddenly become an idiot. It's about time they prove it - again - by figuring out what in the world has gone so wrong so fast. If I knew the answer that question, I wouldn't be worried about funding a college education for my three kids 15 years from now.

See you next week.