Thursday, November 3, 2011

Musical Chairs: The Stamford Bridge Strikeforce

Andre Villas-Boas inherited an enigma of attacking players when he took over the Blues' hotseat. What should he do with each of them?

Fernando Torres (#9): When you pay 50 million for a player with a proven pedigree in the Premier League and (theoretically) six good years left in his career, you build your team around him. While you can’t ever bank on who the manager will be, you can guarantee Torres will be the first name on the team sheet for the next few years.
What should happen: Torres is finally recovering some form. He should stay, be pampered and have players brought in who play his way.
What will happen: Probably exactly that, barring a major injury or another scoring drought.

Didier Drogba (#11): With not a bang but a whimper, Drogba’s Chelsea career is ending. He’s started four games in the league this season, and all of them have been when Torres was suspended or injured. Three more substitutes appearances, but only one goal in total. He looks slow and old, and sentimentality aside, it’s time.
What should happen: Cash in this January! If Drogba continues to play this poorly—and this infrequently—the lucrative offers will dry up. See if Marseille can finally pay way too much for their old savior.
What will happen: He’ll stay and rot on the bench ‘til he’s 36 (3 years), playing only in Carling Cup matches. See Fereira, Paolo.

Romelu Lukaku (#18): The kid has talent. Chelsea probably overpaid for the Anderlecht wunderkind, but how could they not? They were buying the story, too; including the priceless Youtube video of Lukaku crying on a Bridge visit.
What should happen: The ‘ultimate Chelsea fan’ should stay for his whole career, score bags of goals and take a spot on the touchline.
What will happen: It’s hard to say, but I fear the money and stardom will get to him and he’ll sell out for La Liga once he’s fully developed.

Salomon Kalou (#21): After enough time, potential is crystallized and becomes ability. Kalou’s not that young anymore, and he still hasn’t developed into anything near a complete player.
What should happen: Like Drogba, he should be sold in January to any willing bidder. A team like Stoke or Sunderland would be a great fit for Kalou.
What will happen: He’ll stay through the season and ship out to France or Italy.

Daniel Sturridge (#23): One of my favorite things about AVB’s reign is that he has finally kept Daniel Sturridge on the payroll. Sturridge—who just received his first England call up—is among the most talented players in the league. He is a bit rash in his decision making, but that makes him even harder to defend.
What should happen: He’s excelled out on the wing, cutting inside—keep him there! He and Lukaku are the future.
What will happen: It depends on the manager. AVB loves him, but a manager who prefers more traditional wingers would probably use him as a deputy for Torres, which would result in a move.

Nicolas Anelka (#39): It’s bittersweet, because Anelka has finally found a home for his restless heart in West London. He’s been a solid player for Chelsea since signing from Bolton, discounting some big errors in crucial moments. Still, 33 years old is too old for a role player—it’d be better to keep someone with more upside.
What should happen: Keep him ‘til the summer.
What will happen: Probably that. Drogba is declining faster, and Anelka has some dynamism off the bench. The new style of play also suits him more than Didier. He’ll cash in with a big money move Stateside, or to Qatar.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Tebow, Suh, and Your Mailman

On Sunday morning, the article previewing the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions game highlighted a buzz-worthy second year player on either side. From the Lions, it was bruising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. On the Broncos side was Tim Tebow, the earnest athlete-cum-quarterback. The headline: “Good vs. Evil.”

It was certainly a leap, but the roots were basically in place. The reputation of being a ‘dirty’ player has been thrust upon Suh, an unapologetic guy in a position that demands brute force. Conversely, there is Tim Tebow: a player with less physical ability and technique than most in the league, but a sparkling public image.

The Lions dominated the game, winning 45-10 and shutting down Tebow. After the game, Suh responded to the article with a shrug.

"The league did do that for whatever reason. Evil prevails," he said. "Hopefully we're going to continue to keep it that way if that's the way they want to perceive us as. For me personally, it means nothing to me. I'm going to continue to be me, I know who I am, I'm not an evil person. I may not be a good person in some people's eyes. [But] I'm going to continue to play hard."

On the surface, it seems a markedly poised and innocuous reaction from a player cast as a villain by his own league. In actuality, though, it fits with Suh’s off-field demeanor; maybe he’s no Tebow, but he’s not exactly Voldemort, either.

Suh is the latest unlucky recipient of hasty branding in a media-frenzied arena. In the 24-hour news (and sports) cycle, the character of players is regular fodder for talk radio. The conclusions are snap judgments; incomplete and hard to shake, they are widely accepted as truth by a public that doesn’t have the time or the resources to evaluate a player’s off-field decisions on their own. As a result, it’s safe to say a lot more kids will be hanging up Tim Tebow posters than Ndamukong Suh ones.

But is it fair to judge a player’s character at all? More importantly, is it a good idea for kids to view professional athletes as role models--no matter what their media image is? The answer is--or should be--no to both.

Professional athletes should be evaluated solely on their in-game performance. All of these external attributes we’ve assigned to them are unfair and slanted by reporters’ and writers’ biases. But most significantly, they’re irrelevant.

Players sign up for a certain level or transparency and scrutiny when they enter the profession. It comes with the territory of being in the public arena. But as long as their off-the-field choices don’t impact their on-field results, we shouldn’t be digging deeper.

What if we judged our mailman the same way? As long as he delivers your new Netflix movie on time, you don’t care what sort of weird or sinister things he may do behind dark curtains at home. That’s his prerogative. As long as he doesn’t say anything too inflammatory during your weekly 15-second conversation, you’ll never think about his character. Even if he did make some dark, bigoted remark under his breath, you’d probably take your mail and brush it off--oh, that’s just old racist Harry.

But regardless of that blatant double-standard, it’s important to draw a line between immoral acts and regrettable immaturity. Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring: immoral. Dez Bryant’s pants? Juvenile, but essentially harmless.

There needs to be some sort of Character Gradient for people in the public arena. Politicians, for example, must be judged on their values and their strength of character. This is independent of their political affiliation--it is quite simply part of their job. After all, they are elected. Movie stars would be in the middle, because their integrity has an occasionally negligible influence on their work. Athletes would be on the other end.

With that in mind, parents should dissuade their children from idolizing sports stars. Admittedly, it won’t work. But we should try. Kids should be encouraged to support teams instead of individuals. When that fails, parents should push for the separation of Game and State. And when that also fails, parents must desperately champion the perceived Good Guys--earnest, good-looking success stories who start charities with names based on puns about the position they play. Players who always say the right thing in press conferences by saying nothing of substance. Players who show us it’s okay to cry--but only when you win a championship or tear your ACL.

Okay, jibes aside, and back to the point: kids are going to emulate athletes. So, for our kids and for ourselves, we must separate the malicious from the ignorant. We must not jump to conclusions based on incomplete news stories or paparazzi output or blinkered headlines. Or else we’ve got to start asking our mailman what he tips at restaurants.

Friday, October 28, 2011


The Premier League returns this weekend with a slate of mouth-watering fixtures. Let's outline what to watch for and what to expect.

Chelsea v. Arsenal

Prediction: RVP scores, but Arsenal loses. Van Persie has been just about the only thing that has gone Arsene Wenger's way this season. His goal-scoring form will continue at Stamford Bridge on Saturday afternoon, but Andre Villas-Boas will emerge victorious.

What to watch for: Fernando Torres returns from a three-match domestic ban for this game. He had been in his best form in years prior to the suspension, so watch for him to light it up.

Everton v. Man United

Prediction: United get back to winning ways. The Reds certainly look vulnerable, and Everton are one of the hardest teams in the league to face away from home, so maybe this is more of a bold prediction than it seems. Ferguson will accept nothing less than three points, though.

What to watch for: Vidic inexplicably missed last weekend's derby with Man City--and the final score showed how vital he can be. Does he return? And does Ferguson ever explain his absence?

Man City v. Wolves

Prediction: City scores another handful. I want so badly to call for a draw here, but I can't. I do think last week's result was generous for City, even though they were the better side. They are not the best team in the league yet--but Wolves are so woeful that anything less than a three goal defeat is naive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Alone in a Crowd

On Fan Appreciation night, the team from Boston hobbled across the finish line, slumping to another humiliating defeat at home. It was a fitting end to an infamous season--hobbled by injury and underperformance, a stacked team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Outside of the stadium, nobody noticed.

Boston is generally revered as the current epicenter of sports success. Across the four ‘major’ sports in the United States, the city (and surrounding area) has claimed seven titles and 29 playoff berths since 2001. Last month, ESPN the magazine’s cover hailed it as ‘America’s Most Dominant Sports City.’

The New England Revolution are the outlier. In a town where titles talk, the Revolution have never won the league. Two years in a row, they haven’t even made the playoffs.

While the Red Sox hold the record for most consecutive sell-outs in MLB, the Revs struggle to seat 14,000 in a 82,000 seat stadium. Their home games are remarkable in their unremarkable characteristics--how fast you can get in and out of the parking lot, the availability of tickets, and the ease with which you can make out the chatter on the field.

After watching the dejected 2011 team hang their heads as they left the field to near-silence, the thought pervaded--why doesn’t Boston care about the Revolution?

Some will try to cite the facile--soccer hasn’t taken off in America. This vague argument of the turn of the millennium is now plainly untrue: median and average attendance figures in the MLS are at an all-time high. Teams like the Portland Timbers, the Seattle Sounders, and Toronto FC consistently sell out their matches. Seattle averages more than 37,000 fans per game--more than triple the Revolution. Sporting Kansas City registered 70% growth in ticket sales this season. MLS attendance averages have now leapfrogged both the NBA and the NHL--only trailing MLB and the NFL.

It’s not a case of building a fan base, either. The Revolution is one of only ten “charter” teams in MLS. Most of the teams that break the attendance records are actually the newer teams, like Seattle and Portland. Exposure to the locality is also in the Revs favor. Get this: the Revolution is the only MLS team in the league’s history to have every single home match televised.

Let’s take a look at the team, then. The head coach, Steve Nicol, has some commonalities with recently ousted Red Sox manager Terry Francona--both presided over their respective team’s most successful periods before eventually sliding into the mire. Francona led the Red Sox to two World Series titles; Nicol took the Revs to the finals four times.

Nicol is one of the original faces of the MLS. Since taking over full-time in 2002, the team only finished outside third place in the regular season three times--in this golden period, the Revs made at least the Conference semi-finals eight years in a row.

Nicol’s reputation preceded him--he’s a Liverpool legend, voted 39th in a fan poll of favorite LFC players. A likable guy with a big reputation, he earned the honor of the Football Writers’ Footballer of the Year in 1989, bestowed upon the experts’ pick for best player in the English Premier League. Does any of this matter for the Revolution? In a word: yes.

In any sport, but particularly a fledgling league with enormous potential for growth, the public perception of a head coach is vital. The league is trying to attract top young talent; once lured, the players often decide based on the coach.

Nicol has cemented this idea, even through the unsuccessful past two seasons. This year specifically, Nicol attracted one of the premier American talents: Benny Feilhaber. Feilhaber could be likened to Steve Nash--he’s a relatively small, graceful player with a remarkable gift for playmaking. At times he’s been touted as the “future” of American soccer, but after injury problems, he was looking to rebuild in the MLS. He chose Nicol’s Revolution, despite the fact that the team was floundering.

Feilhaber doesn’t have the prestige of David Beckham, but a marquee signing usually means public attention. For Benny and the Revs, it didn’t. Further on in the season, they were given a new opportunity to try and capture the local eye; Nicol gave 16-year old Leominster High School student Diego Fagundez his debut. And he scored.

The marketability of the moment was absurd, and the Revs tried to capitalize. Diego-centric promotions abounded, but there was only a small ripple of attention.

In this state, the season ended, with the Revs registering their worst season in history. Reports of their troubles went unnoticed, buried under inexorable dissections of beer in the Red Sox clubhouse and petulant sniping in the NBA labor negotiations. Come March, Nicol and the boys will be back, and they’ll toil away in a stadium that feels as rented as the support.

Friday, October 21, 2011


This weekend marks the ninth round of the Premier League calendar. All eyes will be on Manchester on Sunday, as first-place United hosts second-place City. Which players have been most significant thus far--and which have been most disappointing?

Sergio Aguero:
Aguero has been in blistering form since his transfer to Man City, scoring eight goals in only seven games for the Citizens. This City side has not lacked dynamic strikers, but the caustic presence and precipitous decline of Carlos Tevez means that Aguero is already a fan favorite, and one to watch in any match.

Juan Mata:
Chelsea's number 10 has been everything that Andre Villas-Boas could have hoped for when he poached Mata from underneath Arsenal's nose this August. One goal and three assists through six games isn't staggering statistically, but the stark change of Chelsea's speed of play is clear to anyone who watches the Spain international at Stamford Bridge.

Cheik Tioté:
Again, his numbers won't warrant any head-turning, but--if you can't tell--I don't put much stock in most football statistics, particularly for midfielders. Tioté has been the best holding midfielder in the division thus far, anchoring a surprisingly stout Newcastle midfield. His link-up play between the defense and the attack is more than sound, but his ball-winning evokes Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane in its tenacity. He's been a big factor in the Magpies ascent to fourth place.

Carlos Tevez:
Where to start? City's ex-talisman has only featured in three matches so far, and has no goals or assists through those games. Worse, though, has been his off-the-field contributions--publicly demanding a transfer in August and then creating widespread strife after no club could meet his valuation. The latest debacle was on the bench at Bayern, where Tevez refused to come on as a substitute, prompting City manager Roberto Mancini to say that Tevez "will never play for the club again."

Gareth Bale:
The Welsh winger hasn't been terrible, but he's been given an increasingly pivotal role in a talented Spurs midfield and simply hasn't been up to snuff. He's battled some minor injuries but at the moment the ability and turn of pace that saw Bale torching Maicon at the San Siro has gone missing.

Andy Carroll:
As Fernando Torres will tell you, breaking transfer records and not scoring as a striker is a recipe for some grief. Carroll broke the record for a British player with his 35 million pound move to 'Pool, but he's looked--as many predicted--like the player he largely was at Newcastle: a talented, strong center forward with some potential. Potential can only cut it for so long.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pivotal Pats

The Patriots entered their bye week at five and one, looking like one of the strongest teams in the league and probably the best in the AFC. Brady, as you'd expect, has been instrumental to their success, but which other players will be most important going forward?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The Patriots are trying to balance their attack, which means more touches for the Law Firm. He's responded well thus far--he rushed for a career high 136 yards against the Jets' stout run defense. Most importantly: he knows how to hold on to the ball. Turnovers have cost the Patriots dearly, creating the defeat against Buffalo and nearly another against Dallas.

Albert Haynesworth. I'm with you, Pats fans--he looks slow and out of shape, like he's been gobbling up Burger King instead of opposing linemen. But against the Cowboys, when he was reported to finally be healthy, he looked sharper, and even put Romo under some pressure when the Belichick dialed up the blitz. Two tackles--his current total for the season--is embarrassing, but if Haynesworth can return to anywhere close to his old ability, he will certainly be an asset.

Chad Ochocinco. I had to do these two back to back. Listen, I'm not making the case that Ochocinco will finish the season as a top receiver, nor am I suggesting that the Patriots can't win without him. But if Ocho does emerge, then the receiving corps becomes considerably more flexible--so far, Welker and Hernandez have been our most dangerous deep threats.

Jerod Mayo. He's an obvious selection. The Patriots have missed their defensive leader, and fill-in Gary Guyton has been mediocre. Mayo should be healthy enough to return from injury after the bye, and that could be the final piece of the puzzle for a defensive that is growing in confidence.

Rob Gronkowski. Another no-brainer, maybe, but bear with me: since Hernandez has returned from injury, Gronkowski's role has shifted towards run blocking. It's yet another thing he does exceptionally well, and he's still getting looks from Brady in important moments. But the Patriots have been at their most dangerous--and most versatile--with both tight ends running routes.

(HONORABLE MENTION: Scott O'Brien. I couldn't technically include him in this list, because he's not a player, but the Patriots' special teams coach needs to make some changes. They have looked extremely vulnerable on kick and punt returns--the coverage must be examined.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tom Brady and the Irrelevant Receiver

This year has been a curious one for Tom Brady. His perennial rival Peyton Manning hasn’t taken a snap, and consequently, the Colts are winless through six games. Brady’s been throwing picks—eight through six games, double what he threw in all of last season. Stranger still, Brady and the Patriots lost to the Bills. The Bills are four-and-two.

As strange as it’s been, on Sunday evening you could have found Brady in the usual place: leading the Patriots offense down the field for a decisive fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Brady’s made such a habit of it that his teammates—along with everyone in New England—sort of felt like it was coming.

“I’m not saying you get used to it,” Brady’s backup, Brian Hoyer said afterwards. “But you almost expect it.”

The touchdown pass Brady threw with 22 seconds left on the clock was his 33rd game winning drive. Despite the fact that the Patriots hadn’t scored a point in the second half, when Brady got the ball with 2:31 to play, the outcome seemed inevitable. The real question: who would Brady look to with the game on the line?

Brady reportedly took his receiving corps aside and told them to stay sharp and avoid stupid mistakes. On the critical play, Brady read the coverage and altered the routes, looking to Aaron Hernandez. The same Aaron Hernandez who flubbed an easy catch in the endzone against the Jets, resulting in an interception. Hernandez, who earlier in the game had surrendered the Patriots’ first offensive fumble of the season.

The fact that Brady didn’t look to Wes Welker illustrates an interesting fact of this era of the New England offense: with the ball in Brady’s hands, it almost doesn’t matter which players line up at wide receiver.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying that Zoltan Mesko could do Welker’s job, nor am I suggesting that the Patriots receivers, past and present, are not selected based on talents and specific attributes. Chad Ochocinco’s brief Patriots career shows that not anyone can play in this offense.

In nine full seasons as the Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady has thrown for at least 3500 yards and 23 touchdowns every season. He’s broken many of the most prestigious passing records in the league and he’s won three rings. And in those nine seasons, six different receivers have finished a season leading the team in receiving yards.

You won’t find freaks of nature like Megatron or Andre Johnson in those ranks. You’ll see players like Deion Branch—five-foot-nine and 195 pounds. Then there’s Wes Welker, Brady’s leading receiver for this season and the previous two years; he’s five-nine, he weighs 185, and he wasn’t drafted or even invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Sure, Randy Moss was a killer athlete, but he was the epitome of wasted talent until he linked up with Brady.

In 2010, Bill Belichick traded away Moss, who had 13 receiving touchdowns the season prior (2nd place: Welker with four). In those days, the Patriots offense was Brady to Moss—it was their connection that yielded the record-obliterating 16-0 regular season in 2008. So what would Brady do without his feature target? He adapted, finished the season with 36 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and won the MVP award.

Conversely, what did Moss do? He went to Minnesota, where in four weeks he lauded the Patriots, insulted the head coach, and chewed out the owner of a local restaurant. He was waived by the Vikings and picked up by Tennessee, who used him primarily as a decoy. In eight games with the Titans, he had six receptions and no touchdowns.

This season, Brady is on pace to throw for 42 touchdowns, while also shattering the single-season yardage record—he’s on pace for 5768 yards. He has done so without a marquee wideout (Welker has developed into one of the best in the game, but before this season he played almost solely as a slot receiver). The Patriots have shifted their passing game in accordance with the weapons they have, namely, their talented tight ends and Welker’s versatility.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in cringing every time that Welker lines up for a punt return, unpleasantly reliving his MCL/ACL injury from a couple years ago. But if he goes down again, the Patriots will survive. Tom Brady will excel no matter who lines up beside him.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

PATRIOTS REPORT CARD: vs. New York Jets, Week 5


QB: B+. For the first time in the season, the Patriots ran the ball more than they threw it. This allowed Brady to take a backseat in the game, but he was still effective and reliable, throwing for 321 yards and a touchdown and making few mistakes.

RB: A. BenJarvus Green-Ellis had a career day, rushing for 136 yards and a touchdown. There was one point in the game where Benny was seen kneeling on the field, catching his breath as the game went to a commercial break. Never in his Patriots career had the Law Firm been so heavily used; never in his career has Green-Ellis fumbled in the Patriots uniform.

RECEIVERS: B-. Welker had a quiet day under the coverage of Darrel Revis, excluding a 73-yard dash that nearly ended in the end zone when Revis left him to the safety. Deion Branch had a solid day, including a special touchdown where he roasted Antonio Cromartie. Ochocinco chipped in with two catches.

OL: A-. These guys are the most consistent performers on the team. Left Brady with plenty of time when he dropped back to past, and opened big gaps for Green-Ellis all afternoon. Brady was sacked four times, which is a big number, but the Jets defense is dangerous, and Brady takes his sweet time.

DL: B-. Still underperforming in the pass rush, but held the run game to a quiet day. Wilfork and Carter were both solid, and Mark Anderson had a sack and half. Haynesworth was back from injury, but had no tackles and looked slow.

LB: C. Jerod Mayo, an emotional leader on the field, was injured and was missed. Gary Guyton did reasonably well in his absence, but the other LBs looked out of sorts on a number of plays.

DB: B. The secondary had their best day of the season thus far, only allowing 166 yards and two touchdowns to the Jets passing offense. With that said, the Jets inexplicably chose to continually try and run on the Patriots defense, despite the fact that the Patriots pass defense was the worst in the league entering the game

STs: C-. Kick defense was atrocious in this game. The Jets’ Joe McKnight missed a kick return TD only because of McCourty’s hustle, but McKnight still went for 88 yards. He had another return for 43 yards. Without these big chunks of field position, maybe the defense could have had an even more impressive game.

COACHING: A-. Coach Belichick was stellar in the latest installment of this heated rivalry, overturning two pivotal plays with challenges and perpetuating the offensive balance that the Patriots are trying to achieve.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Remembering the Joy

After reading Brian Phillips’ brilliant piece on hyperfandom in soccer, I was reluctantly reading the columns and came upon this one: “…Anyway, the only thing worse than hyperpartisanship is overintellectualising a simple game for simple folk [sic].”

It’s true: before the age of the internet, before the age of the Barclays Premier League, soccer was a blue-collar game played without pretense or pomp. Fans went to the same pub at lunchtime on every Saturday to support their local club. Then, win or lose, they went home to their lives. There weren’t ubiquitous replica jerseys, there wasn’t sports talk radio—football was simple. It occurred to me that this argument could probably be transplanted to any sport: are over-analysis, constant blogging and re-tweeting, and four hour NFL pregame shows taking us away from the elemental joy of being a sports fan?

For me, my life as a sports fan began as a child on the couch with my dad: falling asleep in the late innings of Tuesday night Red Sox games was as much a part of my childhood as school or birthdays. This suggests inheritance and reinforcement, nature and nurture—the slow drying of the wet cement of personality.

In this way, sports are as simple and deeply-ingrained as a love for diner food or a mistrust of cats. Watching sports is just something I like to do.

The problem is this: just to get back to that point, that basic truth, a sports fan must strip away countless hours of media saturation, all the prejudicial notions about fans of certain teams from certain cities, every piece of Danny Woodhead trivia locked away for a bar bet. A sports fan must look past everything that, as a sports fan, they are subjected to on a daily basis.

To use myself as an example again: on Transfer Deadline Day for the English Premier League, I literally comb through every internet message board I can find, every CoverIt Live Clockwatch, just to see who Chelsea might be in the market for. I draw up formations, consider personnel changes, how new acquisitions would match up against rivals. But when I look back on the August 31 of every year, which should—in theory—be automatically one of the most exciting days of the football calendar, did I ever enjoy it? No, not really.

My fondest memories as a Chelsea fan are days when I drag myself out of bed for the early game, 8:15 a.m. kickoffs on Sunday mornings, and quietly watch a relatively unimportant match against Wigan or Blackburn with a cup of coffee. Moments I remember where I wasn’t analyzing anything—I was just watching the team that I support play the game that I love.

Ultimately, I don’t know if it’s possible to reduce our sports consumption back to its most basic form. Our reality is that these shows, these websites, these bloggers exist because we keep going back. And why wouldn’t we? If the joy we experience watching the Patriots play for three hours once a week can be replicated and reproduced daily, hourly, then of course we will be there. Hell yes.

But maybe, if we could practice some degree of moderation, the simple pleasure would be that much more tangible. Maybe we could treat our favorite teams, our favorite sports, like our favorite dish at a restaurant. Don’t order it every night, because sooner or later it starts to lose flavor.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

THREE AND OUT: What We've Learned

Four weeks into the 2011 season, and the Patriots stand at three-and-one. What have we learned about this year's edition?


Brady's Back
Coming off an MVP-winning season, Brady has been as sharp as ever, smashing passing records along the way. Through the first four games, he broke the NFL record for yardage in a three-game stretch, passed Joe Montana in career touchdowns, and is on pace to through for 7,000 yards and nearly 60 touchdowns. Yeah, we'll forget about the flukey game in Buffalo.

Might at Tight End
After Aaron Hernandez went down with an MCL sprain in week two, Rob Gronkowski has had to carry even more of the offensive burden. He's done so beautifully, putting up remarkable receiving numbers when called up, while also blocking well when the run game is used.

Balance an Option
After Brady's four interception debacle against the Bills, Coach Belichick shifted some of the onus to the run game in Oakland. The Patriots hadn't looked for this type of balance in the previous games, but their offense benefitted, running the ball 30 times and throwing it the same number.


Shoddy Defense
Entering week four, the Patriots held the unenviable distinction of the league's worst defense. They looked better in Oakland, largely shutting down a dangerous run game, but it was the first time the Pats had held an opposing team to less than 20 points.

Questionable Acquisitions
The big name off-season pickups of Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco haven't taken off. In fact, they've barely left the ground. Haynesworth has missed the past two games after playing only a few snaps in the first two, and Ochocinco has been noticeably quiet on offense. His biggest moment was when he dropped a sure touchdown pass against the Bills.

No Deep Threat
It's hard to pick on an offense that's breaking records, but the Patriots could certainly benefit from a classic deep threat. Matthew Slater hasn't panned out, nor Ochocinco, and as a result, Wes Welker has been forced to run some seam routes. To his credit, he has excelled, but a more naturally vertical receiver would certainly help.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Defense Holds Firm in Oakland

It’s been a rollercoaster four weeks for Vince Wilfork. Personnel changes, scheme shifts, injuries and inexperience have left the Patriots’ usually solid defense ranked thirty-second out of thirty-two in the league. The secondary has been regularly shredded, the pass rush appears nonexistent, but fear not—it looks like Wilfork is willing to make the big plays on his own.

For the second week in a row, Wilfork, a defensive tackle not known for his hands, came up with an interception at a pivotal moment in the game. Last week, four New England turnovers meant that Wilfork’s pick wasn’t enough. This week, his fourth-quarter grab on the Patriots own 30-yard line killed off a threatening Oakland drive that could have pulled them back into the game.

“I was just happy to be in the right place at the right time,” Wilfork said of the pick after the game. “The most important thing is we got the W—it wouldn’t have meant nothing if we didn’t get the W.”

The Patriots defense rebounded from an abysmal performance last week, shutting down a potent Raiders attack in Oakland. The Raiders entered the game leading the league in rushing, an aspect of the game that the Patriots have struggled with. But the Pats held Oakland to a mere 160 yards on the ground, restricting NFL-leading running back Darren McFadden to 75 yards on 14 attempts.

The secondary continued to struggle, even against a sub-par passing attack led by Jason Campbell. Campbell threw for 344 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots, while also throwing two picks. The lack of a rush was noticeable, affording Campbell tons of time to stand in the pocket and make decisions. This led to big plays, with five Raiders receivers catching passes for more than 10 yards and Darren McFadden busting open a 41-yard rush.

Linebacker Jerod Mayo went down injured halfway through the second quarter, leaving the game and not returning. He was replaced by Gary Guyton, a capable backup, but the loss of Mayo could have been devastating—particularly as the Raiders trailed only by four points at that time.

But the Raiders couldn’t capitalize, as free safety Patrick Chung came up with another vital turnover, intercepting Campbell’s attempted pass in the end zone. Chung was returning from injury, and his pick allowed the Patriots to march down the field and get a Gostkowski field goal before the half, entering the interval up 17-10.

Tom Brady responded from last week’s shocking four-interception performance with a much cleaner game against Oakland. Brady threw for 226 yards and two touchdowns. The two touchdowns moved Brady past Joe Montana with 274 career touchdown passes.

“I didn’t know that happened,” Brady said humbly after the win. “I’ll never be in Joe’s category. We throw the ball a lot more than they did back then. It’s much more of a passing league than it’s ever been.”

New England’s passing attack looked sharp, with Wes Welker leading the team again. Welker finished the game with nine catches for 158 yards and a touchdown. Six other receivers got in on the act, including Chad Ochocinco, who caught two passes for 26 yards.

But the Patriots’ rushing game was where the battle was won this week, outrushing the number one rushing attack in the league 198 yards to 160. Rookie Stevan Ridley continued his push into the starting lineup with an impressive 97 yards and a touchdown. Ridley did it all on 10 carries, which meant he averaged a stellar 9.7 yards per carry, that statistic boosted by a clinical 33-yard touchdown run.

“I was proud of the way we ran the play and played well in the red zone,” New England coach Bill Belichick said. “It was a tough win, but a good win.”

The Patriots were clinical in the red zone, finishing with 75% efficiency. This was a considerable margin over the Raiders’ 40%. The Raiders still controlled the clock better, eating up 33 minutes to the Patriots’ 26.

Former Patriots defensive tackle Richard Seymour was spotlighted by many in the matchup against his old team, but Seymour was largely quiet. His most notable moment came after the whistle, when he was called for unnecessary roughness after throwing Brady to the ground seconds after the officials had blown the play dead for a delay of game.

When Seymour wore the uniform, defensive solidity was at the core of the New England Patriots’ identity. In Oakland, the Patriots may have taken the first step back in that direction.

Friday, September 30, 2011


The Patriots meet the Raiders this Sunday in Oakland, both teams entering the matchup at two-and-one. The game looks poised to be a shootout: the Patriots’ flying pass attack will look to outshine Oakland’s own NFL-leading running game. Here are five things to watch in this Week Four showdown:

32nd TO NONE
After three games, the Patriots defense is ranked dead last—32nd out of 32. They’ve allowed close to 470 yards per game, and now face what is probably the most potent running attack in the NFL. Raiders’ running back Darren McFadden leads all NFL rushers with 393 yards. The Raiders passing game is more suspect, led by quarterback Jason Campbell, but more attention to run stopping and the return of Oakland downfield threat Jacoby Ford could spell another long night for the Patriots secondary.

Tom Brady returns to the field tonight after throwing four interceptions last Sunday—a career high for the Patriots quarterback. The good news: the Raiders allowed Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez to throw for 369 yards in Oakland last week, which is the most that Sanchez has thrown in his young career. Despite the picks, Brady set NFL records last week for most yardage in a three-game stretch, and he’s on pace to shatter both the touchdown and yardage records for a season.

Raiders defensive tackle Richard Seymour will be a familiar face to fans back in Foxborough. He won three Super Bowl rings with the team, and was a huge part of the now defunct Patriots front line that opposition offenses feared. After a shocking and still somewhat murky trade to Oakland in 2009, Seymour will be looking to make a big impact against his old squad.

The verdict on off-season acquisition Chad Ochocinco is still out. He’s been largely ineffective in the first three weeks of the season, with only five receptions for 87 yards. To that point, what New England fans will remember most from his inaugural three matches is his inexplicable drop of a pin-point Brady bomb last week against Buffalo. The criticisms (that he isn’t focused, isn’t working hard enough, doesn’t know the playbook) are still written in wet cement, but this game is the quarter-mark of the regular season. Ochocinco must step up or move aside.

The Patriots are a pass-first offense, but as anyone who has seen a Chicago Bears game this season can attest, a varied attack is essential in the NFL. Last week’s leading rusher for New England was rookie Stevan Ridley, who ran for 44 yards on seven carries. The yardage total may not be breathtaking, but a yards-per-carry average just shy of six-point-three is worth noting. Offensive Coordinator Bill O’Brien says that they’re looking to slowly get him more involved, and if the Pats go up big, look for Ridley’s quickness through the holes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chelsea Player Grades: v. Valencia

Chelsea traveled to Spain to take on Juan Mata's former club, Valencia, in the second match of their 2011 Champions League campaign. The Blues played well enough to take three points, but they were robbed by an 88' penalty, after substitute Solomon Kalou handled in the box. Lampard silenced his recent critics by finishing beautifully in the 56th minute.

Well positioned, good shot-stopping, and great reactions in the few times that he was needed. An effective performance from the goalkeeper. Can't be faulted for the penalty.

Beautiful cross for a Torres header early in the second half. He wasn't as convincing as he usually is going forward, but pretty solid defensive play and a few good crosses.

Zero offensive impact, poor positioning and rash tackles in defense. Repeatedly dove in on attackers in the box. This type of risky defending is what keeps Luiz out of the team most games.

An unremarkable game from the Chelsea captain, who occasionally looked too slow against the fleet-footed Valencia attackers.

Defended reasonably well. No major contributions in attack, but regularly took up dangerous positions on the flank which allowed other Chelsea attackers some space.

Wasted passes and lost the ball a number of times. He was played in clean on goal, and shot straight into the arms of the goalkeeper.

Distributed efficiently and economically. Never gave the ball away cheaply and filled in well on the occasions that the center backs were out of position.

Looked slow and static for most of the match, but finished with poise and precision when Malouda picked him out for the goal. Against a team like this, his playing style is not advantageous.

As you would expect, Mata was fired up for this match, and put himself about the pitch with tenacity. He was always available for his teammates and moved the ball with urgency.

The center forward moved well, looking sharp and strong. He just lacked a finish, but the shots he took when played in were high quality.

It's hard to fault him after such a beautiful ball for Lampard's goal, but for the rest of the match, he was slow and disinterested.

The fluency of play jumped up immediately once he was brought on for the inferior Ramires.

No impact whatsoever.

His only action was the handball with three minutes to play that cost Chelsea the win. It's a mystery why he gets minutes at all anymore.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

For Brady and the Patriots, Bills Are A Broken Record

With six minutes remaining in the second quarter, the New England Patriots were cruising toward another victory, set to start the season with three consecutive victories. It appeared to be the same old story for the Buffalo Bills, a team that hadn’t beaten New England in eight years and fifteen head-to-head matchups. Then it all went wrong.

Rian Lindell hit a 28-yard field goal as time ran out to give the Buffalo Bills a 34-31 victory over the New England Patriots. The Bills outscored the Pats two-to-one in the last three quarters of the game, including a 17-point unanswered run.

Brady threw for four interceptions in Buffalo, a career-worst, and the most in a single game for Brady since a 2006 game against the Indianapolis Colts. Brady threw four picks against the Bills once before—in 2003, the last time the Bills beat New England.

Brady finished 30 for 45 for 386 yards and four touchdowns, along with the aforementioned picks. Before Buffalo’s 17-point streak, the main talking point of the game was Brady’s pursuit of a third straight 400-yard passing game, something that has never been done before in the NFL. Instead, this game will be remembered for a different statistic: that Brady threw as many picks in the game as he did in the entirety of last season.

The Bills executed a similar rally in the week before, coming back from 21-3 down against Oakland to win, and Patriots coach Bill Belichick said afterwards that they had anticipated a battle.

“We obviously didn’t play well enough to win, so we’re disappointed in that,” Belichick said. “[But] I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be easy.”

Brady made no excuse for his own wasteful play, ruing missed chances in the post-game press conference.

“We had our opportunities,” Brady said. “We didn’t really take advantage like I wish we would have. Too many turnovers, too many penalties,

The penalties mostly came from the other side of the ball, including a costly pass interference call on Sergio Brown in the end zone during the fourth quarter. Ryan Fitzpatrick was forced out of the pocket and threw a hopefully pass up to a well-covered David Nelson, which was picked off by Josh Barrett in the end zone. But the flags came flying, and the play was overturned because Brown clearly grabbed Nelson in the end zone as the pass came in.

The result was a first and goal on the one-yard line, which the Bills converted for a touchdown on the very next play—a one-yard run up the gut from Fred Jackson. Jackson had a solid day, rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown and adding another 87 yards receiving. His quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, threw for 369 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Both interceptions came from Kyle Arrington in the first quarter. The Pats defense looked uncharacteristically sound in the early stages, with Arrington’s interceptions ending the Bills’ first two drives, and punts on the next two.

After Fitzpatrick settled down, though, it was a different story. The secondary was shredded throughout the last three quarters of the game—four different Bills receivers racked up more than 80 yards.

Devin McCourty continued to struggle, covering Bills receiver Stevie Johnson for most of the game. Johnson finished with 94 yards and a touchdown. The pass rush was utterly nonexistent, with very little pressure on Fitzpatrick throughout and no sacks recorded. Interestingly, the Bills also registered zero sacks, which is a reflection on the positive start the Patriots offensive line has had. Dan Connolly filled in well for the injured Dan Koppen, while on the other side of the ball, new Patriots defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth sat out with a back injury.

Despite the interceptions, Tom Brady and the New England offense continued to break NFL and franchise records. Brady has now thrown for the most passing yards in the first three games of a season in NFL history, and the record for most passing yards in any three-game stretch with 1327 yards, surpassing Drew Brees’ 1257 three-game performance in 2006.

Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski also broke records. Welker broke his personal record for receptions in a game (16) while also breaking the franchise record for receiving yards (217), previously held by Terry Glenn. Tight end Gronkowski excelled while Aaron Hernandez was out injured, finishing with his career-high yards receiving (109) and two touchdowns.

All the offensive records will mean nothing to Belichick, though, who only cares about one record—the Patriots now stand at two-and-one.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reports Of His Decline Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

A new coach brings fresh ideas, reinvigorated players, and, apparently, either decline or progress. While Andre Villas-Boas has only been in charge of Chelsea for one month of league play, major judgments are already being made on his impact on Chelsea Football Club’s immediate and long-term future.

As is expected at a big club with big money, Villas-Boas spent some right away, acting on the cries for a playmaker—Juan Mata—and a competent deep-lying midfielder—Raul Meireles. He even showed a stomach for risk that many of his predecessors didn’t, splashing out for young (really young) talent in teenagers Romelu Lukaku and Oriol Romeu.

Let’s look at those four signings: all except Lukaku are midfielders by trade. All are “creative”, to use the ill-defined and played out expression that essentially means they move the ball with pace and are capable of improvisation on the ball. What’s more: all are under 28, and all but Meireles are under 23.

Looking at those patterns, the English press took two and two and added them up to get five: young, quick midfielders means the end for Frank Lampard, the backbone of Chelsea’s attack for the last decade.

Here are the facts. Frank Lampard is aging, and at 33, it is safe to assume his best days in the blue shirt are behind him. He does not possess the ball skills or pace of Mata or even Meireles. And—although it’s trickier to say with certainty—he hasn’t really gelled with Torres at all, a major problem when you sign a striker for 50 million pounds.

What is unfair and plainly untrue is that any of these things are recent developments, brought on by his age or by Villas-Boas’s vision. Lampard has never had any pace or creativity. He earns his place on the field through hard work and the best footballing brain in the league, bar none. It is this attribute that will allow Lampard to fit into any team for as long as his legs will allow, which is probably at least two more years.

Maybe he won’t play for England regularly, but because of Capello’s circumstances and the three-ring circus that is the Three Lions’ teamsheet, you can’t extrapolate that to Chelsea. Villas-Boas is a very clever guy, and he’ll know how to get the best out of Lampard. There’s no reason to believe he can’t play as a deep-lying playmaker, a la Xavi or Andrea Pirlo. But even that doesn’t need to happen, because the firestorm of criticism and hype about his decline has seemingly come out of nowhere, and it is certainly without empirical evidence.

Here’s a stat to keep in mind: since 2003, Frank Lampard has scored 10 goals from midfield in the Premier League alone in every season. No other midfielder has done that. How about this: Lampard did it last year, despite a season of injury problems, and despite playing only 24 games in the league, his lowest appearance total since signing for Chelsea. His decline will have to wait .

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

PATRIOTS REPORT CARD: vs. San Diego, Week 2

QB: A. Brady continued his terrific start to the season with another 400+ yard passing game and three touchdowns. He made good use of all the options he had and made no real mistakes.

RB: B-. An efficient if unremarkable game for Green-Ellis and Woodhead. The highlight came on Green-Ellis’s 16-yard touchdown scamper to put the Patriots up two scores. Only 94 yards from the rushing game, but they were important yards.

WR: A-. Last week, the tight ends were the story, and while they were heavily involved again, Deion Branch stole the show against San Diego. Branch caught eight passes for 129 yards. Gronkowski and Hernandez had great games, too, totaling 11 catches and two touchdowns. Even Ochocinco had two grabs!

OL: B+. Not quite perfect, but a strong game, providing Brady with plenty of time in the pocket and only allowing two sacks against a decent pass rush.

DL: C-. It would be a ‘D’ if it wasn’t for Wilfork’s impressive tip and catch interception. Look at that boy rumble! Still, the pass rush was non-existent, with only two sacks on a quarterback who was taking his sweet time in the pocket—and one of the sacks was from a linebacker. Ryan Mathews also shredded the interior running game on a few plays.

LB: A-. Ninkovich and Mayo both looked very sharp. Mayo had eight tackles, including the crucial one on Mike Tolbert to complete the goal line stand. Ninkovich had a big sack and three tackles of his own.

DB: D. McCourty played superbly in Miami, but he was atrocious against Vincent Jackson. The big Chargers wide receiver had 10 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns while McCourty covered him. The defensive backs did manage to shut down Antonio Gates, but Malcolm Floyd also looked bright before he came off injured.

STs: A. Gostkowski went two-for-two and looked sharp, and Mesko punted well when called on, before having to come off with an injury.

Coaching: A.
Belichick adjusted the offensive game plan effectively against a fired up San Diego side. The defense still has a bit of a Jekyl-and-Hyde look to it, but so far, they’ve come up big when it counts.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Torres and CFC Get the Blues

On Sunday afternoon, Chelsea met Manchester United at Old Trafford for a fixture that has had a profound impact on the title in recent years. In the last two years, the team that won this match has been hoisting the trophy at the end of May.

For some reason, Chelsea has been already written off by most pundits, with the two Manchester clubs instead favored to win it all. They are certainly the obvious choices, 12 points out of 12 for each of them entering Sunday. But if we stretch our memories just a tiny bit, we can trace back to last season, where Chelsea won their first five, scoring 21 goals, before coming to a screeching halt and eventually ceding the title to United.

After winning 3-1 yesterday, United now stand in an identical position; 15 out of 15, 21 goals scored. Although I won't be so bold as to write United off, nor will I suggest they will experience a dip in form as stark as Chelsea's last season, here's why I believe the Blues will still win the title:

  • It was just one game. Sure, this game can be viewed as a six-pointer for the top spots, but even so, it's far too early for this game to be viewed as a title decider. The reality is that United must slow down at some point, and they will drop points in what is always a gruelingly long season.
  • United were not the better team. I'm not saying they didn't deserve all three points, but in a surprisingly eventful game, United had less meaningful possession, created less chances, and were frequently exposed defensively. The incisive midfield play was lacking, too, but they were saved by clinical finishing--in relative terms-- and a brilliant individual performance from Nani.
  • Chelsea are improving every game. The Premier League is a marathon, not a sprint. Chelsea started with a 0-0 draw at Stoke, before increasingly impressive and fluent wins in every match since. The signings of Mata and Meireles, alongside the emergence of Danny Sturridge, has brought pace and urgency to the attack. Sure, their defense was weak at Old Trafford, but I think they were just gutted after going down 2-0.
  • and finally... Torres. Yes, he had the worst miss I have ever seen on Sunday. Put that aside. How about the move he put on De Gea to go 'round the keeper? How about the gem he scored right as the second half started, coolly chipping into the far corner. He looked fast, confident, and sharp, that one miss aside. And if Chelsea can get him flowing again, they will quickly become the team to beat in the Prem.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Defense Make Chargers Pay For Mistakes

For the second time in a week, the Patriots defense lined up on their own 1-yard line for a pivotal fourth down. The Chargers trailed 10-7, and a score here would be a major momentum shift in a back and forth offensive shootout.

Instead, when Chargers running back Mike Tolbert took the handoff and cut right to the outside, he was stopped short by Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo. The Patriots offense took over, marching down the field for a 99-yard touchdown drive.

Tom Brady and the offense had another historic evening, as Brady went 31 for 40 for 423 yards and 3 touchdowns. The New England quarterback had his third career 400-yard game, finishing with 35, 473 career passing yard—ahead of Jim Kelly for 17th place all-time. The Pats offense also set a franchise record with 23 passing first downs as New England triumphed 35-21, starting the season 2-0.

Highlighting the defensive heroics on the goal line may be misleading, though—the Patriots defense was far from spectacular against San Diego. The Patriots conceded a dismal 10 out of 12 third down conversions, as the Chargers exposed a defense that was last in the league in the statistic last season.

The defensive line was typically mediocre, with Rivers sacked only twice and the Chargers running backs stopped for losses on another two plays. The defense did manage two interceptions in the game, including an impressive solo effort from defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. Wilfork backed off the line as Rivers dropped to pass, reading the quarterback’s eyes and tipping the attempt into the air before snagging it and rumbling for a 28-yard return.

The secondary looked porous otherwise, allowing 378 yards to Rivers and his receivers. Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson gave Devin McCourty fits all evening, outrunning and outmuscling the defender on his way to a 10 catch, 172-yard game with two touchdowns.

Where the Patriots defense excelled, incidentally, was when the Chargers were inside or near to the red zone. The Patriots forced three San Diego turnovers within the 35-yard line, including another Philip Rivers interception, this one by Sergio Brown.

If the defense was full of question marks before the evening, there may be even more now—at least seven Patriots needed medical attention during the game, five of which were defensive players. Safety Patrick Chung left the game temporarily and was replaced by James Ihedigbo, who also went down injured. Cornerbacks Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington also took knocks, and so did defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The new Patriot lineman finished the game without a tackle or any meaningful involvement.

Another new face did have an impact, though. After a week in which he was heavily criticized, Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco had a decent showing, catching two passes for 45 yards. While that’s only one more reception than last game, he looked sharp, and was greeted with a raucous ovation after his first catch, a third down play on which he was interfered.

The Patriots weren’t forced to punt in the first half and scored on each of their first four drives, entering the half up 20-7. The killer instinct on offense was visible again, particularly after Wilfork’s second quarter interception. Brady got the ball with nine seconds left and no timeouts, starting on the 47-yard line. The Chargers dropped off deep, playing conservatively, and Brady promptly fired a pass to Deion Branch for 11 yards before the receiver ducked out of bounds. Time elapsed: two seconds. So Brady did it again, finding Branch for another seven yards. He ducked out of bounds at the 29-yard line, and Stephen Gostkowski knocked in a 47-yard field goal as time ran out in the half.

Branch had a big day, leading all Patriots receivers with eight receptions for 129 yards. The tight end corps continued to see tons of actions, with Hernandez and Gronkowski combining for 11 catches, 148 yards and 3 touchdowns. Other than aforementioned Welker and Ochocinco, running backs Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead both caught passes.

The rushing game was efficient if not memorable. Green-Ellis took 17 carries for 70 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter. Rookie Stevan Ridley also saw some actions, taking two carries for nine yards.

The Patriots are also hoping to get new acquisition Mark Anderson more involved, and on the final Chargers drive of the game, he burst through the line, knocking a fumble loose from Rivers, which Kevin Love recovered.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Awe-struck Ocho in Hot Water

Chad Ochocinco told the media that he had changed. When he scored a touchdown in the preseason and didn't celebrate, he explained it simply: "I work for Bill Belichick now." The veteran WR suggested that his fervent social media use would subside, and his off the field issues were behind him.

Well, after the Patriots' dominant performance in Monday's season opener down in Miami, Ochocinco couldn't help himself. He tweeted:"Just waking up after a late arrival, I've never seen a machine operate like that n person, to see video game numbers put up n person was WOW."

Nothing malicious, if a bit unnecessary. Patriots' legend Tedy Bruschi has a different take, though, tearing into Ochocinco after his subpar individual performance was followed by the Twitter relapse. Here's Bruschi's rant.

Now, I fully understand what Tedy Bruschi means to the Patriots. I understand that he was a pivotal cog in the team that went to five Super Bowls and won three. With all that said-- sit down, Bruschi.

There's a lot of merit to a current player taking a new teammate aside in the locker room and setting things straight. Teams need those types of leaders, and the Pats have always had them and relied on them. Bruschi was one of them. He was. He isn't anymore. No one in New England wants Ochocinco to return to his "child, please" days, but there's no harm in a little tweet about Brady's impressive performance.

And besides, Bruschi's comments about Ocho not knowing the playbook are uncalled for and inaccurate. It was his first game in one of the most complex, ever-changing offenses in the league. It will take time to fit in.

Leave Ochocinco's leash to Belichick and Brady. They're the ones who are there, after all.

Monday, September 12, 2011

New Teammates, Same Old Brady

Tom Brady doesn’t like to lose. Luckily for the New England quarterback, the Patriots don’t lose very often these days, thanks in large part to his contributions. But Brady has lost six times to the Miami Dolphins—more than any other team in the league—including five times on the road. On Monday night, Brady and his teammates proved that history only means so much, winning 38 to 24 on Monday night, as Brady set both franchise and Monday Night Football passing records.

Brady threw for a staggering 517 yards against the Dolphins, the most for an NFL quarterback since 1996. He also threw for four touchdowns, including a 99-yard pass to Wes Welker. His performance was only slightly marred by a 3rd quarter interception by Jared Odrick on a tipped pass, Brady’s first regular season interception in 358 pass attempts.

The Dolphins started with a bang, gaining 60 yards on the first four plays from scrimmage, including a 25-yard pass from Chad Henne to Brandon Marshall on the first play of the drive. The new-look Patriots defense looked shaky, allowing big run and pass gains, eventually watching Henne power a 10-yard QB draw into the endzone for the first score.

The Pats defense settled down after that drive, though, forcing punts on the Dolphins’ next four possessions. When Brady got the ball in his hands, he looked as sharp as ever, completing his first nine passes. He showed his trademark deep ball throw on a 45-yard bullet to wideout Matthew Slater before linking up with Rob Gronkowski for the touchdown.

The New England offense was fearsome if not flawless, totaling 622 yards from scrimmage but only finishing 4 of 6 red zone opportunities. The missed opportunities were not a problem, with that yardage total going for the most in Patriots’ history as well as the most allowed by Miami.

The Patriots are known to spread the ball around on offense, and despite question marks over offensive weapons like Slater and off-season acquisition Chad Ochocinco, Brady linked up with seven different receivers in the first half alone. Ochocinco was a non-factor, though, catching a single pass for 14 yards.

Chad Henne handled the Monday Night Football limelight well, passing for an impressive 419 yards and two touchdowns. His only interception came on the last play of the game. He read the field well, rushing seven times for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Reggie Bush, recently signed by the Dolphins from New Orleans, had a solid first game, rushing for 38 yards on 11 attempts and adding another 56 yards and a touchdown receiving. Brandon Marshall was the standout for the Miami offense, catching seven passes for 139 yards, and Dolphins fans will be sweating after he limped off the field in the last minute of the game.

New England’s pass rush was a major topic of conversation in the offseason, and after a summer of tinkering, the rush looked slightly improved, sacking Henne three times. New acquisition Albert Haynesworth saw limited action, recording two tackles playing mostly alongside Vince Wilfork in 4-3 packages. Shaun Ellis, the former New York Jet once known as “the Patriot Killer”, had one tackle. Mark Anderson, the former Bears defensive lineman, also had a sack in the 4th quarter.

It was the familiar faces for New England who carried most of the weight on defense, with cornerback Devin McCourty recording 10 tackles and linebacker Pat Chung adding another 9 tackles and a sack. The Pats defense even held Miami on a goal line stand in the 4th quarter. The Dolphins were trailing 31-17, and a touchdown would have put them in a one-score game, but an incomplete pass on 4th and one from the one-yard-line turned the ball over on downs. On the very next play, Brady linked up with Welker from one end zone to the other, 99 yards from scrimmage.

The Patriots held the Dolphins to only two 3rd down conversions of a possible 14, a big improvement in a soft spot from last year. The Pats’ offense was eight for 13, by contrast.

Miami committed eight penalties resulting in 60 yards, slightly more than New England’s seven for 50. Stephen Gostkowski looked shaky, missing wide, wide right on a 48-yard attempt in the second quarter. He made a 20-yard field goal in the 4th.

The Patriots will take on the 1-0 San Diego Chargers next Sunday back in Foxboro. The Dolphins will face the Texans at home on the same day.