Saturday, September 14, 2013

Debunking Three Patriots Myths

NOTE: This piece has been expanded and updated from its previous incarnation:

Two games into the season and two grinding performances by the New England Patriots have brought out scathing criticisms of Patriots receivers, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, even Robert Kraft. The criticisms have been everywhere and numerous times the claim is made that the Patriots have in some sense lost their way in how the roster is constructed, how they won Superbowls, etc. It's time to debunk some myths past and present about the Patriots -

MYTH: The Patriots had a great defense and playmakers on defense when they won Superbowls and have lost their last two Superbowls becuase they depended too much on the offense - Over and over we get reminder that the Patriots had "playmakers" in the halcyon days of 2001-4 - Ty Law, Lawyer Milloy, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Willie Mcginest, etc.

The facts are different.   The Patriots defense was gashed for yards and often for points and the offense regularly carried the defense.   Indeed, prominent critic Michael Felger, during his days as Boston Herald beat writer for the team, wrote in November 2001 following New England's 21-11 win over Buffalo, "Finally, the defense carried the offense," an obvious implication that the offense had been carrying the defense.  

The 2001 Patriots were sixth in the league in scoring and went 11-5 en route to the first Superbowl.   2002 the offense went into transition and the Patriots went 9-7; the 2002 defensive squad was particularly ineffective against the AFC West (a division long the bete noire of the Patriots).   In 2003 the Patriots famously cut Lawyer Milloy and signed Rodney Harrison, and once more the offense wound up carrying a defense that nonetheless was #1 in fewest points allowed in the league - against Tennessee the Patriots offense had to score in a game where the lead changed seven times (38-30 was the final); the defense was gashed in the fourth quarter and overtime in Miami, surviving two botched field goal attempts (one blocked) before finally intercepting Jay Fiedler; Brady then unloaded the winning bomb to Troy Brown (19-13 OT was the final); in Denver the defense got gashed for points and Brady won it with 30 seconds to go (30-26 was the final);  at Indianapolis the defense (aided by two ugly interceptions from Brady) blew a 21-point lead, though it redeemed itself with the famous goalline stand (38-34 final).

That the offense ultimately carried the defense showed in the need for Tom Brady heroics in the playoffs - in the famous "Tuck Rule" win over the Oakland Raiders in 2001 Brady had to lead three scoring drives in the fourth quarter and overtime to pull off the 16-13 win; five years later at San Diego Brady had to lead two scoring drives in the fourth quarter to pull off the 24-21 win.   

Then there were the first two Superbowls - the defense blew a 14-point fourth quarter lead to the Rams then got ripped to shreds by Jake Delhomme's Panthers - against almost any other team Delhomme's Panthers would have won the Superbowl.   It was the offense that won those games.

The defense was carried again in 2004 - the running game of Corey Dillon and Kevin Faulk proved decisive against Indianapolis and the offense ripped the famed Steelers defense to shreds; in the Superbowl the defense gave up a late touchdown.

Of course the defense - after blowing a fourth quarter lead and then getting it back thanks to Brady and Randy Moss - got killed by the ultimate fluke play in Superbowl history in Superbowl XLII.

The Patriots defense certainly made numerous key plays, but it got a lot of benefit of the doubt even though it was not the key to winning those championships.   The fact is the offense has been the key, then and now.

MYTH: Wes Welker was a crucial, irreplaceable weapon for the Patriots and letting him walk is badly hurting the Patriots offense - Acolytes of Wes Welker make two graphic mistakes in overselling his importance to the Patriots offense - they fall in love with a Name, and they fall in love with volume stats. Welker has become a Name; he is recognized right away and thus people associate him with a level of importance beyond belief.   They also look at his volume stats - the catches, the yards - and assume they make him too important to have let go.

The problem is when you look beyond the volume stats Welker is not as good as advertised.   This first showed in Week One with the Broncos against the Ravens - he caught four of Peyton Manning's first five completions - and the Broncos offense went nowhere.   They stopped throwing to him in the first quarter and it wasn't until the third - indeed in Denver's first three touchdown drives Welker caught just one pass - that the Broncos started throwing to him again. 

It showed even more in Denver's blowout win over the NY Giants - Welker was limited to three catches for 39 yards and a score; he also had three drops.

Contrast this with the Patriots and Welker's replacement Danny Amendola, who against Buffalo outright took over the Patriots offense in the fourth quarter and played with a physicality Welker did not show either in New England or with Denver - Amendola was outright making catches running over people.  

People also seem to forget that Julian Edelman outplayed Welker in 2012; Welker lost his starting job and got it back due to other player injuries.    People like to cite his durability, but that's just hype - it was luck that his near-disasterous injury in 2009 was at the end of the season.  

The fact is the struggles in the early part of 2013 would not have been avoided if Welker were still with the Patriots. 

MYTH: This is reminiscent of the 2006 season where Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney replaced the more reliable Deion Branch and David Givens and it was a failure
- Deion Branch and David Givens were overrated receivers and the 2006 season wound up proving that.   The 2005 Patriots - Branch and Givens' last season in New England - were tenth in scoring and went 10-6.   Branch famously wanted his contract torn up and redone; the Patriots refused to go along and he wound up going to the Seahawks.  Reche Caldwell became the most productive receiver while Jabar Gaffney played eleven games with six starts and didn't get going until late in the season.

The 2006 Patriots surged to seventh in scoring and scored the most points (95) in a playoff run of any Patriots team.   Caldwell is regularly ripped for two drops in the AFC Championship Game, never mind that receiver drops are universal to receivers - the fact is Caldwell's gaffes were not relevant to the game's outcome.   He also posted the same average yardage (60 per game in three playoff games) as Branch in his to that point six non-Superbowl playoff games.  

Reche Caldwell was really an upgrade over Deion Branch - Caldwell kept his mouth shut and was better as a deep threat, shown in deep-bomb scores against Green Bay and Tennessee and the key play of the playoff game at San Diego - the 50-yard strike before the two-minute warning setting up the winning field goal.  

2006 was anything but a disaster for the Patriots.

The Patriots need to keep going; the errors made by the rookie receivers will be corrected with more time, and the Patriots simply are too fundamentally sound a system to falter as other teams such as the Ravens have recently done.

No comments: