"The sky is falling."
Following the crushing Week 2 loss to the Jets, whether it be the famously cynical Boston media, or fans commenting on message boards and blogs such as this one, the prevailing sentiment seems to be that this Patriots team is the samed flawed team we saw last year, and that this year is going to be much of the same. Some of the more pessimistic among us have already declared that we are done, finished, and hard pressed to make the playoffs let alone sniff the Super Bowl.
Now I agree, things don't look too encouraging right now. It wasn't so much that we lost, or even the way we lost. It was the fact that this loss seemed to confirm our worst fears for this team - that they hadn't changed one bit from last year. But we can look at the very recent example of the Green Bay Packers to give us hope that things will change.
The Week 2 loss to the rival Jets was devastating for Patriots fans for many reasons.
But I think possibly the most crushing and depressing aspect of the loss was the familiarity of it all. If we were to become a Super Bowl contender this year, we thought, this was our chance to prove that this year was going to be different. Instead, the game played out in the same way most road games played out last year - a promising first half followed by unimaginative play calling, sloppy execution, brainfarts at critical moments and a lack of any in-game adjustments.
Pats fans have seen this movie before, and we don't like it one bit. In a way, the Jets game wasn't as painful because of the defeat itself (although that certainly was painful too) - but for what it represented, and what it might mean for the rest of the season.
But looking at recent history shows us that before we flip the panic button and rip into the team, we should perhaps just take a step back, and have a little patience for this team to gel.
In 2009, a young Patriots defense had a frustrating season post-Bruschi/Vrabel/Rodney/Seymour. The starting defense had an average age of around 27 years (which was actually skewed by veterans like Tully Banta-Cain (first year as a full time starter) and Leigh Bodden (first year as a Patriot) who were still inexperienced). Despite the fact that they looked decent statistically (5th fewest points allowed in the league), Patriots fans who watched this team every week know that this team would often blow first half leads on the road. The stats don't lie: the Patriots have now been outscored 116-41 in the second half of road games through all of last season and last week's Jets game.This includes clunkers such as 13-0 at New York and 10-0 at Denver last year, and last week's 18-0 at New York. If you discount a weird Texans game in which the Patriots didn't have anything to play for, the Pats were outscored 95-27 in the second half of road games. Extrapolating that point differential, if the pats played like they did in the second half of road games for a full game, they'd be outscored 27-7: a 20 point differential over a full game.
So yeah, to paraphrase Tom Brady, on the road last year we just sucked. But you know who else sucked? The 2008 Packers.
In 2008, a young Packers team (the youngest team in the league in fact, going by average age) had a miserable season post-Favre. They went 6-10 for the year and was 2-6 on the road. The inexperienced Packers had difficulty putting opponents away on the road in late game situations.
Of their 10 losses, 7 were by less than a touchdown, with losses in both overtime games they played in the year. Discounting a blowout at the Superdome, their average margin of defeat for the year was just 4.1 points.
Sound kinda familiar?
Now here's where it gets interesting. The 2009 Packers went into the bye 4-4 after an emotional game against the hated Minnesota Vikings. Just like how the stakes were raised in Pats-Jets Round 1 due to Hard Knocks and the Jets' trash talking, the stakes were even higher for the Packers as they went against Packer legend Brett Favre. However, on National TV, the young Packers (again the youngest team in the league) lost another close game, putting their record at 1-8 in games decided by 7 points or less in the Aaron Rodgers era.
Surely, at this point the Packers fans had every right to panic, as Patriots fans are now. "How do we expect this team to contend and win in the playoffs if we can't win a single damned close game?!"
But a strange thing happened after that bye week: the Packers won 9 of their remaining 12 games and then in the playoffs played one of the gutsiest games that we've seen any team play all season, coming back from a 17-0 first quarter and a 24-10 halftime deficit before bowing out 51-45 on a blown call in overtime (when they missed the blatant facemask on Rodgers).
Now I understand you may be skeptical of drawing conclusions just because the situations may seem vaguely similar - that is, just because the Packers had similar problems with a similarly young team one year, and then bounced back from a similarly bitter defeat, doesn't mean the Pats will too right? Well not unless we can find out what the reason behind the Packer's late season streak and see if it can be similarly applied to our young Patriots team (which by the way is now even younger than it was last year). So what was the reason, exactly?
The Packers sat in week 5 2-2 and 8th in Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense adjusted for Value Over Average - which basically means adjusting for opponent, among other things) and a very mediocre 13th in DAVE (DVOA adjusted for early season volatility). By week 17, they were second in the league in DVOA and 1st in weighted DVOA (which gives recent games more weight). Put simply, they were the hottest team in the league. So they didn't just catch a few lucky breaks, and they didn't just hit a patch of creampuff opponents on their schedule. They made their incredible improvement without any significant changes in coaching, scheme, or a splashy trade or personnel acquisition.
How? One explanation comes from NFL.com's Mike Lombardi. On Bill Simmons' BS Report podcast, he made this point:
"When you have an older team, its hard to practice, and its hard to get better during the season because you got a lot of old guys. But when you have a young team like New England does, you can practice hard during the season and you can improve on Sundays and get better so that by November, December, you're really an improved team. Typically the curve of an NFL team goes: you start out with your execution high in September and October, but because you can't practice, November-December you wane a little bit. Your pad level gets too high, you're not as physical as you need to be... Young teams can be physical, young teams can keep their pad level down late in the year when they practice"
The Packers had the youngest team in the NFL in 2009. They improved throughout the year, and indeed their team played faster, harder and more physical than other teams which lead to sharper execution and more wins against teams which just couldn't be as sharp as these young pups late in the year. DROY candidate Clay Matthews got 7 of his 10 sacks from November - December, and the Packers D went from 10th in the league in defensive DVOA in week 5 to 2nd in the league by week 17 behind only the Jets. This looks like a perfect illustration of what Lombardi was talking about - i.e. there is some credence to what he says.
Now, who has a young, fast, athletic defense which is just waiting for the best defensive coach in the NFL and one of the finest defensive coaches of all time to mold them into a top unit? Bill Belichick teams traditionally start peaking later in the year anyway, but I think we can expect to see a truly remarkable jump in quality in this year's team by that time. Of course, it helps that the schedule softens a bit by then, but with a coach who's famous for his love of teaching fundamentals and attention to detail in teaching technique, I think we have to be pretty optimistic that this team could turn those brief flashes of first half promise into consistent defensive performances.
In November-December, facing older, "experienced" teams like Pittsburgh, Indy, Chicago, New York, Miami, the Pats' youth could help them to be just that fractionally sharper in execution, which could mean the difference between winning and losing in a game of inches like football. Take for example, a play like Tomlinson's 31 yard run in the fourth quarter to set up the clinching touchdown? Perhaps later in the year, Ninkovich (or whoever it may be in that situation) doesn't miss an arm tackle, but they keep their pads low, stuff the run, punt, and the game completely changes.
As bleak as things look right now (and as bleak as things may look at the bye, with a tough Monday Night game against a divisional rival coming up - there's that Packers parallel again - and the Ravens at home the week after), there's a good reason to feel optimistic about our team's chances. We have a young defense ready to blossom, and an experienced, veteran offensive core with some exciting young weapons which can be absolutely devastating when clicking. The offense had one bad game, yes. But then again - it WAS still the New York Jets: one of the top pass defenses in the league. All preseason long, Brady looked sharp, accurate and primed to have a big year - you can say that preseason doesn't count for jack, and you'd be right of course. But you couldn't really say this about Brady after last year's pre-season, and the regular season reflected that.
So cheer up Patriot Nation - no matter how much the "sky is falling" crowd try and tell you the season is over already despite playing just 2 games with a ridiculously young defense (our starting corners have 1 year of experience between them for gosh sakes!), there's reason to believe that good things are still to come