I hate Miami. Even in one of the most dominant wins in New England Patriots history, the foul city finds a way to make the Patriots regret the trip. The good news is that the team won’t have to visit the city again until next year. The bad news is that the urban daemonic spirit took its pound of flesh in the form of an injury to left tackle Isaiah Wynn, possibly the worst injury the team could have outside of Tom Brady himself.
I hate Miami.
Let’s get started.
State of the Defense
Last year, the Patriots’ defense was a low-key threat that had the performance of a lifetime in the Super Bowl. While they were not elite, they had definitively turned the page on a bitter 2017 season. This year, the team’s defense had a lot of chatter coming out of training camp. A lot of beat reporters said the defense was the best they’ve looked in years.
The NFL season is only two weeks old — a small sample size — but so far the hype has been justified. The question going into the season was not whether the secondary or linebackers would be good. The question was whether they would be good enough to compensate for a weak defensive line and become a top defensive force. The answer has been a definitive yes so far. The secondary has been downright elite and the linebacker play excellent. The combination of these groups has been more than sufficient to compensate for a lackluster defensive line.
And let’s be clear that the defensive line has been lackluster, at least, in terms of pass rush. Yeah, it was great to see the team register seven sacks against Miami, but Daniel Jeremiah has suggested the Dolphins’ offensive line may be the worst in decades. At minimum, Miami’s O-line will be in the running for the worst in football this season. The Patriots’ D-line, meanwhile, struggled significantly more trying to get after Ben Roethlisberger and I think that is more likely to be representative of the season. Though, in all fairness to the defensive line, it showed more spine against the run than it did rushing the passer.
I don’t want to make a sweeping conclusion two games into the season. At the same time, the Patriots have only given up three points in two weeks, which is impressive, regardless of who they were playing against. I’d say the state of the defense is pretty damn good.
State of ‘Stairway to Seven’
I look out at the AFC and I see a wasteland. Two warriors stare at one another across a windy desert. One of them is dressed in gold and red. The other is clad in red, white and blue. Between them lay a peculiar field of broken objects. A burning jet, the rotting corpse of a buffalo, a vivisected pirate, the husk of a raven, and a shattered steel colossus. But the warriors paid no heed to these trifling relics. For these devices had served their purpose, mere mechanisms to determine upon which field of battle these two goliaths would exchange blows.
It may be incredibly early in the season, and I would hardly want to run afoul of the same tunnel vision that possessed the Steelers in their collapse against the Jaguars, but it’s difficult to foresee a conference championship that does not involve the Patriots and the Chiefs this year. Both teams possess elite quarterbacks, coaches, and boast more talent than any other in the AFC, sans each other. The only thing that I can see derailing this future are injuries, and to be fair, the Patriots seemed locked and loaded for that exact problem.
State of the Offensive Line
I have already girded myself for the litany of of “In Scar We Trust,” “Who Peed in Your Cheerios” and “Pats fans only focus on the negative” comments this section is liable to generate but I honestly don’t care.
The Patriots have lost both of their starting tackles, the only position they lacked meaningful depth, and their relief right tackle was the worst graded player in the entire NFL by PFF last week. The interior of the O-line will continue to be above average, provided the injury Joe Thuney appeared to suffer in Week 2 is insignificant, but the tackle situation is atrocious. For those who don’t know, tackles are much more important than guards.
A great interior will not stop an offensive line with trashcan tackles from sucking. Look at the Eagles last week. Four of the five members of that offensive line did their job and Atlanta lived next to Carson Wentz because one of the tackles was awful. Tom Brady has a real potential to get killed in some of these games and I can only pray his 42-year-old body is able to hold together long enough until reinforcements arrive.
That being said, I do think we are short of a full-blown crisis for a variety of reasons. There are numerous factors that should to allow the Patriots to weather this storm and still rein in the first seed in the AFC. The offensive line got injured at the very beginning of the season, and as a result, has yet to suffer a season-ending injury outside of David Andrews. Isaiah Wynn and Marcus Cannon could theoretically be primed and ready to roll for most of the second half of the season.
On paper, the Patriots also play lot of bad teams this year. That helps. I would not be as confident about them surviving last year’s schedule with these injuries. The Patriots also appear to have one of their best defenses in years. That will obviously compensate for the offense some. The Patriots also have Tom Brady’s lightning release and arguably the best set of skill players the team has had since 2007. I don’t see a team capable of breaking records, something I genuinely believe they may have done healthy, but they should still be able to find success. Finally, the Patriots have Dante Scarnecchia. There is a clear limit to what he can do but he will probably get better play out of these nobodies than anyone else would.
The culmination of these factors mean that the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations are still alive and well. Games are won and lost in the trenches, though. The Patriots may be able to compensate for one bad tackle but they will struggle to compensate for two. On paper, the team will field one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL next week if Cannon won’t be able to go. If they field that same lineup against a playoff caliber defense, it’s going to get ugly.
But let’s take a page from Bill Belichick’s book and take it one week at a time. New England may have had one of the worst pair of tackles in the NFL in Week 2, but going into Week 3 is facing one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. I expect a convincing win. Buffalo will be a different beast but we can worry about that next week.
State of the Offense
If you had asked me if there was any chance the Patriots could field three playmakers to compete with Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and Travis Kelce I’d have said you were nuts. Antonio Brown, Josh Gordon and Julian Edelman? The Patriots are creeping close. I’m probably more concerned about the tackle situation than I am excited about the playmakers, but holy crap this team has skill-position players out the wazoo. The Patriots’ lineup includes running backs Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, and wide receivers Edelman, Gordon, Brown, Phillip Dorsett II and Jakobi Myers. That’s a pretty absurd lineup when you consider how good Dorsett has looked so far and the hype for rookies Myers and Harris coming out of camp.
State of the Players
We are two weeks in and five franchises are out a franchise quarterback. Drew Brees and Sam Darnold will presumably come back, and Cam Newton should only be out a game or two, but Nick Foles and Ben Roethlisberger are done for the season. But it’s not just quarterbacks. All across the NFL a slew of big name players have been injured in the opening weeks of the 2019 season. Football is an ugly and merciless sport. It may be obnoxious to have team favorites hold out for new contracts and more guaranteed money, but after seeing the chaos of the season so far, it’s hard to blame anyone for making the attempt. Even if it is a fruitless one (I am looking at you, Melvin Gordon).
Jamie Collins Sr. was my pick for the breakout defensive star. So far, so good.
Josh Gordon has been good but he has not reached peak Gordon. It might take all year to get there but it’s exciting to know he can be even better. Provided he doesn’t wash out, of course.
Antonio Brown may be turbulent but his talent on the football field is undeniable. He should have had two touchdowns last week. He played from the slot, the X and the Y. He ran numerous different routes. That’s after three days of practice. There is a reason this guy was tolerated in spite of his significant baggage. He is a legitimate Hall of Famer.
Dont’a Hightower looked excellent against the Steelers. He started slow last season but this year he seems to be starting the way he finished last year. Superb.
It looks like the Patriots dodged the bullet on Patrick Chung. Thank goodness.
Shaq Mason hasn’t been his best but I’m not worried. The O-line played so well down the stretch last year. A little regression was to be expected. He will pick it up as the season goes.
I’m not giving up on Isaiah Wynn. Turf toe happens. But if he doesn’t come back and finish the rest of the season healthy the Patriots will have to look at drafting another tackle. How on earth they can find one picking late in the draft, in a league starved of tackles, is another question but it will be at the top of my list.
Trent Williams is still on his couch. If one of the Patriot tackles goes down for the season they should make an aggressive play for him. Heck, I would do it regardless. Look at the Browns. The Vikings. The Falcons. They have great offensive talent and they will struggle to score all season because they cannot protect their QBs. The health of New England’s tackles is not reliable and we don’t know what state they will be in when they come back. I didn’t buy the report that said the Patriots offered a first but I would give up a second-round pick in a heartbeat.
The Patriots are only going to get one or two more seasons like this. I am happy to sell out the future a little bit if it means a seventh Super Bowl win. Structure the contract so the cap hits next year and then trade him again. Besides, chances are Belichick will just blow the pick on a reach at safety anyways. Of course chances are better than even that the Redskins’ GM will just let Williams sit out the entire season out of pure stupid spite. Bruce Allen is exhibit A on why success is not a simple matter of meritocracy.
Miami is going to be an interesting case study in tanking. The Browns tanked for two straight years and came out with a franchise quarterback and a slew of blue-chip talent to populate the roster. It appears John Dorsey made a critical mistake with the offensive line this season, and the coaching may be suspect, but their strategy of tanking paid off from a talent perspective.
Miami is clearly following the same strategy. They have ripped out the guts of their organization, almost every recognizable name on the roster except for Xavien Howard has been shipped off. In exchange, Miami has gained a slew of draft picks. As of today, Miami will have nine picks in the first two rounds over the next two years. That’s a significant haul but at what rate can Miami hope to hit on those picks? The Browns hit on an abnormally large sum. Sure, there were second-round misfires like Corbett and Kizer but they are significantly outweighed by the numerous high profile hits like Garrett, Ward, Njoku, Chubb, Mayfield and Peppers. Will Miami GM Chris Grier be able to have the same level of success? Picking high in the draft can dramatically improve the odds of success, but no matter how high you pick, the draft is still a roll of the dice.
If Miami successfully tanks, and the Browns turn into the team many expect them capable of being, it would have massive impact on the NFL. Right now you could probably count on one hand the number of teams who have intentionally tanked a season. If Miami and Cleveland can author franchise turnarounds back-to-back it will inevitably lead to other teams adopting the strategy and may result in significant changes by the NFL to prevent it.
But does tanking actually work? I think that is a very dubious question to which there is not currently an answer. In the NBA you only have five guys on a court. One superstar can change the face of a franchise. The only comparable parallel to the NFL is the quarterback, but even then it’s not a one-to-one ratio. It’s going to be a fascinating experiment to watch unfold.