Thursday, September 18, 2014

Belichick unveils the dark underbelly of his Patriots - but not everyone likes it

The Patriots used the second half of last Sunday's win to get their power ground game going.

In Bill Belichick's world, the second half of Sunday's win at Minnesota was nothing more than a game-speed scrimmage.

This little nugget seems to be disturbing to many fans of the New England Patriots, as it is difficult for them to fathom why the Dark Master would sacrifice points for any reason at all, let alone in the name of practice...

...but what Belichick and the rest of his Patriots got out of it was a full thirty minutes of game-speed scrimmage - a rarest of treats for a man who refers to all things that he values as "capital" - much the way an investment banker would assign value to a stock - only for Belichick, time and opportunity are assets that he holds in higher regard than money.

For example, during the offseason you will hear Belichick refer to his draft picks as "draft capital", from which he is unwilling to part with unless tendered an offer than he can't refuse - see the 2013 draft, where he quadrupled his "capital" by trading away the 29th pick overall to Minnesota - so when the Dark Master was offered a deal that he couldn't refuse from Chandler Jones last Sunday, he gladly cashed in his stock.
Gronkowski saw five targets in the second half

What he traded was points during a game that had been all but decided - or had already been decided if considering how well his defense was playing - and gained perhaps the most invaluable training tool afforded a head ball coach in the National Football League: Real-time, situational practice.

Of course, he may or may not had been planning it all along - as is what most certainly occurred the previous Sunday in Miami - but the opportunity presented itself in a more convenient form once Jones blocked a field goal attempt late in the second quarter and took it to the house to give the Patriots a 17 point lead going into the locker room.

It really didn't look too good up to that point, as the Vikings were lining up for a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have cut the Patriots' lead to single digits - but then Jones burst through the protection like he was shot out of a cannon and used his condor-like wingspan to easily get to the ball, then took the perfect ball bounce off the turf and before you could say "Defensive Player of the Week", the New England lead was 17.

That ten-point swing allowed Belichick to continue to install his running game and to target tight end Rob Gronkowski almost exclusively in the passing game - working on situational football and fundamentals without the albatross of needing to score points hanging around their collective neck.

And that's what folks are not understanding.

Opportunities like the one that presented itself last Sunday are priceless in the mind of a football coach - and since he was determined to achieve his goals regardless of ease of implementation, it worked out for the best.

As a result, the statistics look a little bit skewed in the favor of the running game, while the few targets from Brady in the passing game were geared toward getting Gronkowski into football shape, much the same as he would have in the preseason, had Gronk been cleared for contact.

Of the 14 times Brady dropped back to pass in the second half, he targeted Gronkowski five times, as compared with three times for Julian Edelman, twice each for Aaron Dobson and Shane Vereen and one a piece for Danny Amendola and Tim Wright - though on two of Edelman's and one of Dobsons's and one of Vereen's, the plays were negated due to penalty.

In all, Brady targeted eight different receivers in the contest - as Michael Hoomanawanui and James Develin also notched receptions in the first half - not a bad ratio for dropping back into the pocket only 27 times, which is made even more remarkable when stopping to consider that Brady didn't even throw a pass until he found Dobson on 13 yard gain with just a little over four minutes left in the first quarter.

Up until that point it had been all Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as Belichick methodically installed his power running game, hammering the heart of the Vikings' run defense sixteen times that would set up a terrific display of smashmouth, four-minute offense in the second half when the Patriots gained 105 of their 150 total rushing yards...

...coming on just 21 carries as Ridley did much of his damage between the tackles against a worn out Minnesota front seven, while Brady happily got some one-on-one work in with his man-child tight end.

And that's how it works.

Questions arose in the post-game presser and in subsequent interviews regarding the teams' seeming lack of targets for receivers not named Gronkowski and Edelman, and while both Brady and Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels jabbered happily about the win and about how they are far from satisfied and about how there is a need for balance in the offense, the truth is that they are just telling the beat writers what they want to hear.

After all, these guys aren't stupid.  They know full well that no matter what comes out of their mouths, someone's going to twist it around for the sake of sensational headlines in the name of readership and stir up the constituency with a big stick - and while there is truth to what they are saying, the writers never lose sight of the ultimate goal: Page Views.

In truth, there was no no favoritism on the part of Brady, no ignoring other receivers, no lost faith in the receivers' ability to get open nor to catch the football - just a cascading set of priorities, the success of which most assuredly brought a smile to the face of the Dark Master, but also a furrowing scowl to the features of those who saw an opportunity to pile on points against an inferior foe.

That's just the way it is in Patriots Nation, as victory draws out the nit-picking of the Brady and Belichick detractors just as surely as the few losses they suffer each season bring out the doomsayers.

But for fans of the dark underbelly of football - the part of the game unseen by the public, the part of the game that involves the endless sweat and preparation that makes the Patriots the model franchise of the National Football League - last Sunday is about as beautiful as football gets.

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