Monday, August 31, 2015

Smashing Windows - A Walk In The Weather To Ponder Brady's Fate

Lewiston, Maine, 3:04am

That weird misty drizzle that washes the grime off of the downtown buildings in this filthy little boom town has also effectively soaked down my shirt and matted my hair to it's restraining bandanna, saturating it to the point that there is a constant stream dripping into my eyes.

But it had to be done. This walk was essential to clear my brain so it could digest the madness going on in the so-called "Deflategate" saga, to put the thoughts on paper when I get home in some coherent order - trying to understand the arrogance displayed by Roger Goodell and his lead council Daniel Nash in addressing Federal Court Judge Richard Berman...

...chiding him in his own court room, reminding him that he hasn't the authority to overturn Goodell's ruling in the case against New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, waving both the Wells Report and a copy of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in his face like a social worker does with their executive immunity, knowing that no matter what they say, no matter how many lies they tell, that they can't be touched through either civil or criminal litigation.

Despite the weather and the late hour - or maybe because of it - thoughts are flowing freely. The streets are empty, save the occasional whore or wino making their way home after calling it a night, so I parked my car in the vacant lot across from the shuttered cathedral on Pine Street and suddenly found myself on the main drag, right across the street from the DHHS building.

We have a history, them and I.

Years ago, upon first moving to Maine, my wife's sister took an instant dislike to me, decided I wasn't the best person to be with her kin and filed a fake report to the child protection services against me, who threatened to put our children in foster care unless my wife agreed to leave me, all due to an evil thing that CPS workers hide behind called a "Preponderance of the Evidence"...

...claiming that it was "more probable than not" that I was "grooming" them for some type of abuse. In the court room, that's all these case workers needed to effectively impose their will on folks. They need no evidence, just the testimony of "expert" phsycologists that my constant doting over my children constituted the prescribed grooming.

"We know you didn't do anything," the lead counsel for CPS told me outside of the courtroom one afternoon, "But all we have to do is to say you did something, and you're cooked."

My family torn apart due to the arrogance of CPS and compounded by the ambivalence of my court appointed lawyer, I took to the only recourse I had - smashing windows.

So now, standing across the street from the hulking brick structure, I thought back to those nights of hurling bricks through the big plate glass windows on the front of their offices. Six separate times I set off their alarm system by smashing their windows, each time a police officer showed up at the door to my apartment within minutes to take me downtown to book me - in fact, the last time I did it, I didn't even bother going back to my place and just waited for the officers to arrive to save all of us the hassle.

Long story short, eventually, I did make it to criminal court where the Judge became more interested in my motivation to hurl bricks through the DHHS offices than he was in rubber stamping my ticket to jail - and within a couple of weeks all charges for destruction of government property had been dropped on the condition that I never did it again.

Not only that, but the Judge also ordered an audit of my case as part of the discovery process, and they "discovered" that the DHHS records contained reports that would have cleared me of any of the stuff that I was accused of, but that were conveniently missing from the court files - and within days, the case was closed.

Too late to save a marriage, but justice finally prevailed.

The anger that caused never really went away. The arrogance displayed by the CPS workers in methodically destroying my family remains fresh in my brain almost 20 years later, and every time I see or hear the terms "Preponderance of the Evidence" and "More probable than not", I want to pick up a brick and launch it through a plate glass window.

Those who faithfully follow my blog have undoubtedly noticed that most of my "Deflategate" pieces have a ragged edge to them, my hatred of set ups and frame jobs and unremittent arrogance boiling just under the surface, not just because I see those terms written all over the place, but because they have become a trendy catch phrase, and one that has threatened a career like it threatens the wholeness and integrity of thousands of families under the watchful guise of DHHS,

Those terms mean something to me - not something that I cherish, but something that I loathe with every fiber of my being. I am incapable of being objective, for I am emotionally compromised - but walks in the rain seem to have the same effect on my soul as it does of the buildings in Lewiston, that of washing the grime off of its tattered remnants, and making it pure, until the words are encountered again.

So being directly across from the building on a misty night in the center of this god forsaken piss hole with a brain filled of narcissistic blather from the NFL's general council Daniel Nash is not a good thing. I feel the hate rise up in me, then sensory overload as a car splashes by, stereo blaring a good Slipknot tune...

This is not the way I pictured me.
I can't control my shakes,
How the hell did I get here?
Something about this, so very wrong
I have to laugh out loud, I wish I didn't like this,
Is it a dream or a memory?

Unfortunately, it's both a dream and a memory and something about this is so very wrong. I'd like to approach this assignment objectively, but there is no right-minded way to accomplish that given Nash essentially channeling his inner social worker in his testimony - having the balls to stand up in front of a federal court Judge and remind him that he doesn't have the power to usurp Goodell's punishment of Tom Brady.

I want this entire debacle to be over. But more than that, I want to hear the Judge tell Roger Goodell that his arrogance is unbecoming a commissioner of a professional sports league, that he runs the NFL like he is the commissioner of DHHS, having the system rigged to deny the rights of the players under his discretion, hiding behind Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement like it was some sort of executive immunity...

...something that protects social workers from being sued or brought up on criminal charges for their oftentimes overreaching authority, something intended to allow them to do their jobs free from the albatross that the rest of us always have hanging over our heads, free to do their dirty work with the gleeful knowledge that they will never be held accountable for their mistakes.

Nash said as much in his responses to Berman's questions last week, that the Judge can not overturn the Commissioner's ruling in arbitration, regardless of any mistakes or false information used to convict Brady - and he's right, the Judge would have to have a very compelling case to vacate Goodell's ruling. But if Berman is anything like the Judge in my case, he will be looking for every loophole he can find to throw it right back in the NFL's collective face.

Because it's personal now. Nash made it personal by challenging the authority of a federal judge who clearly was annoyed with the case to begin with. It was already personal with Brady as the NFL had set about destroying his reputation and dragged him through the mud for seven months to get to this point. But Brady hired lawyers, and those lawyers smashed windows for him.

I dropped my gaze from the evil building on Main Street, the little house of horrors, Helga's House of Pain - walking briskly back toward the residential district where I had stashed my car, pleased that I had refrained from smashing the windows one last time, for old time's sake, disappearing into the darkness where I knew there would be no social workers to hassle me...

...hoping against hope that I never have to hear "More probable than not" ever again, because those are fighting words to me - or should I saw window smashing words?

New England Patriots' Projected 53 - The Everybody Hates Dobson Edition

Everybody hates Aaron Dobson.

The third-year pass catcher played his first snaps in nearly 10 months on Friday night and actually looked like a guy who hasn't played a lot of football lately. Imagine that.

Even though he has some culpability to claim for the two interceptions thrown by Brady against the Panthers, it's important to remember that when it comes to pitch and catch, it takes two to tango.

Brady threw the ball behind him on the first interception, though the twisting Dobson got both hands on the ball - the kind of play that Dobson routinely made in college - but double-clutched the ball, allowing Panthers' corner Peanut Tillman to gain shared possession of it. Once they hit the ground in tandem, however, Tillman had wrestled the ball away from him and the officials awarded possession to Carolina...

...while on the second interception he appeared to round off his crossing route instead of planting and exploding back towards the ball. But the way that safety Kurt Coleman broke on the ball suggests that it wouldn't have made much difference at all, as he undercut the route by several yards.

The two plays epitomized how the naturally talented speedster manages to frustrate all kinds of folks, from the coaching staff to the media to the fanbase, the latter of which have taken to social media stumping for his release - and many media outlets are prophesying that Dobson may have been playing for a roster spot last Friday.

But there are a couple of things that are not being added to the equation when it comes to the third year wideout. First, is his lengthy injury history - starting with hamstring issues that limited him in his rookie training camp, the bandage trail saw him suffer a stress fracture in his left foot during the epic come-from-behind overtime win over Denver in week 12, requiring surgery to permanently implant a screw to hold the bones together...

...which limited his participation in his sophomore training camp and, after some internal disciplinary issues were resolved, Dobson played a couple of games before the hamstring issue arose again, ending his 2014 season.

In two seasons, Dobson has played in exactly half of the games, and has been relatively productive when on the field.

While Dobson should be part of the solution instead of contributing to the problems that have caused the first-team offense to stall, it is also true that throwing an experienced receiver into the pattern with a bunch of no-name bubble biters is akin to throwing fresh meat to a pack of wolves - the same analogy that can be used to excuse the seemingly sub par performances along the offensive line.

The offense as a whole has been running in all three preseason games without top pass catchers Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Brandon Lafell, which causes increased focus by the opposing defense on any other position player on the offense, particularly one with any professional experience

But because Dobson has been maligned by the media since being drafted out of Marshall with unfair comparisons by some in the media to Randy Moss, given his speed, size and knack for the spectacular catch, most fans consider him a bust and want him to be cut - but here's the thing: even if the Patriots were inclined to cave into public scrutiny and hate on Dobson, are there better options on the team?

The answer to that is, of course, no - at least not while LaFell is on the PUP and Reggie Wayne is still trying to grasp the playbook. Because, believe it or not, Belichick learns from his past mistakes and is rarely an error repeater - so for him to put himself in position to have to endure another 2013 in terms of inexperience and injury in the pass catching corps would rub against everything Belichick stands for.

Danny Amendola has been through it due to his injury woes, and experienced the same volume of hate that Dobson is enduring right now. Kyle Arrington went through it for years and a certain quarterback named Tom Brady took multiple shots to his position as a second-year backup who was forced to take over for an immensely popular incumbent due to injury, and struggled in his first half dozen starts.

Take that for what it's worth.

Our projected 53 man roster:

Quarterbacks (2)

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

There is a certain comfort level that fans are feeling with Garoppolo these days.

Sure, he is young and he hasn't gotten it all figured out yet, but he knows what a pair of bonehead plays he made on his first series in the win over the Panthers, two near picks that should have been six points each.

When asked what happened on the plays, he said simply, "Good fortune, I guess. Those are throws you can't make and you just have to learn from them." There really isn't much need for narrative here, other than stating the obvious. Both quarterbacks have been without most of their first-team supporting cast all preseason, and it has been Garoppolo that has had the misfortune of playing the majority of the snaps.

He took a beating against the Packers, but really started to come on in the past two games, and now has achieved somewhat of a vote of confidence with the New England media and fan base in anticipation of the outcome of Brady's motion to vacate his four game suspension - which is complicated in and of itself.

Look for Garoppolo to start the final preseason game then give way to Ryan Lindley, the rumored third quarterback, as the team needs to get him some snaps before the season starts. Of course, this is all subject to what happens with Brady's court case. The Judge in the case knows the time table that Brady is subject to, and may issue a ruling as early as Tuesday morning. Either way, it gives the Patriots a much clearer idea of how to proceed going forward.

Running backs (5)

LeGarrette Blount
Jonas Gray
James White
Dion Lewis
Brandon Bolden

A broken tibia is no small feat. It is the second most dense bone in the human body, but James Develin's right foot got caught in the atrocious turf at Bank of America Stadium as he was twisted to the ground after a short gain, and when his cleats were able to release from the sod, it did so with enough torque that when his shin impacted the leg of another player, his tibia snapped like a twig.

Is there a replacement on the roster? Is it absolutely essential to employ a fullback?

It will be interesting to see what Belichick does with the position, and he has some options, depending on the actual prognosis. the original word was that Develin will be out for close to two months, but a couple of orthopaedic specialists have chimed in and are suggesting something more around four to six months - the reason being is that he had surgery in Charlotte rather than risk further injury in transport back to Boston, indicating that the break isn't as clean as originally reported.

Do you put him on the short-term IR and risk pressing him back into service in such a volatile position that requires max leverage and lower-body strength, or do you consider him lost for the season and give him time to fully heal? They may not have any choice but to go with the latter.

As far as replacements, recently released Eric Kettani could be brought back, but he was a longshot to make the roster to begin with. It could also be that New England keeps four tight ends, with Michael Hoomanawanui used in a similar role to Develin.

Other than Develin's injury, the only news that could possibly impact this position is the dearth of running backs likely to be released from other teams - such as Fred Jackson from Buffalo, as Belichick has long been an admirer.

Wide Receivers (6)

Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola
Aaron Dobson
Reggie Wayne
Chris Harper
Matt Slater

Brandon LaFell (PUP)

With LaFell likely staying on the PUP list until mid-season, it makes zero sense to cut Dobson and it makes all the sense in the world to retain Wayne, so long as it doesn't turn into an embarrassing Ochocinco-like spectacle where he can't pick up the playbook.

Not saying that is case, but there is risk involved in bringing in a guy mid-camp with a laundry list of medical concerns and being unfamiliar with concept-driven schemes - which is why Harper makes sense as well. The kid has obviously picked up the scheme and is running routes with authority. That's a good thing to have on the roster in the absence of LaFell and the inexperience of Wayne in the system.

Another option would be waiting for cuts to occur with other teams - particularly with Oakland, as they are rumored to have ex-Patriot Kenbrell Thompkins on their thin bubble.

Josh Boyce and Jonathan Krause have already been cut with injury designations, meaning they can revert back to the IR if the team sees fit. Zach D'Orazio is likely to be released and could end up back on the practice squad.

Publisher's note: Thompkins has been released by the Raiders and is currently on waivers.

Tight Ends (4)

Rob Gronkowski
Scott Chandler
Michael Hoomanawanui
Michael Williams

"We traded for him, so we wanted him."

That is what Belichick said when questioned about the roster status of Williams, for whom the Patriots traded a seventh round draft pick to Detroit in exchange for the massive tight end...

...or is he an offensive tackle? In New England's system, it really doesn't matter what he is, because his place is going to be as, essentially, an eligible sixth offensive lineman in the mold of Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming, but with hands.

The opposition is already on pins and needles when it comes to trying to defend against Gronkowski and Chandler, so what are they going to think when they have a 6' 6", 310 pound Willimas bearing down on them? Are they going to want to stand in his way? At Alabama, Williams was used mostly as a blocking tight end, and in Detroit he was used in that manner exclusively - but the versatility is intriguing.

So what happens with Hooman? Besides being a solid blocker - and perhaps because of it - he is the leading candidate to take on some of Develin's responsibilities as an Hback. He played as such both in college at Illinois and with the Rams before coming to Foxborough.

Offensive Linemen (9)

Nate Solder
Sebastian Vollmer
Bryan Stork
Tre Jackson
Shaq Mason
Ryan Groy
David Andrews
Cam Fleming
Marcus Cannon

What we've seen of the offensive line in the preseason is not what we are going to see when the season actually starts. The lack of offensive firepower at the pass catching positions have rendered the line akin to a seawall trying to hold back a tsunami - but when the season starts and the firepower is actually participating, balance should return and the line won't look so overwhelmed...

...because what all three of New England's preseason opponents have been doing is stacking to box to prevent the Patriots from getting any semblance of a running game going and basically daring Brady and Garoppolo to beat them throwing the ball which, to give the line their due, both have been able to do the last two games.

That said, do the Patriots stick  with youth and work them into crafty veterans, or does the line revert back to mostly what they had last season, sans Dan Connolly?

If it is the former, the list should look like what is listed above, but if it is the latter, Ryan Wendell or Josh Kline will appear in the stead of Groy. It's tough to predict what is going to happen here, as the performance of the line has been just as affected by the lack of weapons as has the rest of the offense, perhaps more so than any other unit on the squad.

Wendell is a smallish, but old school scrapper who plays bigger than he is, while Kilne has proven to be decent in a depth role and part-time starter - and both have experience at center, as do Groy and Andrews, who both are larger than the other two and both have experience as long snappers. Andrews has done enough to warrant a roster spot, and if he hits the waiver wire the Patriots may never see him again.

Offense total: 26

Defensive Linemen (9)

Sealver Siliga
Alan Branch
Dominique Easley
Malcom Brown
Chandler Jones
Jabaal Sheard
Rob Ninkovich
Trey Flowers
Geneo Grissom

The Patriots have their own version of the New York Giants' antiquated NASCAR package, as we saw them have encouraging success against the Panthers first-team offense with it. As we know, the NASCAR package is utilizing four defensive ends as down linemen on pure passing downs in order to get your best pass rushers on the field together.

Easley, Jones, and Flowers are all position versatile and have the ability to play on the inside of a four man set, while Sheard and Ninkovich are the best the Patriots have at the ends - both are tenured professionals in knowing when to break off the rush to set the edge in the running game.

It certainly won't be an every down package, but as we saw  against Carolina, they do have it - and it was effective against the Panthers' starters, who are no slouches.

That said, the entire front seven was effective - dominant at times - on Friday, the only hiccup was in allowing the Carolina backs and tight ends free release off the line and into their patterns early, but Belichick shored that up swiftly.

Linebackers (5)

Jamie Collins
Dont'a Hightower
Jerod Mayo
James Morris
Jonathan Freeny

This group is solid, but looks a little light on depth, but that is not taking into account that for the Patriots to get all of the best athletes on the field in certain situations, Rob Ninkovich climbs to the second level, and rookies Trey Flowers and Geneo Grissom can as well.

Ninkovich becomes sort of a chess piece on the defense with the arrival of man-beast Jabaal Sheard, as Ninkovich can be utilized in a rotation on either level and is a fantastic edge setter.

Morris and Freeny are no-brainers as the depth due as they consistently performed head and shoulders above their contemporaries - and while you'd like to have maybe one more guy in the system to account for an injury on the weak side (Mayo has had season-ending injuries the past two seasons), the depth at safety evens that out a bit...

...strong safeties Pat Chung, Jordan Richards and Tavon Wilson all safety/linebacker hybrids that can handle running backs - and that equates to weak side depth in the grand scheme. Until the entire package is put together, the question as to if the Patriots have a reliable cover 'backer to defend those incessant wheel routes that have been killers for this unit in the past will remain unanswered until the entire package is seen in action.

Corners (5)

Malcolm Butler
Bradley Fletcher
Tarell Brown
Robert McClain
Logan Ryan

There is certainly reason for optimism here, as Butler, Brown and Fletcher have proven to be a reliable trio in preseason - but also reason for concern as McClain and Ryan have not made the most of the plentiful reps during the preseason.

In truth, Ryan's stats (4 of 11 for 95 yards and a touchdown, 3 pbu's) aren't that bad, except for when you also consider that he was whistled for two holding penalties and that the yardage that he gave up was 24 yards per catch. McClain was abysmal in comparison (6 of 9 for 81 yards, 1 TD, 1 pbu) and had a pass interference and an illegal contact penalty.

But this all goes back to the premise that both are essentially slot corners, and most of the bad juju they have experienced has come when working on the outside. Be that as it may, one of them may be gone on final cuts in favor of either Dax Swanson or of filling the roster spot elsewhere.

Swanson showed up in Carolina and did more in one half of action than he had in any previous appearances, breaking up three passes. Of course, that was against quarterback Joe Webb and the second and third string Panthers' offense, but the technique was solid and probably would have been pbu's against most quarterbacks.

Surely, he has at least earned a trip to the practice squad.

Safeties (5)

Devin McCourty
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Pat Chung
Nate Ebner

Top to bottom one of the best safety corps in the league.

One has to take into account the amount of mixing and matching and experimenting Belichick has been doing with his blue liners during the preseason, and also the performances that they all turned in against the Panthers. The difference between the Saints game and the Panthers game was like the difference between day and night in terms of efficiency, most because Belichick went with a more standardized look vs. Carolina as opposed to experimenting against New Orleans.

Richards is the real deal as a hybrid safety/linebacker combo and has done nothing but impress with his ability to always be where the action is - which is just about right when considering that the Patriots will be inclined to go with a three safety look against teams who employ a lot of two tight end looks and teams that use their backs frequently in the passing game...

...which is important, because the Patriots have had such a difficult time covering running backs in particular, and in Richards the team has the size-speed ratio in a player to match up well with them.

A name to look for as a possible surprise addition to the roster is Auburn safety Brandon King, who has been a "core four" special teams player throughout camp and in every preseason game. At 6' 2", 220 pounds and with sub 4.4 speed, he's a guy that flies under the radar but has better size and speed than either Ebner or Wilson. If not on the roster, look for him to be a priority to be picked up and placed on the practice squad - if he clears waivers.

Defensive total: 24

Special Teams (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (PK)

Joe Cardona (LS)
Ryan Allen (P)

There is probably not a better kicking combo in the league than Gostkowski and Allen. Both are legitimate weapons.

"Ghost" extends the Patriots Red Zone to the 35 yard line and beyond, while Allen can switch field position battle in Patriots' favor with one kick.

Berman's Options: Siding With Arrogance Or Breaking Precedence

"...there has to be a powerful adrenalin rush in crouching by the side of the road, waiting for the next set of headlights to come along, then streaking out of the bushes with split-second timing and making it across to the other side just inches in front of the speeding front tires..."

In the quote above, Hunter S. Thompson was referring to how boring a life jackrabbits live, suggesting that in order to get their thrills, they play chicken with vehicles. Sometimes they live to dart out in front of another bus on another day, but sometimes they end up as dinner for scavengers that cling to the telephone wire, watching from above.

This analogy isn't necessarily limited to just jackrabbits, as squirrels, rouge dogs and similarly bored cats will dash in front of a car with zero notice at all - as will street punks, who will feign having a conscience by appearing to slow down as they reach the curb but step into the street anyway, the only difference between them and lower life forms is that the street punk will slow to a crawl once in the street, usually engrossed in a cell phone conversation...

...pausing just long enough to give you an indignant stare down while you ponder goosing the accelerator to throw the fear of twisted metal in their warped brains. Tempting as it is, however, you keep your foot on the brake pedal, sparing the dirtbag a case of road rash that he or she so richly deserves.

Ah, these demonic daydreams are going to be the end of me, but I don't suffer ignorance nor arrogance gladly, nor, it seems, does United States Second Circuit Judge Richard Berman.

On all three occasions when he has had the legal teams for both the NFL and Tom Brady in his courtroom over the past three weeks, his demeanor has suggested that not only is he annoyed that the NFL seemingly cannot dispose of its own business without haranguing the federal court system to make their decisions for them, but also that neither side is willing to budge from their original stances.

For Brady, that means that he is unwilling to settle the case unless the settlement is limited to a fine and, most importantly, that Brady doesn't have to accept guilt in deflating footballs - and for the NFL, it means that they will not go forward with a settlement if Brady will not accept the Wells Report as fact.

Berman has been particularly hard on the NFL, and for good reason. He has experienced the arrogance of the NFL in their never ending effort to make sure that that everyone understands that the powers of the Commissioner are absolute, with NFL lead council Daniel Nash going so far as to "remind" his honor that no one, not even he, has the authority to usurp that authority.

But that hasn't stopped the Judge from repeatedly questioning the NFL regarding their processes and flogging them with outright accusations of misrepresenting not only Brady, but their own base for discipline, but at the same time covering his tracks for possible appeal by advising all involved to not read too much into his harsh words for the NFL, and that he's just trying to gain a better understanding for their mind set.

Even more maddening is that fact that, in well-set law, Nash is absolutely correct - and it would take a resounding and clear cut establishment of over-reaching, evident bias and improper procedure to overturn Goodell's ruling. Berman is bound to precedence, but it doesn't mean that he can't make things as tough as possible on the league.

Likely, Berman sees the NFL as the street punk that has the arrogance to walk out in front of a moving vehicle because they know that the car will stop or the driver risks months of litigation and perhaps years in jail - in a case such as that, the Judge would know that the street punk is a dirtbag, will know that he or she likely is a menace to society, and his or hers lawyer is likely an ambulance chaser who is versed in extracting everything they can from the victim's rights language...

...meaning that the driver, though it be found that he did everything he could to stop, would still likely be found liable for damages, as pedestrians, even those who are a strain on society or criminals, would be found to be the victims.

In fact, Berman could be so incensed by the NFL's arrogance that he could order that the NFL do the entire thing over again or, more likely, simply find for the NFL but issue a stay of Brady's suspension until the appellate court comes to a decision, which could be months from now.

The entire world knows that the loser in this case will appeal the decision, but the the league has it within their purview to skip the appellate process and discipline Brady again, thereby side-stepping all of the land mines they created for themselves and launching a new investigation that would focus on a different angle and issue another suspension based on "new evidence".

At the same time, Berman has the power to send this entire thing back to arbitration, but to do so, he would have to find in favor of Brady - and not just find in favor of Brady, but also stipulate in his decision that the league can not punish Brady for any Deflategate centered matters, or at least limit how they go about it by ordering the case to be heard by a truly independent arbitrator.

As mentioned before, the more likely scenario is that the Judge may have no choice but to follow precedence and find in favor of the NFL, but he could save Brady the mess of trying to get an injunction to continue playing by issuing a stay of execution of punishment - either without prodding or by motion from the NFLPA - while the appellate process is heard.

To justify this, the Judge would have to find that even though the NFL is correct in their interpretation of the law, at the same time their processes of measuring discipline irreparably harm Brady.

Attorney Daniel Wallach has presented a scenario over social media that sets the scene for such a ruling, in that "courts have generally recognized that a professional athlete will suffer irreparable harm if kept out of competition for any extended period of time, even just a few games."

Wallach also points to other decisions made by federal courts have determined that "improper suspensions can undoubtedly result in irreparable harm." and that in the same breath, that "some players are central to a team's chances of making the playoffs," and that "the failure to make the playoffs and the effect of that failure on the players, teams and fans is not compensable monetarily and is therefore irreparable harm."

That scenario doesn't come without risks, however. Even though the court could drag its feet and send this into a vortex of filings and discovery, they could also expedite the matter to get it off the docket so that they can focus on real matters that are far more important, ruling against Brady which would negate the stay and impose the penalty immediately. If that comes during a crucial part of the schedule or - worse - during the post season, it hurts the Patriots and Brady far more than than the scenarios that Wallach invests in above.

Nobody but Berman knows how this is going to all go down, and with so many options open, all any of us have is speculation - which is exactly what this entire bag job has been about since the beginning.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Patriots Look Ready For Season In Defeating Carolina

It took a while for Tom Brady to find his stride, but when he did he looked like the Brady of old.

Brady of old, as in eight months ago against the Baltimore Ravens, raining a perfect ball into the hands of a blanketed receiver on the left sideline for six - only this time, it was a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers in 80 degree weather instead of a freezing AFC Divisional round playoff game, and it was into the hands of tight end Scott Chandler instead of wide receiver Brandon LaFell...

...helping the New England Patriots stage a 17-16 come-from-behind victory on Friday evening at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Of course, the pitch and catch with LaFell in New England's Super Bowl run was in the most dire of circumstances as Brady led the Patriots back from two 14 point deficits, while the connection with Chandler was just a struggling Brady trying to find his game, but there is little doubt in the minds of Patriots' fans that both moments - and both throws - were of the epic variety.
Chandler hauls in a perfect strike from Brady.

Up until that point deep in the first half at Carolina, the certain first-ballot hall of fame quarterback actually had more rushing yards (18) than passing yards (13) and just as many interceptions as completions - but knowing that he was looking at his last series of the game, Brady went to his bread and butter, isolating the towering Chandler on the final drive of the half, finding the 6' 7" tight end three times for 40 yards and the 18 yard bucket throw for a touchdown...

...followed by another strong performance by backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, bolstered by a sensational demonstration from passing back Dion Lewis and an encouraging effort from the Patriots' defense.

Brady struggled to find his rhythm early, which seems to be his typical method of operation late in his career, needing a few series under his belt to get the creaking old joints to respond like they did when he was the young fire pisser of yesterday - but once he gets going, he's nearly impossible to stop.

Twice throwing behind wide receiver Aaron Dobson, first on a seam route with a ball that eventually ended up in the hands of Panthers' greybeard corner Peanut Tillman, then on a crosser that safety Kurt Coleman jumped for the easy pick - Brady responded by hitting Chandler for 15 yards over the middle on the first play of the series, then for seven to get the offense rolling...

...reverting to the no huddle and hitting rookie Chris Harper for a short gain, then Danny Amendola for 25 to get the ball into Carolina's red zone, lofting a perfect bucket toss to a well-covered Chandler on a fade in the left corner of the end zone to end Brady's night on a high note, the Patriots taking a one point lead into the room at halftime.

Despite the early offensive struggles and the two picks that gave the Panthers excellent field position time and again, the Patriots defense held tough, relinquishing only two Graham Gano field goals in the first half, Brady's perfect touchdown toss the only paydirt found by either team.

After the Panthers took the opening kickoff of the second half 80 yards in nine plays to regain a six point lead at 13-7, back up Jimmy Garroppolo took the reigns from Brady and immediately threatened to equal his interception total with two ill-advised throws, starting cornerback Josh Norman dropping a sure pick six when he stepped in front of Jonathan Kraus on the left sidelines, then dropping another after undercutting a hitch route by Chris Harper.

But after another Gano field goal put the Panthers up by a score of 16-7, Garoppolo settled down and connected on 13 of his next 15 passes, finding Lewis, for a short scoring toss just into the final frame, then driving the Patriots into field goal range for Stephen Gostkowski's eventual game-winner with just over nine minutes remaining in the game.

The slant to Lewis went for nine yards, the elusive scatback lining up split wide in isolation on a linebacker who had no chance against the quicker Pitt product, and Gostkowski's three pointer came from 53 yards, though it would have been good from ten yards longer or more.

Like with the Patriots first two opponents, the Panthers moved the ball effectively in the first half against the Patriots first team defense, but could only muster the two Gano field goals on the scoreboard as Malcolm Butler and Tarell Brown solidified their grip on the starting cornerback spots with timely pass breakups and the New England rush defense held Carolina's powerful running game to just 3.1 yards per carry.

Butler again flashed a physical presence and stayed in the hip pocket of his mirror all night, though speedster Corey Brown helped out the second-year corner's cause by dropping a sure touchdown throw from Carolina starting quarterback Cam Newton after cleanly beating Butler off the line. In fact, Brown helped out the Patriots defense a couple of other times with drops in crucial situations...

...and it wasn't until Panthers' backup Derek Anderson targeted the maligned Brown with a short toss in the third quarter that he had his only reception of the evening, a five-yard hitch that brought a mock ovation from the crowd and plenty of knowing laughter from his teammates in the huddle.

The New England run defense was stout, allowing 84 yards on 27 carries while Newton went 17 of 28 for 160 yards and a touchdown strike to fullback Mike Tolbert to start the second half before being relieved by Anderson. Tight end Greg Olsen caught six of nine targets to lead Carolina in receiving yards while reserve running back Fozzy Whitaker paced the running game with three carries for 19 yards.

Dominique Easley and Chandler Jones recorded sacks on Newton, but the most heat on Carolina quarterbacks came courtesy of bubble biter Rufus Johnson, who registered three consecutive pressures on third string quarterback Joe Webb, who failed to complete any of his six pass attempts in limited action.

But most of Webb's issues stemmed from blanketing Patriots coverage in the secondary, often scrambling to get away from Johnson, with little-known corner Dax Swanson making a late charge for a roster spot by knocking down three of Webb's offerings in tight coverage.

The Patriots running game found some operating room in the second half paced by LeGarrette Blount's 29 yards on seven carries and Garoppolo's scrambles for an additional 18. Starting backs Jonas Gray and Brandon Bolden had a rough time against the Panthers' front seven, however, the former limited to 11 yards on five carries and the latter 12 yards on the same number of touches...

...with Lewis replacing Bolden in the second half as he put a death grip on a roster spot - and perhaps ending injured running back Travaris Cadet's bid - with another impressive performance, rushing three times for 12 yards and catching all four of his targets for 20 yards and the rifle shot for a touchdown from Garoppolo, who had another compelling effort, going 13 of 17 for 126 yards and a touchdown working with the second unit.

Of course, neither quarterback had the benefit of working with any of the Patriots' regular pass catchers, as Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski were held out of their thrid staright preseason game as a precautionary measure, while Brandon LaFell remains on the PUP list recovering from offseason surgery - leaving Brady and Garoppolo with a handful of rookies to go along with Danny Amednola, Chandler and Dobson...

...who neither had much luck connecting with in stride both Brady and Garoppolo throwing behind him down the field, though Garoppolo found him on a go route in which Dobson again had to adjust after leaving his mirror in the dust after a sweet double move, hauling in a 40 yard strike to up the touchdown to Lewis the next play.

Edelman and Gronkowski will no doubt be ready for the regular season opener, giving the Patriots' offense firepower similar to last season's championship unit - the only question being who will be throwing to them, as Brady still faces a four-game suspension over the "Deflategate" mess, but given the performances by Garoppolo, the passing backs and the defense as a whole, the prospect of starting the season without Brady isn't as daunting as it previously seemed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Patriots In For Heavy Dose Of Stewart, Tolbert And Newton Vs. Panthers

Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton is most effecting on the boot action
The last time Patriots' fans saw their team play the Carolina Panthers Aqib Talib and Steve Smith started a brawl, Panthers' linebacker Luke Kuelchy mugged Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the same play that Tom Brady threw a game-ending interception.

The end of that 2013 week 10 game wasn't even close to the end of the ill feelings, but time, as they say, heals all wounds. The teams went their separate ways, both finishing the season with identical 12-4 records, both clinching first round byes and both eliminated from the tournament before reaching the ultimate prize.

The teams then experienced different levels of success in 2014, with New England equaling their 12-4 record from 2013 and winning their fourth world championship while Carolina hit the skids with a 7-8-1 tally - hardly noteworthy, other than the fact that they won the NFC South by virtue of playing the Cincinnati Bengals to a tie in week six...

...after which Carolina dropped six straight, then righted their ship, finishing with four consecutive wins to edge out the New Orleans Saints by a half game for the division title. But these cats were hardly pushovers, knocking off the upstart Arizona Cardinals in the wildcard round before dropping a tough decision to the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks in Seattle.

The reason for such a steep decline in win total from one year to the next? A precipitous drop from being the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL in 2013 to an abysmal 21st last season.

Despite having a massive and talented front seven led by middle linebacker Kuelchy and featuring run-plugging tackles Star Lolulelei and Kwann Short, the Panthers gave up 4.5 yards per carry to opposing running backs - and it was worse than it appeared on the surface.

The interior run defense was horrific, surrendering 5.5 yards per carry, something that wasn't an anomaly, as every single opponent Carolina faced in 2014 ran the ball with success right up the gut - contrasting that with the fact that the Panthers gave up two yards per carry less on the wings despite losing left end Greg Hardy and having to start the rookie Kony Ealy in his place.

So bad was the interior defense that it essentially turned the  Panthers' secondary into run support specialists as six of the top ten tacklers on the team played on the third level - meaning that the opposing running back was at least four yards into the second level before the Panthers' laid a glove on them, this despite having two of the top linebackers in the NFL, Kuechly and Thomas Davis playing sideline to sideline pursuit.

But halfway through their six-game skid that saw them fall to 3-8-1 and surely a top 10 draft pick, the run defense made a significant improvement and their yards allowed per game dropped from 139 a game for the first nine games of the season to a more manageable 86, nearly a 50 yard per game improvement that they carried into the playoffs, holding the Cardinals to 27 rushing yards and just 78 yards of total offense for the game.

And that is essentially what the Patriots offense will get on Friday night - room up the middle, especially off left guard, to run the football, but if they try to find the edge against Ealy, blind side end Charles Johnson and that linebacking corps that now includes rookie Shaq Thompson, they will be just as ineffective as they were against the Saints last weekend.

New England should have decent success against the Panthers' secondary, however, as they are counting on the aging Peanut Tillman to handle one corner opposite Josh Norman while Bene Benwikere handles the slot. The safeties will most likely consist of greybeard Roman Harper and second year free safety Tre Boston...

...but where they will have to be careful is dealing with the Panthers' linebackers against their tight ends and running backs. Thompson is an elite cover backer if there ever was one and has the speed and mirroring technique to give either James White or Dion Lewis fits in coverage. Even as a middle linebacker, Kuechly will take on the tight ends and has the strength to battle them down the field as his 13 passes defended last season will attest. That number led the team.

The pass rush could be of concern as well. Hardy is gone to Dallas, but Johnson (8.5 sacks) is a relentless bull rusher from the blind side while Ealy (4.0) and Mario Addison (6.0) are emerging pass rushing talents that use their speed off the strong side. The middle of the line shows up as well, with Short and Dwan Edwards accounting for 7.5 sacks last season.

The way that the defense ended last season has to be encouraging for them, and adding Thompson to the linebacking corps shores up a glaring hole in the front seven, but if the Patriots can contain the Panthers' pass rush Both Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo should find some good success throwing against their elderly secondary.

But as stout as their defense appears to be, it is the Panthers' offense that should be most concerning to New England, as they present skill and depth in every area where the Patriots have come up short this preseason.

Operating behind an offensive line that features an excellent mix of youth and experience, signal caller Can Newton may be the best boot option quarterback in the league, and most opponents game plan to shadow him to keep the damage down to a minimum - which is fine for coach Ron Rivera, as that sort of plan opens up a little more room for Newton's weapons to operate.

The Panthers' offense was far more dynamic in terms of yardage gained from scrimmage in 2014, most of that coming from Newton throwing to the burly tandem of Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen, both of whom ended up with 1008 yards on the season in Carolina's diverse attack - but Benjamin tore an ACL in practice and is done for the season, meaning that if the Panthers want a passing game similar to what they experienced last season, rookie Devin Funchess will have to step up.

Funchess has a similar build and skill set to Benjamin, and is more of a steady target as Benjamin had some concentration lapses, but would also make the spectacular catch seem routine. Olsen is also a solid target out of the tight end position and is apt to give the Patriots some problems up the seam as he averages right around 12 yards per reception.
Fullback Tolbert is a load to bring down in the pattern

The one thing that was consistently missing from the Panthers' passing game was a deep threat, as they let journeyman Ted Ginn, Jr. walk to Arizona in free agency last offseason, where he suffered with the rest of the Cardinals' pass catchers with a bad quarterback situation - but they were able to lure him back to Charlotte where he enjoyed modest success as the team's vertical threat in 2013.

Corey Brown is another name to look out for, as he has the speed to take the top off a defense as does Stephen Hill, who is anxious to prove that his injury problems are behind him. All three have sub 4.4 speed, which gives Newton a distinct advantage in his boot-action audibles, as he can have the speedsters clear the corners out deep,

Olsen can take up a linebacker and running back Jonathan Stewart can occupy a safety, leaving plenty of room for the mobile signal caller to navigate through the second level. Newton also has some veteran safety valves in long-time Patriots' nemesis Jericho Cotchery, second-year man Brentin Bersin, Jerrett Boykin and move tight end Ed Dickson.

Newton averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2014, rushing the ball just over 100 times for 539 yards and five touchdowns, while Stewart carried for just over 800 yards and a 4.6 yard per carry average - but where Newton, Stewart and fullback Mike Tolbert are going to try to hurt the Patriots on Friday night is in the passing game.

Stewart is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield and Tolbert is a load in the pattern, catching 163 balls in his six seasons for nearly 1500 yards, though the Panthers use him as a battering ram and change up type back, averaging 3.6 yards per carry in his career and making the Pro Bowl in 2013...

...and it was actually Tolbert's absence with a knee injury suffered against the Bears in week 5 that coincided with the Panthers' mid-season losing streak, and were 0-5-1 with him on the shelf, scoring a full touchdown per game less than their season average during his time on the short-term IR.

Both Tolbert and Stewart are going to also try the interior of the Patriots' defensive line in the running game, as will Fozzy Whittaker as a change of pace back, though New England will probably also get a healthy dose of Auburn rookie Cameron Artis-Payne later in the game.

None of these backs are particularly speedy, as Rivera prefers bruisers to do his ground work, but they are all big, determined runners with excellent hands out of the backfield, which should put a lot of stress on the Patriots' safety corps.

As for Newton, expect to see linebacker Rob Ninkovich work as a shadow on him, something he has should a knack for in the past, but he, along with the rest of the Patriots' front seven, will have to contend with Carolina's young but very stout offensive line, anchored by former Minnesota Viking Ryan Kalil at the pivot and featuring former Baltimore Raven Michael Oher at the left tackle spot.

Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner flank Kalil and together form a very solid offensive line, perhaps one of the best the Patriots are likely to see this season, but for New England to have any success at all against such a diverse offense, the pass rush is going to have to get to Newton, and the secondary - particularly the safeties - along with the linebackers must exhibit discipline in coverage of the running backs and tight ends to ensure that Newton doesn't gain the edge on the boot action.

This is the type of game that will allow Belichick to see what he has for linebacker depth on defense and to test the gap discipline of the entire front seven, and on offense the test will be in keeping the Panthers' front seven out of the backfield and keeping the backs involved in the passing game.

New England should be able to run on the Panthers up the middle, which will run the clock and keep the defense fresh to contend with Newton, his speedy receivers and that powerful running game - but f they can't run the ball and keep the backs involved in the passing game, it could be a long night for a Patriots' team that will likely still be without several starters at key positions.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Wayne To New England - Nice Depth Or Forewarning Of Dark Times?

Well, Patriots' fans have gotten their wish.

After years of rumor and innuendo involving long-time Indianapolis Colts' receiver Reggie Wayne, the six-time Pro Bowl selection and former first-team All Pro was signed to a one year contract by the New England Patriots on Monday afternoon, causing adults to run amok waiving the Patriots' colors and young children all around New England to jabber with joy...
Wayne and Belichick has mutual respect for one another

...and causing some in Indianapolis to question not just head ball coach Bill Belichick's motivation in signing the all-time leader in games played for the Colts, but also to question Wayne's motivation, some in the Indianapolis media stooping so low as to call him a traitor.

I have my questions about where he fits in the offense and what he does or does not have left in his tank, but the simple fact of the matter is that motivations don't mean anything - all that does matter is that the Indianapolis Colts did not want him back after giving the team the best 14 years of his life thus far, so neither the team nor their media have the right to question the motivation of anyone in this scenario...

...particularly not Greg Doyle, who along with Ron Borges is one of the preeminent muckrakers and Belichick haters in the national media - their motivation clear at all times.

But the euphoria surrounding Wayne's signing notwithstanding, the real question is what dark circumstance made the signing possible, yea, even necessary?

Conventional wisdom dictates that when a team like New England needs a depth receiver, they normally look for youth, someone whose mind hasn't been convoluted and clustered by the ways and means of others in the profession - so it comes as curious that Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick would jump on the Reggie Wayne bandwagon unless he has serious concern about the health of his current kennel of young greyhounds.

And as it turns out, he did have some serious concerns, because just as soon as the team announced the signing of Wayne on Monday afternoon, they made a series of roster moves that included placing receivers Brandon Gibson and Brian Tyms on the Injured reserved list, ending their seasons before they ever got started.

Wayne is 37 years old, coming off triceps surgery in February and still dealing with knee problems stemming from a torn ACL last offseason.

The ACL is what it is - a common injury that saps range of motion and perhaps some suddenness, which is bad enough for a receiver, but the real concern is the triceps injury, a partial tear that not only destroyed Wayne's 2014 season, but also required offseason surgery to repair.

Ironically, it was in the regular season game against the Patriots last season that it is reported that he suffered the tear after terrorizing New England's secondary with 5 catches for 91 yards, and it was abundantly clear that the injury made him a liability in the Colts offense the rest of the season.

Halfway through his 2014 season and making a full return from the ACL that ended his 2013 season early, Wayne had already collected 47 catches for 595 yards in 10 games played, which under normal circumstances would have drawn out to 75 receptions for 952 yards on the season - but after tearing the triceps muscle, he was limited to just 17 catches in six games for 184 yards, with 80 of those yards on a fluke play on the final day of the regular season.

Tearing a triceps muscle is that limiting, that painful and, fortunately, a rare occurance - so limiting and painful in fact, that Wayne should not have even been playing. The same sort of injury cost former Ravens tough guy linebacker Ray Lewis an entire season, so there is a toughness curve that Wayne broached in order to give his all to the Colts - but unfortunately, the Colts didn't seem to appreciate the effort.

For the uninitiated, the triceps is the muscle on the back part of the arm and is primarily responsible for extending and straightening the elbow and forearm. A tear is generally referring to a separation of the tendon that holds the muscle to the bone, an injury that causes searing pain with any movement and can prevent the afflicted individual from performing such menial tasks as pushing oneself up from a seated position.

Recovery time from surgery to recovering full range of motion stands at right around a full year - and right now Wayne is sitting on half of that time, hence the concern.

There are other concerns that probably motivated Belichick to bring Wayne in for a physical, with which he would have had to perform unimpeded and without limitation before being offered a contract - two of those concerns surrounding receivers taken in the 2013 draft class in Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson.

Boyce is likely headed to the practice squad again and Dobson's health has always been a major concern - plus there is the injury status of Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, leaving only (ironically) Danny Amendola and a handful of undrafted rookies to take snaps in the last two preseason games.

It has been reported, however, that Edelman, Dobson and LaFell are being held out of the preseason for precautionary reasons and will be ready for the regular season - and if this is truly the case a depth chart featuring those three, Wayne, one of the undrafted rookies (Harper, most likely) to go along with the twin towers at tight end in the persons of Gronkowski and Chandler will have an excellent mixture of veteran guile, youthful exuberance and wonderful chemistry.

Of course, that looks pretty good on paper, but the real test comes when they all lace up their cleats and hit the playing field, and if Wayne can come anywhere close to the numbers he was putting up last season before he tore the triceps, Belichick will have once again proven that another team's trash is truly his team's treasure.

No matter what Doyle thinks.

New England Patriots' Projected 53 - Massive Overreaction Edition

Had Bill Belichick not taken Eastern Illinois University quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he would probably be starting for another NFL team right now.

Most likely, speculation had it, as a member of the Houston Texans, who were poised to select Garoppolo with the top pick in the third round, just three picks later - but instead new Texans' coach Bill O'Brien, a former offensive coordinator under Belichick in New England, ended up trading for the man Garoppolo beat out for Tom Brady's backup.
Garoppolo (10) and White were stars on Saturday night

In fact, he's still stuck with Ryan Mallet, and Garoppolo has taken his place with Patriots' fans as their designated punching bag. But on occasion, such as Saturday night's performance in New England's come from behind victory over the New Orleans Saints, Garoppolo is seen in some circles as being NFL ready - and he may be.

But here's the thing: The Patriots need him to be ready. They need him to be awesome, because if Brady ends up riding NFL lightning for a quarter of the season and he's not ready to lead this offense, what is the point of all of this?

Garoppolo has his detractors, but hating on him because some idiots on social media suggest that he's the next coming of Brady isn't doing anyone any good - because he's not Tom Brady.

Brady at the point in his career that Garoppolo is at was blissfully unaware that in just a few short weeks would be coming into a tight game with the New York Jets after Drew Bledsoe was nearly killed when a vicious hit from linebacker Mo Lewis sheared a blood vessel in his chest.

Anyone remember that? Anyone remember how Brady struggled in his first few games and how as Bledsoe started nearing a return from the injury, the hate that he had to endure from the fans and media, most suggesting - loudly - that the job was Bledsoe's, no matter that Brady had taken hold of the offense and made it his?

Garoppolo is no Tom Brady, but Tom Brady has been Jimmy Garoppolo, or has at least chewed some of the same dirt that the second year clipboard holder has. This is not to say that Jimmy Garoppolo will ever be as successful as Brady, nor is it to say that he will ever be good enough to beat anyone other than second and third stringers...

...but what it does mean is that it's been 15 years since New England has had a back up quarterback who has a decent shot at becoming a legitimate NFL quarterback. Right now the Patriots have Tom Brady, so the fans can afford to slight the potential of Garoppolo, but how many teams out there would love to have the kid competing to be their starter?

Our projected 53 man roster:

Quarterbacks (2)

Tom Brady
Jimmy Garoppolo

Jimmy G needs a better nickname. And nothing stupid like Prince Aladdin, though he does bear a striking resemblance to the animated character. He also looks a lot like Christopher Reeve did in his prime, but Superman is a bit of a presumptuous moniker for someone who has thrown just 29 passes in actual NFL games.

Jimmy Football is generic, but if flows better than Jimmy G. and doesn't sound like a pack of tween girls have it stenciled on their school notebooks, and have posters of the devilishly handsome signal caller hanging on their walls...

So, Jimmy Football it is. And he backs up Tom Terrific and both are coached by Billy Ballgame.

Mother of God, I think I just turned into a tween girl....

Running backs (6)

LeGarrette Blount
Jonas Gray
James White
Dion Lewis
Brandon Bolden
James Develin

The Patriots are in a precarious spot with their running backs, in that both of their opponents thus far in preseason have almost completely ignored the passing game and have loaded up the box to stop the run.

Not having receivers of any experience will do that.

Gray looks explosive when he gets a clean hole and Blount's syrup-on-waffles flowing style is silently effective, but against the stacked boxes the versatility of White and Lewis shine brighter because both are polished route runners, are not afraid to lower their shoulder and deliver the blow and both are capable ankle-breakers in the open field.

What's more, both display a ton of intestinal fortitude in putting themselves between their quarterback and a blitzing linebacker - they might get trucked, but they put themselves in harms way and give their thrower an extra split-second to do his job.

That said, it's going to be tough to let go of one of them. Maybe they should just keep them both. It would mean cutting somewhere else, probably in the receiver corps, but when you have the capability of fielding a double threat of passing backs, what does that do to the opposing defense? Do they bring up two safeties? Do they assign two linebackers? And what about Gronkowski and Edelman and Lafell?

'nuf said.

Wide Receivers (6)

Julian Edelman
Danny Amendola
Brandon LaFell
Aaron Dobson
Chris Harper
Matt Slater

Where are these guys?

Edelman is dealing with a leg issue, as is Dobson. LaFell just recently has removed a walking boot and is supposedly working his way into shape. Irony of ironies? Amendola is the only fully healthy incumbent receiver on the roster.

We are left to assume that the aforementioned are just being coddled by the team until the games count for real, but the uncertainty surrounding the trio is maddening.

Harper has earned a spot on the roster, and Jonathan Krause is a name that is right there with him, though not quite as explosive a talent. Brian Tyms is likely done for the season with a foot injury and veteran Brandon Gibson's knee looks to have sustained some measure of damage during Saturday night's contest...

...but the most concerning development is that the Patriots have reportedly reached out to former Colt Reggie Wayne and have brought him in for a physical, shattering the perception of the assumption we were left to make - because if Wayne were to gain a roster spot after he lost his starting nod in Indianapolis last season because he couldn't gain separation, what kind of dark times are the pass catching corps about to encounter?

His signing could signal deep problems with the pass catchers, if he indeed is signed.

*Editor's note: Wayne was signed by New England to a one year contract on Monday afternoon.

Tight Ends (3)

Rob Gronkowski
Scott Chandler
Michael Hoomanawanui

Thank goodness for Rob Gronkowski. He hasn't seen much game action at all this preseason, but he has already proven time and again that he doesn't need much. The scary thing about Gronkowski is not just that he is an unassuming superstar and that his phenomenal skill transcends everything that we know about the tight end position, but that he is just now starting to enter his prime.

If Gronkowski continues on a path that keeps him healthy and focused, he will shatter every receiving record there is for the position - but that comes with time. Right now all that matters is that he is the number one pass catcher on this team and his very presence opens up space for all of the other "skill" position players to operate.

All we really know about Chandler is that he's wicked tall and has an ability to find the soft spot in a zone. This makes him a lightning rod for quarterbacks as a safety valve and a safe target in the back of the end zone - we've seen it when he was in the pattern with the quarterback carousel in Buffalo, now we just want to see him preform with a top shelf signal caller throwing him the ball.

Hooman is an interesting cat that the coaching staff absolutely loves and his spot should be secure, He's one of those guys that you forget about until he catches critical passes in the Super Bowl.

Be on the lookout for undrafted rookie free agent Jimmay Mundine, as he flashed some skill against the Saints and showed some solid footwork and desire to pick up yardage after the catch. He may not make the 53 man roster, but he could very well hit the practice squad.

Offensive Linemen (9)

Nate Solder
Sebastian Vollmer
Bryan Stork
Tre Jackson
Shaq Mason
Ryan Groy
David Andrews
Cam Fleming
Marcus Cannon

The lack of legitimate targets in the receiving corps has affected the entire offense, but perhaps hits the offensive line the hardest.

Without experienced receivers in the pattern, defenses are not going to respect the passing game, will assign press man coverage and stack the box to stop the run, daring one of the bubble players to beat them. Obviously the Saints weren't concerned with the New England passing game and they sent wave after wave of humanity to overwhelm the Patriots' offensive line before they could gain leverage and make a push.

The results were ugly, as the running game averaged only 2.3 yards per carry, but once Garoppolo started connecting with his no-name receivers and his backs curling into the pattern, the Saints had to start keeping their linebackers back in coverage which allowed the Patriots offensive linemen to start opening creases that the smaller passing backs could sprint through.

It's a vicious cycle, but one that the Patriots need to exploit to have success in the running game.

Offense total: 26

Defensive Linemen (7)

Sealver Siliga
Alan Branch
Dominique Easley
Malcom Brown
Chandler Jones
Jabaal Sheard
Rob Ninkovich

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious is that Easley is more of a defensive end than a tackle, and that he still has much to learn at that position. It's a bit disappointing in that we were expecting some elite burst from the interior to go along with the run-stuffing capabilities of Siliga and Brown, but Brown may turn out to be that guy instead.

Brown showed his motor and deceptive speed in chasing down Saints' back Mark Ingram on a wheel route on Saturday night, and is just now starting to show his trademark burst from the one and three-tech while Easley has been pushed to the outside - and it is an interesting alignment.

Utilizing and getting the most out of these seven is a proposition that has some intrigue, as they have the personnel to switch between four and three man fronts.

With Siliga manning the nose and Brown the under tackle, bookended by Easley and Sheard on the ends, the early downs are covered, leaving Jones and Ninkovich to play more specialized roles which will extend their self-life, particularly Nink who is on the wrong side of 30 but has also been, arguably, the team's defensive MVP for the past couple of seasons.

What make's Ninkovich's life easier is the presence of Sheard, who is an absolute instinctual animal with the burst and strike capability of a cobra - without question one of the best free agent signings in the NFL this season.

Linebackers (7)

Jamie Collins
Dont'a Hightower
Jerod Mayo
James Morris
Eric Martin
Trey Flowers
Geneo Grissom

We haven't seen much of Mayo or Hightower, except for them instructing and mentoring the young linebackers on the sideline - but when combined with Collins, the trio comprises perhaps the best starting 4-3 linebackers in the league. Unfortunately, in recent seasons the depth behind them has been frustrating.

Morris seems to be a fresh and violent addition to the corps and Martin is a sideline to sideline backer who can get there from anywhere on the second level. Martin has been injured and hasn't played in a game thus far in preseason. A coverage 'backer is what has been missing for a while, and even the physical freak Collins can't keep up with shift running backs, but Martin can - though he can't do so from the hot tub.

His time to show his stuff on the field is running out and while Jonathan Freeny is not as good in coverage as Martin, if Martin isn't on the field in the third preseason game, he may well lose out on the roster spot to Freeny.

Corners (5)

Malcolm Butler
Bradley Fletcher
Tarell Brown
Robert McClain
Logan Ryan

Overreaction here?

Logan Ryan can not cover outside of the numbers. He gives up way too much space and doesn't react quickly enough nor does he have the closing burst to make up for the ground he gives - we saw it in the Super Bowl and we've seen it in two preseason games. His roster spot is tenuous at best.

What does that say about the cornerback depth that the only player remaining from last season's championship team is second-year load Malcolm Butler? It's disappointing for sure, given the mentoring the now-departed depth behind Revis and Browner received from the two veterans, and that the Patriots are essentially starting over with recycled players.

That said, Fletcher has show improvement from one game to the next and was a bright spot in an other wise abysmal performance from the secondary on Saturday night. Brown has not seen much action at all, but is the penciled in starter opposite Butler based on past performance alone while McClain is a decent slot option.

The wildcard for Ryan is the health of the rookie Roberts, who sustained a wrist injury in the first preseason game. Roberts has the skill and attitude to be a very good cover corner but is very raw as well - but until he comes back to the field, the job is Ryan's to lose - I think everyone would like to see him in the slot or double slot, however.

Safeties (5)

Devin McCourty
Duron Harmon
Jordan Richards
Pat Chung
Tavon Wilson

Last Saturday's performances notwithstanding, this is an excellent safety corps.

Against the Saints, Belichick tried out his safeties in a number of different situations, and the results were hardly encouraging - but if you're going to experiment with your players by putting them in uncomfortable positions, there s no better time than the second preseason game.

"At some point we may be using different people in different spots" Belichick explained during a conference call on Sunday, "and we'll have to come back to the base that we're building now and the depth that we're trying to build now, with players playing multiple positions and trying to create depth at all positions on the team, not just the secondary."

The same is true along the offensive line, defensive line and at linebacker for the defending champions, it's just that it's more noticeable in the secondary given the immense amount of media coverage given to the corps because of attrition. The safeties are still the strength of the secondary, and when the lights come on for real, they will prove that.

The matter of conjecture with the safeties is that with the drafting of Richards, there is room for only one special teamer, and with Wilson coming on strong both on defense and on kick coverage, he wins out over

Defensive total: 24

Special Teams (3)

Stephen Gostkowski (PK)

Joe Cardona (LS)
Ryan Allen (P)

Absolutely no question here.

Gostkowski has missed a couple of attempts but, hey, it's preseason for him too. Ryan's massive leg is a vital field possession weapon.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Patriots Lose The Battles But Win The War In Comeback Over Saints

On one play in the fourth quarter, New England Patriots' quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo reminded all of us that he is just a second year clipboard holder with a lot to learn.

The rest of his night was a confirmation of his enormous potential.

Granted, it was against the New Orleans Saints' second and third string defenders, but Garoppolo completed 28 of 33 pass attempts for 269 yards and a touchdown, while dueling passing back applicants James White and Dion Lewis showed off plenty of fancy footwork and rookie receiver Chris Harper made a big statement for making the Patriots' roster as New England came from behind to defeat the Saints in the Mercedes Benz Superdome on Saturday night.

Being as it was just the second preseason game for both teams, the 26-24 final score is inconsequential - that is, other than the fact that Garoppolo led scoring drives on five of six consecutive series that spanned the final moments of the first half and all of the second, the lone hiccup coming when the Eastern Illinois product hung an off-balance floater into double coverage that was easily picked off at midfield by free safety Pierre Warren...

...while the Patriots' defense that was shredded by Saints' quarterback Drew Brees early in the match settled down in the second half, allowing only a field goal to the New Orleans backups and never letting them get close to the red zone.

Starting signal caller Tom Brady went three-and-out on three straight possessions to start the contest, facing the starting core of the New Orleans defense with a mix-matched offense that was missing nearly all of its proven firepower.

Naturally, the Saints took advantage of the fact that Brady was working with zero experience among his pass catchers by choosing to cover those receivers man-to-man and flooding the Patriots offensive line with a giant wave of humanity, blowing up New England's hapless running game before it got a chance to get going...

...the Patriots posting negative yardage on the ground after three series and only 13 yards through the air on two of five passing - while the Saints' offense was having similar control over the New England defense, quarterback Drew Brees connecting on 8 of 10 passing attempts for 159 yards, a ridiculous average of nearly sixteen yards per attempt, and throwing for two scores in his one quarter of work.

Brees made quick work of the Patriots' pass coverage, which was helter-skelter to begin with as Belichick mixed and matched players out of their comfort zones in the secondary, targeting safety-turned-corner Devin McCourty with speed merchant Brandin Cooks to the tune of 4 connections for 115 yards, including a deep strike touchdown in which McCourty lost inside contain before safety Duron Harmon could get to the play.

Most of the rest of the damage was done by Brees sending everyone deep to clear out the underneath zone and tossing short to his running backs, who combined to haul in five balls for 73 yards, then finishing his night by absolutely abusing depth linebacker Jonathan Freeny on a 12 yard slant to tight end Benjamin Watson for another score.

New Orleans built up a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter when Saints' backup quarterback Luke McCown went after Patriots' corner Logan Ryan on his third (and last) series of the game, finishing it off with a six yard toss to tight end Josh Hill with just a minute left in the first half  - setting the stage for Garoppolo.

Spreading the ball around between his wideouts and backs to move the ball down to the New Orleans 24 yard line with just seconds remaining in the half, Garoppolo made the play that will define his preseason and professional career thus far, escaping the clutches of prone defensive end Bobby Richardson, resetting his feet and delivering a laser to Harper, who had worked himself free in the end zone for the Patriots' first score.

Dion Lewis, who did not play in the first preseason game, scored the only points of the third quarter, a hard-nosed power run right into the teeth of the Saints' run defense for an 11 yard touchdown run. The fourth-year scat back out of Pitt put himself right in the thick of the competition for a roster spot at running back with 5 catches for 36 yards and, even more importantly, by displaying a willingness and ability to pick up the blitz...

...something that fellow back James White showed in abundance for the second game in a row, the sophomore ankle-breaker also hauling in a short pass and weaving through traffic to pick up 20 yards in addition to ending up the leading rusher for either team on the night, three of his 23 yards on the ground accounting for New England's third touchdown of the night just seconds into the final frame.

The ensuing two-point conversion attempt failed, however, leaving the Patriots down a point but with virtually all of the fourth quarter to play - but Garoppolo's ill-advised duck into double-coverage set the Saints up at the New England 15 yard line. The Patriots' defense held New Orleans to a field goal, however, to make the deficit four points.

Garoppolo went right back to work, setting up place kicker Stephen Gostkowski for kicks of 36 and 35 yards on consecutive drives to end the scoring, the latter a game winner with 14 seconds left on the clock.

Lost in the performances of Garoppolo, Lewis, White and Harper - as well as the struggles in run blocking - was the pass protection of the offensive line, keeping both Brady and Garoppolo upright and causing Saints' coach Sean Payton to wonder aloud if his pass rush ever touched the New England signal callers.

They did, but not enough to knock ether off of their spots in the pocket, sans the athletic play from Garoppolo on the first touchdown strike - a glowing contrast from the Patriots' preseason opening loss to Green Bay, when the Packers' pass rush got to Garoppolo for seven sacks, and nailed him another half-dozen times after he had released the ball.

In the end, the Patriots won the game but lost many of the early battles, mostly due to a limited depth chart among the pass catchers, which enabled the Saints to overwhelm the Patriots offensive line with sheer numbers as they keyed on stopping New England's running game and forcing the game onto a handful of inexperienced receivers...

...while on defense the Patriots electing to test the versatility of their secondary while sitting their starting linebacker corps for most of the game, putting the onus on bubble players to stand up and make a case for their inclusion on the final roster - and it was predictably ugly at times, but Belichick has to like the fight his charges showed in outscoring the Saints 26-3 once the team settled down and started playing some good ball.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Patriots To Unveil Big Nickle Base Against Saints

The New England Patriots are set to be the first team in NFL history to employ the Big Nickle as their base defense, and Saturday night's matchup with the high powered New Orleans Saints' offense will provide the fan base with their first real opportunity for a sneak preview.

Despite dumping freakishly athletic tight end Jimmy Graham on the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, the Saints still possess a group of pass catchers that can give opposing defenses fits and, due to their size advantage against nearly any corners they might match up against, teams that can utilize the three safety concept will be more successful than most against them - but particularly the Patriots' version, as they have a legitimate diamond of a Big Nickle safety in Devin McCourty.
Jordan Richards (l) and Robert McClain are great fits in Patriots' secondary

The star of the Saints' camp thus far in 2015 has been second-year undrafted free agent Brandon Coleman, who at 6' 6" and 225 pounds combines with like-sized veteran Marques Colston and diminutive burner Brandin Cooks to give quarterback Drew Brees a dangerous trio of pass catching talent, with lanky Nick Toon coming on as another tall, speedy option...

...which should be easier to defend given the state of the Saints' running game. Mark Ingram figures to be the equivalent of a lead back for New Orleans, and has also been the passing back in practices while newly acquired and oft-injured C.J. Spiller recovers from his latest malady. Khiry Robinson will benefit from increased snaps with Spiller out, but is reportedly on the trading block - so a lot of touches on Saturday night would probably be akin to the Saints showcasing him.

Spiller has great hands out of the backfield, but he can't catch anything from the trainer's table. Ingram is adequate in the passing game and Robinson is too erratic to really count on - so all things considered, the Patriots can expect Brees to spread them out, giving New England the perfect opportunity to try out their new look secondary.

Unlike the standard nickle defense in which a nickle corner comes into the game in the stead of a slower lumbering linebacker, the Big Nickle instead calls for a hybrid safety to replace the linebacker - and be as New England spends around seventy percent of their snaps in the nickle, it goes to figure that the Big Nickle will translate to the same number.

The Patriots have traditionally employed sure-tackling corners in what has been either a 4-2-5 alignment (four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs) or a 3-3-5, depending on the opposing personnel, but with the release of veteran slot corner Kyle Arrington in the offseason combined with a multitude of off-the-radar signings, the depth chart now suddenly supports the idea of the Big Nickle.

For the uninitiated, the Big Nickle safety must possess the coverage ability of a cornerback to take on an outside receiving threat, with the run support willingness of a strong safety so that the defense doesn't lose that capability by pulling a linebacker from the field. The nickle will normally align at linebacker depth in order to be able to read the play from the box and react accordingly, while the strong safety will key on the opposing running back, leaving the tight end to the strong side linebacker to deal with.

The only downfall to this alignment is that it leaves the free safety as the lone centerfielder - but as the Patriots have benefited from the emergence of Duron Harmon in that role, it frees up newly rich hybrid corner/safety McCourty to reduce down to be the Big Nickle.

Heavy with safety talent, the Patriots philosophy has been constructed through the past three offseasons. In 2012, head ball coach Bill Belichick moved top corner McCourty to free safety, adding Tavon Wilson in the second round of the 2012 draft, Harmon in the third round of the 2013 draft and, after an unsuccessful attempt at reviving the career of former Arizona Cardinals' heavy hitter Adrian Wilson, he brought back former second rounder Patrick Chung last season and drafted underrated Stanford hybrid Jordan Richards in the second round this year...

...and in addition, Belichick brought in corner hybrids Robert McClain and Bradley Fletcher to go along with third-year man Logan Ryan (who was rumored to be switching to safety last season) to give him a pool of eight options to participate in the Big Nickle as hybrid safeties.

There has been evidence of Belichick leaning towards this alignment all off season, as McCourty, Harmon and Wilson have seen time at corner while Chung and Richards have taken turns in the box as true strong safeties. McClain appears to be the top candidate for the slot in either a standard base or in the nickle, giving the team a solid hybrid in that role without having to flip-flop.

But this is all for another time - for now, however, some random thoughts headed into tonight's game:

Time to settle on linebacker depth

Eric Martin, James Morris and Jonathan Freeny lead group of decent linebacker depth that also include Cam Gordon, Darius Fleming and Dekoda Watson. As always, it seems, depth is a primary concern with the Patriots at linebacker, and any of these guys could do themselves a huge favor by having a breakout performance tonight.

Especially under the microscope will be the depth in the middle to back up starter Dont'a Hightower, and players with some versatility to play both inside and out, like Morris, has a huge opportunity in this game. Fleming is purely a strong side edge setter while Watson and Gordon would have to make a roster spot by turning is stellar performances. Martin will likely miss his second straight contest with an undisclosed injury.

Regardless of what happens, the Patriots would be well-advised to settle on their depth early and use the next two games to develop some chemistry with whomever is going to be on the tea,.

Team will likely go run-heavy early to get Blount work

Look for LeGarrette Blount to get some quality reps early as the Patriots offense works off of a scripted game plan, setting up the passing game with it's depleted ranks amongst the pass catchers by establishing the power running game.

Gray will get some work and passing back James White has a golden opportunity to solidify his status as the top option on third down, likely before Dion Lewis, and former Saint Travaris Cadet falls further down the depth chart by probably missing tonight's game with an injury.

Boyce needs to translate strong practices to game nights

Some players are gamers, and some are workout warriors. Josh Boyce needs to be both to make a run at a roster spot.

Boyce was targeted almost exclusively during portions of the team's first preseason game - and the combination of the quarterbacks being under duress and the Patriots' telegraphing their intent did him no favors, so New England must get other options contributing early to lighten the load on Boyce and to make the offense less predictable.

Of course, having any other experienced receivers on the field with him would help immensely, especially if Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski are on the field to take the focus away from not just Boyce, but all of the youngsters trying to make the team.

Boyce has elite speed and is a vertical threat in practice, but that needs to translate to game time.

Tight ends on display

Gronkowski will see some action, but newbie Scott Chandler and converted defensive end Jake Bequette will likely be watching in street clothes, opening the door for undrafted rookie free agent Jimmay Mundine do display his talents.

More like an Hback or even a thick wide receiver, Mundine was the most productive and prolific tight end in the history of the University of Kansas' football program, has decent speed and is a load to bring down at 6' 2" 240. If he is ging to make this team, tonight will have a lot to say about that.

Newly acquired blocking tight end Asante Cleveland may see some action, supplanting Marcus Cannon or Cam Fleming as the sixth offensive lineman on running downs. Cleveland is a long shot to make the roster, competing against entrenched Michael Hoomanawanui, who offers pass catching versatility as well. Still, expect to see a few balls coming Cleveland's way so that the team can assess his value to the offense.

Shoring up run defense

As previously mentioned, the Saints are handicapped in their backfield as far as receiving  talent, but they have a name power back in Mark Ingram.

Brees is going to spread out the Patriots as a result, but having Ingram and Khiry Robinson in the backfield will put some stress on the Patriots' run defense, in particular the Big Nickle safety who is going to have to drop down into run support on occasion.

Dominique Easley had a good week of practice, as did nose tackle Malcom Brown as both seemed to take lessons from last week's up and down performances and looked very stout in joint practices so the middle of the line should be improved - but it remains to be seen if the edge setting on the weak side will improve.

Chandler Jones is more of a pass rusher but he needs to pay attention to the edge as well, something that rookie Geneo Grissom showed in abundance during joint practices. If Grissom continues to show edge setting capability, he could supplant the need for a sixth linebacker on the final roster as a defensive end / weak side linebacker hybrid.