Sunday, February 28, 2016

Reloading The Musket, Part 1 - Back To Fundamentals

"The many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on;
And so did I"

And, yes...

In Sam Coleridge's timeless horror classic "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", a boy on his way to his brother's wedding was menaced by a crusty old mariner, whose cold, dead eye compelled the lad to cut short his journey and listen to the old man's horrible tale.

His soliloquy - a tale of disregard, penance and purely supernatural weirdness - told of the captain of a fine sailing vessel that became trapped in the ice of the south pole, becoming dislodged upon the presence of an albatross, giving rise to the superstition among sailors of the day that the mighty sea bird's presence was a sign of good fortune...

...a thought not lost on the captain, as he slew the bird with a crossbow in an effort to dispel the superstition - eventually bringing ruin to his crew of 200 and to his ship when "Death" and his beautiful sidekick "Life in Death" rolled the bones to determine their fate - Death taking the consolation prize of the aforementioned crew while the Specter-woman took charge of the captain, not allowing the hard-hearted mariner to escape the horror through death, instead forcing him to pay penance for senselessly murdering one of God's creatures.

The tale has been used as a metaphor to describe the peril that folks will rightly encounter for counting on blind luck, as although the sailors where aghast at the captains actions, they began to accept them the longer the ship encountered no ill - but once their fortunes started to turn, they tied the dead bird around the captain's neck and rejected him as the harbinger of their demise on the open sea.

Thus the genesis of the metaphor of one who bears a particular guilt as having an albatross around his neck, a natural response by the human element to assign blame when things go sideways, when seeking a scapegoat is easier than fessing up to the truth - an axiom that still holds true today in every walk of life, even in football.

When the New England Patriots' 2015 season ended on a balmy January afternoon in Denver, the blame game amongst media and fans immediately exploded on social media, the masses looking for a scapegoat in which to hang an albatross around his neck.

Initially it was on the neck of All Pro kicker Stephen Gostkowski for missing an extra point early in the game which, as it turns out, forced the Patriots to try for a two-point conversion to tie the game late, which failed miserably. Then it was the offensive line for allowing quarterback Tom Brady to get nailed more times than a cougar at a bachelor party...

....continuing on to Brandon LaFell falling out of favor with Brady, running back James White supposedly giving up on two deep sideline throws and then finally on Brady himself for not rising to the occasion as he had so many times in the past.

But the real blame for the Patriots missing their opportunity to defend their championship against the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 goes to the captain of the vessel, the ancient mariner and his boatswains - not for shooting a crossbow arrow through the heart of an albatross, but for not trusting their crew to do what needed to be done to keep the ship afloat.

For years, the Patriots have prided themselves on being one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the National Football League, both on the field of battle and on the sidelines - but when the injuries started to mount, in particular a torn ACL for scatback Dion Lewis and a foot injury to wide receiver Julian Edelman in successive weeks, panic seemed to dictate the decision making of the coaching staff.

The injury downfall actually began in a week five matchup with Dallas, when left tackle Nate Solder tore a biceps muscle and the Patriots were forced to face the fact that their two swing tackles, Marcus Cannon and Cam Fleming, were not suited for protecting quarterback Tom Brady's blind side against speed rushers - which in turn forced them to break up the continuity on the rest of the line by switching right tackle Sebastian Vollmer from his right tackle spot to the left...

...making the strong side a turnstile that ultimately turned Brady into a punching bag and eventually - along with injuries to running backs Lewis and LeGarrette Blount - made the running game obsolete, with a little help from the play calling that handcuffed the offense in such a way that the Patriots were forced to play catch-up...

...falling short in four of their final six games of the regular season and again in the AFC Championship game, despite the fact that the Patriots defense was playing a superb brand of football that kept the team in each game right up to the bitter end.

The defense, as a matter of fact, was a model of consistency all season long, surrendering just under 18 points per game, and only 16 points per game in the eight game stretch to end the season - plenty good enough for Brady and his weapons, limited as they were at times, to overcome - and in the first 10 games, that held true.

Using the Edelman injury against the New York Giants as a base, the Patriots were scoring at a clip of 29 points per game before that point, but in the nine games following the injury and including the playoffs, the Patriots offense scored an abysmal 19 points per game while seeing their total yardage dip from 412 yards per game to 317...

In addition, the offense was scoring on nearly 60% of its possessions and punted just 29 times in 105 total possessions, and then only 13 times went three-and-out before the Edelman injury - but after, the Patriots offense became so conservative that they scored only three times out of every 10 possessions, punted 54 times and went three-and-out on half of those.

Now, some may look at this as the result of injury and that offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had no choice but to cut the play book down to bare bones, but conventional wisdom dictates that sticking with fundamental football and keeping the playbook open to interpretation by Brady would have been the best bet.

The injury to Solder shouldn't have been as disabling as it was, nor should have the injury to Lewis, nor to Edelman or Blount, because there were other options available on individual circumstance - and that will be discussed in future articles, but the fact remains that the last nine games didn't resemble the Patriots under Belichick at all, as ill-advised special teams gaffes and the aforementioned ultra-conservative game plans gave advantage after advantage to their foes.


When he first set sail on his dynastic run with the New England Patriots 17 years ago, Patriots' head ball coach Bill Belichick hired an experienced crew that had been through rough seas and been to the top of the world and back again, taking home riches beyond the dreams of their adoring fans - but with success comes advancement and attrition, and slowly but surely his top boatswains abandoned ship to become masters of their own vessels...

...leaving him with an essentially green crew - inexperienced but vibrant and willing, and with Belichick's guidance, the Patriots reached the top several more times, but failing to bring home the bounty until very recently - and only then because his defenders rose to occasion and fought off the aggressors, as his offense time and again wilted in the face of battle.

Belichick is a defensive genius, but has also been blessed with having the perfect quarterback to run his complicated offensive scheme since the inception of his tenure and, initially, the perfect people to implement his schemes in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel - but once they had formed together to win three championships in four seasons, Weis and Crennel became hot commodities.

Belichick really hasn't had a sideline confidant since those two left, which means that his genius-inspired overthinking of issues have had no sounding board to balance on - which has been an issue.

You see, Weiss was old school and he knew that championship football meant balance on offense. For example, in the four years in which three titles were claimed by the Patriots, Weis had the offense running pretty much at a 50/50 clip between the rush and the pass - utilizing first Antowain Smith and then Corey Dillon as power backs, and Belichick even managed to keep the offense somewhat balanced in the two years following Weis' departure.

But in 2006, he turned the offense over to a scrappy, emotional young firepisser named Josh McDaniels, who had a grand total of two years coaching experience as the quarterbacks coach under Belichick, holding positions with the team on the defensive side of the ball for three years previous to that.

But Belichick kept a firm thumb on his young coordinator in the three years he held onto the position.

In 2006, the two were able to keep balance on the field as Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney provided sort of a Thunder-Lightning approach in contrast to Brady's limited weaponry in the pass catching corps, and the team made it to the AFC Championship game.

The following year, Belichick brought in two legitimate weapons on the outside in receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker, so it was understandable that together with Dante Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney that the offense would be skewed to the passing game more than it would have been normally - and the results were akin to a high-flying trapeze act, with the Patriots easily setting record after record...

...but in each of those two seasons, McDaniels' youth and inexperience arose in the most conspicuous of spots, as the offense sputtered in the second half of the 2006 AFC title game as a disturbing trend of abandoning the running game emerged, the Patriots failing to generate a running game to protect a 21-6 halftime lead, instead passing 21 times and rushing just five despite the fact that his running game had gained 90 yards in the first half.

New England lost that game to the Colts, but the new-look, high-wire offense that McDaniels took control of the following season looked to be a juggernaut that could only stop themselves - and in the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, they did just that.

In what turned into a defensive struggle, New England took a 7-3 lead into the second half, and instead of trying to maintain a balance to offset the pass rush being thrown at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady by running the ball, the onus was placed squarely on Brady who threw 36 times in the second half and was sacked five times overall, while only six rushing plays were called.

2008 was a wash when Brady was injured early in the first game, and after the season the Denver Broncos offered McDaniels its vacant head coaching position - which was an unmitigated disaster for reasons that offer a little insight as to what compounds the issue for the Patriots.

There is little sense in rehashing what happened to McDaniels in Denver, other than to chalk it all up to inexperience and the resultant lack of maturity - something that still dogs him to this day.

This may seem an unnecessarily harsh indictment of an offensive coordinator considered by many experts to be the top head coaching prospect still on the market, who universally and resoundingly credited him for keeping the Patriots' ship afloat in the wake of the injuries...

...and maybe it is, but if that were the case, how is it that the Patriots routinely were able to find their offensive stride late in games when in desperation mode, switching from the conservative three-and-out entity that couldn't stay on the field for any length of time to give the defense their proper rest, to the four-minute, Patriot-like offense that we are used to seeing... offense that produced comebacks in games against Denver, Philadelphia, the Jets and then the Broncos again in the AFC title games, leaving one to wonder where this exciting brand of play calling had been the entire game up until that point. Of course, the Patriots lost all of those games.

The only explanation there can be is that the staff didn't trust their depth to get the job done, then threw caution to the wind late in games because they simply had no other choice, and the worst that could happen is that they could lose anyway.

That is not Patriots' football.

Ultimately, what happens on the football field lies in the hands of Belichick, so 2015 is his albatross to bear - and just as the ancient mariner made good on his penance and lived to tell the tale, Belichick has the same opportunity, and all he has to do is to revisit the AFC Championship game loss to gain a clear understanding of what needs to happen for his own redemption.

In articles subsequent to this one, we will take a look at how each positional grouping stands before the start of free agency, and what needs to happen to ensure that what happened in the latter part of 2015 never rears its ugly head again.

Next: Part 2, Overall Defensive philosophy and how it holds the entire team together.