Sep 102012
 

It was really nice to have football back on my television this weekend after a seven month wait. Football season has taken on a new meaning for me with the invention of Gridiron Rats, as I live blogged the Patriots game while doing my best to stay on top of the other action (thank you, DirecTV). Here are some of my early take-aways from Week One, with Monday night games still on the way.

1. The officiating was not good. There were many blunders in the 49ers-Packers game, and in the Broncos-Steelers contest last night. Some were benign, like misplacing the two minute warning in the Broncos’ game, while others were rather impactful. Tennessee fans in particular might be upset today that Jake Locker got hurt on a play that should have been blown dead and likely would have been with regular officials. Peyton Manning also got burned by the officials on a play that was vintage Peyton and should have worked to his advantage. He quick-snapped the Steelers, who had players still rotating off of the field. With regular officials that would have resulted in a free play and a penalty, but the replacement officials didn’t see it. I guess Peyton has to dumb his game down until the replacement officials can catch up. And there was a particularly bad call over a fourth timeout in the Seattle-Arizona game that was not only wrong, but then explained incorrectly. In any event, Mike Pereira can make a living off of criticizing the new officials, and anyone with the NFL who says that the replacement officials are adequate should probably be drug tested.

2. The Jets shocked everyone yesterday by scoring 20 points in the second quarter on their way to a 48-28 blowout win over the Bills. this tells us two things; that the Jets offense isn’t as bad as it looked in the pre-season, and that the Bills’ defense isn’t nearly as good as advertised. Clearly, Mark Sanchez needed a game like this to keep the boo-birds at bay and the cries for Tebow at a minimum. Yet in every silver lining, the Jets manage to find (or create) a dark cloud. After the game, linebacker Bart Scott teed off on the media, calling for a “media mutiny”.  When approached by a reporter, Scott opened up.

“You guys treat us like we’re a (bleeping) joke,” Scott said. “You all want us to feed your papers, but then you all talk (bleep) about us. So why would I want to give you all quotes to sell papers with if you all treat us like (bleep)? That doesn’t make sense. You all talk stuff about us, and then when we win you flip the story. You all win either way. I’m just going to be quiet.”

Where do I begin with Scott? First off, genius, I am pretty sure you mean “boycott” and not “mutiny”. I will refrain from commenting on his Southern Illinois University education, as someone very close to me holds a degree from that school, and I do happen to believe that it offers an outstanding education. Perhaps Scott slept through any classes in high school or college that might have included any vocabulary terms. And his frustration about the Jets’ being treated like a circus rings hollow with me. Why? The Jets act like a circus, which is ultimately what led to them being treated like one by the media.  This is the dark side of life with Rex Ryan, and Scott just doesn’t seem to comprehend that the New York Jets ARE a circus, even by New York media standards. Finally, on Scott’s final point that he will just keep quiet… from his mouth to God’s ears, my friend… can’t wait!

3. It’s going to be a long season and we have only seen Week One, but after yesterday I am absolutely convinced (as I was throughout the pre-season) that the Patriots’ defense is far more improved than that of the Packers. I realize that Jones and Hightower are only one game in, and that teams will learn to scheme against them, but with players like Wilfork, Mayo, Cunningham, Spikes, and McCourty on the field, there are plenty of players to make big plays. The Patriots suffocated Chris Johnson and look to have one of the league’s best run defenses. They might still give up a lot of yards, but I suspect there will be a lot of garbage time passing yards once again as the Patriots establish early leads and force teams to  throw, throw, and throw. The Packers were the fashionable Super Bowl pick this year with the rationale that an improved defense would be enough to vault them to another crown, but it’s the Patriots defense that looks far more improved, at least at this point of the year…. there’s a long way to go.

4. Speaking of the Patriots, I am of the opinion that Wes Welker is on his way out of Foxboro, and sooner rather than later. I noted yesterday that he was a non-factor in the game, catching only three passes for 14 yards. What I didn’t realize yesterday was that he was schemed out of the game, splitting his snaps with Julian Edelman, who caught one pass for seven yards. But it is the addition of the promising young slot receiver Greg Salas likely means that the Patriots are probably sitting by the telephone, waiting for a good offer to unload an amazing player who made the mistake of making his contract dispute public, a major no-no in Bill Belichick’s world. It’s entirely possible that this is a one game anomaly as a result of a scheme developed for the Titans,  but I’ve seen the Patriots make enough surprising moves over the years to know that when you fall out of favor in New England. you find yourself wearing new laundry in short order. We’ll see what happens as the season progresses and the trade deadline gets closer.

5. Speaking of sitting by the telephone, I suspect the Patriots and Brian Waters will want to work out their contract differences this week. While the Pats’ offensive line had an outstanding game yesterday, depth looks to be an issue, as Connolly got hurt during the course of the game. Waters’ return would help shore up the front five.

6. Because I live-blogged the Patriots-Titans game yesterday, I actually found myself far more focused on collecting data about the game rather than on cheering for my team. Don’t get me wrong, I still cheered, but did so with a far more objective lens than I normally would. I think that was reflected in what I recorded yesterday, but I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide. By the way, thanks to my three readers yesterday! For everyone else, check out the blog and see if you’ll visit me when I do it again.

7. Finally, maybe it’s just his change of laundry, but why do I suddenly like Peyton Manning a whole lot more than I used to? I couldn’t stand the man when he was with the Colts, and when the Colts they were certainly a much tougher rival than the Jets. Part of it is that he came off (to me) as an oaf who could put up stats but couldn’t win the big game, especially not against Tom Brady and the Patriots. That changed the year the Colts won the Super Bowl, but even that was due to a monumental collapse on the part of the Patriots’ defense in the AFC Championship Game. Part of my disdain also goes to his father Archie, who I despise for acting like the ultimate helicopter parent in forcing Eli’s trade from San Diego to New York. Yet strangely I have never disliked Eli, even though his Giants have twice beaten us in the Super Bowl. But last night I admired his performance in returning from a year off of football to lead the Broncos to a dramatic win over the Steelers. Part of it is my disdain for the Steelers and for their quarterback, who I suspect is devoid of character. But a large part of it was the perspective that Manning portrayed in the post-game interview, where he seemed to be far more mature than the Manning I used to loathe, and who had a greater humility than I have ever seen him display. I made the comment to Rat’s Widow as we watched, and I suddenly found myself liking the guy after all of these years. I’m sure I’ll feel differently in Week Five when the Broncos visit Foxboro, and I am not sure if this says more about me or more about Peyton, but it was nice to appreciate his work last night and not root for him to lose.

See you next time!

Aug 242012
 

Can you feel it? It’s getting closer. The start of the 2012 NFL season is a mere twelve days away (as of 8/24) and the pre-season results keep rolling in. Some teams are looking a little more ready for the regular season than others, but it’s all speculation until the Cowboys kick off against the Giants on September 5th.

Here is a re-cap of the games this week:

Aug 062012
 

So football is finally back with last night’s Hall of Fame pre-season game in Canton. While I only watched about five minutes of the game last night,  and I honestly can’t tell you much about what happened last night (other than Kevin Kolb getting hurt), it was simply enough to know that there was a game on; all felt right with the world again. The Saints beat the Cardinals 17-10, and this Thursday brings a slate of five pre-season games including my Patriots hosting those same Saints.

Speaking of the Patriots, they are looking a bit lean on the offensive line right now. Logan Mankins is still out and Robert Gallery retired after unsuccessfully trying to come back from an injury, while Sebastian Vollmer is still rehabbing and Brian Waters has yet to report to camp. The thought is that Waters has simply reached a private agreement with Belichick not to report until he has to, and the veteran guard played at a Pro Bowl level last season. But if Waters does not return this group could find itself in some trouble early on.

In other football news, the lockout with NFL officials still has not been resolved, so Thursday will see the first ever appearance by a female official. Replacement official Shannon Eastin will be one of the officials for the Green Bay at San Diego game. So it essentially has taken a negative experience (failure to reach an agreement) to see a good thing accomplished. Hopefully Eastin will be the first of many female officials to follow.

Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace still has had no contact with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and seems intent on holding out despite being under contract. Given that the Steelers awarded a large contract to fellow receiver Antonio Brown, this situation does not look like it is going to end well for Wallace in Pittsburgh. While Wallace is an excellent talent, his contract demands are preposterous for his resume.

Finally, a shocker…. Brandon Weeden is now the official starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. OK, maybe that’s not a shocker to me or you, but it is apparently a shock to former starter Colt McCoy, who seems to be under the impression that when the Browns told him he would have a fair shot at the job, that they meant he would have a fair shot at the job. Speaking with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, McCoy said, “I have not taken any snaps with the first group. I thought coming in it would be a competition.”Given the Browns’ treatment of Colt to date, it seems like a rather large leap of faith on his part to believe that he had any chance at all. While McCoy has not demanded a trade, a good pre-season showing might motivate another team to seek his services, and you can count me as one person who would really like to see that happen. The Browns don’t deserve McCoy, whether or not he ever proves to be an NFL starter. And this will only end with another miserable season for the Browns and a house cleaning by ownership in the next off-season. The Factory of Sadness just keeps producing.

On a final note, a shout out to the Rat’s Widow, who in addition to writing an excellent article for football widows everywhere, also bought me NESN (to see my Boston sports) and an improved sports package, as well as getting our NFL Sunday Ticket upgraded. Life is good. :-)

 

May 222012
 

The New England Patriots finished 2011 one incomplete pass away from winning their fourth Super Bowl in eleven years and, judging by their aggressive off-season movements, seem intent to make sure that the next Super Bowl result isn’t nearly as close. Learning from the mistakes of 2011, Head Coach Bill Belichick is fulfilling fan wishes everywhere of improving a defense that simply could not get off the field in too many key situations last season. By getting off the field earlier and more often, the Patriots can provide more opportunities for Tom Brady and the offense to roll through opposing defenses, and build leads that an aggressive defense can then help turn into a rout.

This is not to say that the Patriots are going to roll through the 2012 season like they did in 2007, blasting through a 16-0 season before falling in the final minute of the Super Bowl against the New York Giants. But it is to say that conditions are favorable for a highly successful 2012 campaign. The offense brings back its major parts and has improved its receiving corps. The defense has improved at all three levels, and the special teams will to continue to excel, while the Patriots will benefit from a softer schedule this season, facing off against the AFC East, NFC West and AFC South in addition to their first place opponents Baltimore and Denver. Throw in the fact that this team is well aware that they were one play away from winning it all last year, and I expect a team bent on attending to unfinished business from last year.

Trying to predict anything that Bill Belichick will do is at best a shot in the dark. But when it comes to things like who Belichick will select in the draft, or who will make the Patriots’ roster, well that’s nearly impossible. Even the best Boston beat reporter gets things right only half the time, so this article is less about predicting who will make the final roster and more to give a semi-educated guess about who I think is the most likely to survive to the regular season.

Unlike the Jets, who look no better on paper than they did at the end of last season, the Patriots have made significant strides to improve the roster. Let’s take a look at the most likely prospects to make the opening day 53-man roster. I am in no way trying to keep up with all signed players, now that rosters have been expanded to ninety players. Almost all of that is roster fodder, though one or two unlikely candidate may emerge as we get towards the regular season. I will keep modifying this article until the first week of the season. Each update will be labeled so that it can be contrasted with my original projections.

Players in bold are projected as starters.

Quarterback (Grade: A)

Tom Brady is the incumbent and remains one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFL. Brian Hoyer is a capable backup who will likely be a future NFL starter for another team, as he is in the last year of his contract. Mallett appears to be the heir apparent in Foxboro.

Tom Brady

Brian Hoyer

Ryan Mallett

Running Back (Grade: B-)

The loss of BenJarvus Green-Ellis meant that the Patriots would add a veteran back, and thus entered Joseph Addai. I have never been an Addai fan and didn’t think much of the signing, but accepted that it was a very practical and low-risk move. None the less, I don’t think Addai has much left in the tank, and will likely be beat out by younger players. Ridley is more explosive than Green-Ellis, but struggled to hold on to the ball last season. The Patriots seem very high on Shane Vereen, who was not able to get on the field much last season.

Danny Woodhead is a great change of back a la Kevin Faulk, and much younger than Faulk. While Faulk is a fan favorite in New England, his declining abilities make it unlikely that he will get signed and/or win a roster spot. Brandon Bolden is a candidate for the practice squad.

The Patriots have also signed several fullbacks coming into the 2012 campaign, including fan favorite Eric Kettani, who was able to get clearance from the U.S. Navy to re-join the Patriots. Still, Spencer Larsen and Tony Flammetta might have inside tracks to make the cut. Larsen’s versatility gives him the edge in this battle.

Stevan Ridley

Danny Woodhead

Shane Vereen

Spencer Larsen

Out: Joseph Addai, Eric Kettani, Tony Flammetta

Practice Squad: Brandon Bolden

UPDATE: Joseph Addai was released, as predicted.

Wide Receiver (Grade: A-)

Remember when Reche Caldwell was considered the #1 receiver? Me neither. The 2012 Patriots suffer from no such lack of depth at receiver. If anything, the camp battle is going to be fierce this summer.

Wes Welker returns as the best slot receiver in the NFL and is playing under a franchise tender. Personally, I think he has handled his contract negotiations all wrong. He was offered a two year, $16 million deal and turned it down last year, and is now surprised that the Patriots are offering him less this season. Yet he is a year older, and the play of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez has taken away some of his leverage. Playing out his contract dispute in the media and through Twitter is also not his best move, and in truth I would not be surprised to see the Patriots take a trade offer for him before the 2012 season commences, perhaps nabbing a high round pick in the 2013 draft. Barring a trade however, the Patriots could once again slap Welker with a franchise tag next offseason if they are in the mood to add a few million to his current salary, and they just might.

Brandon Lloyd adds explosiveness to this group and is very comfortable working with Josh McDaniels. Deion Branch is a Brady-favorite, but the return of Jabar Gaffney could bring Branch’s tenure to an end. For the moment, I am projecting that they will both make the roster. Julian Edelman is not a sure bet to make the roster, despite his versatility. While I expect him to make it, Matthew Slater is a solid special teamer that will make the cut, and Jeremy Ebert may have a high upside.

Donte Stallworth seemed to have a chance to make it until the Pats signed Gaffney; I am convinced Gaffney will edge him out. Chad Ochocinco is unlikely to make it through camp. Despite his good work ethic and his ability to keep his mouth closed for the most part, he simply lacks production, and the Pats have brought back players who are proven producers. Gaffney’s signing convinced me that the Ocho experiment will be coming to an end.

Wes Welker

Brandon Lloyd

Jabar Gaffney

Deion Branch

Julian Edelman

Matthew Slater

Out: Chad Ochocinco, Donte Stallworth, Britt Davis, Anthony Gonzalez

Practice Squad: Jeremy Ebert

UPDATE: Anthony Gonzalez was released on 5/29.

UPDATE: The Pats finally cut Ocho on 6/7.

Tight End (Grade: A+)

Providing they stay healthy, this is the best tight end group in the NFL, bar none. No training camp battles anticipated here.

Rob Gronkowski

Aaron Hernandez

Visanthe Shiancoe

Practice Squad: Brad Herman

Out: Nick Melilli, Bo Scaife, Daniel Fells

UPDATE: The Patriots signed Bo Scaife on 6/7. Not sure if he is insurance for Gronkowski, but unless there is an injury to the top three I doubt he makes the roster. Scaife had a solid 2008 campaign with Tennessee but declined after that before spending last season on injured reserve.

UPDATE: The Patriots released Scaife on 6/18. That was a short stay.

Tackle (Grade: B)

Solder and Vollmer look poised to anchor the ends of the offensive line for years to come as long as both stay healthy. The Patriots have yet to decide if Canon’s future will be as a tackle or as a guard. But we know the team values versatility, so he may well do both in the year ahead.

Nate Solder

Sebastian Vollmer

Marcus Canon

Practice Squad: Markus Zusevics

Center/Guard (Grade: A-)

The key here is Brian Waters, whose return means the Patriots have great depth at the interior line positions. Waters had a fantastic 2011 season, and will start at right guard with the report that he plans to play again in 2012. Dan Connolly, projected to start at center prior to Koppen’s re-signing, now works into a rotation. Another major factor is the health of Logan Mankins, who is not expected to be ready for the start of the season and may start out on the PUP list. This necessitated the signing of Robert Gallery to fill in through Mankins’ absence.

Dan Koppen

Logan Mankins

Brian Waters

Dan Connolly

Robert Gallery

Ryan Wendell

Out: Donald Thomas

Defensive Line (Grade: B)

Chandler Jones was a great draft pick by the Patriots, and he will likely be given every opportunity to work his way into starting at the “elephant” position made famous by Willie McGinest. Wilfork is a beast in the middle who eats up blockers, and Deaderick is quickly coming along as a solid interior player. Fanene, Baquette, and Scott, provide a quality of depth that the Patriots have lacked in recent years. Andre Carter may still be signed if he is healthy enough, but my money is on his not returning to Foxboro in 2012.

Vince Wilfork

Brandon Deaderick

Kyle Love

Myron Pryor

Jonathan Fanene

Jake Bequette

Trevor Scott      

Chandler Jones

Out: Alex Silvestro, Marcus Forston, Aaron Lavarias, Marcus Harrison, Gerard Warren, Ron Brace, Justin Francis

Linebacker (Grade: B-)

Much is still to be decided about who will play inside and outside, but Dont’a Hightower should see significant action as the year progresses, and offers the Pats a great deal of flexibility in the linebacking corps. However the positional battles shake out, look for a steady rotation to include Mayo, Spikes, Hightower, Ninkovich, and Carpenter. Jermaine Cunningham may wash out as a failed second round pick.

Dont’a Hightower

Rob Ninkovich

Bobby Carpenter

Jerod Mayo

Dane Fletcher (injured)

Brandon Spikes

Tracy White

Mike Rivera

Out: Jermaine Cunningham, Jeff Tarpinian, Niko Koutouvides

Practice Squad: Markell Carter

UPDATE: Markell Carter cut on 6/7. As much as the Patriots liked him in 2011, the offseason personnel improvements seem to have made Carter expendable.

UPDATE: Fletcher tore ACL is first pre-season game; out for season

Cornerback (Grade: B-)

Arrington and Moore both proved to be good corners in a much maligned secondary, and McCourty’s improvement over last year’s performance would do a great deal to bolster this unit. Will Allen offers great depth, and Alfonso Dennard will prove to be a steal if he can stay out of legal trouble.

Kyle Arrington

Devin McCourty

Ras-I Dowling

Sterling Moore

Will Allen

Alfonso Dennard

Safety (Grade: C+)

Well, at least the unit can’t get any worse after a nearly abysmal performance in 2011. Steve Gregory has been brought in to start, but he may only be keeping a seat warm for Tavon Wilson, who Bill Belichick seems very excited about. Chung is solid, and Ebner to looks have a good upside and will offer better depth than the Pats had last season. It’s still a possibility that the Pats could add veteran depth, such as former Jet Jim Leonhard.

Patrick Chung

Steve Gregory

Tavon Wilson

Nate Ebner

Out: Ross Ventrone, Sergio Brown, Josh Barrett, Malcolm Williams

Special Teams (Grade: A-)

Gostkowski is one of the best kickers in the game and Mesko is not far behind as a punter. Finding return men for kicks and punts seems to be the only question as the Patriots look to 2012.

Stephen Gostkowski (K)

Zoltan Mesko (P)

Danny Aiken (LS)

Out: Chris Koepplin

Overall Offensive Grade: A

Overall defensive Grade: B-

Ultimately, the Patriots only need a “middle of the pack” defense to increase opportunities for a potent offense. If the 31st ranked defense from 2011 can even improve into the high twenties or low teens, the Patriots will rack up plenty of one-sided victories in 2012.

UPDATE: Just for giggles, let’s check back prior to the opening game against Tennessee to see how I did in projecting the roster versus Imala Weligamage over at the Bleacher Report. We have just a few differences, but it should be interesting to see how it all plays out.