Phew! The Patriots were able to overcome another stinker of a performance at home, narrowly beating the Jets when they kicked field goals on either side of the overtime coin toss and forced Mark Sanchez to fumble the game away. Fortunately, because they ended up winning, everything is OK and there’s no reason to panic about the Patriots really not being a very good football te—
Wait! Yes! In fact, there’s every reason to panic about how this Patriots team really isn’t very good. This is the same team that had a 12.5-win total posted on it in Vegas this year. The one that was a 6.5-to-1 favorite to beat the Jets on Sunday. The Patriots nearly sealed that under and lost as one of the biggest favorites of the entire year. After seven weeks, their impressive performances have been limited to glimpses: Week 1 against the Titans, one of the worst teams in football. The second half against the Bills. The middle two quarters against the Broncos. The final two drives against the Jets. The Patriots team that’s supposed to beat the world occasionally shows up, but it doesn’t stay. And if you’re looking for a cause, it’s nothing new: The Patriots simply can’t stop anyone from throwing the ball on them.
It’s a problem that I wrote about last year. For whatever reason, the Patriots simply haven’t been able to reliably draft and develop young talent on defense over the past five years, especially with regard to stopping the pass. Since 2007, the Patriots have spent seven first- or second-round picks on defensive backs. When you get down to it, none have panned out. Three aren’t even with the team: Brandon Meriweather was cut after he showed flashes of brilliance and made the Pro Bowl, and he’s been a laughingstock in Chicago and Washington since. Terrence Wheatley didn’t even show those flashes, and he’s a scout team body in Tennessee. Darius Butler has bounced around the league’s worst teams, and he’s currently an injury fill-in for the Colts. These were the guys who were supposed to be in their prime with the Patriots right now.
The defensive backs who have remained have shown more promise, but they each have a major flaw. Patrick Chung is a leader and a talented all-around safety, but he can’t stay healthy. Devin McCourty made the Pro Bowl as a ballhawk cornerback during his rookie season in 2010, but he was exposed during a dismal 2011 season and is now an uneven safety. Ras-I Dowling, the first pick of the second round in last year’s draft, is the worst of both worlds: He can’t stay healthy and hasn’t stuck at either corner or safety. Seemingly on cue, Dowling was injured in the fourth quarter on Sunday in just his seventh game over his first two seasons as a pro. 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson is already a starter at safety, mostly out of necessity.
Instead, the Patriots have to get by with spare parts and afterthoughts. They’ve started journeyman Kyle Arrington on and off for the past couple of seasons, but he was benched during the Seahawks game for rookie seventh-rounder Alfonzo Dennard, the 224th pick in the draft. Versatile ex-Charger Steve Gregory had been spending time putting out fires in the secondary, but with his injury creating a spot for Wilson, the Patriots have had to work in Nate Ebner, the 197th pick in the draft, as a nickel safety. Think about it: If the guys the Patriots are taking in the first and second rounds can’t grasp the defense or play at an acceptable level, how likely is it that the players they took five rounds later will do much better?
The Jets, unsurprisingly, took advantage of New England’s weakness on Sunday. Mark Sanchez had a four-game stretch earlier this season during which he completed under 44 percent of his passes; on Sunday, Sanchez went 28-for-41, completing more than 68 percent of his attempts. That is, perhaps, the starkest way to present a lack of value in football: The Patriots’ secondary was so bad that it made Mark Sanchez look good.
That figure was even deflated by a couple of drops, notably Stephen Hill’s possible game-winning drop in the fourth quarter. In what was likely the biggest play of the game during regulation, the Jets faced a third-and-4 down three points on the New England 25-yard line with 2:15 to go. Hill ran past the sticks and turned around for what would have been an enormous first down; a catch would have created a chip shot field goal and forced the Patriots to use their timeouts, and if the Jets had been able to punch the ball in for a touchdown from the 15-yard line after the Patriots used a timeout or two, they likely would have won the game. Instead, despite the fact that New England had left him wide open for an easy first down, Hill turned too quickly and dropped the pass, giving the Patriots new life. The play would be forgotten with New England’s fumble on the ensuing kickoff and their two drives for the eventual win, but it was a key moment in which the Patriots got a stop despite themselves.
It’s a shame, too, because the Patriots really are above average or better in every other facet of the game. Their run defense was second in the league in DVOA before this week, and after years of struggling to run the ball effectively, their combination of Stevan Ridley and “whoever’s healthy enough to back up Ridley this week” has been efficient and reliable. The passing game’s been great, minor hiccups aside.1
Instead, what’s really disconcerting is the prospect that the pass defense really isn’t going to get any better anytime soon. It’s the same issue that came up with the Patriots last year, and while there are some fresh faces in this year’s crop, why are they more likely to be any better than the likes of Butler, Wheatley, and Jonathan Wilhite? And while that team had a pair of effective pass rushers in Andre Carter (until he got hurt) and Mark Anderson, this Patriots team really only has one impact rusher, rookie Chandler Jones. For yet another year, despite his investments, Bill Belichick is going to have to use every smoke-and-mirrors ploy in the book to hide his porous secondary. And while the Patriots were able to escape with a win on Sunday, the secondary is going to cost them before the season is over. Don’t let the W fool you.
Forgot About Brady
Let’s go back to the final play of that Jets-Patriots game, because it shouldn’t have been the final play at all. Mark Sanchez is sacked on his dropback and certainly fumbles the ball backward, a decision that was reviewed by the notably incompetent Jeff Triplette and confirmed before the game was officially brought to a halt.
What the referees didn’t call at the time, though (and couldn’t overturn on review), was a personal-foul penalty that should have kept the game going. The initial contact with Sanchez is made by Jermaine Cunningham (no. 96), who falls down at the line of scrimmage in front of Sanchez and crawls at Sanchez before diving at his ankles and knocking him down. Patriots fans will undoubtedly remember what I’m referring to: the Brady Rule.
After Brady’s infamous injury at the hands of Bernard Pollard ended his 2008 season, the league protected quarterbacks from shots below the knees by players who were downed at their feet. The rule provides an exception for players who were blocked into the quarterback, but Cunningham is clearly no longer blocked when he crawls after Sanchez for several steps. The rule also notes that defenders are allowed to “swipe” at the quarterback, but Cunningham forcibly tries to take down Sanchez (somewhat successfully) by his ankles. That’s a 15-yard penalty, one that should have extended the Jets’ drive and the overtime session.
A missed call is one thing, but the league seems to be unofficially abandoning any enforcement of the Brady Rule. Only an hour earlier, I saw the Raiders take down Chad Henne with an even clearer Brady Rule hit. And several weeks ago, during the reign of replacement-referee terror, a Raiders player hit Ben Roethlisberger from the side with a diving shot into his ankle that left Roethlisberger visibly limping for the rest of the series. Neither of those plays was called, and neither of the hits today even merited as much as a mention from the announcers in its respective game.
We all know how this ends. If the Brady Rule isn’t enforced, the league is going to see defenders diving at the ankles of quarterbacks for sacks until somebody gets seriously hurt. Then there’s going to be an outcry to protect the league’s quarterbacks, James Harrison will say something outlandish, and we’ll be having this whole debate all over again. Let’s not require somebody to undergo reconstructive surgery before that happens. The Brady Rule is on the books. It might have cost the Jets a win on Sunday, but even that is less important than keeping the league’s stars healthy. It’s a rule that needs to be enforced.
As I’ve mentioned more than once this year, the Redskins have been remarkably lucky with fumbles this season. Before Sunday, Washington had recovered 13 of the 16 fumbles that had hit the ground in their games, a performance that was both totally unsustainable and incredibly valuable. Among those fumble recoveries were two touchdowns and a third fumble that they batted out of their own end zone, turning a touchdown for the Saints into a touchback. No team in the league had benefited more from the random chance associated with fumbles this year than the Redskins, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Against the Giants, though, that all changed. The Redskins fumbled five times on Sunday, losing three of them to the Giants. That’s not remarkable on its own, but what’s particularly notable is how important those fumbles were; all of the three fumbles that the Redskins lost came in the second half and with the team either tied or trailing by one score. They played a huge role in turning an impressive Redskins performance into a narrow defeat.
In all honesty, the Redskins outplayed the Giants for the majority of their game on Sunday, just as they did in each of their two victories over the Giants last season. Final play aside, the Redskins secondary did an excellent job of holding up against the Giants in coverage, contesting completions and creating difficult throws for Eli Manning. On offense, the Redskins used RG3 to freeze New York’s front four, create running lanes for Alfred Morris, and as the league’s deadliest fourth-down weapon. The Redskins were 3-for-3 on fourth down, including a fourth-and-10 conversion and a fourth-and-3 that Griffin picked up by pump-faking a Giants defender out of his boots.
The fumbles, though, were enough to undo Washington’s good work. Two of them came in Giants territory, with Alfred Morris having one forced out and Griffin losing one amid a scramble and a hit from Jason Pierre-Paul.2 Each came on first down, and based on expected points values from the advancednflstats.com calculator, they cost the Redskins about 5.9 points.
A brilliant drive from Griffin was enough to give the Redskins the lead, but the Giants hit back immediately with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Cruz. On the second play of their ensuing drive, the Giants managed to get the best slot receiver in football up the seam against a seemingly disinterested defense with a head start. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. It’s difficult to tell exactly where the coverage broke down without the coaches’ film (which isn’t available until mid-week), but my suspicion is that Madieu Williams (no. 41) simply got distracted by the other routes in front of him. You’ll note that he doesn’t even start running until Cruz is nearly by him. Josh Wilson (no. 26) is visually the man who appears to be in coverage on Cruz, but he lets Cruz beat him off the line of scrimmage and seems to be expecting some sort of help over the top on New York’s best receiver.
The Redskins were left with a shot to try to win it, and it seemed like they had gotten away with their favorite vice on the very first play of the drive. There, Chase Blackburn forced Josh Morgan to fumble, but the receiver was able to avoid becoming Washington’s late-game scapegoat again by recovering the ball. That gave Washington two recoveries on four fumbles, but on the very next play, Blackburn forced a second fumble, and this time, the Redskins weren’t able to pick up what Santana Moss dropped.
All this isn’t to say that the Redskins were “due” to have a game taken away from them by bad luck on fumbles. That’s the gambler’s fallacy. Instead, what we saw over the first six games when their fumbles hit the ground meant nothing. The Redskins were not any more due to have fumbles win them the game than they were to have fumbles cost them one. Sometimes, though, the guy who sees 10 straight red numbers come up at the roulette table before promptly putting his life savings on black gets lucky and hits a black. And that’s what happened to the Redskins on Sunday afternoon in the Meadowlands. When they needed their fumble luck to come through, it simply wasn’t there. It cost them a win in their most impressive performance of the season.3
Thank You for Not Coaching
It’s not fun to pick on the same coaches every week. It’s honestly more interesting to look at different coaches and see how they approach tough decisions or where their relative strengths and weaknesses as game planners lie. It’s really important to figure out whether a given coach prefers to make decisions that benefit his team as opposed to ones that make his postgame press conference easier. And the Crennel-Daboll Brain Trust had the week off, so really, one of this space’s biggest targets probably spent his Sunday running Jamaal Charles into the ground picking up leaves around Arrowhead.
On the other hand, Chan Gailey and Pat Shurmur are regulars here for a reason. And on Sunday, each of them ended up losing in part because of what he did on fourth-and-1.
Shurmur’s decision was simpler and had a more obvious impact on the loss. With his team down by four points and 6:38 left in the game, the Browns faced a conundrum. They faced a fourth-and-1 from the Indianapolis 41-yard line, and while they had all three of their timeouts at first, they used one to debate their options. That left them with two timeouts when they decided to eventually punt, handing the ball back to the Colts. When Reggie Hodges’s punt went out of bounds at the 20, the Browns had traded 20 yards of field position for the ball and a chance to delay their decision to go for it.
The fourth-down calculator has this one as pretty simple. Cleveland had a 38 percent chance to win by going for it, a 20 percent chance to win by kicking, and a 24 percent chance to by punting. Those numbers are in a vacuum, but the Browns had more reasons to think that they could have some success: The Colts were without key front seven members Robert Mathis and Cory Redding, making a fourth-down decision even easier. Instead, the Browns kicked, and they were later forced to go for it on a fourth-and-6 from roughly the same spot, the Indianapolis 39-yard line. When they were stopped, the Colts were able to run down the clock and end the game as a meaningful contest. One of the hidden advantages to going for it early in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-1: You never know if the conversion you simply have to make next will be far more difficult.
Gailey, though, had a worse day. For the second week in a row, his team blew a late lead when he called for a passing play that was intercepted in a situation where running the ball and bleeding the clock made far more sense. The pick set Tennessee up with great field position for what ended up being their game-winning touchdown catch. That was the first crime.
Next was Gailey’s decision to kick an extra point on a touchdown at the end of the third quarter, which created the margin of victory. By going for one with seconds left in the third and a five-point lead (pending the extra point), Gailey paid tribute to the long-standing rule that teams shouldn’t go for two and try to create a seven-point lead before the fourth quarter. It’s an absurd rule, of course, that breaks down when you ask anybody to explain at any length why it makes sense. The two-point conversion chart at footballcommentary.com suggests that the Bills should have tried to tack a two-pointer onto their 33-28 lead if their chances of converting were better than 24 percent. Because the clock hadn’t ticked for 10 additional seconds and bumped the decision into the fourth quarter, though, the Bills kicked and ended up losing by one. But that wasn’t the worst thing Gailey did.
Instead, his worst decision of the day came in the first half. There, with the Bills dominating the Titans on the ground, Gailey passed up a shot to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Tennessee 12-yard line with a seven-point deficit and four minutes to go in the second quarter. There, Gailey’s break-even rate to justify going for it is 43 percent, but that doesn’t account for how effective the Buffalo running game had been up to that point. The Bills kicked a field goal and cost themselves a full point of expected value, one that would have been enough to tie the game. In a 21-14 game that seemed to be defense-optional, going for it and trying to keep up with touchdowns was the right call. Instead, the Bills let the Titans off the hook.
One thing that often comes up when these percentages and expectations get discussed is that they can never fully comprehend the specific situation to which they’re being applied. That only an NFL coach can take the variables of his particular decision in hand and make the appropriate decision. To some extent, that’s true. On the other hand, we repeatedly see examples of coaches totally failing to consider the specific context they’re facing and making a conservative decision to cover their asses instead. How do you not go for it, Chan Gailey, when your defense can’t stop anybody and your running game’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry? Why do you pass up fourth-and-1 versus Indy’s backups, Pat Shurmur? This goes back to the Ron Rivera decision to punt the ball and pass on Cam Newton picking up fourth-and-1. A good coach takes the numbers into consideration and applies them to the specific situation he’s facing, with his team’s (and the opposition’s) strengths and weaknesses in mind. It allows him to be aggressive at the right times. A bad coach uses the shield of considering the context as an excuse to remain conservative at all times and avoid any criticism for making meaningful strategic decisions on behalf of his team. You can guess on which side of the coin Gailey and Shurmur fall.