EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 16, 2008

Unshaken Patriots in denial

Patriots have curious reaction to their struggles

On Pro Football

FOXBORO — Is it arrogance? Ignorance? Denial? Reality?

Three weary days after getting pummelled in San Diego, the Patriots, from the coach down, were absolutely unshaken.

"We did a pretty good job overall," said safety Rodney Harrison, one of the handful of players willing to meet the media. "It was just five or six plays for 230 yards. Eliminate those five or six plays, which you can, we would have played an excellent game. We have to eliminate the big plays, the penalties down the field, and do what we do."

A few big plays? Sure, and the Dow is struggling through a slight market correction.

But that was the company line yesterday. Whether they like it or not, though, the Patriots, now 3-2 and staring at an interesting Monday nighter here with Denver, have issues.

Issue No. 1

The dilemma: Matt Cassel averages 6.4 yards per attempt, with three TDs, four interceptions and 19 sacks in five games. The team is scoring 17.8 points a game, 25th in the league, sandwiched between a pair of bastions of mediocrity — Cleveland and Minnesota.

The Pats' take: "Matt (Cassel) is our starting quarterback," said coach Bill Belichick. "He gives our team the best chance to win. We all have to play better and coach better than we did last week. We have to do a better job than we did against San Diego. But he's our quarterback."

Our take: Bill Belichick is a first-ballot Hall of Fame coach, standing tall among the game's best — Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh and Bill Parcells to name a few — but his coaching Kryptonite might be arrogance.

By not seriously pursuing a professional quarterback the minute Tom Brady's left knee buckled, the coach told the world he could win with a college backup in Cassel.

It was with the same supreme confidence, he assured us all that Asante Samuel wouldn't be missed. We'll get to that a little later.

Perhaps Cassel will prove the world wrong. I'd love some indication, though.

Staring at a triple-covered Mike Vrabel and tap-dancing while Ben Watson screams for the football alone in the end zone is no way to show it.

Issue No. 2

The dilemma: New England has invested four first-round picks and almost $24 million (salaries and bonuses) this year to Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Ty Warren, Mike Vrabel, Adalius Thomas and Jerod Mayo. Combined they have six sacks (one less than Atlanta's John Abraham), zero interceptions and no forced fumbles.

The Pats' take: "I thought we had good pressure on the quarterback in San Francisco," said Belichick. "I think the sack statistic can be a little over-rated. It is really about pressure and forcing the ball out, on time or early. You always want to get pressure on the quarterback; there is no doubt about that."

Our take: I was there and still couldn't believe the coach mouthed these words. In fact, I checked the transcript, just in case.

Talk about denial. Philip Rivers threw 27 passes last week and they didn't need to launder his uniform. We're talking no sacks and no pressures.

Zero!

Who knew that how a defense performs against J.T. O'Sullivan and the vaunted 2-4 Niners is the measuring stick?

And for the record, New England had one sack and one quarterback hurry against O'Sullivan, who threw 29 times in that one.

It speaks volumes that Thomas, Wilfork, Seymour and Warren all skipped the media session, while Vrabel, one of the most stand-up guys in the room, whisked through three quick questions on the Broncos and ended things abruptly.

Issue No. 3

The dilemma: The Chargers completed passes of 59, 49, 48, 28 and 22 yards against the Pats and added a 32-yard pass interference gain against Ellis Hobbs for good measure. Throwing to his wideouts, Rivers exposed the Pats corners, hitting 8 of 13 passes for 209 yards, an unfathomable average of 16.1 yards per attempt.

The Pats' take: Take your pick. It's all the same song, different artist.

"I talked to a couple of my corners and they helped me out on the plane," said cornerback Deltha O'Neal. "(They told me) 'Don't worry about it, it happens. At least you didn't just get blown away. You were right there,' which is true."

Hobbs added: "It's a wound that everyone is going to try and open up until we heal it. We have to clamp down on them. We're either going to keep having ourselves exposed or we're going to fix them. Big plays are something that is exposing us right now."

Our take: At least Hobbs admits the problem, albeit underselling things a bit.

O'Neal wasn't "right there." In fact, he wasn't anywhere.

The fact is New England has given up 89 points over the last three games alone, allowing 461 yards to Miami and 404 yards to the Chargers.

Jay Cutler (Monday) and then Peyton Manning (Nov. 2) must be licking their chops with thoughts of working vertically against these corners.

Perhaps, there is some sound thinking behind Belichick's "all is well," tactics.

After all, there are proven veterans all over the room with 33 Super Bowl rings to their credit. Corrections can be made. Still, you don't like to hear the cries for mercy, even if they are faint.

"We're all taking shots, and it's sad," said Hobbs of the big-play problems. "We're the ones who are always on TV when things like that happen."

No, Ellis. What's sad is when a football team has some serious problems and nobody involved will admit it.

Hector Longo is an Eagle-Tribune sportswriter. E-mail him at hlongo@eagletribune.com.