by Chris Warner
Sunday afternoon, when former Patriots Sean Morey and Monty Beisel combined to block a Dallas punt and recover it for a touchdown in Arizona’s overtime win, I thought something good might happen for New England that night.
So much for omens.
Some teams maintain hope for a comeback. Their fans believe that their defense can get the ball, their offense can sustain a drive, or a big play can turn momentum. This year, against sound competition, the Patriots have failed to become that type of team, which made the second half of their 30-10 drubbing in San Diego so painful.
For a moment there, trailing 17-3 at the start of the second half, the visitors showed some fire. Matt Cassel hit five of six passes for 65 yards and scrambled twice for 12 more. Sammy Morris’s 28-yard catch-and-run took New England down to San Diego’s one-yard line. Like a singer choking on the final note, the Patriots’ promising show turned into an embarrassment. Their four plays on the goal line, in order: a play-action pass that fooled exactly no one; a negative run where Pats center Dan Koppen got pushed back so far by nose guard Jamal Williams he made the sound of a truck in reverse; a pass to the ground near Mike Vrabel’s feet; and a scramble to nowhere by Cassel where he failed to see tight end Benjamin Watson, who looked more wide open than the Atlantic.
After neglecting to close the gap to 17-10, New England allowed a 98-yard TD drive. In four plays. (Man, I wish I were making that up.) As he did all night, Philip Rivers found a deep target in Vincent Jackson for 59 yards (Jackson ended up with 134 yards receiving on five catches). From the Patriots’ 33, Rivers sought Jackson again. Ellis Hobbs’ pass interference advanced San Diego to the one. On the ensuing play-action pass, Rivers found tight end Antonio Gates wide open for a TD. Yeah, that’s how a play-action pass is supposed to work.
To add to the misery, with his team down 24-3, Cassel rifled his next pass to Quentin Jammer. Which would be great, if Jammer played for the Patriots. A Charger field goal put the home team ahead 27-3, the game out of reach with over two minutes left in the third quarter.
A pile-on field goal by the home team and a late, meaningless touchdown run by Morris rounded out the final scoring.
New England looked shaky from the start, as Rivers opened with a 48-yard strike to Jackson that victimized Deltha O’Neal. After the Chargers worked their way down to the Patriots’ seven-yard line, tight end Antonio Gates’ typically great hands failed him, dropping a sure touchdown. After another incomplete pass, San Diego had to settle for a field goal. On their second drive, O’Neal played victim once again, allowing Malcom Floyd (who?) past him for a leaping 49-yard catch in the end zone. With four minutes left in the first, the score was 10-0, home team. (And, by the way, defensive end Jarvis Green and offensive tackle Nick Kaczur had left the game at that point with injuries. So … good times all around.) Rivers hit eight-of-12 passes for 134 yards in the first quarter.
The visitors got their first score in the second quarter. Chris Hanson made his best punt of the year, pinning San Diego on their own three-yard line (and we might add, it’s about time). A weak ensuing punt by Mike Scifres led to a Kevin Faulk fair catch on the Chargers’ 43. After a first down in three Morris carries, Cassel fired to Randy Moss streaking down the right sideline for what looked like a big gain, but the underthrown pass got knocked out of Moss’ hands incomplete (no truth to the rumor that fans on the West Coast could hear New England shrieking in dismay). Stephen Gostkowski knocked it in from 47 yards to make it 10-3 with 7:18 left in the half.
Scifres gained revenge soon after, pinning New England on their own six. After three and out, Darren Sproles got a 22-yard punt return and a facemask penalty, putting San Diego on New England’s 31. Rivers completed a pass to Floyd (again: who?) for a first down at the 12. From there, Tomlinson reversed field and must have had Moses behind him opening the waters, because no one touched him until Jerod Mayo made the tackle eight yards later. Rivers then found Jackson for a touchdown. Jackson was so wide open on the play that he could have set up a lawn chair and ordered a piña colada before making the catch. San Diego led 17-3 with a little over a minute left before halftime.
In the first half, Rivers went 12 of 19 for 179 yards and two TD passes. Cassel (if you really want to know) hit eight of 13 passes for 59 yards. So, there was that.
Here’s a question I kept asking Sunday evening: who on the Patriots is good? I mean, really good, like Pro-Bowl caliber? Who’s the guy you look at and think, “If the game is on the line, he’s going to step up and make a play?”
Moss or Wes Welker? It’s tough to play receiver when your QB has the accuracy of artillery (it’s more of a “general area” thing). The stress is beginning to show on the receivers, who juggled balls like circus performers last night. The offense is hurting. New England doesn’t have a starting running back right now: Laurence Maroney’s out with a shoulder injury (when playing, he had been iffy); Kevin Faulk (three catches, 29 yards; eight runs, 48 yards) is a change-of-pace back; Morris (10 runs, 26 yards) and LaMont Jordan (hurt) are up-the-middle types. In any case, despite106 yards rushing, the offensive line hasn’t shown the ability to establish much vs. better-than-average teams (their previous opponent, San Francisco, was ranked 21st against the rush. San Diego was 17th, according to nfl.com).
Even with Charger Shawne Merriman lost to injury, Cassel was sacked four times. Sacks of Rivers? Zip. Nada. The Big Bagel. Where’s the Patriots’ outside rusher who can bring pressure? Did Mike Vrabel and Adalius Thomas take vacations on the West Coast? And where’s the downfield coverage? O’Neal’s plays looked like plays by a different O’Neill – Eugene’s grim stuff that exposed the vulnerabilities of man.
On special teams, does the kick return unit have something better than the “Run Into the First Defender” play?
Did New England’s coaches prepare them for deep passes on either side of the ball? Aren’t Patriots defenses geared to stop the long stuff? On offense, what’s wrong with a medium-range pass once in a while? And what’s with all the penalties last night (six for 73 yards)?
I don’t know the answers to all of these questions, but I can guess at some of them. The defense lost some of their intensity last year due to age and personnel changes; now, when the offense struggles, so do they. Moss (three catches, 36 yards) can’t be happy; no one on his side of the ball is. Ever since “The Game We Won’t Mention,” the O line has been mired in mediocrity.
My theory? It all goes back to the QB. At his best, Cassel’s fine. Just fine, like how you’ll tell your boss you feel this morning after last night’s debacle. He has failed to find Moss deep and has even missed Welker shallow (Welker ended up with nine grabs for 73 yards. Okay for a possession game, not great Sunday night). He holds the ball too long yet can’t locate open receivers (just ask Watson, still waiting in the end zone). At some point – probably while sitting on the bench for eight years – his sensitivity to pressure must have gotten a novocaine shot. The worst part of last night, though that’s up for argument, came in the final minutes, when coaches continued to call screen passes for Cassel. That said a lot. With the game decided, they still kept the reins on him. He ended up hitting 22 of 38 passes for 203 yards, zero TDs and one interception. In a close game, that might have been effective. Down by three or four scores? Not so much.
I understand that Cassel has more experience than rookie Kevin O’Connell. I get that right now, Cassel’s the best option. Here’s the rub: Cassel’s contract expires after this season. That means that, for better or worse, he won’t stick around. Maybe it’s time to let the rookie see the field. He might be better than fine.
Really, anything’s better than last night.