So will they do it? Who knows? Nothing seems to indicate they will. They seem strangely committed to spreading it out a certain percentage of the time come hell or high water. Logic or no logic. Take two weeks ago against New Orleans. First drive is a thing of beauty, right. Laurence Maroney is pounding it 7 times for 39 yards and a touchdown. The Patriots run it 9 times overall. They score and take 8 minutes off the clock and take a nice 7-3 lead. Seems to me the Saints haven’t proven a thing yet in terms of stopping that kind of offense, right? So what do the Patriots and Offensive Coordinator-in-everything-but-title Bill O’Brien do on the next drive? Why come out spread five wide of course. And promptly all momentum is gone with an interception on the first play.
And what about last week? There the Patriots are, up 21-19 in the fourth quarter. They probably should have had a larger lead, but it is what it is, right? Just get out with a win. In the second half, they hadn’t run much but there they were 2nd and goal on the five with under ten minutes left. Their 6 rushing attempts in the second half had led to 28 yards. Sammy Morris had just ripped off gains of 10 and 7 yards on his last two carries to even get you down to five. The Dolphins appeared to be tiring. A touchdown here makes it a two score game. Line it up and run it, right? Even if they stop you on second down you probably get the clock down to under 9 minutes. Run it again on third down and at worst you probably are settling for a field goal with under 8 minutes to go. And rather than only a field goal, the Dolphins owould need a touchdown to win. The Patriots never did give up a touchdown on defense the rest of the game and the Dolphins did get stopped twice on offense before getting the winning field goal on their third drive. Had the clock run more on this critical drive inside the Dolphins ten and it been a touchdown needed for the Dolphins instead after field goal, I like the Patriots chances there. Hell, I even like their chances to get the virtual game clinching five yards and touchdown the way Sammy Morris was running the ball. Did any of that happen?
No, the suddenly fascinated by bright and shiny toys (known as Wes Welker, Randy Moss, Tom Brady and the spread offense) Patriots decided to throw the ball illogically, incredibly and ridiculously into traffic. Interception. Game on. The old Patriots don’t do that. The old Patriots pounded opponents late in the game. The old Patriots played smart, tough, physical football. Spreading the field and getting the lead was for earlier in the game and had its place. But ending the game? Imposing your will late and pounding it? That was as much a part of the 3-time Champion Patriots as anything else. Where has that gone, Bill Belichick? What happened to toughness on offense? When are we just gonna run against teams that aren’t that good defending the run? Or are tiring? Do we really have to be balanced if one team isn’t as good in one are of defense as the other? Or are tiring? I long for those long drives in the second half of the 2004-2005 Colts games. I long for those Patriots team that didn’t want to be the Colts, they wanted to be the tough Patriots and pound the soft Colts. Where have they gone? Why did they lose their way?
In any event, this week its Carolina. Its December. Its at home. The Panthers are not good against the run. Tom Brady is a bit banged up. Can the Patriots please, for the love of football, run the damn ball?
Lets take a look at some of these Panthers:
Quarterback Matt Moore (#3):
Moore will start for the injured Jake Delhomme this week and frankly, its probably an upgrade for the Panthers as it would be near impossible for Moore to play at a lower level than Delhomme has this year. It’s remarkable the Panthers gave Delhomme a very large new contract before this season with a lot of guaranteed money given the evidence of his declining play for several years now. What is unsure is whether that says more about the Panthers mismanagement or backup Moore’s inability to be a NFL starter. Moore is 25 years old and has been in the NFL for several years now and will be starting his 5th career NFL game against the Patriots. He holds a TD/INT ratio of 3/7 so far and a QB rating of 64.0 for his career. If the Patriots much-maligned passing defense can’t hold Moore down, then you know they’re really in trouble. Moore, who started his college career at UCLA, eventually transferred to Oregon State and led them to a 10 win season as a starter his senior year. It was somewhat of a surprise he went undrafted as he was projected higher than that. There is some talent here, but he lacks NFL experience and a true chance so far. Patriot nemesis A.J. Feeley is the backup should Moore struggle.
Williams is one of the better young backs in the NFL and a back the Patriots have caught some flack for passing over in favor of Laurence Maroney. While his first two years were solid, it was last year that Williams became one of the NFL’s best with over 1,500 yards rushing and a stellar 5.5 per carry. This season Williams hasn’t been quite as dynamic and missed last week’s game to injury, but he still has over 1,000 yards and is averaging 5.2 per carry. Only in his fourth season, he is already Carolina’s all-time franchise rushing leader. It’ll be a difficult test for the Patriots to stop Williams, but if they can do so and put Moore in long yardage situations it’ll go a long way towards winning this game.
WR Steve Smith (#89)
Smith, of course, is a premier NFL receiver who had an excellent Super Bowl against the Patriots in a losing effort a few years back. For a guy of his slight stature, its amazing the numbers he has put up with over 8,000 career yards receiving at only 30 years old. Smith is an interesting guy who coaches his son’s soccer team and interns in the off-season in a Morgan Stanley office as a financial planning intern. He also has had some bad press in his career, throwing a sucker punch at teammate Ken Lucas. While his numbers are a bit down, probably due to some bad quarterback play, Smith is still obviously a very dangerous receiver who could torch the Patriots if they give the Panthers the time to throw.
DE Julius Peppers (#90)
Peppers is an outstanding pass rusher who is playing under the Panthers’ franchise tag this season. This past off-season a popular rumor had the Patriots strongly pursuing acquiring Peppers, but nothing ever developed. While the Patriots real interest in uncertain, Bill Belichick did speak glowingly of him as recently as this week and placed him amongst a handful of truly special players in the entire NFL. For the season, Peppers got off to a bit of a slow start as he dealt with hand injuries but has 8.5 sacks and 5 forced fumbles, a usual Peppers specialty. He also has an interception for a touchdown. The Patriots will surely have to dedicate extra attention to this always potentially game-changing player.
CB Chris Gamble (#20)
The 26 year old Gamble is one of the better corners in the NFL and was rewarded with a very lucrative 6 year $53 million dollar contract by the Panthers this past off-season. This week he’ll be charged with shutting down Randy Moss, assuming Moss plays, and allowing the Panthers to pay extra attention to Wes Welker. Gamble is a physical defensive back who plays equally well against run and pass and can make a play for an interception if the ball isn’t thrown perfectly. He’s a good player and enjoyable to watch on defense.
Davidson is in his third season as the Panthers offensive coordinator and has done a good job, particularly for last season’s 12-4 team. This season the team has struggled, though they’ve largely been let down by their poor quarterback play. A former NFL offensive lineman, Davidson started with the Patriots under Pete Carroll and stayed on when Bill Belichick took over. He got his first training as a play-caller when Charlie Weis missed training camp in 2002 and Davidson called some exhibition games. After being Assistant Offensive Line Coach during Belichick’s first two season’s in New England, he added the title of Tight End Coach the next three and as such he was with the Patriots for all three Super Bowl wins. Davidson moved to Cleveland with Romeo Crennel as Assistant Head Coach and Offensive Line Coach before becoming Carolina’s Offensive Coordinator in 2007. Davidson is good friends with Charlie Weis and it is believed his recommendation played a big role in Carolina hiring Davidson as coordinator. While he runs clearly Weis-influenced and Patriots-influenced schemes, Davidson has been strongly run-oriented as a coordinator being well over a 50% running team on offense the last two seasons, something the Patriots haven’t done since Weis’ last year here in 2004.