All is not lost in New England. After two weeks of panic, two weeks of local and national pundits alike freaking out about the bust potential of rookie running back Sony Michel, two weeks of wondering if Julian Edelman will even be enough to turn things around, the sky is not falling. These are the Patriots, and sure, they have been a model of consistency, and sure, they have had their share of September struggles in the past, but back-to-back demoralizing losses to Jacksonville and Detroit will cause panic among the fans of any NFL team.
The Pats turned things around with a convincing 38-7 win over the previously undefeated Miami Dolphins. It was not perfect, but Patriots fans can exhale as the team improved to 2-2 with Edelman coming back from suspension this week. People can also relax about Sony Michel, too, as he rushed for 112 yards on 25 carries and scored his first NFL touchdown. Michel was set up to stumble out of the gate. He was limited in preseason with a knee issue, and was a first round pick taken by a team with the expectation to win while their 41 year old quarterback still has his health. I liked the pick, and I was impressed with Georgia’s running game last season, but it was a tough spot to transition into the NFL for anyone.
The Patriots are the beneficiaries of a bad division. They can get away with a slow start because they are so much better than the Dolphins, New York Jets, and Buffalo Bills year in and year out. Rex Ryan’s Jets gave them some trouble for a couple years, and the last time they missed the playoffs was the year late Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano caught the whole NFL by surprise with the Wildcat offense, turning the 1-15 team he inherited into an 11-5 division winner, but beyond that, the AFC East has been a revolving door of coaches and quarterbacks this century while Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have remained constant (it’s also worth noting the 2008 Dolphins edged out the 11-5 Patriots based on tiebreakers and that was the year Brady got hurt in the first quarter of the first game, but what Miami did that year is still impressive and unprecedented). Of those revolving door characters, only one keeps me up at night asking “what if?”
Nick Saban coached the Dolphins in 2005 and 2006, in between is very successful stint at LSU and his unrelentingly successful run at the University of Alabama. They went 9-7 in his first year, and 6-10 in his second, before bolting to Tuscaloosa. It would be easy to look at Saban’s time as an NFL coach and write him off as a failure, that he was one of many good or great college coaches who could not make the leap to the NFL and land on his feet, but that does not tell the whole story. He had Gus Frerotte, Sage Rosenfels, Joey Harrington, Cleo Lemon, Marcus Vick, and Daunte Culpepper as his quarterbacks. That’s as comical a who’s who of mid-2000s journeyman QBs as you will ever find this side of Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson. The Dolphins could have signed Drew Brees for the 2006 season, but team doctors suggested they not sign him due to concerns about his shoulder holding up. Had Saban been able to coach Brees, who is still playing at a high level for the New Orleans Saints a dozen years later, Saban might still be in Miami, and the road to home field advantage in the playoffs would be significantly more difficult for Belichick and Brady.
Saban has gone on to have the same level of success in the college game that Belichick has in the NFL, and while the NFL is obviously the superior level of football, Saban can’t afford the September stumbles that the Patriots seem to build into their schedule as a learning experience most years. If Alabama is 2-2 at the end of September, with only four teams making the playoffs and a loaded SEC Western division to contend with, they would be out of the National Championship discussion. I’m not saying Saban is superior to Belichick, but he has been so successful at Bama (131-20 in 12 seasons) that I have a hard time believing he would have failed in the NFL with a legitimate quarterback. I’m not saying Saban would have five rings, or that Belichick never would have won another after 2004, but you would not have been able to pencil the Pats in at the top of the AFC East every year, either.
Continuing with my new tradition of being a Buffalo Bills blogger, the Bills built upon their stunning victory in Minnesota by losing 22-0 to the Green Bay Packers in Lambeau Field. Josh Allen went 16 for 33 on pass attempts for 151 yard, threw two interceptions and was sacked seven times. The only thing uglier than the Bills’ performance was the throwback jerseys the Packers wore. Part of the angst for Patriots fans the last couple weeks was that they had the same record as the Bills and the Dolphins were 3-0, but in one day, the Patriots sent Miami crashing back to earth, and the Bills reverted to being the Bills.
Nothing in football is ever certain, and every week there is something that will shock people, but at some point things do go back to normal. That was Week 4 in the NFL.