I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.
I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.
I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.
Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.
On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.
It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.
After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion.
By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.
For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.
This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.
Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.
In 2013, it looked like the Philadelphia Eagles had their next long tenured coach, ushering in a new run of contention after Andy Reid’s pretty good fourteen year run had come to an end. In 2013, it also looked like the San Francisco 49ers had their franchise quarterback, and franchise head coach, and would be Super Bowl contenders for a long time. Chip Kelly was going to change professional football the way he revolutionized the college game from the Oregon sideline, and Colin Kaepernick might just be the best of the crop of young mobile QBs. It’s amazing how much can change in three years.
Earlier this month, following a disappointing season in which the Eagles overhauled their roster but could not gain any ground in a putrid NFC East Division, Philadelphia fired Chip Kelly. After the season ended, the 49ers followed suit, firing first year head coach Jim Tomsula who led the San Francisco to a 5-11 season in a year when he had the unenviable task of replacing Jim Harbaugh. Colin Kaepernick had been benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert. Maybe things were never as good as they appeared three years ago, but I never thought it would get this bad.
This week Will Leitch wrote a column ranking the careers of every quarterback who ever started a Super Bowl, 57 in total through 49 games (spoiler alert: Leitch ranked Joe Montana #1 with the caveat that a couple of weeks from now, someone else might take that spot from him), and Kaepernick was ranked #53. Leitch gave the following explanation:
When they watch highlights of this game in 50 years, they’ll have no idea how he didn’t become an all-timer. I’m not sure what happened myself. Choose your next step carefully, Colin: It may be everything.
It’s a good point. Kaepernick was awesome in that game, and he was so close to knocking off a Baltimore Ravens team that didn’t even make the playoffs the following year. At the time, the narrative during the season was one that drew parallels to the way the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI: the veteran former #1 overall pick gets hurt, the second year head coach gives the starting job to the second year quarterback, and lets him keep it, and they ride the momentum all the way to the big game, which is being played in New Orleans. As uncanny as all of that was, that is where the comparisons between the 2001 Patriots and 2012 49ers stopped, with all due respect to that Niners team. Alex Smith is a lesser quarterback than Drew Bledsoe, Jim Harbaugh is a lesser coach than Bill Belichick, Colin Kaepernick is a lesser quarterback than Tom Brady (but how many coaches and quarterbacks are greater than Belichick and Brady, in fairness?), and most of all THEY DIDN’T WIN THE SUPERBOWL!!!
Kaepernick falling off the map this past season is not the only reason that game feels like it was ten years ago while Super Bowl XLVII feels like it was yesterday (and still hurts just as much as a Pats fan). Jim Harbaugh was coaching the Niners against his brother John, who was coaching the Ravens, and Jim wore out his welcome in San Francisco and is now coaching at the University of Michigan. Important players from the Niners/Ravens Super Bowl include Randy Moss, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Ray Rice, and Ed Reed, all of whom are now out of professional football for one reason or another. In that matchup, it felt at the time like the Ravens were the team that needed it more, since they had more players near the end, while the 49ers seemed like the team just hitting their stride. Kaepernick gave San Francisco’s offense the spark it had lacked with Smith under center. Their defense was loaded, but they had a worthy divisional adversary in the Seattle Seahawks.
A year after breaking through and reaching the Super Bowl, the 49ers were back in the NFC Championship Game, but this time Seattle made the stop they needed to make at the end of the game, leading to one of the great remixes in the history of Youtube, and propelling them into their decisive rout of the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. That was the last we heard from San Francisco as a contender. I thought a few years ago they would have a chance to be the first true home team for a Super Bowl with Super Bowl 50 being played in Santa Clara, but they declined quicker than anyone could have imagined. 2014 ended up being Harbaugh’s last year in San Francisco, and the 49ers had no real plan to replace him. 2015 was a lost season for a franchise that was once the gold standard for the NFL.
As quickly as things fell apart for the Niners, it happened even faster for Chip Kelly in Philly. In his first two seasons, the Eagles won ten games each year, making the playoffs in 2013, but missing them by a game in 2014. After 2014, Kelly gained more power within the organization, and now had control over personnel decisions. With his new found power, Chip Kelly the GM put Chip Kelly the coach in some tough situations. He traded star running back LeSean McCoy to the Buffalo Bills, which was a bit of a surprise, but defensible because in return, the Eagles got Kiko Alonso, an athletic linebacker who is two years younger than McCoy, and who played for Kelly at Oregon. Running backs have the shortest careers of any skill position in football, so anytime you can trade a running back for a linebacker the same age or younger, you do it. The more baffling move was to replace McCoy by overpaying for former Dallas Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray. Murray is the same age as McCoy, and rushed for 1845 yards behind a really good offensive line in 2014 for Dallas. In Kelly’s offense in Philadelphia, Murray only had 702 yards rushing in 2015, by comparison. I’m admittedly not as close a follower of the NFL as I was a few years ago, and I do not have nearly the amount of football knowledge as someone like Chip Kelly, but this was one thing that didn’t smell right to me from the beginning. I’ve been Pro-Chip since he was at Oregon, and as someone who spent seven summers on camp staff in New Hampshire, I really wanted to see this Dover, NH native (fun fact: between Chip and Giants GM and Concord native Brian Sabean, both Bay Area teams with “San Francisco” in their names now have key decision makers who hail from The Granite State) succeed at football’s highest level, and his handling of the Eagles’ roster had me almost as worried last summer as Tom Brady’s predicament with the league.
Kelly lost his job with the Eagles more for the roster moves he made than the coaching decisions, but as long as he had been in the NFL, critics had been skeptical of his fast paced system, that it weakens your own defense if the offense keeps going three and out. Kelly’s system dominated in the college regular season, but struggled in bowl games in every year except his last at Oregon, when he was the sexy, outside the box head coaching candidate for a lot of NFL teams. The only playoff game he coached for Philadelphia, which I recapped on this blog the night it happened, was oddly reminiscent of the BCS National Championship Game he coached for Oregon in 2011. Both games ended with Kelly’s team losing at the mercy of a game winning field goal as time expired, because Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints were able to slow their possessions down the way Cam Newton’s Auburn offense did.
One important thing to realize about football, and about all sports, is that no one system is going to work all the time. If that were the case, there would be no point in playing the game. Just declare Chip Kelly the genius who solved football and go home! What makes Bill Belichick so successful as a head coach is that he is not married to any one style of play, and has been able to constantly adapt and evolve his game plans with changing times and changing opponents. Another thing to realize about Belichick is that he was not great right away, and he is perhaps the best reason to be hopeful about Kelly’s future in the NFL.
Belichick has been working in football operations for NFL teams in various capacities every year since 1975. He never took a year off and never went into the college game. Even Lorne Michaels took five years off from Saturday Night Live in the early 80s. He was first hired as a “special assistant” by the Baltimore Colts, and did not get a head coaching gig until 1991, though he was run out of town along with the rest of the Cleveland Browns in 1995. It took another five years working under his mentor Bill Parcells with the Patriots and New York Jets before he took another crack at being a head coach again. By comparison, Kelly’s rise to the head coaching ranks of the NFL has been meteoric. He was a longtime assistant at the collegiate level, at Columbia, Oregon, Johns Hopkins, and his alma mater New Hampshire, eventually rising to offensive coordinator at UNH from 1999 to 2006. In 2007, he was hired as the offensive coordinator at Oregon, and was promoted to head coach two years later. He was only the head coach at Oregon for four years before the NFL came calling. His rise from offensive coordinator at a college campus in Durham, NH to head coach of one of the 32 NFL teams happened in the years between the Patriots’ last two Super Bowl victories. Most people to not rise that quickly in life, and it is remarkable what Chip was able to accomplish given how easy it would have been to be a complete failure.
As a Patriots fan, I am glad Bill got his growing pains out of the way in Cleveland, and I got to be witness to maybe the most dominant fifteen year run in football history. It would be in their best interest for the 49ers to be patient with both Kelly and Kaepernick, because the line between success and failure in the NFL is a lot closer than people realize. Imagine, for instance, if the Tuck Rule play had been assessed differently after review in the Snow Bowl between the Patriots and Oakland Raiders in 2002. The Pats were able to capitalize on a gift of a non-turnover, and force overtime, and win it in overtime, but it was kind of a weird rule that is no longer on the books. Belichick made a gamble that season by sticking with Brady when Bledsoe was healthy enough to play again, and we remember that as the right decision because they won the Super Bowl. What if that play goes differently, and the Raiders advance instead of the Patriots? Belichick obviously liked what he saw in Brady, and still may have traded Bledsoe to Buffalo that offseason, much the way the 49ers traded Alex Smith to Kansas City after Kaepernick took them to the Super Bowl eleven years later. For the 49ers, the second guess of Kaepernick over Smith was something that still got talked about in the years that followed, and was cited as one of the ways Harbaugh lost the trust of his players. Two years after Super Bowl XLVII, Harbaugh is out in San Francisco and Kaepernick’s confidence is shot now that the coach who lobbied for him is no longer there. The Patriots went 9-7 in the 2002 season, and let three time All Pro Safety Lawyer Milloy go in training camp in 2003. In the first game of the 2003 season, the Pats were trounced by (you guessed it) the Buffalo Bills, led by Bledsoe and Milloy, by a score of 31-0. In the moment, things looked bleak for the Patriots early on in 2003. Imagine how bad it would have been if they hadn’t beaten the Raiders, let alone the Steelers and Rams, in the 2002 playoffs. Belichick would have been gone in New England before he had a chance to go 14-2 in 2003 and eventually beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick are each other’s second lease on an NFL career. They need each other right now, and I think it has a chance to work. I want it to work, even. The biggest reasons for hope in this situation, is that Kaepernick responsive when he had a good offensive minded coach in Harbaugh, and that Kelly was able to leave Philly with a career winning record despite never having a quarterback anywhere near as good as Kaepernick. Kelly had a 27-21 record with the Eagles when his quarterback options were Old Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley, and Tim Tebow (it’s worth noting that in 2008, Bradford beat Tebow for the Heisman Trophy, and in 2009 Barkley was Sanchez’ successor at USC when Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, but none of them have made it as quarterbacks in the NFL). It’s a quarterback league, but quarterbacks need coached. The other teams that hired new coaches did not do too much to rock the boat. The New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Tom Coughlin and Lovie Smith with their offensive coordinators, the Eagles reverted back to what worked for them before Chip Kelly by hiring longtime Andy Reid assistant Doug Pederson, the Cleveland Browns hired Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but until they prove me wrong I’m just going to assume it’s the wrong move considering Cleveland’s steadily revolving door of quarterbacks, coaches, and GMs for over a decade, and the Tennessee Titans simply took the “interim” label off Mike Mularkey’s interim head coach title, but San Francisco needed an innovative hire after hiring the defensive minded Tomsula from within their own coaching ranks was a failed experiment.
This is a good situation to get a second chance, but if it does not work, both Chip Kelly and Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as cautionary tales instead of what they should have become.
Good football teams have to make tough decisions about good football players. That fact will always be true as long as they want to continue to be good football teams. The Indianapolis Colts did not want to release Peyton Manning, but it’s what they felt the had to do when they were sitting atop the NFL’s draft board and Andrew Luck was theirs for the taking. The Green Bay Packers loved Brett Favre and everything he had done for the organization, but by 2008, Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback of the present, and not just the future, so they did what they had to do. Years ago, the San Francisco 49ers had to make the difficult decision of trading Joe Montana, who had led them to four Super Bowl victories, to the Kansas City Chiefs, because it was Steve Young’s team now. It’s never easy, and it’s never fun, but that kind of cold decision making is what keep good teams from becoming bad teams as time goes on.
The New England Patriots are not strangers to tough personnel decisions. Their first Super Bowl championship in February of 2002 came as a result of Bill Belichick deciding to start an unproven second year backup out of the University of Michigan named Tom Brady ahead of the former #1 overall pick and face of the franchise in Drew Bledsoe, once Bledsoe had returned to health. Two years later, Belichick parted ways with Pro Bowl safety Lawyer Milloy, and although Milloy played many more years at a high level in the NFL, even outlasting his replacement, Rodney Harrison, the Patriots went on to win back to back Super Bowls with one of the best defensive units in recent memory. Mike Vrabel and Richard Seymour were traded away (Vrabel to the Kansas City Chiefs, and Seymour to the Oakland Raiders) when they still had plenty of good football left in them. Wes Welker and Aqib Talib are now both playing for the Denver Broncos, the one team in the AFC that was better than the Patriots last year, because their price got too high. This week the Pats made another tough decision.
The Patriots traded All Pro offensive guard Logan Mankins, who had played his entire professional career with New England, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. Mankins was maybe the toughest player I have ever seen in a Patriots uniform and he was an easy guy to like. He was a leader, and one of the real heart and soul guys in the Pats’ locker room for the past decade. In a year when it looks like the Patriots can really make some noise, and the defense can potentially return to the form they had when they were winning Super Bowls a decade ago, it would have been nice for Logan Mankins to be a part of that team, and he had been to the Super Bowl twice in his career, but they were the two times the Patriots lost to the New York Giants. Now it’s time for the Pats and for Mankins to move on, and move forward. I think Mankins will eventually get his red jacket as a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame, and his Patriots career speaks for itself, but for now, they’re going in a new direction.
Mankins is over 30, and was the highest paid guard in NFL history when he signed his current contract. The Patriots did not feel he was worth that kind of money anymore, and they traded him. In return, the Pats got a second year tight end named Tim Wright and a 4th round draft pick. Wright, and undrafted player who played college ball at Rutgers, signed with Tampa and played his rookie season for his former college coach, Greg Schiano. He played well, making 54 receptions for 571 yards, and scoring five touchdowns in an offense that lacked a true starting quarterback, but when the Bucs fired Schiano last winter and hired longtime Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, Wright soon fell out of favor with the new regime. Belichick has familiarity with the Rutgers football program, since his son went there, and he has drafted Devin McCourty (a two time All Pro in four professional seasons), Logan Ryan, and Duron Harmon in recent years. The Pats are also thin at the tight end position, without many pass catching options if Rob Gronkowski is unable to suit up. Wright is only 24, so there’s a chance he can contribute the New England’s offense years after Mankins has retired from he NFL.
Maybe the most overlooked aspect of the Patriots’ offeseason has been the retirement of offinsive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia first started working for the Patriots in 1982, before the team’s first trip to the Super Bowl against the Chicago Bears, and ten years before Robert Kraft bought the franchise. Withe the exception of a two season stint coaching the offensive line of the Indianapolis Colts, Scarnecchia had been on New England’s coaching staff ever since, coaching tight ends, offensive line, and special teams among other responsibilities. Since 2000, when Bill Belichick became head coach, Scarnecchia also held the title of Assistant Head Coach, running team practices in he rare cases when Belichick could not be there in person. Scarnecchia was one of the most important contributors to the success of the New England Patriots in the last 30 years, but did not get nearly as much attention as the other people that high on the list like Kraft, Belichick, Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady, and Troy Brown. The Patriots’ offensive line has been as consistent as any line in the NFL the last 15 years, and even before Mankins’ departure, there would be questions about the offensive line because someone other than Dante would be coaching it for the first time in a long time.
For years, the offensive line in New England was anchored by Mankins, left tackle Matt Light, and center Dan Koppen, and now none of them are here anymore. This is Nate Solder’s offensive line now, and now it’s time for the kid to show us how good he is. Nothing lasts forever, especially in a sport as physically demanding as football. The Patriots will probably be really good this year, and will probably win at least 12 games, but it will be without some of the mainstays we’ve grown used to seeing on the team. That’s football.