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Nitpicks and Nitwits: Turning the corner, but do we know what's ahead?

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(AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

One, was simply a brain-cramp moment for Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. Or was it?  In frustration over an officials' non-call of a possible pass interference penalty against him in the 4th quarter vs. Jacksonville Sunday, Kelce was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing.  Then, he was kicked out with a second unsportsmanlike penalty for throwing a towel at the official in response to the first flag.  

Kelce was apologetic afterward, saying he can't do that to his teammates or to an official.  But he did later offer "I can't throw my flag at the ref, but he can throw his all day long."  Hmm.  So what exactly did you learn here, Travis?

And even though the Los Angeles Rams were playing at home in the LA Coliseum for the first time in a month, there were boos and cat-calls raining throughout the crowd of 86,000+ as the home team lost to Carolina, 13-10.  Why?  Apparent frustration over coach Jeff Fisher's insistence to stick with Case Keenum at QB, rather than let rookie top draft pick Jared Goff take any reps.

Admittedly, it is unusual for a #1 draft pick to NOT step in right away for his new team - and with the Rams at 3-5 on the season, would it hurt for him to receive meaningful snaps if the team is - as the coach says it is - still developing?  

On the other hand, they may have been away from the game for 22 years, but it appears SoCal football fans are right back in lock-step with others who love to complain.  What were these people doing a year ago?  At least they now have a team to complain about.

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is presently in his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several additional media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 28 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

Turning the corner on something usually means the bad stuff is behind you, doesn't it?  

For the most part, turning the corner - in this instance, a euphemism for getting through the first half of a season where much is expected - means the Patriots have passed a critical point in the overall process of the 2016 regular season.  Critical, only to a point.

I mean, let's face it.  New England is 7-1.  How critical are things, really?  The mid-point of the regular season is simply a milestone, or a marker, indicating that the process (or the season) is halfway through to completion.  

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But here's where the meaning of "turning the corner" can go south on you.  What do you expect from the 2nd half?  Can it get much better than the 1st half?  Will the task(s) be any more difficult?  What about the schedule of opponents, or the inevitable injuries that occur?

Usually when you turn the corner on something, your situation improves after an initial period of difficulty - hence the phrase "turn the corner" coming from passing or turning the last corner in a race dating back to the 1800's.  

In the case of the 2016 Patriots, turning the corner on this season is looked at differently. This team is tied for the best record in the NFL at the halfway point, and holds a 3-game lead within the AFC East Division.  The team accomplished this without one of their best players, or certainly one of their most important players (Tom Brady) in the first four games, as others stepped into the breach in his absence.

It's a significant task achieved.  But there is plenty left to play for, still miles to go before anything of real substance is actually accomplished.  No one hands out trophies or playoff bonus checks for 1st place at the halfway mark.  

And, if you're already at the top, there's only one other direction you can travel.

Turning the corner, in this instance, could actually mean adversity still faces this team.  After all, you can make the argument for a more-difficult schedule coming up (Seattle, the Jets twice, Baltimore, at Denver) than what was played in the first half of the season, and as we're all too aware around here, the second half of the season typically becomes a war-of-attrition within the personnel departments for most teams.

The physical nature of the NFL usually dictates players' health during November and December as something short of "normal," to be sure.  Players learn to play while hurt, even if they can't play while injured.  This is where depth issues on a roster come into play - and this is an area the Patriots took great pains (pun not intended) in trying to improve over the past off-season.

Every team has the same number of active roster players.  But increasing depth comes from roster versatility, from scouting, doing the homework on possible replacements and good, old-fashioned hard work on and off of the field.  A little bit of good luck in the health department also helps out every now and then, too.

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Considering the number of players over the past couple of seasons that have ended their seasons' around here prematurely with a trip to the Injured Reserve list, maybe a little good fortune is due?

That's great to have, of course.  But you can't count on it.  Teams that are the most-prepared for every eventuality are the teams usually left standing (and playing) at seasons' end.  

So we can turn the corner, metaphorically speaking, only because the calendar says we're halfway through.  Maybe the bad stuff is already behind us?  Maybe the good stuff - complete with trophies and playoff bonus checks - is all still ahead of us?

But a corner turned can also mean potholes still remain on the road in front of you, as you try to get where everyone wants to go.

Signing this report card

Mid-season grades are about as useful as halftime scores.  They really don't mean much in the overall scheme of things, but they can indicate performance and effort to a particular point in time.

Still, you took home a report card from school when you were a kid, and more often than not, a parent had to sign off on it as an indicator they knew how you were progressing as a student.  So then, how does Bill Belichick - the "parent" in this case - look at his kids at mid-term?

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Based on his past, Belichick has been one of those parents expecting a lot from his students, without much public feedback.  "I don't give grades," is the typical mid-season response.  "I'm worried about the (fill-in-the-blank-opponent)."  

But I'll sign off on this particular report card, which is technically "Incomplete" to this point.  If you go by record alone, a grade of "A" overall, based on the 7-1 first-half finish, isn't out of the question.

OFFENSE: B+

All looks to be promising from this point forward, with TB12 back under center, with a two-headed Boston TE party roaming through opposing defenses and one of the NFL's top rushers through eight games.  But comparatively-speaking, the Patriots' offense is slightly behind last years' in overall production.  And while the offensive line certainly seems to have better stability from a year ago, nagging penalties are still a concern.  Allowing the QB to be sacked (or hit frequently) is another.

DEFENSE: B

You could almost feel the defense breathing relief after the first four games of the season, as it picked up the slack for an offense that needed time to come together.  It also bent - a lot - even if it didn't completely break.  The last few weeks have seen the statistical numbers improve on this side of the ball where they needed to most, on 3rd downs and in the red zone.  This is a trend that must continue for New England to realize itself as a true title threat, of course.

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Without Jamie Collins in the mix at linebacker, the opportunity is there for another potential playmaker to emerge.  Which is also something the defensive line needs, lacking in the QB sack department (28th in the NFL).  Overall, it's hard to argue with performance as the "D" stands 3rd in average points allowed per game, even if they're a mere 14th in yards allowed.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B

Stephen Gostkowski has - gasp! - missed a few kicks?  Three, to be exact. He's a human, not a robot.  But let's take a look at a more complete picture - defensive kickoff return average is 4th in the NFL, punt returns and net punting averages (with Ryan Allen) rank 6th.  Starting field position for an opponent is also 2nd in the league, so the kicking game is doing its job overall, even if an extra point slides by once-in-a-blue-moon, or a field goal attempt gets duck-hooked once-a-millennium.  

How do a B+ and two B's rate an "A" overall?  The end result is 7-and-1, with a three-game advantage in the division, that's how. Perhaps it's a reflection of New England's performance, combined with that of their AFC East rivals, that gives the grade an upward trend or curve at mid-term.

Tossing and Turning

Two instances of note during Week 9 play stood out as, let's say, nitpick and nitwit-worthy.

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One, was simply a brain-cramp moment for Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce. Or was it?  In frustration over an officials' non-call of a possible pass interference penalty against him in the 4th quarter vs. Jacksonville Sunday, Kelce was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing.  Then, he was kicked out with a second unsportsmanlike penalty for throwing a towel at the official in response to the first flag.  

Kelce was apologetic afterward, saying he can't do that to his teammates or to an official.  But he did later offer "I can't throw my flag at the ref, but he can throw his all day long."  Hmm.  So what exactly did you learn here, Travis?

And even though the Los Angeles Rams were playing at home in the LA Coliseum for the first time in a month, there were boos and cat-calls raining throughout the crowd of 86,000+ as the home team lost to Carolina, 13-10.  Why?  Apparent frustration over coach Jeff Fisher's insistence to stick with Case Keenum at QB, rather than let rookie top draft pick Jared Goff take any reps.

Admittedly, it is unusual for a #1 draft pick to NOT step in right away for his new team - and with the Rams at 3-5 on the season, would it hurt for him to receive meaningful snaps if the team is - as the coach says it is - still developing?  

On the other hand, they may have been away from the game for 22 years, but it appears SoCal football fans are right back in lock-step with others who love to complain.  What were these people doing a year ago?  At least they now have a team to complain about.

*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and is presently in his 24th season as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several additional media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for 28 seasons and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *

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