This was a contending team until Monday Night. After the game clock had mercifully run out of time, we're left to wonder which team out there was the actual contender in the first place.
So complete was Kansas City's 41-14 thrashing of New England at Arrowhead Stadium, you wonder if anyone practiced or prepared for the Chiefs last week at all? That wasn't the case of course, but the Chiefs were an anticipatory step ahead of the Patriots the entire night, almost as if they had a sneak peek into the Patriots' Playbook prior to kickoff. How else to explain seven straight quarters of NE not allowing an opponent to score a touchdown, and then falling into a 27-0 hole? Or Tom Brady held to a mere 159 yards passing with two picks? Or the second worst loss for the Patriots in the Bill Belichick-era? Whenever Kansas City needed to make a play on either side of the ball, they pretty much made it. The Chiefs played with a purpose, with a mission in mind.
They played like a contender, and New England didn't. It was as simple, and as ugly, as that. Among the many nitpicks that should gain notoriety, these stand out:
Missed tackles, missed opportunities: Poor tackling usually leads to bigger plays, more possession time for the offense and less opportunity for the team trying to come from behind. Check, check and check for the Chiefs on all three counts…of 131 rushing yards in the first half (207 for the game), well more than half came after contact. The Patriots defense appeared to be out of position, and reaching for KC's runners and receivers. They didn't reach many of them. And those defenders weren't just out of position – they slipped and grasped nothing but air most of the night, especially early in the game. TE Travis Kelce (eight catches, 93 yards, 1 TD) was particularly torturous on New England's back seven.
The New England Patriots take on the Kansas City Chiefs during Monday Night Football at Arrowhead Stadium on Monday, September 29, 2014.
A penchant for big plays:** You'd like for the offense to be a factor here, but no such luck. After giving up an average of just 273 yards of total offense per game through the first three weeks, the Patriots were gouged for 303 yards in just the first half (443 for the game) against a Chiefs' team allegedly still trying to find itself. Guess they found themselves, after all. Those first half yards, on the way to a 17-0 halftime deficit for the Pats, were the most allowed by a NE defense during Bill Belichick's tenure as head coach. Three plays went for more than 30 yards. New England had been one of two teams in the league to NOT have allowed a 20 yard play going into the weekend. Alex Smith, sacked 11 times in the Chiefs' first three games, was a statue in his backfield with nary a smudge on his shirt except for one early Chandler Jones sack. Clearly, KC was better prepared here…and the Patriots appeared to be a step slow, looking lost most of the night.
Offensive on the other side, too: On a night when the defense could have used a boost…the offense was dreadful. Not only was there no sign of real improvement on that side of the ball…but the Patriots were limited to five first downs, 96 yards of offense and zero points in the first half…shut out in the first half on the road for the first time in eight years. No Aaron Dobson or Kenbrell Thompkins, with both inactive for the game, might have indicated a willingness to emphasize a short passing game. But, that really didn't happen…even though Brandon LaFell turned a slant route into a 44-yard score late in the 3rd quarter. The offensive line had a couple of changes (starting rookies Bryan Stork and Cameron Fleming) but little overall improvement…Nate Solder allowed a strip sack of Brady by Tamba Hali in the 3rd quarter, which led to a KC touchdown. And there was no real running game, which is curious since one way to keep the ball out of the Chiefs' hands (and the crowd out of the game) is to control the line of scrimmage and…uh, oh yeah. Having a hard time controlling anything right now…
Bright spots? Jimmy Garoppolo (6-of-7, 70 yards, 1 TD) came on in relief of Brady in the 4th quarter and threw his first NFL TD pass to Rob Gronkowski. LaFell had six receptions for 119 yards and the other score. But the game was already over. So, are you ready? Set? And…start the speculation running rampant. Because right now, this New England team is running nowhere…except into a 3-0 Cincinnati team next Sunday night.
Geno's Fishbowl could use a cleaning
He's only in his second year as an NFL quarterback. But sometimes, the glare of working in the fishbowl that is New York has a way of hardening even the most likable characters.
Like Geno Smith, for example. Personable. Definitely likable. Good athlete. Pretty good college quarterback at West Virginia, and he was a Heisman Trophy candidate for a spell before his team went south on him. But with the Jets struggling to a 1-3 start this season, already the reviews are not positive on his performance…he was 17 of 33 for 209 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 24-17 loss to Detroit Sunday, with two sacks and a fumble lost. Smith was booed in the first half, and threw his fifth pick in four games plus lost his fumble on back-to-back possessions in the 4th quarter. On the way off the field, he directed a four-letter expletive at a fan heckling him from the stands.
For what it's worth, Rex Ryan says he's sticking with Smith as his starter, resisting the calls for backup Michael Vick for now. But it's also the first time in Ryan's NY tenure that his team has started 1-3. With San Diego, Denver and then the Patriots looming in the distance…that fishbowl is getting cloudier by the minute.
Bill Simmons' big mouth = ESPN's best stunt
Love him or hate him, the one-time "Boston Sports Guy" blogger Bill Simmons sure has it all figured out.
Simmons, who currently serves as an Editor for the ESPN-affiliated Grantland.com website, has parlayed his passion for all things Boston and his ability to relate to a younger demographic of sports fans through pop culture into media-mogul status with the self-proclaimed World Wide Leader. But he just can't seem to keep from opening his mouth and inserting his foot into the gaping hole…while at the same time tweaking the collective noses of his bosses in Bristol, CT.
And turn it all into one, big publicity stunt for his network.
Even though he's been disciplined in his past for saying/writing/tweeting outlandish comments that defile the ESPN brand, Simmons stepped into the realm of self-absorbed bullying tactics – basically the very thing he's railed against – when he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell "a liar" during a podcast last week, without any proof to substantially back up his tirade. And on top of that, he dared his bosses to shut him up – "please, call me and say I'm in trouble. I dare you."
He's one smart (aleck) cookie. Simmons hides behind the premise that ESPN is a journalistic entity, and that commentary on news-making public sports figures are fair game. That may be, but his bosses do have a rather large business agreement with the NFL, and they did respond to being called out…with another suspension. This time, it's three weeks.
Big deal. You or I try to pull this off with our bosses, we get the unemployment line. Unless, of course, we're in cahoots with the higher-ups in planning a PR stunt. That's not out of the realm of possibility here. Either that or perhaps this latest flap finally sends him off to some other digital entity? I, for one, stopped reading and listening to Simmons a while ago. He reminds me of the kid you knew in middle school who befriended the "cool kids," only to run and squeal to the teachers so he could have his street cred with both sides. ESPN, through their numerous slaps to his wrists, looks just as bad for placating poor, immature behavior. But he'll be back soon, somewhere…he always is.
He won't miss me or my clicks to his pages one bit.
Getting offensive about the line
It has been a hot-button topic that Patriots' fans have fretted over; that the players and coaches know is important to the overall success of the team…and that the media has seized upon as an "Achilles Heel" for the New England offense. The play of the offensive line is gaining quite a bit of attention, and for a unit that usually labors in obscurity, the only thing that makes news is when there is bad news. It's as thankless a job as exists in sports…right next to that of a "bullpen catcher" in baseball, perhaps.
Fans are used to watching near-flawless play from the guys up front, a unit that was considered one of the NFL's best just a couple of years ago. Yet it's rare when compliments get paid here, with linemen not involved in direct play-making. But if they screw up an assignment, it usually does have a direct effect on teammates' abilities to make plays. Only two players returned in 2014 to the same spots they held on the Pats' line a year ago (Nate Solder to left tackle and Sebastian Vollmer to right tackle), and long-time position coach Dante Scarnecchia settled into retirement following an extraordinary 30-year career with the organization.
With all of the change, was it unreasonable to assume the line would simply figure out and fix whatever troubles they might encounter? Perhaps, because they've managed to put disparate pieces together in the past, no one really took the time to see how difficult a rebuilding project this might be.
"It's like an onion, there's so many different layers to the issues they have up front," says ESPN's Mark Schlereth, a 12-year NFL offensive guard for the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, who opened up on the subject in the Patriots Playbook (on Patriots.com Radio) last week. "There are scheme issues there, there are technique issues there, there's mental assignments busted there, there's a lack of pure skill there as well. Don't expect it to be fixed overnight."
"If you're teaching things like that, then that's just bad coaching," Schlereth continued. "There are things there on every level that are just pathetic."
Whoa. Strong stuff. But there was more.
"Once you've played offensive line, that's the last rung on the ladder," Schlereth, whose playing-days nickname was "Stink," added as an example. "You're one step away from being a fan. There is nowhere else to go (position-wise on the field). You're taking a lesser athlete that's probably the least-gifted athlete on a football team and you're asking him to turn his back on a particular play to a linebacker or defensive end, loop around and protect a $100 million dollar quarterback? Not only is it impossible, but it's stupid. That's as dumb as anything I've seen on film this year. (But) that's a simple correction right there. Bad technique, bad coaching…they're littered throughout the film when you watch the New England Patriots."
Strong comments aside from the ex-player-turned-analyst, former line coach Scarnecchia told the Boston Herald last week "it's always been, you've got the guys you got, and you've got to coach them. And that's exactly what they're doing. I know they're doing everything they can to make it as good as they can make it, but hey, best of luck to them. It ain't easy."
Former Patriot offensive tackle Matt Light also opined on the predicament, which manifested itself when former all-Pro guard Logan Mankins was traded to Tampa Bay before the regular season began. "So will there be a problem losing a guy like (Mankins)? Of course," Light told the Herald. "Can they overcome it? Of course you can. It's just not going to happen the way it did with that guy, because he had every one of the tools of the trade you want."
Having cohesion has always been a big part of an offensive line having success. The Patriot offensive line is struggling with that very thing, with injuries, personnel moves, coaching changes (Dave DeGuglielmo replaced Scarnecchia this season) and the subsequent differences in technique and scheme being taught. There's more to this than meets the eye, and with upheaval sometimes comes upset – in the locker room as well as on the field.
But here's the thing to remember…the Patriot players and coaches, however, are professionals. Hurt feelings or any misunderstanding aside, the job is to prepare, and to execute. If these players don't execute, other players will. And then, slide back into obscurity without any more bad news.
*John Rooke is an author and award-winning broadcaster, and has been the Patriots' stadium voice for 22 years. Currently serving in several media capacities – which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" during the season on Patriots.com Radio for a 14th year – Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball for the past 26 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame. *