Things are starting to get a little desperate in Foxborough with the Patriots sitting two games below .500 for the first time since early in the 2001 season. Cam Newton has struggled to get any consistent offense established, and it might be time to start looking at some alternatives.
Time to Change
About halfway through the second quarter of the Patriots dismal 33-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the comments started pouring in about the immediate future of the team. Is it time to move away from Cam Newton and toward Jarrett Stidham? My short answer is yes, and unlike most of the comments I've seen on the subject I don't need to wait to see what happens in Buffalo to decide. Bill Belichick was asked about it after the game and quickly stood behind Newton. But should he "absolutely" stick with Cam? Whether it's physical, mental or a combination of both, Newton just doesn't look right. He's slow to process things and stands in the pocket far too long. The ball isn't coming out on time, and the receivers aren't giving him much help either. The running game provides an occasional lift, but with little threat in the passing game opponents have figured out stacking the box is the way to go and that has been ineffective the last two weeks as well. At this point, it's time to turn to something different to see if Stidham is worth the effort to continue developing.
A win in Buffalo next week no doubt puts New England right back in the hunt in AFC East. But it does not do so in the AFC in general, and it's clear Newton isn't playing well enough to change that. So, picking up a road win next week obviously would be nice, but it would do little to change the long-term outlook for the remainder of the 2020 season. Plug Stidham in with an eye toward the future, and maybe you get a better idea of his potential. What we've seen thus far from Stidham has not been strong, and it certainly would be safe to assume his play in practice likely hasn't been much better, otherwise he wouldn't have spent the first few weeks on the inactive list. But you never really know how a player will respond until he gets a chance. The worst-case scenario would be for the Patriots to continue their subpar play with Newton at the helm, get to the end of the season and not have any more information on Stidham's viability. Do I think the offense will improve noticeably with Stidham in place of Newton? Probably not, but unless Belichick has given up on the idea of Stidham as part of the future it's time to give him some experience and move forward. Newton has done and said all the right things since arriving in New England; he just hasn't played nearly well enough.
Those of you that have been consistently reading this column each week may have noticed one glaring omission among the Power 5. I've yet to include the Tennessee Titans in my rankings despite the fact that Mike Vrabel's team suffered its first loss of the season on Sunday. I believe the Titans are a solid team and definitely a contender in the AFC playoff race. I just haven't been overly impressed with their performances for the most part this season. Heading into Sunday's battle of unbeatens with Pittsburgh, four of the Titans five victories came by a total of 12 points against teams with a combined five wins. Three of those victories – Jacksonville, Minnesota and Houston – came down to the final play against 1-win teams. That said, I found the Titans earned more respect following their first loss of the season than they had after any of the five wins.
Pittsburgh is playing at a high level and dominated Sunday's game for long stretches while building a 27-7 lead in the second half. But Vrabel's team responded much like his old Patriots teams would have on the rare occasions when they fell behind. Ryan Tannehill kept competing, even with Derrick Henry kept largely under wraps, and the Titans chipped away. The defense came up with three interceptions and as the game wound down Tennessee was right in the thick of things trailing by just a field goal. Only this time Stephen Gostkowski missed the 45-yarder that would have sent the game to overtime. This coming off a grueling overtime win the previous week in the aftermath of some significant issues related to the coronavirus. I'm sure Vrabel couldn't care less about how his team is perceived from the outside, but the toughness his team has shown, especially on Sunday, has been impressive.
AB to TB
Count me among those who absolutely hate the idea of Antonio Brown going to Tampa Bay with Tom Brady. The Bucs have plenty of weapons on offense and there was no need for Brady to add the potential circus that comes along with Brown and his antics. There's no denying Brown's ability as one of the most gifted receivers in the game, but there's also no denying the destructive force he has become in recent years. In the last year alone the Steelers took a $21 million cap hit to get rid of him, the Raiders threw away a pair of draft picks and the Patriots ate a $9 million signing bonus to cut him. Now he's in Tampa … what could go wrong?
In reality, plenty. How would you feel if you were Mike Evans, Chris Godwin or Scotty Miller and had to watch this recalcitrant enter your locker room and potentially take away opportunities from you? This has the potential to pollute the locker room and there was no real reason to do it. The Bucs have plenty of offensive options without him, and the upside really doesn't exist. If he stays out of trouble the Bucs will have a high-powered offense. If he was never signed, the Bucs have a high-powered offense. It was a risk not worth taking. It's worth wondering if Tampa saw the reports that Seattle was interested in bringing Brown aboard and wanted to keep him away from the Seahawks as much as anything else. If so, that makes the move even more foolish. The Seahawks didn't need him either, and would only have represented the potential to bring that team down as well. The Bucs should have let Pete Carroll deal with that headache.
I'm not sure if anyone cares about these late-game clock situations like I do but it was awesome to watch the coaching strategy come into play down the stretch in the Detroit-Atlanta game. How teams can't figure this stuff out is beyond me but interim Falcons coach Raheem Morris allowed Matt Ryan to hand the ball off to Todd Gurley with just over a minute to play needing just a field goal to win. The Lions were out of timeouts and the ball was inside the 10, making a game-winning field goal a virtual certainty. Lions coach Matt Patricia knew this and ordered his defense to let Gurley score, which put Detroit behind by 6 after the successful two-point conversion. Predictably the Lions drove the length of the field and won on the final play. But it was all made possible by Morris, who should have had Ryan take a knee and run the clock down so the field goal would be the game's final play. A similar situation unfolded in the Indiana-Penn State college game a day earlier. That one was even worse since Penn State was actually leading and didn't need to run plays to milk the clock, but did so anyway and the Hoosiers purposely allowed the touchdown before winning in overtime. Great stuff. … If you missed Washington wide receiver Terry McLaurin's postgame comments in the locker room addressing his teammates following his team's win over Dallas go check them out. A second-year player displaying such leadership is rare, and quite impressive. McLaurin's message heading into the bye week was to make sure everyone kept on the straight and narrow and took care of themselves as Washington finds itself in the thick of the race in the pathetic NFC East.
Time for some teams to start separating themselves from the pack, and for others to prove their mettle against the better teams.
- Pittsburgh – (6-0, 1st last week) – The Steelers looked like a powerhouse for most of Sunday's win in Tennessee but the Titans late run was admirable.
- Kansas City – (6-1, 3rd last week) – The Chiefs posted back-to-back impressive wins in terrible weather and now appear to be back on track.
- Green Bay – (5-1, 4th last week) – The Packers rebounded from their first loss with a workmanlike blowout win in Houston.
- Baltimore – (5-1, 5th last week) – Ravens coming off a bye as they prepare for a showdown with the Steelers, which is always a highlight of the season.
- Seattle – (5-1, 2nd last week) – The Seahawks looked awesome at times Sunday night but coughed up a 10-point lead in the last 2:30. Some poor situational football on both sides did them in.