FOXBORO -- Just before 11 p.m. on Thursday, the Patriots’ 2013 preseason came to a close. And it was officially time to start thinking about real football again.
Of course, football has been around for the last month or so when training camp began. But the idea of real football -- the one that includes rolling with the ebbs and flows that dominate the course of a regular season in the NFL -- had been absent for most of the last six-plus months around Foxboro. Instead, it’s been a flood of comic, tragic and altogether surreal he-said, she-said storylines that have popped up in the unlikeliest of places and have very little to do with the game.
In truth, the Patriots will probably never really outrun the madness of this most recent offseason. Even Thursday night, they were again reminded the specter of Aaron Hernandez will continue to loom large -- of the 17 questions asked to Bill Belichick in the postgame press conference, six of them were pertaining to Hernandez.
But for all intents and purposes, Thursday’s game marked the final chapter in a long and bizarre story, one that began in the days following their loss in the AFC title game to the Ravens, wound through the contract talks with Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, included detours involving the five (five!) surgeries for Rob Gronkowski since November and a stop at the circus sideshow that came with the acquisition of Tim Tebow. Then came the whole sad and sordid tale of Hernandez, one that led to the mea culpa from owner Robert Kraft, Belichick and the captains at the end of July.
Now, an uneventful training camp has been capped off with a preseason finale Thursday night that was so unremarkable that the details are already starting to fade into memory. We know that the Patriots beat the Giants, 28-20, and that Amendola, Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork, Devin McCourty and most of the rest of the players of consequence -- the guys who will ultimately determine whether the 2013 season is a success or a failure -- spent the game on the sidelines. Meanwhile Ryan Mallett, Tim Tebow, Quentin Sims, Michael Buchanan, Duron Harmon and Stephon Morris got their chance (in some cases, a final opportunity) to show if they warranted a spot on an NFL roster.
To be fair, there were several guys who made the most of their chances, including Buchanan, a seventh-round pick who finished the night with 2.5 sacks, and more than anyone, probably helped his chances. Sims -- the rookie receiver who has forged an unlikely bond with Tebow -- added two touchdown catches, and appears to be ticketed for a spot on the practice squad as a result. And in his first extended game action of the summer, receiver Josh Boyce flashed terrific speed while catching a touchdown pass from Mallett and showing some skills carrying the ball while picking up big yards on multiple end-around plays.
“We had some guys step up and make some plays tonight -- that was good,” said Belichick, in between questions about Hernandez. “It was a good opportunity to give those guys a chance to play: on offense, on defense and in the kicking game. I thought they responded well.
“We’ll see how it goes in the next couple days as we just try to put everything together and make the best decisions that we can for this 2013 football team.”
The final cuts will be made by Saturday evening, and the practice roster will be stocked shortly after that. And then, come Monday, the business of the regular season will commence. A new season, and with it, the promise of a fresh start. As far as the franchise is concerned, it can’t arrive soon enough.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Thursday night:
IF THIS WAS TIM TEBOW’S LAST ACT IN FOXBORO, HE WENT OUT IN STYLE
The third-string quarterback had a nice preseason finale -- despite a patchwork offensive line that didn’t offer him much in the way of support, he ended up tossing a pair of second-half touchdowns, both of which were delivered to Sims.
The first came on a deftly delivered ball that ended up going for 52 yards -- the longest pass play of the preseason for the Patriots -- to give New England a 21-20 lead. The second was on a 9-yard pass play with six seconds left to finish the scoring on the night. In all, the quarterback ended up going 6-for-11 for 91 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
It doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, but the Patriots sideline -- including Ryan Mallett -- reacted to the sight of Tebow throwing touchdown passes like the team had just won the Super Bowl.
“Tim, he had the boo-birds out the play before, and then, he comes back and throws a touchdown,” Mallett said. “It just shows what kind of player he is, his character. It was a great play and a great throw overall.”
While the rest of the roster clearly is pulling for him, the question is whether or not he’s showed enough to make it through Saturday’s cutdown day.
“I think I’ve improved in a lot of ways. One, learning this offense. Two, understanding more decision-making, getting in rhythm [and] understanding the guys that I’m playing with,” said Tebow, who finished the preseason 11-for-30 for 145 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. “I’m just taking it one day at a time, and be able to come in here ready to work out tomorrow.”
IF WE’RE HANDING OUT SUMMER SUPERLATIVES, TEBOW AND QUENTIN SIMS WOULD WIN 'BEST COUPLE'
Almost every single meaningful pass Tebow delivered the summer -- whether it was in camp or in a game -- was sent toward Sims, who signed with the Patriots in mid-July. That includes three of Tebow’s six completions on Thursday night, including his two touchdown passes.
The first touchdown pass went for 52 yards when the New York defensive back covering him slipped and fell. That allowed Sims to operate in single coverage, and he was simply able to outrun the safety who had come to help over the top.
“All training camp, me and Tim have connected on that a few times. Coach put a big emphasis on wanting to do that, so it was good we connected,” Sims said of the first touchdown. “Me and Tim, we pretty much all training camp have been working together. I’ve made plays for him and he makes good throws for me, so we got good chemistry and he knows to look for me.”
The second touchdown came when Tebow found Sims on a jump ball play in the back of the end zone with six seconds left in the game to finish off the scoring. It allowed Sims to finish the preseason with four catches for 86 yards and two touchdowns. (His 21.5 yards per catch was best on the team in that stretch.) No one is saying that Sims will make the roster, but the 6-foot-3, 202-pounder who caught 86 passes for 1,092 yards and 16 touchdowns in his final season at Tennessee-Martin has a fan in Tebow.
“I’m throwing more balls to him. I’ve thrown a lot more passes to him over this training camp period than probably anyone else,” Tebow told MassLive.com and NESN.com after Thursday’s game. “That helps the timing, the rhythm with everybody. Kind of knowing where they’re going to be, how they’re going to do a fade, a go, an in. I have a pretty good relationship with him as far as that goes.”
THE STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE SHOULD BE READY
The New England offensive line hasn’t been itself, at least to this point in the preseason, as the right guard position has been a rotating spot that’s included backup tackle Will Svitek. And while the entire starting group didn’t see action as a group on Thursday night, the sight of Marcus Cannon (at right tackle) and Dan Connolly (at right guard) in extended game action was a positive sight.
Connolly played just three series over the course of the preseason before Thursday night, and Cannon had yet to see action. But Connolly played well into the game at his usual right guard spot, and Cannon ended up going wire-to-wire at right tackle. Both looked agile and smooth in their movements, and as a result, it’s reasonable to think that after an occasionally bumpy preseason, the New England offensive line will go into the 2013 regular season as close to 100 percent as possible.
RYAN MALLETT IS MORE RYAN MALLETT THAN EVER
In most ways, Thursday was everything that was right and everything that was wrong with Mallett. The backup quarterback, who got the start against the Giants, unleashed a tremendous 40-yard touchdown pass down the New York sideline midway through the second quarter, connecting with Boyce on a tremendously executed throw and catch for a play that was one of the offensive highlights of the preseason.
“Josh ran a great route. I wasn’t even looking to his side at first. The coverage took me over there and he went and made a great play. I had all day to throw the ball, so you couldn’t ask for [more]. It couldn’t have been drawn up better than that,” said Mallett, who ended up going 10-for-16 for 117 yards with one touchdown and one interception. “Josh is a fast, fast player. I didn’t think I overthrew him. I was hoping I threw it far enough.”
Of course, there were the usual struggled with touch and short passes, missing on one wide-open pass play to Leon Washington that would have almost certainly found the sticks for a first down. In truth, the night was a fairly good representation of what he’s been over the course of his third NFL preseason: great throws mixed in with some occasional inconsistency. In all, he ended the preseason 42-for-76 (55 percent) for a team-high 447 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
“I felt good -- I felt in command of the offense,” said Mallett when asked to assess his preseason as a whole. “I made a few plays. Missed a few that I should have made, but that just comes with playing more.”
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
The sight of veterans Adrian Wilson, Daniel Fells, Jake Ballard and Leon Washington playing late in Thursday’s game was interesting. While each of them face their own unique set of challenges when it comes to making the roster, it’s never a good sign to see an established veteran playing deep into a relatively meaningless preseason game. With cuts coming Saturday, here’s a look at where each of them stand.
• Wilson: The veteran safety has been shuffled to a few spots in game action over the course of the preseason, but his presence on the field in the second half against the Giants reminded us of John Lynch. The former Tampa Bay defensive back had a cup of coffee with the Patriots in the summer of 2008, and that preseason, Lynch played into the second half of the preseason finale alongside rookies. He was cut shortly after that. While Wilson has been better this year than Lynch was in 2008, the similarities between the two are striking.
• Fells: The tight end has been hobbled over the course of camp, and struggled to stay on the field over the last couple of weeks. While he’s displayed a nice chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady when he has been out there, he might be squeezed out because of the emergence of rookie Zach Sudfeld and the roster uncertainty around Rob Gronkowski. (One thing to consider with Fells is that he could be a candidate for a Deion Branch kind of situation -- a veteran who is cut this weekend, but re-signed shortly after the start of the regular season. It could give the Patriots some roster and financial flexibility, in that it wouldn’t guarantee Fells’ salary.)
• Ballard: The tight end has slowly made his way back from a knee injury, but has certainly not looked like he’s quite back to 100 percent. Again, his future could be tied to that of Gronkowski -- if the Patriots want to activate him, it means one less roster spot somewhere, and that cut could come at the expense of someone like Ballard.
• Washington: Despite a fumble Thursday night, the running back might be the most secure out of anyone in that group, as his skill-set -- working as the backup to Shane Vereen as the third-down option out of the backfield -- could enable him to stick around out of pure practicality. He’s also worked extensively as a kick returner over the course of his career, and while you have to figure that Julian Edelman is a lock to start the year as the No. 1 punt returner, there aren’t a whole lot of options on the roster to work as kick returner if Washington is let go.
ONE ROOKIE RECEIVER IS READY
It was really a stark contrast to see Kenbrell Thompkins cooling his heels on the sideline at the end of the game with the veterans while other players were on the field competing for a job. The undrafted rookie out of Cincinnati was an afterthought at the start of the summer, but has now progressed to a spot where he should be the No. 2 receiver going into the regular-season opener against the Bills. On Thursday, he drew a pair of pass interference penalties early that helped keep the chains moving early, and ended up with another good night, finishing with two catches (on four targets) for 24 yards.
AARON DOBSON IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
In contrast to Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce played well into the night Thursday, getting reps deep into the second half with Tebow and the rest of the third-string offense. He ended the game with three catches for 35 yards, and wrapped up the preseason with 29 targets, the most on the team.
While Dobson has had a good summer, it’s clear he’s developing at a different rate than Thompkins, and still needs to develop consistency in many areas of his game. To that point, early in camp, one of the real strengths about Dobson’s as a player was his ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point. The 6-foot-3 Dobson, who was recruited to play college basketball by Northeastern, was able to flash his basketball-type skills set that allow him to wrestle the ball away from an opposing defender.
But that seems to have ebbed over the last week or so. And on Thursday, there were two plays where he came up lacking, particularly when it came to competing for the ball with a defensive back: One, there was a Mallett pass for the end zone midway through the second quarter -- at the end of a nice drive for the Patriots -- where he lofted a jump ball for the end zone. But the ball was underthrown, and when faced with the prospect of having to knock the ball down, Dobson didn’t do enough to prevent the pick. The call was overturned -- the Patriots got the ball back and eventually scored on a 1-yard touchdown run from George Winn to make it 7-3 with 9:50 left in the second quarter. And two, later in the first half, Dobson bobbled another ball from Mallett, and while it wasn’t a cleanly thrown pass by any means, it’s still on the receiver to be able to bring in a bad ball. He bobbled it, and the Giants came away with the pick.
There was plenty to like about his performance this preseason, including his 11 catches for 150 yards (both good for second on the team behind Thompkins), and given his smarts and ceiling, there’s no reason to think he won’t eventually be an impact player in the NFL. But he’s clearly not at the same level with Thompkins, at least at this point in the summer.
THE BACKUP DEFENSIVE END POSITION GOT A LITTLE MORE INTERESTING
Perhaps for the first time since he arrived prior to the start of the 2012 season, defensive end Jake Bequette was consistent, showing a good burst and creating pressure off the edge while finishing with three tackles, including one for a loss. In addition, rookie Michael Buchanan was dominant at times, coming away with 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble and a batted down pass in his finest outing of the preseason.
But as is almost always the case in the preseason, their performance needs to be taken with a grain of salt: How much of their standout play should be discounted because they played the bulk of the game against second- and third-teamers, and how much of it is a sign they have arrived as players, and can make the leap to the next level?
“They both got a lot more opportunity to play tonight,” Belichick said of Bequette and Buchanan. “They played basically the whole game. That’s a lot more playing time than they’ve had, in practice or in games. There were a lot of guys like that that went into that category that played almost the whole game. It was a great opportunity for them.
Regardless of how the question is answered, it’s clear they gave the Patriots something to think about when cuts have to be made, especially when it comes to the future employment of guys like Justin Francis and Jermaine Cunningham.
“I’ve made a lot of improvements,” Buchanan said. “I think I have a good grasp [on] my job in this defense and some of what my role on this team might be. I think technique-wise and just overall everything, I think I’ve made some improvements. But I still have a long way to go.”
OF THE GUYS WHO MIGHT HAVE STARTED THE EVENING ON THE BUBBLE, MARQUICE COLE DID THE MOST TO HELP HIS CAUSE
The veteran cornerback, who likely saw his chances of making the roster increase after the team jettisoned Ras-I Dowling on Wednesday, saw a ton of snaps Thursday night, and finished the game with a team-high seven tackles, as well as a pair of nice passes defensed -- one midway through the second quarter on a deep ball from New York backup quarterback Ryan Nassib and another at the end of the game against Eternal Manning Backup Curtis Painter.
Known more as a special teams threat, the veteran has found a nice niche working as a part-time slot corner over the course of the summer. He won’t make anyone forget about Ty Law, but he’s certainly done enough to warrant returning for a second season in Foxboro.